Jason Merrells, star of TV shows Waterloo Road, Cutting It, Casualty and Emmerdale, talks to Hannah Smith about his passion for work behind the camera, directing his first short film and offers advice to future actors and directors.
It’s almost impossible to meet someone who is famous without a preconceived idea of who they are. Zac Efron recently complained that it makes dating really difficult. It’s the reason why Actors get type cast, or anyone creative who dares to work in something other than their famous field often gets a hard time. Think Gwyneth Paltrow and Goop, Justin Timberlake and film, Harry Styles and film; I could go on. The truth is most of us who are creative have several ways in which we express this. And it’s frustrating when we don’t get the chance to explore all the sides of us because we’re expected to be just one thing.
When I sat down to watch LE PETIT MORT , a short film written and directed by Jason Merrells, I will confess that I wasn’t expecting much. I shouldn’t admit this here, the day before the launch of the Exit 6 Film Festival, but I often sit down to a short film expecting to be disappointed, because more often than not I am. Let me quantify that, I think there are a lot of people who make film seriously, who want to create important work and tell stories and then I think there are the people who want to be famous. And there are a lot of them.
“I get asked a lot, what advice I’d have for an up and coming actor. And you can always tell when you’re approached in this way whether someone is serious because when someone asks you that, what they’re really asking you is, “I want to be famous”. Then when you begin to talk to them about what you should do, their eyes glaze over, they’re not really listening.”
I don’t know what I was expecting from my conversation with Jason Merrells. I do know I wasn’t expecting him to be not only super engaging but also a real serious film geek. It’s easy to think of TV actors as a different breed, which is especially naive in today’s world where TV really is king. I guess what I really mean is, I didn’t associate an Actor in TV dramas and soap operas with artistic short film.
So if my expectation when I sat down to watch his short film Le Petit Mort was low, then it definitely didn’t meet my expectations. The film is a beautifully shot, (on super 16 I might add - more on that later), artistic and thoughtful short film. If it disappointed me in any way it was that I wished it were longer. “I had quite a few passes at it before I got it down to 15 minutes.” For a debut it’s pretty impressive. A lot of short films fall into the trap of looking good but without much substance, so it’s always a real pleasure and surprise when a short is both.
“The idea came from a school where I was filming Waterloo Road. It was an old abandoned school when we started filming that series there, I always felt that it was shabbily beautiful in a strange decrepit way and that it would be perfect for some kind of film. I was always kind of frustrated that the architecture of the place wasn’t really used by the TV Directors, but they had a different agenda, obviously, and it was a very different animal but I always felt that missed a trick. And I kind of wanted to do something there and I knew I could probably get the place over a weekend; I was quite friendly with the producers. So really the inspiration came from the place. And then it was about what story could you put in there and it just felt like an empty school was the premise of a ghost story, so I started on that premise. But it became more than that I guess, more than a spooky thing, it became more about a man’s life.”
It wasn’t the first thing Jason had ever written, he’s written bits and bobs before, mostly for theatre and even wrote a short film before this one that didn’t quite get into production, for whatever reason. Not just a jobbing actor then it turns out, and for Jason, Directing is a real passion.
“I studied fine art and lots of other subsidiary subjects and I’d always written and I had always painted, so I always had a visual interest and that comes together really in Directing. So that always seemed a natural confluence of all the things I was interested in, and it still does to a certain extent, but I was trying to get my foot on the ladder as a Director in the year that the business almost shut down, in the recession. So I had it very tough. I did loads for RIVER CITY which is a show for BBC Scotland, where I was able to get my foot in the door. I did quite a few blocks for them and it went really well, but then as soon as I started touting for work, everything shut down. There was hardly anything made that year and all the directors at a high level were dropping down to that level, so I took acting work.”
I got the feeling that acting had become a bit of a day job for Jason. Something he enjoys and is grateful for but not quite enough on it’s own. We all have to go where the money is and I doubt there is a short filmmaker or budding director out there who doesn’t resonate with the struggle between financial needs and creative needs.
TV has not just been a place to earn a crust, however. It’s during his many shoots that Jason made the relationships with his DoP and crew that allowed him to surround himself with a very talented group who all worked for free. Even at the top of our game, sometimes a passion project has to come from a place of love instead of financial reward. And like most short-filmmakers Jason self-funded his project. One thing he wasn’t prepared to compromise on though was the manner in which it was filmed.
“I worked closely with my DoP who was someone I’d worked with on a few dramas and we were, I mean when we were getting this together in 2006, so we were at the tale end of super 16’s use in TV, you know it was tailing off. There was a couple of dramas still using it but me and my DoP were film lovers and film buffs and he was very confident that he could match any kind of equipment costs by getting reel ends, faders and just bits of ends of reel and putting it together to make up a super 16 stock that we could use. He had his own camera so that was covered, he was doing it for free, and crew I knew were doing it for free. I mean it still ended up costing me personally a fair amount of money but I was happy to invest that, because, you know, it was my thing and it was what I wanted to do.”
Jason is a true romantic when it comes to filmmaking but he does think there’s really no excuse for budding filmmakers to not be making work in this day and age.
“You can make films now on your mobile phone and post them online and the elitism has gone out, I mean it’s a shame in a way because there is nothing quite like real film rolling through a camera for me, and I’ll always be romantic about that. But at the same time, you know the revolution that has happened since that’s gone away is enabling and there’s no excuse not to be doing something”
We talked about what advice he would have for budding writers and directors and I think he was pleasantly surprised by the question, as he’s used to being asked the same question for acting - but when you watch Le Petit Mort, which of course you will, you will understand why I was far more excited by the other sides of him.
“Connect with people, there are so many networks now for filmmakers in every area, there’s kind of meet up groups for filmmakers. I joined one in Cambridge, where I live, but I’ve been too busy to go so far. I get the updates and I intend to go when I can, but just make stuff. It’s like when actors say, “How do you start?” you say well its very difficult but the thing that you’ve got to do is start. If it’s your local pub theatre or if it’s you performing at Edinburgh on the side of the streets, you know, just start. That’s all you can do and hopefully, it will spread.”
Which is exactly why he made Le Petit Mort, he could continue in his career as he was or he could get out and do something different.
“I needed for myself really to test my ability and to see that I could call the shots and to organise a crew. I’m quite old fashioned about acting and I think as a Director you need to be a sort of master, for want of a different word, of lots of different skills and you need to host a good party with a lot of talented people. And make sure that everyone is working to their best and make sure that it’s sufficiently moving and make sure that you cut out the fat as much as you can as you go along. So I did a short for those reasons and I’m sure that’s the same for many people.”
Short film is a place to experiment and a place to find your voice, hone your skills. For me personally, it’s easy to get a bit disillusioned by the many filmmakers chasing fame but Jason reminded me that behind that crap are a lot of interesting people, from all walks of life, making really interesting films. I can’t wait to see and meet many of them tomorrow as the festival launches, and I’m sure that the Exit 6 team will be hosting a pretty damn great party full of talented people. However, I still think it’s a real shame that a wider audience doesn’t see short film. I also think that all of us would benefit as storytellers if we knew our short films were going to be watched by a more mainstream audience.
“We are talking to ourselves a lot of the time and I think that’s the problem. I always think it’s a shame that we’ve been promised, they promised it, in cinema chains didn’t they, that they would put shorts on and they would make them a real thing. And they make a noise about it every few years, they’ll be a little action and then it’ll disappear. And I think it’s a real shame because I think everyone would enjoy it. And you could really have it as a regular thing if you had a short before every film you saw.”
Perhaps we all need to get louder about this subject because so much love and hard work and sweat goes into filmmaking that it’s always a shame more people don’t see the work. Thank goodness people like Exit 6 are starting new events to attract audiences where there might not have been one before. Basingstoke certainly hasn’t seen an event like it before and isn’t that awesome for all of us? I hope I have a film to show next year and I hope too that Jason would, although he did confess that if he was going to do it again, which he is planning to do, then it would have to be a feature.
“It took me so long to do a short that the next time I throw all my energy, personal life and money at it, I’m gonna do it for a feature, you know? I’m writing one, it might be some time before it comes together, and it’s not my next personal project for work. But it’s on the back burner.” You’ll have to beat me for a place in the queue when that debuts…that’s if I haven’t annoyed him into giving me a part, I mean, I do have his mobile number now…
There’s one lesson that Jason will be using for his next project though, “I was playing with quite an amorphous cut of our surreal script and I moved a lot of things around and I experimented with or without voiceover or stream of consciousness in the main character. The lesson I’ve learnt is, have your script tight, as tight as you can before you begin. Make sure that you see everything on every page before you begin. I was often winging it with bits of script and cutting them on the floor and reshaping them and improvising them. There’s nothing wrong with that as such, but I think if I went towards a feature, with the stakes as high as they are, then I would definitely have a much better prepared script. I mean my personal opinion of Le Petit Mort is that it’s too overwritten in a few places and if I did it again I’d cut a lot of the wordiness out, or a fair bit of it out. So that would be what I learnt from it. I mean a lot of it is common sense, you as a performer know, that when you work with a good first and when