How would someone be a bad actor

Filmmaker Patrick Merz: "We humans are all actors!"

As a little boy, Patrick Merz walked through the world with closed eyes because the world looked like something in a movie. The director's passion for the cinema and fascination for actors has remained.

Today the successful Swiss filmmaker, who works in feature films and video productions, lives in Germany and walks through life with eyes wide open.

FLMPULS met Patrick Merz, who also trains young film students at a film school, for an interview over coffee, to talk to him about filmmaking and his unique experiences working with amateur actors, some of whom have come to think of themselves as Hollywood star Brad Pitt can.

Patrick Merz on amateurs as actors

Filmpuls: The hair on the back of the neck of many directors would stand up if they had to work with non-professional actors. Patrick, why do you, as a professional, work with laypeople?

Patrick Merz: Working with amateur actors is an extraordinary enrichment. First and foremost, it brings me many advantages. Laypeople are less consumed. You can come across as much more authentic than any actor. Laypeople do not play. You are.

Filmpuls: I notice that you say, "... primarily advantages". Why this formulation, it seems to me to be very carefully chosen?

Patrick Merz: Of course there are challenges. These are sometimes better, sometimes less, mastered. When it comes to feature films, I see the disadvantage that a scene with laypeople has to be repeated a dozen times before it really works. You can ask for more with a professionally trained actor. After all, they are also paid to be able to manage and play dialogues. The director can and must apply a little pressure. This doesn't work at all for an amateur actor. In the field of commissioned films, laypeople are very often growled to stand in front of the camera. Anyone who has to be in front of the camera because the boss demands it but doesn't want it himself: These are difficult conditions. In such a case, I not only have to pay attention to what the person is doing and saying, I also have to motivate strongly. Working with such a starting point is not impossible - on the contrary - but it takes a little more energy on the part of the director.

Filmpuls: In your films, laypeople surprisingly often turn out to be talented actors. How did you come across these rough diamonds?

Patrick Merz: I can tell during the casting whether a person is a talent or not. When the person starts to play, it quickly becomes clear where you are. Especially when people are supposed to represent themselves. If you have a rough diamond in front of you, there are really amateur actors who can play completely crazy without any training or experience, you have to counteract their game. Talented laypeople tend to be dissolute. At first they don't dare to be, but rather cover them up. As a director, you have to intervene. Nevertheless, being able to lead talented laypeople to their top form is a lot of fun.

We humans are all great actors. We don't do anything else in our lives!
Patrick Merz

I claim that everyone has what it takes to be a great actor. We all have very different roles. A role as a family man, as a boss, a role as a househusband or housewife, a role as a childcare worker, and so on. My opinion is: people play roles all the time and practice them every day. Deliberately. Or unconsciously. Some follow strange role models. Others try to write their own script. All you have to do is tell a good actor to do just that. Play a role. The only thing you are helping them to understand is which role they have to slip into for the film.

Filmpuls: If we take a step back, namely to the casting: What is important to you from the director's point of view? A pretty face alone is hardly enough to be invited to the casting for your next feature film?

Patrick Merz: I already look at the outside, but in the sense that the outside and the inside go together. The type is important. Sometimes you are wrong. You think this person would be perfect for the role. The essence of the actor or actress is definitely above looks. Of course, the casting is important. What is even more important to me when working with laypeople is that my script allows a certain degree of flexibility in the role models. Let's say you look at 50 people and you have 5 roles to be assigned. Then of course you try to give the role to those applicants for whom you feel that they can play them. And sometimes, when you have 5 talents, but the roles are not one hundred percent right, you have to juggle or adapt the book to the person. There is hardly an author who does not already have a picture in mind when writing. Why shouldn't this process be reversed? Better to carefully adapt the script to a layperson instead of locking them in a script corset that takes their breath away. Films want to breathe.

Filmpuls: Making feature films with amateur actors is one of your many outstanding skills, for which you have become known in Germany. Is there a particularly funny, absurd or beautiful situation that you will never forget?

Patrick Merz: When I was shooting my film “Fuck The Music”, I think there was a nice example of how I function and what you can get into when you work with amateurs as actors. When I wrote the script, I already knew which amateur actor I would choose as the villain. I have therefore aligned the role to the nature of this person, or what I thought it was. Then on the first day of shooting, this guy stands in front of the camera and parodies Brad Pitt. He played a completely weird version of a crazy son-in-law, instead of a choleric music producer. Totally otherworldly and crazy! (Patrick waves his arms). In the first second I knew: It doesn't work that way! So I go up to him and say that what he's doing is fine, but that he's the bad guy and can't make fuss. Then we turned the camera on again. Again exactly the same. And again and again. It was for yodelling. I knew I had to make a decision now. Alone. Right away. From the situation and from the gut. And whatever I say in the next few seconds - it will affect the film and many other people who are important to me. After the fourth repetition of the son-in-law parody, I went to my main actor and said in a calm voice: “Ok, you can play it like that! But then you have to go through with it from now on, like this, to the end. “It turned out great! The audience loves the film to this day because of this actor. It's exciting to see what you can get into just because you have the feeling that a person has this or that being. And then it is exactly different! Then you need to have mental flexibility and think broadly. With narrow-mindedness you ruin your film in such a situation.

Filmpuls: Is that the most important quality for successfully dealing with laypeople in front of the camera, to think generously?

Patrick Merz: You also need a very, very strong will to work together. Working with amateur actors is absolute team playing. A high level of social competence is essential. And empathy. I have to be able to empathize with the amateur actor. It's much more important than patience. You can be impatient at times, even when working with laypeople.

Filmpuls: What makes you work with amateur actors?

Patrick Merz: My favorite sentence is this: it is never the actors who are bad. It's always the script! You can tell immediately if the book is wrong. For example, if someone falls out of the scene or forgets sentences, these are the indications. This applies not only to feature films, but also to commissioned films. Especially with amateur actors, it is important that you can question and adapt your work, your script and your ideas on the set during the shoot. That's exactly what you don't normally do in film. Many directors are afraid of it. Usually, after weeks of preparation, the filmmaker comes to the set and puts the actor, like a piece of decor, in a well-thought-out blueprint. For amateur actors, that's your death. Here you have to build around the actor. If a client wants me to make statements, my first question is never what the content should be. No, I want to know: who should speak and can I decide in which environment this person appears? A layman who steps in front of the camera has to feel even more comfortable than a professional. In commissioned films, you are constantly dealing with people who have never been in front of a camera. You have to plan in time for this. My goal is to be able to do every project in a partnership. Unfortunately, that doesn't always work. When you have the CEO of an international corporation standing in front of the camera, who is stepping from foot to foot in a stressful environment, “partnership” is a big word. Many bosses also have to be boss in front of the camera. Some even give the technical film crew directing instructions and become directors themselves. That is why I try not to build up the authority of a leader through their function, but rather, ideally, in a preliminary talk, to create trust in my abilities. If this succeeds, amazing things will also happen. Managers suddenly show qualities in front of the camera that they would never show in everyday working life. If you can do this, then you have won. Then you can also say, “We'll do this again. This time a little shorter and to the point, after all, you are the boss! "

Filmpuls: Has it ever happened that you couldn't finish a shoot satisfactorily because you worked with amateur actors?

Patrick Merz: Once in twenty years. With a commissioned film. The customer who was in front of the camera couldn't do it. He got very angry. Not on me. But of himself. He had written his own text and insisted on memorizing and reciting it word for word. Unfortunately, most executives do not understand the difference between spoken text and written text. You are writing a brochure or have one written for you. I try to influence this by looking at the text with the client before shooting and simplifying it if necessary. No nested sentences. Short, concise sentences. Here, too, I think the aspect of flexibility is important. Especially with CEO videos. Often the texts have already been accepted, sometimes even checked and approved by the legal departments. But even then, sentence length and rhythm can be adapted to the speaker with little tricks and tips without jeopardizing the statements. There is no recipe that will work 100% well in a film. But with solid know-how and many years of experience, combined with flexibility, social skills and patience, you can achieve goals in film as in life that you initially think are impossible.

I am a widescreen person.
Patrick Merz

Filmpuls: What is your next project?

Patrick Merz: This year I'm making a new feature film with laypeople and will again be working with young refugees and German teenagers. I am really looking forward to the multilingual, the mixture of languages, in particular! When actors and actresses who speak different languages ​​meet, it gets exciting. I already know that from my last feature film Hotel California. I don't speak Persian or any of the African languages ​​and I don't really speak Russian fluently. Before I can shoot, I'll sit down with the amateur actors and translate the script together. There were brilliant situations at the Hotel California. I shot with five young Afghan amateur actors and they engaged in a lively discussion about how to correctly translate their dialogue in the script. At some point these were no longer sentences for actors who were in a script. The sentences became part of the performers. And then at some point it was right and it was absolutely perfect. At least I think so (laughs). Multilingualism is a means that is good for our cultural understanding and opens our horizons.

Filmpuls: Thank you very much for talking to us, Patrick! We keep our fingers crossed for your feature film projects and we look forward to updates.