Inspired amateur: the films of Prentice Merrick

These few notes on Prentice Merrick are certainly not meant to be either exhaustive or final. They are a preliminary to a fuller examination of his work in film, and of the relationship of the films to his literary output.

The film director Prentice Merrick (always known as “Joe” for some reason I could never track down) told Grace Garson, an actress who has become a star and hence plays herself in most roles she undertakes (or plays her persona as a star), which made her difficult for Merrick to deal with:

“Grace, do you remember an occasion where you found yourself in the company of someone you loved, someone whom it gave you great pleasure to be with? And while talking with that person you suddenly had an overwhelming feeling that they didn’t love you in return? That they liked you, esteemed you perhaps. But didn’t feel about you in the wonderfully disturbing way you felt about them. Do you remember how you felt then? Now draw back, as if you are a camera ready for a long shot. See the face of the person who is you, look at every feature’s disposition as she feels what you remember she feels”.

Grace was in that position at the time of talking to Merrick: he seemed to know things like that. It sometimes seemed like reading minds, and that’s what some people felt about him: that he could do that.

Grace was bemused, and replied, “I don’t think I’m capable of such detachment Joe”.

Merrick said “That’s what an actor does. But there’s more for you to do. You have to recompose your features so you look that way when you do the scene. Actors seem to use two methods: some study the action of each feature, and can reproduce them one by one so they reassemble the face required for the shot. Others can re-experience the emotion they have once known so as to look the same. It’s a matter of technique, and each actor uses the one that works for them. Remember you are acting for the camera, and the camera sees only surfaces. It’s how you look that matters”.

It was typical of Merrick to talk like a textbook to people who were very experienced in their craft, but most understood he was working it out as he talked, and he often expressed himself in a way that made it sometimes easy for his colleagues to see what they did in a clearer light. Grace understood what Merrick meant very well, but lacked confidence in her ability to do what he required. Seeing the look of uncertainty on her face, Merrick continued.

“Film making is a collaborative effort, and involves a sizeable team of people. You know that. It’s like a relay race. I may invent a story whose plot may convey something I hope is meaningful to an audience. But I don’t really know for sure. As a director I can frame each shot in a way I hope brings out the message of the scene so that it fits in with other scenes of the film in a way that flows and conveys the meaning I want. But I don’t know that for sure either. I pass on the baton to the actors I’m working with. I need them to talk to the camera with their features in a way that tells the story I want to tell. They take over the work of the film. Their cast of features, their physical presence, changes the texture of each scene I’ve imagined. I try to keep them on track, but their chief allies are the lighting technician and of course the camera operator. I can only try to guide these people, the race is now in their hands, and I am only shouting from the sidelines. But their creative job is just to create the look which will convey the effect of each scene, and I hope the point of the drama I have invented. After the camera operator, the lighting technician and the actor have done their job, I can go into the footage with the editor and rearrange and edit scenes to maximise the effect I want, but basically the baton is now to be passed to the third main participant, the audience. It is they whose job is to experience the emotional content of the scenes we have filmed. If we’ve run well and passed on the baton smoothly, this is easy for them. The parts of each scene mesh: story, pacing, lighting, expression, framing and feeling. You must never forget you’re in a race. You take what the director gives you, and you pass it on so the audience can make their contribution. If you slip up, the audience feel about you as a woman feels about a bad lover: frustrated, unfulfilled and sometimes bad tempered”.

Much of this Grace had been aware of, and had thought of herself from time to time.  She was in a race. She was racing to win. She was part of a team.

This was a feeling Merrick communicated to all the actors he worked with, implicitly or explicitly, and was in accord with his whole presence on the set. Humble and diffident as regards his own contribution, willing to disassemble his beautifully written scripts for the sake of his actors, whom he admired extravagantly, and rewrite their parts to fit them like a glove. Merrick had such an understanding of the needs of his screenplay and of his actors that most actors found him easy to work with, even though what he asked them to do was often very hard for them to do. He was only able to complete three films before his death, though he was working on the script of a fourth. His presence has been missed.

The same style, “prosing on” as he sometimes put it, was remarked in his relationship with his camera operator and with his editor. Merrick told them how to do their job, but it wasn’t irritating at all: more a summing up, in a few words, of all they had learnt in a lifetime in film. Merrick himself felt he was recapping what they had shown him needed to be done, and somehow he could do it more clearly than they could. Many noticed this prosy style fell away in the last stages of filming. By then nearly everyone knew what needed to be done, and he directed in single words or in gestures. Often the expression on his face told the actor how they were doing.

Merrick had two gifts which his colleagues valued. He could see the final film clearly before the first scene was shot: for this reason filming was an agonising series of compromises for him. This was obvious but not explicit. It made every one of his collaborators more confident to see him at a loss, and in a quandary as to how to proceed: either he was a fool who was wasting their time, or they should try a little harder. They tried a little harder. Just about every actor he worked with did their best work for Merrick, and it was this confidence he gave them that made it possible, even though, paradoxically, it was expressed by his frustration and loss of direction as the shoot began. His films all followed the same course: wonderful scripts had everyone feeling good about the project. Slowly things fell apart as Merrick tried, at first unsuccessfully, to adapt the parts he had written more closely to the actors portraying them. Then, quite suddenly, he seemed to see the way. And the work for everyone on the set seemed to get easier, the takes fewer. All Merrick’s films came in under budget and under schedule. Nobody wanted to leave the set when the project finished.

Because he felt he knew nothing about film making Merrick often expressed commonplaces of technique or procedure as though seeing them for the first time, “re-inventing the cinema” as some ironically called it: this was somehow very comforting to the people who worked for him. Even the most  powerful and assured of actors and producers took note when he did something they didn’t know could be done.

“Well”, he would say, “the impossible is just something that hasn’t been done before”.

He has also been quoted as saying: “Not what you do, but how”. And he always claimed not to know, at the start of a shoot, how to do anything. His actors and crew told him how, or so he said. What he meant was that these colleagues, by their skills and their limitations, defined the path he had to take to see the film he had so clearly imagined.

Merrick was really a writer, not a film director. He came into film on an invitation to adapt one of his books, and stayed to direct when it became obvious he knew more about realising the script than anyone else. His lack of experience led to some odd results. He did not know, for instance, that some projects relied on star power to fuel the shoot, that such projects were ‘vehicles’ only, and that stars in these films had final say. He did not know that a film could be run by it’s technicians, it’s crew, who might be experts in their sphere and whose routine work on projects might be almost perfect. In situations like these Merrick was avoided: he just didn’t fit into someone else’s marketing scheme.

Merrick was really a writer, and saw his film as though it were a book. But he saw. That was the main thing. He knew that if an actor did something in one scene how it would affect a later scene. He made films in quite a different way to the way he wrote books. He felt his books, was his main characters. This vision of his films, as the emotion of his writing process, got him into all kinds of trouble. He made his way in both fields by solving problems he himself had caused, and the astonishing thing was how rapid the process was.

Laurence Carmody, the critic who interviewed Merrick twice, for an uncompleted book on ‘personal’ cinema, thought the industry was under the control of experts who had tried and trusted methods of doing things, and that accepted procedures had made some things impossible. Merrick didn’t know any of this. Ordinarily he would have been a negligible force as a would be film maker. It was his enormous popularity as a writer which gave him clout, once studio heads realised people would go see a film written, or directed, by Prentice Merrick. And once work had started on one of his projects, actors and crew were confronted by an ignorant man who was apt to ask “why” when told how to do, or not do, a certain task. He was quoted once in reply to a journalist who had asked how some scene had been made, saying, “because I didn’t know it couldn’t be done”.

Merrick was often told that what he wanted couldn’t be done, often by a crew member who had been working in the field for years and knew all there was to know about the specific process involved. Merrick would become frustrated at this, ask “why not”, not seem to understand the explanation he was given, then ‘invent’ some hoary process like backward rear projection, or filming a scene backwards, that no-one had dreamed of doing since the introduction of sound. He was laughed at. But he had a pact with everyone on the set: he would try it their way if they would try it his way. He wasn’t as clueless as he seemed. In the projection room looking at daily footage he would often point out how a scene that had been shot at someone’s suggestion would distort the emphasis of a later scene. And of course the scenes he devised, using sometimes unusual methods, always worked better that anyone else’s suggestions, even when they shouldn’t have.

There were many people who didn’t like Merrick’s films. They were all made under budget, but weren’t very profitable, despite his continuing popularity with the public. Profit margin is important to many people in the industry, and the good films to these folks are the ones which return millions above cost. All three were dramas, and the audiences for drama are shrinking all the time. Even when he made a more ‘popular’ film, such as his last, The Twelfth of Never, an ecological science fiction action film, it was the relationship between the two main characters that was most important. Pessimists left the theatre with a very good impression of just how the world might end, though the few optimists in the audience saw how the way the characters felt towards each other made a difference. This indirection in his message was designed to make the audience think, and Merrick, right to the end, could not conceive that any person might not want to think. And the genre blending didn’t help his cause either. Nobody quite knew what kind of film Prentice Merrick made: nobody seemed to ask was it necessary to make a type of film at all.

Film is a powerfully emotive media, whether action or melodrama. Merrick’s films were so only if you immersed yourself in what was happening. This was exactly the way his books worked. But while millions seemed to live intensely every line he wrote and made him one of the biggest selling authors on record, a dramatically smaller number experienced his films the same way.

So Prentice Merrick the film maker remains an enigmatic figure. He invented processes in film known about for decades. He inspired actors to achievements that made it seem they were responsible for what was achieved far more than he was. He wrote beautiful film scripts some saw as works of literature which turned into messy, re-written approximations of what he had first intended. He didn’t make a lot of money for the studios that employed him. He baffled audiences who shouldn’t have been baffled at all. Yet he inspired more loyalty in cast and crew than most directors do. Some of these were almost superstitious about his intuition and his insight: he certainly helped many who worked with him, sometimes in imperceptible ways. And there was a group who felt that what went on on the set sometimes transferred to the screen, and what that was was pretty wonderful.

The time is ripe for a critical consideration of Prentice Merrick’s three films. Each film is appreciated by a loyal audience, but too many pass his films by. It seems likely that only an enormous publicity drive will change that. The audience for film is made up predominantly of those who would prefer to see the latest film even if it’s a bad film, rather than re-consider earlier ones. Perhaps we who esteem his work will have to wait till sufficient time has gone by for a Merrick revival to occur.

©2010 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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One thought on “Inspired amateur: the films of Prentice Merrick

  1. Wonderful Web site! I wondered if I would be able quote a portion of your Inspired amateur: the films of Prentice Merrick BestQuest and use a couple of points for a term paper. Please let me know through email if that would be fine. Thanks

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