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The Office Co-Creator Stephen Merchant on Dwarves and Drama

Cemetery Junction — a Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant co-directed/co-written coming-of-age drama set in a working-class town in seventies England — is being released in the U.S. tomorrow. So why haven’t you seen a trailer yet? Because, despite its makers’ celebrated track record and the fact that it is much, much better than Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Cemetery is going straight to DVD. Merchant spoke with Vulture last week on Cemetery, his upcoming BBC comedy starring famed little-person actor Warwick Davis, and the shake-up at the American Office.

It surprised me how funny Cemetery Junction is. As you were writing, did you have discussions about how much comedy you wanted in the movie?
It was basically not having a policy and writing every scene as it seemed the right way to write it. We wanted it to feel genuine: We didn’t want any jokes to feel forced or sitcom-y. But the lot of the inspiration were movies like The Apartment or Billy Liar that are funny on occasion and also dramatic when they need to be. With movies [as opposed to TV], tonally, you can be a bit more, I wouldn’t say inconsistent, but you can jump around. The film can be what it is. It doesn’t have to be an all-out ball-breaking comedy, and it doesn’t have to be a depressing drama.

Despite it being a drama, it’s recognizable as a Merchant-Gervais production. Do you see it as a continuation of the work you’ve done in the past?
I think it’s very similar. Thematically, we have a number of preoccupations: about escaping the expectations by family, or by status, or by class, and how life is a very clear mix between laughter and tears. The everyday, the things that are considered mundane: family, jobs, or work, simple little relationships between friends or between lovers, they can be very epic and are very epic. No one that’s breaking up with their wife is thinking, “We’re just sat here at a bar arguing. This is nothing like Titanic.” It’s the most epic thing in the world. It’s about trying to make the viewer engage with the normal things as the protagonist would.

One of the characters sports a naked female vampire chest tattoo. That’s so specific I have to assume it’s based on reality.
It was a real thing. I don’t want to specify too much. The person still exists, and if I told you how I found out about it, various people would be incriminated. Suffice to say, there is someone that exists who I’m not friends with, but who does have a female vampire tattoo.

The reviews for Junction were positive in England. Were you surprised it didn’t get a theatrical release in the U.S.?
It was never going to be Avatar, and it didn’t knock it out of the park here financially, and I’m sure that had an implication. I’m also sure they thought it was very British in tone. It’s not something that concerns me unduly because I can’t do anything about it; it’s out of my hands. My hope is that it will continue to find its audiences for years and years to come. I thought with The Office that it would be a small cult thing, but it would be some people’s favorite thing. I’ve always thought that way. I’ve never thought, Let’s try and do something that’s going to be a blockbuster. At the end of the day, am I satisfied with the film? Yeah.

So, Steve Carell is leaving The Office at the end of next season. Are you involved at all with the search for his replacement?
I love the show. I’m very proud of it; I’m very proud that it’s successful. I watch it as a fan. I’m not involved on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis on the creative decisions. Carell is brilliant, and the show wouldn’t be what it’d be without him. There are a lot of good comics in the show already — Ed Helms, Rainn Wilson, everyone else involved — so it may be unnecessary to replace him. He’s kind of irreplaceable, in a way. So far they’ve been very careful with it, maintaining the integrity of the [original] series pretty much intact. I trust them to make the right decision. You know, not to bring in an alien who crash-landed in Scranton or something to run the office.

Ricky Gervais has already debunked the possibility of having David Brent take over. Was Ricky officially offered the job?
As far as I’m aware he hasn’t been offered it, and I would find it very unlikely that he would do it. I would find that almost impossible, if only for the hours are very long. And [Ricky doing] twenty-odd weeks of nonstop work? Wouldn’t happen.

The other names that were floated were Danny McBride and Rhys Darby.
I think they’re both brilliant. I haven’t heard their names; I don’t know where that information is coming from. I could see them working well, but don’t know where that information is coming from. No one’s told me anything.

Your next project, Life’s Too Short with Warwick Davis, was initially described as being in the style of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Is that still the case?
Well, we’ve only done the pilot so far. I’m sure the series will evolve further. It’s Curb-like in the sense that Warwick plays himself, but we’re not trying to emulate that show. We’re trying to write something that’s unique to Warwick in every sense. He came to us with the idea of doing a show about his position as, in his own words, a “showbiz dwarf.” He’s also a very accomplished physical performer, which we really tapped into. He does great pratfalls which, being how small he is, is doubly funny. This is just some muck-about comedy, but I think it’s refreshing. I think it’s charming, but it’s still in its formative stages. There’s much to change, I’m sure.

Is it like Curb where you don’t have a script?
We wrote the pilot. Ricky had done an episode of Curb and he’s very much enjoyed that style. We shall see, really. I don’t know how much that will suit our style.

You and Ricky also play yourselves. What’s the setup in the show for how Davis comes into your lives?
It’s him going about his life seeking work and he’s got himself an assistant, and he comes to us regularly to seek our advice. It’s sort of him doing battle with life in a way. The idea is that he’s got small-man complex in the literal and metaphorical sense. He’s a bit ambitious, occasionally malevolent and selfish, but ultimately quite likable.

The Office Co-Creator Stephen Merchant on Dwarves and Drama