One of TV's most prolific writers and performers spoke with us about his new project, The Outlaws.
There are few with a career as esteemed as Stephen Merchant's. The writer/director/producer helped create the British version of The Office, which of course spawned a U.S. version that helped catapult several of today's most popular actors and popularized the now-ubiquitous mockumentary genre in TV. He went on to create and write the brilliant series Extras (watch immediately if you haven't) and a personal favorite of mine, HBO's Hello Ladies.
Merchant is back with a brand-new show, The Outlaws, which was greenlit just before the pandemic, originally premiered last year on the BBC, and just landed state-side this month on Prime Video. The show follows a group of seven small-time offenders sentenced to community service ("community payback" in UK terms) in Merchant's hometown of Bristol. The group includes Merchant as a charmingly awkward lawyer and Christopher Walken as a wily American transplant.
Although The Outlaws at first seems like a straightforward ensemble dramedy, by the end of the first episode, several pieces of a bigger crime thriller are put into place, taking the story to unexpected and exciting places.
Merchant spoke to No Film School via Zoom about his experiences in TV, how he approaches character and story development, and what part of the creative process he likes best.
Editor's note: this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: The Outlaws is a dark comedy and a crime thriller. How did you land on that tone, and what were some challenges of balancing the tone?
Stephen Merchant: I have always been a fan of thrillers and crime stuff. It's my go-to as a viewer, if I want something enjoyable on a Wednesday night. And growing up a big fan of Hitchcock, his suspense films, which I think often were shot through with humor, whether it's North by Northwest, for instance, or a lot of Billy Wilder films, which I think were very interesting tonally in terms of—Sunset Boulevard is obviously a film noir, but it has a lot of humor and it's blackly comic.
Later in life things like Midnight Run, or even The Sopranos I think often has very, very funny episodes. There's that famous "Pine Barrens" episode where Paulie and Christopher get stuck in the woods trying to kill a hitman, and Paulie loses his shoes. And it's very funny and darkly comic, but it sits completely within the world of the show. Better Call Saul does it very well. Succession, more recently.
So I think that idea of sort of drama that has humor in it, there's quite a long tradition of it. I think, where, for me, I'm not so interested is when it becomes a pastiche or a spoof. I'm not too interested in that. I'm not trying to mock the conventions, I want to use the conventions because I like the conventions. I'm not trying to satirize it. So it's not a spoof or a pastiche in that way. It's just trying to have your cake and eat it. It's trying to give you suspenseful moments, thrilling moments, but have some humor, have some drama, have some emotional connection between the characters.
So it is a difficult tone. It's [up] to the audience, I suppose, if they feel like we hit that right tone—but in terms of what we wanted, that it was to sort of have all those flavors together in the mix.
I think, to me, with comedy particularly, I think it's when the humor starts to break the rules of sort of reality that it becomes a problem. So if it becomes surreal or someone does something physically that they could never do, or at least it's very unlikely, that's where I think it becomes sort of problematic. Because then I think it feels like you break the reality and people don't stay on board.
But otherwise—I think that so many real-life situations have the most absurdist humor in them. Without giving too much away, my character Greg gets caught with a sex worker in a car. And the way he gets caught is how a particularly famous British actor that you may remember got caught with a similar lady of the night.
NFS: Yeah. I do remember that.
Merchant: Literally the way it happened is we just take it from real life. I think if you look at it, you go, "Well, that just seems absurd." But there it was in real life just waiting to be lifted. So I think it's just going with instinct about where you feel like the tone lies.
NFS: Your characters are very diverse. It's such a hodgepodge group, but I love seeing those characters thrown together. How did you go about developing those characters?
Merchant: I created the show with a guy called Elgin James, who is one of the co-writers of Mayans M.C. He comes from a very different backstory to me, very different life experience, but we met and we hit it off and we had lots of shared tastes and a shared worldview. And we were developing the show during Brexit in the UK, the rise of Trump in the U.S. It felt like people were very politically divided, socially divided. And we thought, well, here's a show about seven strangers who come together.
It's a good opportunity to sort of explore the archetypes, the sort of the types that we're beginning to get put into as people. It felt like you were pro-Trump or you were anti-Trump, and that was it. There was no other camp, you were just pro or anti, and there was no gray area. Or pro-Brexit, anti-Brexit. And so we'd liked the idea of taking people that seemed on the surface to be archetypes and then over the course of the show dismantle them slightly, or at least see what led those characters to that particular place and that set of beliefs.
And that seemed like an interesting way to proceed, that everyone is shades of gray, everyone has a life story, everyone is a good person and a bad person. There are very few people that are purely evil. Most people are complicated and flawed and can love their family, but be mean to someone else. There's so many contradictions and that seemed—I know that seems obvious. It's not like I'm teaching you anything new, but it just seemed like, particularly, in the kind of climate we were living in, that people were beginning to forget that. It was like people were being pigeonholed by their political beliefs at the expense of everything else, and that their humanity was being forgotten, or their uniqueness was being overlooked.
NFS: I was going to ask specifically about that partnership between you and Elgin James. Did you meet him with this idea in mind? It is a very unique partnership. I'm interested in how that came about and how the ideas blossomed between you.
Merchant: Well, I said to my agents, I'd love to meet a writer who grew up on the other side of the tracks to me. I grew up in quite a cozy sort of middle-class life. I said, is there anyone who's come from a different angle?
They introduced me to Elgin and we met in a sort of hipster cafe in Los Angeles, like so many, I'm sure, writers do. And as we joke about, it's almost like a kind of awkward first blind date, but we hit it off very quickly—and I think many writers would tell you, I'm sure you felt this your own way in terms of the creative partnerships you had or friendships you've had, is that you bonded over the things you hate as much as the things you like.
So we had a fun lunch, chewing the fat and bad-mouthing things we didn't like that we'd seen recently. I had a very, very bare bones of this idea. When I was growing up my parents had been involved with community service, as supervisors, looking after criminals. And I always thought that was an interesting backdrop for a show. Because [in] any good TV show, you need conflict, you need a precinct, if you like, you need the hospital or the police room or the Friends coffee shop or the Cheers bar or whatever. And community service seemed like it gave you a ready-made precinct because you've got this group of people and they have to come back week after week, and they would never have met other than the fact that they're doing that. So that was all I had, really. And then we started sort of brainstorming and spit-balling, and here we are.
NFS: You touched on it just then with the premise and the need for the conflict. Do you have additional advice for creating a really strong, solid pilot?
Merchant: Interestingly, this actually began as a movie script from Elgin and I, and the problem with the film version was that there were too many characters. And as you know, most films tend to focus on one or two characters. TV shows can afford to be a bit more sprawling and open things up to an ensemble because they have more time. And we realized, we're not quite delivering because we can't explore all the characters enough. We can't just go home with them enough. That led to the TV version. So in a way we took the opening act, I suppose, off the movie version and then started to expand that out into the TV pilot.
And the tricky thing was we talked for a while about it, particularly in the editing room—lots of TV shows now will have what I call the version of "the body in the lake" at the beginning, right? There'll be something that in the opening three minutes sets up whatever the stakes or the jeopardy or the drama are. And the problem we had was that we didn't want to tell you straight away that it was a thriller. We wanted that to creep up on you as the show went on, and that by the end of the episode, there was more jeopardy and more stakes, and that the characters had begun to—the heat was slowly being turned up on the characters and on the audience.
And so that was tricky, because you want to grip an audience, but we didn't want to tell them where we were heading. So I don't know whether we quite got it right. I appreciate that you found the pilot enjoyable, but I think, we're slightly hoping that audiences will stick with the show so that they see, "Oh, we're actually, this is not quite what we thought it was. We thought this was a kind of light comedy-drama, and now it's evolving into something else."
So I don't know in terms of advice for pilots, it's tricky, isn't it? I think it's just, yeah, you want to set up—I just watched the Severance first episode the other night, and it's interesting, that takes its time. It doesn't rush, it sets you up with a sort of confusing, "What's happening?" Kind of an intrigue, I suppose.
I suppose intrigue is the most you can perhaps hope for. Intrigue the audience. But like I said, a lot of shows kind of have their version of the body in the lake, and the police cordon, whatever it might be—and it doesn't even need to be a body in the lake, but you know what I mean? That thing where it's like, "Oh, this is the central hook of the show." And it's hard when you don't have one of those or you don't want to reveal your hand. It's hard finding that spice to intrigue the audience right off the bat. It's tough, that. But it's a thing I think which you need to find.
NFS: You have so much experience in TV. Have you found the environment of streaming is allowing you to do those types of things? I feel like a lot of streaming shows are more of a slow burn. I'm interested in how that looks to you and how it has changed your writing.
Merchant: I think that's a great thrill. I think the idea that shows drop in one hit and the audiences hopefully are experienced enough now to know that they should give a show a couple of episodes because it's going to take them by the hand through something, that you don't quite need the classic "network version." But it's tricky, isn't it? Because even with that, you see people have so much choice, and it's so easy to just switch off.
You still need to intrigue them enough in those opening five or 10 minutes. So it's tricky. And I don't know that... I appreciate that, as you say, I've done it a lot now, but I still don't know that I'm 100% confident on how you hook that audience in.
I think I go with just a storytelling instinct of what I find interesting or what would intrigue me. But that doesn't mean that I really know what I'm talking about. I always remember thinking that because The Office, our first project, was so successful—the British version—right off the bat, I was like, "Well, clearly I know exactly what audiences want." And it's only as I've gone on in my career, I'm like, I have no idea what audiences want. The only guide I can have is what I'd like to see. That's the only judgment I can make.
NFS: You took on many roles in this project with writing, directing, producing, and acting. That's a lot. Is there one that you find the most creatively fulfilling?
Merchant: The writing is always the most creatively fulfilling for me on anything because that's the thing which exercises my brain the most, it's the most nutritious, it's like a meaty dinner. It's just real nutrition, creatively and intellectually.
And I also like the editing at the other end because that is almost like a form of rewriting. The stuff in the middle—the directing, the acting—is pleasurable in fits and starts, but is also, particularly in directing, very stressful.
It was funny. I was saying to someone just before I spoke to you—and it's interesting, you mentioned about some of your audience being aspiring filmmakers or TV people, or newer to it—because I studied film at university, and when I arrived at the BBC and when we did the first British version of The Office, I just had an assumption that I—because I'd read a lot about it and I'd made a short film at college, I figured, "I know how to do this."
Because you read about Spielberg at 24 making Jaws or whatever it was, and you think, "Well, yes, well, I'm probably a genius as well."
And the thing you don't know is that it doesn't matter how brilliant you think you are. There are so many things trying to defeat you every single day. There is weather, and the location drops out, and the actor didn't show up, or the actor got a better gig and you have to recast them over a weekend, or the actor's difficult and they got a different view of the character to you. And now you've got to spend half an hour discussing that. Or you can't afford the piece of equipment you needed or an endless list. There's a list that goes on and on and on and on and on.
And all you're doing all day is problem-solving, and all that creativity that you thought that you'd storyboarded in, and you were going to have this tracking shot that starts over there, and you are going to do the whole thing as a oner, and it's going to take three and a half... And it's like, "We don't have time because the sun's going. It's getting dark in a minute, and you spent too long on the other scene!"
And it's not to scare people. It's just you don't know what you don't know until you do it. And so to me, even now I've done this 20 years, and it's still stressful, and it doesn't matter how prepared you are, and how planned you've done, and how much you've storyboarded this, and you've rehearsed that, there is a shit ton of stuff coming at you minute by minute.
There's a great quote, and I'm paraphrasing it poorly. And I think it's Kurosawa. But Kurosawa was asked, "The mise-en-scène of that particular shot with the trees there and the thing there, why did you choose that particular frame?" And he said, "Well, because if you move the camera an inch, that way there was a gas station, and an inch that way there was an apartment block." And it's like, that was the decision that led to that moment.
And that's not to say of course that there isn't great artistry. But I just mean that the fight to get to that artistry is what makes it very hard. And so that's why for me, although I find directing very pleasing and fulfilling at the best of times, it is the most arduous part of the process.
The flip of that is acting, which can be incredibly boring because you don't have any of that drama. You're just sat in a trailer waiting to be called. And so I think the reason I do a bit of everything is because I get itchy. I get bored. The idea of being a writer and then just handing the script and not seeing it until it's on TV seems crazy. I can do some acting, so I'm there anyway, why wouldn't I be in it? I kind of can even do directing pretty well now. So it's like, well, why wouldn't I do some of that? So I end up doing it because I feel like I'm going to be there anyway. So why not? Why not wear all these hats?
NFS: I did want to touch on the fact that you had a writers' room for this project, and that's unique in British TV. What do you like about writing with other writers?
Merchant: My first experience of a writer's room was going to the American version of The Office, and I would go there once a season. And I was always so exhilarated by the atmosphere of that, these 12 or whatever, incredibly creative, talented, smart people.
The seed of an idea would pop up. It would ping around the room like a pinball and often grow into something wonderful. And the pleasure of that as someone who had worked in a partnership with Ricky [Gervais], where, although on the best days that happened, you were also long days where you were just staring at each other, with no ideas. And the idea that you could have this room of people and you could just—there's an excitement to that. There's a thrill of, "Where is the next good idea going to come from and how is it going to snowball into something else?"
I did that to some degree on Hello Ladies, and I replicated it here with a smaller room than you perhaps have on big American shows, but nevertheless enough people. And again, a diverse writers' room in an effort to reflect both the diversity of the show itself, but also just to stimulate me, and to provoke me to think outside my little box. Because I'm very aware, I am a middle-aged white English bloke.
So partnering with people that don't have that same background is really stimulating and creative. And like I said, I would hope that my writers would say I'm quite egoless. The best idea wins. I'm not dictatorial.
And so that's the real pleasure for me of a writers' room is just different perspectives, different worldviews, making sure people feel secure that they can share private stories, intimate stories. Because that's where so much of the best stuff comes, is people feeling that they can share a humiliating dating anecdote that you can recycle into a project.