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Meet Alex Merkin of Sawyer and Sand in Sherman Oaks

Today we’d like to introduce you to Alex Merkin.

Alex, can you briefly walk us through your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today.
I’ve wanted to make films for as long as I had any idea that people actually did this for a living. I started studying the process in high school and continued through college and shortly after graduating I used some of my student film work to help secure a position as the head of production at a new multimedia company in New York City. But I left there shortly after to start my own company in the city called Fivelion Productions where we focused on commercials, music videos and visual effects as well as graphic design. My goal was to be able to start working professionally in production as soon as possible while continuing to learn as much as I could and then eventually attempt to transition into feature films. So, after directing a number of commercials and music videos I began to focus on creating a short film that I’d be able to use as a stepping stone towards that goal.

In 2005 my producers and I brought the project I’d been developing to First Look Studios and pitched what we envisioned as a high concept branded short film called Across the Hall, hoping to find a cell phone company to sponsor us as the devices played a significant role in our story. Shortly thereafter, we received the greenlight from First Look! Samsung agreed to sponsor us with Jon Kilik (Hunger Games, Babel, Inside Man) executive producing and Adrian Grenier (Entourage) starring. It was an incredible experience – we were able to build our sets on stages in Brooklyn and shoot the film on 35mm. First Look Studios and Samsung were very pleased with the movie and were incredibly supportive and generous to us, premiering the film in New York and Los Angeles as well as using it to promote Samsung’s new video phones.

The film would go on to win over 25 awards at festivals around the country and receive a number of offers from various producers to be adapted into a feature film. We eventually accepted one of those offers and in 2008 we went into production on the feature length version of Across the Hall, starring Mike Vogel, Brittany Murphy and Danny Pino. It’s difficult for me to express what a surreal experience it was getting to build our sets on the iconic stage 28 at Universal Studios and to be making my first feature on the same stage that some of my all time favorite movies had been filmed (Psycho, The Birds, Jurassic Park, among others). Jeff Bowler, Stephen Fromkin, Marco Garibaldi and Ari Palitz produced the film which was executive produced by Elton Brand, Evan Ferrante and Gary Gimelfarb.

However, before all of that took place, way back in 2005 when I was still editing the short film version of Across the Hall, Naughty by Nature’s Vin Rock and Kay Gee came to our office in NY to watch a rough cut. I had previously met with them about the possibility of some production work and when the topic of films came up, I told them all about the short after learning they were very involved in film development through Queen Latifah’s Flavor Unit Entertainment. They loved the concept and actually offered to help get the film financed, and while we weren’t able to collaborate on it, they were really excited to hear we had gotten the film made and eager to see how it turned out. After watching it they urged me to send it to their manager, (and Queen Latifah’s business partner) Shakim Compere. So, I did, and just a few days later I got a phone call from Mandeville Films (at Disney Studios) asking me if I would come in to meet with Oscar nominated producers Todd Lieberman and David Hoberman (Beauty and the Beast, The Fighter). It turns out Shakim had been in LA meeting with Todd and David around the time that I sent him the short and he ended up screening it for them.

Shakim Compere and Queen Latifah would become very big supporters of mine and good friends. We began developing a number of projects together and after I finished production on the feature version of Across the Hall, they invited me out to Miami to make the first two features at the film studio they had just completed building there. During that time, I had the amazing opportunity to work with incredible talents such as Peter Fonda, Terrence Howard, Ving Rhames, Macy Gray and Queen Latifah among many others.

I’ve since had the great fortune of directing nine feature films, over 40 TV episodes and a number of short films, music videos and commercials. It’s been an incredible journey so far and I consider myself extremely lucky.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
Definitely not. There have been very few smooth roads on this journey. Filmmaking under the best of circumstances is almost never smooth sailing, but I can honestly say that none of my feature films have had budgets or schedules that were capable of meeting the ambitions of the project. And when that’s the case, pretty much everything that goes into finishing the film is a struggle on some level.

My first feature film was shot in just 17 days. If getting to that point felt like a dream come true, actually going into production on it was a pretty rude awakening. It would be hard to outline all the challenges during production without turning this article into a lengthy essay, but it pretty much ran the gamut of film production nightmares. And then, after just barely crawling across the finish line with it, and securing a theatrical release which felt like such a huge victory after everything we’d been through, we were all completely stunned when one of the stars of the film tragically passed away just 2 weeks after our premiere. So that was obviously an extremely devastating and emotional way to begin in this industry but it certainly put a lot of things into perspective about the time you have with people and the things that are important to worry about when it feels like nothing is going right.

Shooting a feature film in less than 20+ days is always going to be an enormous challenge and of the 9 feature films I’ve made, none of them have been scheduled for more than 18 days of principal photography, one of them was shot in as few as 12 days and the majority of them have been scheduled and filmed in around 15 or 16 days. Taking on overly ambitious projects that are underfunded begins to feel a lot like having far more fires to put out than extinguishers, and not nearly enough people to operate those extinguishers even if you could afford to get more. The hardest thing about shooting under circumstances like this, especially for filmmakers like myself is learning to live with and adapt to the things you truly cannot control, especially when you know all too well what isn’t working in that moment and for one reason or another you don’t have the time or the resources or the support to fully execute your vision. It can be heartbreaking and demoralizing, but you have to stay strong and do everything in your power to adapt to the difficult circumstances, keep spirits on set high and come out on the other side with the best possible version of the project. At the end of the day, if you’re making a movie – regardless of whether or not it’s your dream project or under ideal circumstances – then you’re pretty fortunate to be where you are and have the opportunity to do what you’re doing.

And then there are the egos. There are lots and lots of egos in this industry and they can be some of the hardest problems to navigate. I’ve been fortunate to work with some of the kindest most amazing people on this planet, but I’ve definitely had my fair share of highly destructive, obstacle-creating egos. Film sets are fragile ecosystems that definitely do not need any additional or unnecessary problems to overcome. I’ve done my best to avoid working with people who can be a cancer to any production, and I’ve gotten pretty good at detecting the potential problem causers as I’ve advanced in my career. But no matter how good you are at spotting them, and no matter how hard you try to avoid them, they can always make their way into the orbit of your productions. I very recently worked with someone who seemed incredible in our meetings and through most of production but then turned out to be one of the most toxic and corruptive individuals I’ve ever crossed paths with. So much so that I’m still reeling from the trauma of the damage this individual caused. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to any filmmaker is to always speak with the last few people that have worked with any actors or crew you have questions about. Even if you’ve had an incredible meeting or it seems like an incredible opportunity for your project, it’s important to do your due diligence. If someone has had a hard time on multiple productions or seems like they should probably be further along in their careers based on the opportunities they’ve previously had, there just might be a reason for that.

Please tell us about your work.
I’m a director. I also write and edit, but I’m a director first and foremost. If there’s one aspect of my directing that sets me apart, I guess I’d say it’s the way I connect with and work with my actors. Or at least that’s what I’ve been most consistently told by the people I work with. I do my best to create the safest and most comfortable environments for the actors I’m working with to be creative and take risks and I think it’s an incredibly rewarding process when everything comes together.

I’ve recently begun to work with Pretty Penny Films, a female led film and tv production company whose mission I absolutely love and whole heartedly support – to create innovative and relevant content while providing opportunities for more diverse voices and talent. They’re an amazing group of brilliant and fearless women poised to wreak some havoc on an industry that’s long overdue for some major shaking up.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
Absolutely. Well to start, I’ll never forget my first film teacher, Jim Zulakis who was so supportive of me when I was just finding my passion for cinema that he would leave his keys for me in his teacher’s mailbox so that I could sneak into my high school on the weekends and continue to work on my films in the editing room there. I learned so much about cinema and got to explore so much of my own voice because of him. And then, as mentioned, I owe so much to Shakim Compere and Queen Latifah for the support and love they showed me early in my film career. Not to mention Kay Gee who pushed for them to look at my work.

Most recently I’ve had the amazing opportunity to work with one of the best producer/executives I could ever hope to work with – Neil Elman. We’ve done four films together and there are few people in this industry who I trust more to help guide me through the most difficult and trying times…and we’ve definitely faced more than a few. There are few executives or producers I’ve met who understand and care for the balance between the creative needs, budgetary constraints and business requirements of a film like Neil does. I’m fortunate to know him. He’s been an incredible supporter and advocate for me who I continue to learn from all the time.

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Image Credit:
Tyler Rousseau, Arlyn Stotts, Kristian Dane Lawing, Jon Russell Cring

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