Frank Merle describes himself as a “late bloomer” to the world of film.
After appearing on the Maine South High School stage in the mid-1990s in plays like “The King and I,” “Will Rogers Follies” and “Working,” the Park Ridge native’s real passion became the theater, a passion she parlayed into a career, working as a director and producer at Chicago’s Raven and Keyhole theaters.
But in 2006 his focus shifted to short films. Screenings of his work at film festivals — and the awards that followed — led Merle to pursue a new career in Los Angeles as a full-time filmmaker.
Today Merle is a screenwriter, director and producer whose very first full-length independent film, “The Employer,” recently picked up several accolades at the annual Los Angeles Movie Awards, including Best Director, Best Narrative Feature and the Audience Award. The film, starring Malcolm McDowell, Paige Howard and Billy Zane, is a psychological thriller about five job applicants who interview for a mysterious company, only to find themselves in a competition to survive after they wake up locked in a room together.
“For me, it was a little scary in my late 20s to be thinking about a career change, and I think that fear worked itself into the script of the movie,” Merle said. “But really believing in myself and making that leap of faith to drop everything else and pursue films really paid off for me. I feel very fortunate and thrilled to be able to share my first feature with the world.”
“The Employer” is currently available on DVD and as an On Demand movie.
Q: You are described as a writer-director-producer. Which do you enjoy the most?
A: Directing. I write projects to create work for myself as a director and I produce because my background is in the theater. When I was doing theater, I was often doing a little bit of everything, so it was very natural for me to do more than sit in the director’s chair.
Q: When did you decide that making movies was something you wanted to do?
A: The first half of my 20s I was doing theater in Chicago and while I was doing theater I slowly got interested in film as another method of storytelling. I bought myself a camera, taught myself how to use it and started making YouTube videos. I found it really rewarding and found I had a knack for it. I started to enter film festivals and I did really well. Going to the festivals, meeting the audience and getting that feedback gave me the encouragement to pursue film as a career.
Q: Did Maine South prepare you in any way for the business you are now in?
A: To this day, I pride myself as being a director who works well with actors. At Maine South I had the tremendous opportunity to act in several plays. I also had a radio show and I did a little videography, taping some performances. Those experiences certainly turned me on to storytelling as something I wanted to do. The actors I work with to this day really appreciate that I have a background as an actor and a background in theater. Although film is a very different medium, the leadership skills I developed doing theater really translate well to directing films.
Q: How did the opportunity to do “The Employer” come about?
A: I really have Malcolm McDowell to thank for that. He’s the lead actor in the film and he’s had a tremendous career that began with “Clockwork Orange.” He’s been in over 200 films in his career and he was somebody I really wanted in the role as the employer. I sent an impassioned letter to his manager about why I wanted him and why the role would be perfect. It was a bit of luck that his manager responded to me, read the script, liked it and sent it on to Malcolm. And then Malcolm said he’d do it. I was able to get funding to do the film and get other talented actors like Billy Zane to be in the film, because they wanted to work with a screen legend such as Malcolm. I felt very fortunate about that.
Q: “The Employer” won eight awards at the Los Angeles Movie Awards. What was your reaction to that?
A: That was so exciting. At that time, not a lot of people had seen the film yet. So going to the L.A. Movie Awards and leaving with a handful of awards, including best director, was really exciting and rewarding for me. For me, the movie isn’t done until people see it. What those accolades mean to me is that more people will now see the film.
Q: What was your inspiration for the film?
A: I wanted to do a different type of thriller so I was thinking about universal fears. One is having to interview for a job, being unemployed and having your fate in somebody else’s hands — and the feeling of helplessness that can go along with that. I created a situation where I had five characters who were all unemployed, all desperate for a job. I put them in a situation where I pondered how far somebody would be willing to go for a job.
Q: Any other future films in the works?
A: I have another script I wrote called “Criminality” that is an adaptation of a play I wrote while in college. It’s sort of a crime drama along the lines of a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino type of film. I’m currently sending it out to actors to try to get interest and also funding.