As a young boy, Patrick Merz went through life with his eyes half closed, because then the world looked just like a film. His passion for film has remained. Today, the Swiss director makes his living with feature and commissioned films in Germany and walks through life with his eyes wide open.
Videothink met with Patrick Merz, long-term employee and loyal friend of Condor Films, for coffee to talk about films and, specifically, about his unique experience in cooperation with amateur actors.
Interview with Patrick Merz
Videothink: Many directors would feel their hackles rise if they had to work with amateur actors. Patrick, why do you as a professional put up with amateur actors.
Patrick Merz: Working with amateur actors in an extraordinary enrichment. Primarily, it poses numerous advantages. Amateurs are unspent. They can seem far more authentic than any actor. Amateurs don’t act. They are.
I notice you say “… primarily poses advantages”. Why this seemingly very carefully chosen formulation?
Of course there are challenges, all mastered to a greater or lesser degree. The disadvantage in feature films is that a scene with an amateur has to be repeated dozens of times before it’s in the box. You can expect more from professionally trained actors. After all, they are paid to master and act out certain dialogues. In this case, the director can and should assert a little pressure. This won’t work at all on amateurs.
In commissioned films, amateurs very have their arms twisted to appear in front of the camera. If you have to face the camera because your boss says so but don’t want to: those are difficult circumstances. In cases such as these, I as the director must not only observe what the person does or says; I also have to motivate them. Working under such initial conditions is not impossible – quite the opposite – but it also requires more energy from the director.
In your films, amateurs frequently evolve into theatrical talents. How do you find these rough diamonds?
Whether a person is talented or not is usually already apparent during the casting process. Once the person begins acting, one can quickly fathom where one is at. Especially when people have to play themselves. If one is faced with a rough diamond (amateur actors without any training and experience whatsoever and able to act brilliantly do exist), one has to counteract their acting instead. Amateurs with talent tend to become excessive. They initially dare not simply be themselves but tend to overact. In this case, you as the director has to intervene. Nonetheless: being allowed to lead talented amateurs to their full potential is great fun.
We humans are all fantastic actors. After all, we do nothing else our whole lives long! Patrick Merz
I maintain that every person has what it takes to become a brilliant actor. We fulfil the most varied of roles. One role as the head of the family, one as a boss, one as househusband or housewife, one role as child nurturer, etc.
I am of the opinion that a person plays a role all the time and rehearses it every day. Deliberately. Or subconsciously. Some follow external role models; others try to write their own script. That’s why you only need to tell good actors that that’s exactly what they have to do. Play a role. As a director, you only help them to understand the role which they need to play for the film.
If we take a step back, namely to casting: what do you consider as important? A pretty face alone is hardly sufficient to have you invite amateurs for the casting of your new film?
Of course I look at the exterior, but in the sense that the exterior and interior are a perfect match. The type is important. But sometimes you’re also mistaken. One thinks this person would be perfect for a role. The being of the actor definitely takes precedence over their appearance.
Of course casting is important. But when working with amateurs, I find it even more important that my script permits a certain degree of flexibility in role models. Let’s say you look at 50 people and have 5 roles to assign. Then you will naturally try to give the roles to those applicants which you think could play these roles. And sometimes, when you have 5 talents and the roles are not 100% perfect, you will have to juggle around a little or adapt the script to the person.
There are hardly any authors who do not already envisage a role during the writing process. Why shouldn’t one be able to reverse this process? It’s better to carefully adapt the script to an amateur than locking the amateur into a scripted corset, which squeezes the life out of him. Films need breathing space.
Making feature films with amateur actors is one of your many excellent skills for which you are known in Germany. Is there a particularly funny, absurd or lovely situation you will never forget?
When making my film “Fuck the Music”, I seem to remember a lovely example of how I work as a director and what can happen to you if you work with amateur actors. While I was writing the script, I already knew which amateur I would choose to be the bad boy. I therefore aligned the role to what I thought was the character of this person.
Then, on the first day of shooting, this guy steps up to the camera and does a Brad Pitt. He played a completely crazy parody of a loopy preferred son-in-law instead of a choleric music producer. Totally otherworldly and whacky! (Patrick waves his arms around). During the very first second, I knew: this won’t work! So I walk up to him and say that he is doing great but that he is the bad guy and shouldn’t do slapstick. Then we started the camera again. Same story. And again, and again. It was exasperating. I knew I had to make a decision. Alone. Now. In this situation and spontaneously. And whatever I say in the next second – it will affect the film and many other people important to me. After the 4th retake of the preferred son-in-law parody, I went up to my leading actor and said calmly: “OK, you can play it like this! But then you will have to follow through all the way to the end.” It ended brilliantly! The public loves the film to this day because of this actor – it’s quite exciting to see the situations a director can get stuck into just because he perceived the one or other character in a person. And it turns out completely different. This is where intellectual flexibility and thinking in broader outlines comes in. In situations like these, narrow-mindedness will kill your film.
Is this the most important characteristic for successful cooperation with amateurs in front of the camera – broadmindedness?
You also need the very, very strong will for cooperation. Working with amateurs is absolute team play. Excellent people skills are fundamental. So is empathy. I as the director must be able to empathise with an amateur actor. That’s far more important than patience. Occasional impatience is fine – even when working with amateurs.
What characterises you when working with amateur actors?
My favourite saying goes: There are no bad actors, only bad scripts! You will notice a bad script immediately. This becomes apparent if, for example, someone takes the scene off the deep end or forgets his lines. This applies to both feature and commissioned films. Especially where amateur actors are concerned, it is important that you can also question and adapt your script and your expectations on set during the shoot. This is exactly what normally doesn’t happen when making a film. This is what many directors fear to do.
A filmmaker will normally come on set after weeks of preparation and plants the actor into a well thought out blueprint like a piece of decoration. This would kill you when working with amateur actors. In this case you will need to build around the actor. If a client wants me to film statements, my first question is never about the content. Instead, I’d rather know: who is to speak and do I have a say in the decision about the environment in which this person will appear? An amateur standing in front of the camera has to feel even more at home than a professional. In commissioned films, you have to constantly deal with people who have never faced a camera before. This needs time. My objective is to create every project within a partnership. Unfortunately, this is not always possible. If you have the totally stressed out CEO of an international corporation in front of the camera, then “partnership” is a big word.
Many bosses also have to be bosses in front of the camera. Some of them even give stage directions to the technical film crew. I therefore try not to establish the authority of a managerial person via their function, but ideally already during preliminary discussions to create trust in my abilities. If I’m successful, amazing things also happen. In front of the camera, managers suddenly display qualities they would never disclose during their everyday professional life. Once you have managed this, you’ve won. Then you can also say: “Let’s do that again. This time a little shorter and more to the point; after all, you’re the boss!”
Have you ever not been able to complete a shoot to your satisfaction because you were working with amateur actors?
Once in twenty years. During a commissioned film. The customer standing in front of the camera simply couldn’t manage it. He became furious. Not with us. But with himself. He had written the text himself and insisted on learning and speaking every word by heart. Unfortunately, most managers don’t know the difference between spoken and written text. They write a brochure or have one written.
As the director, I try to influence this by looking at the text together with the customer before the shoot and simplify it, if necessary. No complicated sentences. Short, concise sentences. I find the aspect of flexibility just as important here. Occasionally the texts have already been approved, sometimes even checked and released by legal departments. But even then, the sentence length and rhythm can be adapted to the speaker with small tricks and suggestions without endangering the statements. There is no recipe for 100% successful cooperation in a film. However, solid know-how and long-term experience, combined with flexibility, social skills and patience, will let you – both in life and in film – achieve goals you would never have believed possible.
I’m a widescreen format kind of person. Patrick Merz
What is your next project?
This year, I’m making a new feature film with amateurs and will be working with adolescent refugees and German teenagers again. I am really looking forward to the multilingual aspect, the mix in languages! It’s exciting when actors speaking different languages meet. I already learnt that from my last feature film Hotel California. I don’t speak Persian or one of the African languages and I don’t even speak Russian fluently.
Before I can start shooting, I will again sit with the amateur actors and we will translate the script together. Hotel California gave rise to some marvellous situations. I was filming with five young Afghan amateurs, who would enthusiastically discuss among themselves how to correctly translate their dialogue in the script. At some stage, these were no longer sentences for actors within a screenplay. The sentences became an integral part of the actors. And at some stage everything was just right and absolutely perfect. At least I think so (laughs). Multilingualism is a means which benefits our cultural understanding and opens up our horizons.
Thank you for the interview, Patrick! We wish you all the best for your feature film projects and look forward to updates for which there is ample opportunity when considering the new joint projects already underway under the auspices of Condor Films.
Our Videothink interviews can do all but one thing: bore. In our interview section directors, creative heads, key people in the film world and other exponents of national and international moving image communication have their say. The articles so far, aside from Patrick Merz, portray: Adrian Teijido (Director of Photography, about his work on Netflix’ Narcos), Wigald Boning, Juerg Ebe, Jörg Buckmann, Movie Director Markus Welter and Kristian Widmer.