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While up at the Big Bear Horro-Fi Film Festival, I happened to catch The Employer. A sharp film from Director Frank Merle. It was a strange but extremely compelling story like the canadian series CUBE. I hate to make a CUBE comparison but there are so few “one room” stories that are told well and this is definitely one of them. Who is Frank Merle? That was my next question and now I have answers. Here is my interview with him. I hope you enjoy as I did…
#1- How did you first get into film?
My first career was as a theatrical producer and director. I studied in Chicago, a great theater town, at DePaul University’s fabled former Goodman School of Drama. While I was still a student, I started a theater company with a few other students. It survived for seven years, which is a decent lifespan for a small theater troupe. I was the Artistic Director, and I oversaw productions of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Mamet, even Greek tragedies. But after awhile, I wanted to challenge myself creatively in another way. The stage is very much the actor’s medium, whereas film is much more of a director’s medium, and that intrigued me. So, with the help of some friends who knew cameras and editing, I made my first short film. I had such a great time doing it, that I never looked back. I bought myself a camera, taught myself lighting and composition, and started making more shorts. My time as a theater producer really came in handy, because I had the leadership experience to run a smooth set and because I knew how to work well with actors.
#2- So now the age old question: Why horror?
I’ve always loved horror! In fact, some of my fondest memories from childhood are thanks to Jason and Freddy. In fourth grade, I was asked to write a sentence on the chalkboard that had two possessives in it. So I wrote: “Alice chopped Jason’s mother’s head off.” It caused quite a debate over whether I should be watching those kinds of movies, but more importantly, whether my sentence had proper grammar. (For the record, I believe it did.) Also, I was a bit dyslexic as a kid, so I had trouble knowing right from left. But I never had any trouble knowing which hand Freddy’s glove was on. Eventually, that’s what cured my mix-up, once I knew that Freddy’s glove was on his right hand. After that, whenever I needed to know right from left, I just thought about the glove. Thanks Freddy!
#3- Tell me about how The Employer came about.
I was interested in making a contained movie. “People trapped in a room” has become a sub-genre of its own, but for good reason. I think something very raw and true about human nature comes out when people are trapped and forced to deal with each other, when walking away is not an option. So I dreamed up my cast of characters, people whose personalities would grate on each other, of course. I imaged them locked together in a room, and only then began to wonder how they had gotten there. Eventually, I landed on the idea of a job interview. I was interested in the idea of how far people would be willing to go for the sake of a high paying job, and how much power that gave employers over others. And then, because it’s a movie, I pushed that concept to a deadly degree.
#4- With such a specific and small group, how did you go about casting?
My first casting task was to find someone to play The Employer. I knew that if I got the right person for that role, everything else would fall into place. So I sent an early draft of the script to Malcolm McDowell’s manager. Fortunately, his manager responded well to the material, and so did Malcolm. Once he was on board, I was able to write a new draft with Malcolm’s voice in mind, and the final version of the screenplay took shape. Next, I cast David Dastmalchian as one of the five job candidates. Most people recognize David as the Joker’s schizophrenic henchman in “The Dark Knight,” but I’ve known him since college, as we both attended the former Goodman School in Chicago. After David was cast, he introduced me to his friend Paige Howard, who was perfect for another of the candidate roles, so she was cast next. Then the rest of the roles were cast through a rigorous audition process. Not quite as rigorous as what the Employer puts them through, but close.
#5- Were all the specifics of the characters back story done or were the actors allowed to bring anything to the table?
Because of my theater training, I consider myself a very collaborative director, so I welcome input from everyone I work with. For example, David had the idea that his character was a failed writer who only went into the corporate world because it was what his parents wanted. This is a detail that never comes up in the film, so the audience won’t be directly aware of it, but it helped inform David’s performance, and so it’s that much richer as a result. I love that kind of thing. Another example is an idea that Malcolm had for his character’s back story that ended up influencing his wardrobe in the film. Malcolm decided that his character was an avid hunter, drawing a connection between a hunter’s relationship to the natural world with the Employer’s connection to his potential employees. My costume crew really loved this idea and ran with it. So for the film’s climactic confrontation with the Employer, Malcolm is wearing a safari jacket as an ode to the character’s favorite sport.
#6- What was the biggest challenge in making an A level film on such a small budget?
Thank you for calling it an A level film! I’ve always had a problem with the term “B movie” because it gives a lower letter grade to the type of film that is often more enjoyable than those so-called “A” pictures. But to answer you question, the secret is to put all the money on the screen. No one was getting paid what they could have gotten paid on a bigger budget movie. Malcolm was doing it because he liked the script, and the others were doing it for a chance to work with a legend like Malcolm. But since there were so few locations (nine total, including flashbacks) we were able to spare no expense on the production design of those few locations. But with a small budget comes a short shooting schedule, and that’s where the one big challenge came from. Our shoot was less than a month, so we were shooting several pages a day. Fortunately, I had a great crew and the cast came prepared, so often we only needed three of four takes of a shot before moving on to the next one. I’ve been on other movie sets where there’s a lot of waiting around for something to happen. But that wasn’t the case on this one. We were all busy, all the time. The toughest day of the shoot was probably the one on which we had to shoot a Hollywood club scene with thirty extras in the morning, followed by a full company move to the San Fernando Valley for a home invasion fight scene with six stuntmen. That was a long day!
#7- What were some of the biggest differences between doing a short and a feature?
After having made several shorts, some of which were around 20 minutes, I thought that making a feature would just be like making four or five shorts, which didn’t seem so hard to do. But what I learned while making The Employer is that everything gets exponentially more difficult when working on a feature, especially in post-production, simply because everything takes longer. Once the film is assembled, and you want to do a sound pass, or a visual effects pass, it takes almost two hours just to watch it once through, without stopping. And because the arc of the story is so important, when you make a decision on one part of the film, it has ripple effects throughout. All of that takes time, as well as a lot of coordination between different departments: the picture editor, the effects team, the dialogue editor, the sound effects department, the composer, etc. On most of my short film, all of those departments were just me. It was a lot quicker back then, but I was certainly happy on this film to hand over those jobs to people more qualified to do them.
#8- This is a very sharp character study. Do you have franchise plans?
I didn’t want to lean on the idea of a franchise, even though there are a lot of unanswered questions at the end of the film. I’m often frustrated by films that are left so open ended that they don’t work on their own. I still remember how angry I was as a kid at the end of Back to the Future 2 that I had to wait six months for the resolution. So I tried to give this film a satisfying ending If a sequel never happens, that won’t be bad thing. That said, I think it would be fun, so we’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t want to give anything away for those who haven’t seen it yet, so I’ll just say that those actors whose characters live till the end would be happy to come back for another. But I’m not saying who that is. There are some cool plot twists in the third act, and I wouldn’t want to spoil those for anyone.
#9- What’s next on your plate?
I’m attached to direct a really exciting thriller called Vicious, although I’m not allowed to say much about that yet, it’s very hush-hush. I will say that its one of the best scripts I’ve ever read, so I’m really psyched about it. The producer is locking down cast now, so hopefully I’ll be able to make a big announcement about it soon. I also have two new scripts I’ve written that I’m shopping around. One is called Criminality, it’s a character-driven crime drama, sort of a modern take on Scorsese’s old turf, only set in a gritty part of Los Angeles. The other is a fun zombie movie called Bad Batch, set in the midwest. The tone is somewhere between 28 Days Later and Shaun of the Dead, which are two of my favorite films. So one way or another, with a little luck I’ll be back in the director’s chair soon.
The Employer hits VOD June 7th. http://www.theemployermovie.com/wheretowatch.html#.Ua5gMZxIP4Z
Order it and enjoy. You won’t be sorry!