The writer, director and actor behind Catastrophe and Divorce on creating comedy and pushing into the world of commercials and branded entertainment with her company Merman
The most exciting creative talents are never those who are selfish or jealous. They’re generous. And that’s Sharon Horgan to a T. She might be best known as the driven, multifaceted writer, actor, director and business owner behind projects like Pulling, Catastrophe, Divorce and Motherland – but she gets just as excited helping other people bring their creative ideas to life. That’s why she founded the production company Merman, a platform for TV and film projects and a real talent magnet. This year, Merman opened its commercial and branded entertainment unit, creating even more spaces for Sharon and her creative collaborators to play.
And as the worlds of TV and branded work continue to bleed into one another, it’s been a smart move. But, better yet, it’s provided more opportunity to build up talent and create great work. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Sharon to delve into the vision for Merman, talk about talent – and female talent in particular – and to pick her brains about the nuts and bolts of comedy writing.
LBB> When you founded Merman in 2014, how much of that was motivated by having more control over your projects and being able to initiate more stuff for yourself?
SH> I think it was. I had gotten to the point where I had created a few shows and I felt like I knew what I was doing. I also had a pretty broad range of collaborators and people I knew I wanted to work with. Even at an early stage I loved doing my own stuff but also had a mad need to get involved in other people’s projects as well. I think before I set Merman up, I was helping people out here and there. I found myself doing that and feeling kind of sad when I lost sight of something.
So, it was partly to have control over my projects and thinking, well, why can’t I sell it myself? But it was to have the ability to work with other people and develop other people’s ideas, and see them through to the end.
LBB> And now, with Merman, you’re in a position where people are coming up and pitching to you! What’s that like?
SH> It’s the best! There are writers I’ve worked with as an actor who I’ve fallen in love with and, because of Merman, I’ve been able to approach them and say, ‘I love that thing we did, what about this script I’m doing – or bring what you’re working on to me’.
It works with the branded TV stuff as well – maybe you read someone’s script and you realise that there’s something about their dialogue that would really suit a TV project that you’re trying to get going. Or there could be a director whose commercial work you’ve seen and who has the scope and ability to do more long form stuff. They all sort of feed into each other, which is great and why we set branded up, to allow for that cross-pollination. Creative people just want to create and finding as many platforms for that as possible is what we want.
LBB> So with the branded and commercial wing, which launched this year, does that allow you to mix things up when it comes to projects that are a bit quicker than the norm for TV and film?
SH> Yeah but also there are a lot of TV directors who are moving into feature, and when you move into feature you need to have the patience to wait for everything to happen, so they are available. Which is great. They might not be able to commit to a TV series while they’re waiting for the feature to go, but they might be able to come in and do a neat piece of branded work or commercial work.
LBB> In terms of the people you’ve brought in to run the commercial area, you’ve got some really great people. Siobhan Murphy, Dan Dickenson, Kira Carstensen…
SH> We’ve done really well, which is why we’ve got off to such a great start. I’ve known Siobhan for years because she worked with my husband at Addiction [Jeremy Rainbird, who is also Global Managing Partner at Merman]. And Dan was someone that I knew a little but was someone who my husband had admired along the way. I kind of had to take a steer from Jeremy on that because it wasn’t my area. Kira Carstensen was someone I had known in a friendly capacity but who has been a mover and shaker in that world for years and has an interesting background. It’s a nice, eclectic group of people who are ambitious in what they do. They really care.
LBB> When branded opened up, I know there was a lot of excitement in the London commercial production scene. What was your experience of getting to know the advertising community? I’m always curious to know how different the advertising world really is from the film and TV world?
SH> It’s dramatically different in terms of how quickly things move and go into production. It’s over in a flash. In TV, it’s a super long slog; in film it’s an even longer waiting game. It’s been really exciting to have an office that is constantly in various stages of production. It’s one of the things I love most about it.
A lot of your time in TV is spent developing, and that’s an important part of it, but it involves a lot of sitting around and meetings. But having met a lot of the directors on the branded side, the whole point is that we want to attract commercials directors who have got an interest in the more narrative side of things. It’s the same kind of people and same kind of personalities you’re dealing with. So, there’s huge crossover in terms of the people who are attracted to branded.
In branded and commercial you have to work so hard to win the pitch and deliver a vision. We’re talking to a lot of directors who are already developing their own features and working with writers. It’s a very proactive person that the branded and commercials side of Merman seems to attract.
LBB> Jumping onto that, from what I’ve seen you’ve been very proactive in your own career too, writing projects for yourself, knocking down doors, creating your own platform in the shape of Merman. Have you always been quite self-driven?
SH> I guess there was a short period of time, when I was an actor, where I was hoping that someone would notice me or give me a call. When I realised that wasn’t happening, I started putting on plays – not that I’d written – to help get myself out there that way. And when that wasn’t progressing at the rate I hoped it would, I started going out and filming stuff, writing sketches, collaborating with other people in the comedy world. I’ve always been a hustler.
It wasn’t until I got my first chance to write TV myself that I realised, ‘now I’ve got an opportunity, I better not let this go’. From that point on I hustled.
In a way, you have to have control of what you put out – you’re not just jumping into something and hoping that it will turn out ok. You’ve got to keep an eye on quality and make sure that what you’re doing is what you’d like to watch on television yourself.
And then from that point on, when people know that’s what you do – that you create your own stuff – it starts to move at a quicker pace. People suddenly come along and give you opportunities, opportunities that are too good to pass up. Sometimes it feels like a runaway train, but a runaway train that you’re happy to be a part of.
It’s TV isn’t it? So it’s always competitive and it’s always crowded. The appetite and taste for certain comedy and narrative always changes, so if you come along at a time when what you do isn’t what they’re looking for, it can be a bit of a waiting game.
When I left my job to do this full time in 2001, there were unfortunately fewer women creating comedy, that’s for sure. In a way, although that’s an unfortunate situation, it was a less crowded field in terms of female voices. I’m sure I got opportunities because I stood out a bit more. But thank God all that’s changing.
LBB> It looks like now, in the UK certainly, that in comedy there’s this fantastic, growing gang of ace women out there doing stuff.
SH> There’s a lot of ace women! It’s so true! In the US and the UK. US in terms of huge successful showrunners and show creators, here in terms of female writer-performers. It’s a very exciting time for female creators of shows. I mean, still, the balance is fucked and I’m sure it will be for some time, but you just can’t ignore the quantity and quality of what female creators are putting out on TV.
LBB> And when it comes to directors, that’s still really skewed, although there are movements like ‘Free the Bid’, which are slowly trying to change things.
SH> There’s a big push to bringing in more female directors here at Merman on the TV side and the branded side too.
I think it’s another reason where the crossover between branded and TV works, hopefully. We can champion some lesser-known women directors. You can only make that change if you really go out and push to make it happen.
We just shot Motherland with a female director, Juliet May. We just shot a short for Sky with MJ Delaney, who came from branded but maybe isn’t known in the TV world. She’s someone who already has a great career in commercials. There’s Lucy Walker on the US side of things. We’re about to do a series of shorts for Sky that are all going to be directed by women, so it’s a great opportunity to have less well known directors shooting shorter format things, so they get that under their belt and are considered for the next rung. But you have to be active.
LBB> I guess, you’re best known for your writing and performing, but you’ve done directing too. Do these roles just all bleed into each other, or do you see them as quite separate things?
SH> I think they all bleed into each other… I’d like to do more of it. It depends on the project. Sometimes you get drawn into the writing and producing side of things and sometimes there’s an element of not wanting to stretch yourself too thin. I think, in a way, when you write and you’re creating shows, you’re seeing the whole thing. You have an idea of how it should be and what it should look like – so in a way, directing is just one step to the side. But then for some projects there are other people who will be better at it and it frees you up to keep your eye on other things as well. It all feels like one and the same thing, to an extent; it’s all creating and bringing things to life.
LBB> When you get to the post production phase, is that an enjoyable part of the process for you?
SH> In truth, the shoot is the bit that you just want to get through. The shoot, as wonderful as it is and exciting as it is, really is a slog because you want to get everything on the page onto the screen. But the edit is the bit that’s most enjoyable. It’s all about making it better and tighter. Finding ways to bring that show to life. You’ve got all our raw material, it’s about polishing it and making it into something you’re proud of. I love that bit – not just because I like sitting on the sofa! It’s a bunch of people working together to make something better.
LBB> In terms of other creative projects you’ve been involved in, I know you sang on a Charlatans track on the recent album, Different Days! Is music something else that’s a big creative outlet for you?
SH> No, not really! I love music. It’s really important to me in my free time and when I’m working. It feels like music is always a big part of the shows I do. I’m a huge fan of the Charlatans and somehow managed to collaborate with Tim on a few things. It was either them providing tracks for Catastrophe through their label or me providing a piece of writing for Tim’s book. We became friendly and he’s one of those people who likes working with friends. He rang and asked me to do the track and I just couldn’t say no because it’s too much of a brilliant, bizarre thing. It was a pleasure to go to the studio… but it’s not like my secret career that I’m planning to launch!
LBB> Throughout your career you’ve collaborated with some amazing people. Rob Delaney, Sarah Jessica Parker… how do these partnerships tend to come about?
SH> In terms of what’s happened so far… it’s just kind of happened. With Rob, he’d seen a show that I’d done and got in touch. With Sarah Jessica, HBO showed her some scripts that I’d written. With Holly Walsh, we’d just done a radio show together and she was an intern at the radio show and she was also the funniest person in the room.
You never know where these things are going to go… I think I’m just greedy. With some of the writers on Divorce I’d thought, ‘I just have to do something with you’. I think it’s a kid in a sweet shop thing – you look around and there’s all these great people!
LBB> And people so often say that writing is a lonely thing to do!
SH> It can be, but generally I would say, if you can avoid that, do. You can go mad. Most of my experiences are great fun. I mean, it’s hard work, don’t get me wrong, you’re wracked with doubt about the project until you get it done, but that’s not to say you don’t spend four hours a day laughing your head off about the project with someone you really like. That’s the best bit of it.
LBB> Does the comedy or comedy drama lend itself to that kind of writing partnership?
SH> Certainly more comedy writers work together than drama writers. When you’re working with someone, you immediately know if something’s funny or not. With drama it has to be real and exciting and thrilling… but it doesn’t need to make another person cackle. A lot of comedy writers realise the benefit of having another person there to ensure you’re doing it right. Not to say there aren’t great comedy writers who write on their own – there are. But it’s not easy. I’ve written on my own and I think even then I need a producer or someone who can feed back to me super quickly.
LBB> What’s that dynamic like? Do you find different people bring different strengths or take on different roles within the partnership?
SH> Yes. Usually always. But it depends because some writing partnerships split the work, episode-by-episode, for example. Some sit side-by-side and do it. I think if you sit side-by-side, you’re probably bringing different skills to the table. If you separate stuff post-outlining, you probably have similar skills or are the whole package. I’m not sure I am the whole package, which is why I enjoy and need people around me.
LBB> And what do your writing sessions look like?
SH> Most people I work with will do a similar day’s work to me – 10am until 4pm. It sounds like lazy media hours but in terms of sitting down and writing there’s only so much you can do before you run out of steam. It’s still a very concentrated working day.
Holly and I worked with Graham Linehan [the writer behind the I.T. Crowd] recently on Motherland and he just walks about the place – he’s like a caged tiger. He needs to spring around the room to get his ideas up and out. But generally it’s quite a sedentary pursuit. Sitting down. Lots of coffee. Thinking about lunch.
LBB> In terms of characters that you come up with for your projects, are they projections of yourself or bits and pieces you’ve gathered from people? Where do they germinate?
SH> It’s kind of a bit of everything. Some of it comes from me and some of it is from stories that you hear. You know it when you hear it.
Characters become characters over time, I tend to find. You’ve got to work hard at them. Often the idea comes first and then you’ve got to add people to that world. Sometimes the character is the world – the idea revolves around one particular character and how they think – but often it’s an idea that you’ve got to pop your characters into.
You’ve got to spend time finding out who they are. They can be completely written from scratch or based on someone you know very well. In Motherland, one of the main characters is… well… my friend. Not necessarily everything about her, but there’s a big chunk of her DNA in there, whereas there are other characters that are completely dreamed up.
LBB> You’ve been working with Divorce in the States, with Sarah Jessica Parker. I guess that the budgets are huge in comparison to the UK, but aside from that did it feel like a particularly different process?
SH> Oh yes, a huge learning curve and very different – but at the same time it was exactly the same. Very different in that it’s a new working practice, particularly with the writers room and having that many people involved in the building of the show. We’re much more of a cottage industry here.
And it was a learning curve because I had to learn how to relax control because there was so much more personnel. But, you know, you’re still doing the same shit every day. You’re still shooting in the same way. You’re still doing the same number of scenes. It’s still a kick-bollocks-scramble to get it made in time.
LBB> With that crossover between branded content and entertainment, what advice would you give to brands or agencies who want to make comedy content and get right? What do they need to allow for to get it really funny?
SH> I feel like I don’t want to seem like I know it all, because I really don’t! Content of whatever kind has to be entertaining; it has to be as funny as it can be or as informative as it can be. It is about surrounding yourself with the right people. We’re lucky enough to have creatives and directors here who we know can come up with the goods.
For us it’s about approaching things as we approach TV – it’s not a ‘that’ll do’ attitude, it’s about who are the best people? Who are the best casting directors? Who are the best actors we can get for this? Who are the best people for the job?
Beyond that, it’s never easy otherwise everyone would be doing it. It’s hard to make people connect with short form things. But it’s about always putting your best foot forward. That’s what we’re trying to do. Approaching everything as we would do if we were creating a TV show from scratch.