Hot Seat - Frank Merle


This past December we had a chance to go to the Illinois International Film Festival at the Viaduct Theater. The weekend was filled with Short Films, Documentaries, and Feature length films. It was highlighted by the feature film The Employer, a suspenseful thriller that asks how far would someone go to get the perfect job? It was Directed by Frank Merle, a Chicago native who has started a very promising career by winning Best Horror Short in 2008, 2009, and 2010 at the Illinois International Film Festival. Most recently, The Employer won Best Thriller Feature at the festival this year. was able to take a moment to sit down with Frank and ask him some questions about Directing, working with great actors such as Malcolm McDowell and Billy Zane, and where he sees his career headed. Your movie The Employer was your first full length feature. What was the hardest thing about adjusting from making Short horror films to making a full length feature film? 

Frank Merle: I had made about a dozen short films before attempting my first feature, mostly between 10 and 20 minutes in length, and I figured making a feature would be the work equivalent of doing a bunch of shorts all at once. In some ways, I was right, because when you’re on set, the fundamentals of filming are the same, whether it’s a short or a feature. But what I didn’t realize was that post-production would be exponentially more difficult for a feature, because all of the story-telling elements such as sound design, score, and even editing style, have to help tell a longer story, with a distinct beginning, middle and end. So a lot more thought has to go into all of those elements than with a short. Describe to me, What was the experience you had working with such great actors as Malcolm McDowell, Billy Zane, Paige Howard, and David Dastmalchian? Do you have any stories? Did you learn anything from the experience?

Frank Merle: Working with a screen legend like Malcolm McDowell was a dream come true. I have been a huge fan of his work since seeing “A Clockwork Orange” when I was younger, and he is the only person I can imagine tackling the role of the mysterious, villainous title character in The Employer. He was a delight to work, and I discovered that there’s a tremendous benefit to working with actors who have a ton of experience, because their instincts are so well honed. He came to set with clear ideas about his character, but was also willing to take direction and collaborate with me to help achieve my vision. I can’t say enough good things about what a generous professional he is. The same can be said for Billy Zane, and the rest of the terrific cast I was fortunate enough to work with. Paige Howard and David Dastmalchian had worked together on another film before this one, so they were already friends and had great chemistry. That really worked to our advantage since they had a lot of scenes together in this film. And what I learned from working with these seasoned pros is that even actors with 100s of films to their credit still hunger for meaty roles they can sink their teeth into and do something new with. It was fun for me to be a part of that process. In your film, there is something that is said about today's society where people can be locked in a room and do whatever it takes to earn the perfect job. Were you trying to say something about people who are desperate in a post bail-out society? Was it a way of expressing just how competitive it is today in the working world? Or was it simply an idea of suspense to have people trapped in a room and giving them a reason to fight out because, as the Director, you can?

Frank Merle: Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you’ve got a message, send a telegram.” That’s a philosophy on filmmaking that I tend to agree with, so I wasn’t really trying to say anything about society in general. Rather, I was interested in exploring a universal fear that I think most people have of being unemployed. The stress of having to interview for a job is very relatable. So my intention was to put five average people, all hungry for a job, through a nightmarish interview process. That’s where the idea of the locked room came from, because it tapped into another fear of mine: claustrophobia. To me, the film is a character study of what happens when people are trapped together with no hope of escape after already having their nerves frayed by a lengthy interview process, with an interviewer no less formidable than Malcolm McDowell. Was there an inspiration behind making this film? Do you have any Directors that you like to take style from or learn from? 

Frank Merle: I’ve always enjoyed being a storyteller, and I dabbled in many different forms of storytelling, including novel writing and theater, before becoming a filmmaker. For me, the appeal of film is in its mass appeal (everybody loves movies) and the fact that it exists forever. Years from now, people will still be able to discover The Employer and enjoy it for the first time. And its initial fans will be able to revisit it whenever they want, as I do think this film holds up pretty well on multiple viewings. That’s not the case with live theater: once a show closes, it’s gone forever. I like the permanence of film. As far as directors who have influenced me, here’s a partial list of my favorites: Oliver Stone, Robert Zemecas, Martin Scosess, Quinten Tarantion and JJ Abrams. They are all able to get incredible performances out of actors, and never let the spectacle of their huge-scale productions overshadow the stories they tell. What was the best experience from making this film? What is your next project? What are you working on now? 

Frank Merle
My favorite memory from this whole experience has to be the end of the last day of shooting. It just so happened that the very last shot had all five main actors in it, and it was a special effects shot, so we got to play with fake blood, as we often did on this shoot. For that last shot, the day was going long and it was a really tricky shot to set up, but no one in the cast or on the crew lost their patience with it. Everyone just wanted to get it right, and I think there was a little bit of sadness because we had all bonded over the course of the shoot and hated to see it come to an end. When the last shot was finished, and I called “that’s a wrap,” a hearty round of applause burst forth, and hugs and well-wishes were shared between the cast and the crew. It was a very touching moment. As for what’s next, I have two really exciting projects that I’m putting together right now, hopefully to shoot sometime in the next year. One is a murder-mystery and the other is a coming-of-age crime drama. Both will offer new challenges to me as a director, and I look forward to applying what I learned making The Employer to my future film endeavors. What is your favorite Movie Website? 

Frank Merle: Great question! I've only recently discovered, but it's quickly becoming my new favorite