Award-winning writer and director Stephen Merchant and filmmaker/musician Elgin James know how to bring together different personalities— and their show, ‘The Outlaws’ is a perfect example of that.
Merchant has spent his time in the world of comedy, and just one of his many accolades during his career includes the UK’s version of ‘The Office’—aka the show that started a new wave of “mockumentary” styled comedy around the world. Elgin on the other hand has set his sights on more dramatic feats in the entertainment world, creating ‘Mayans M.C.,’ and his years in the music industry spanned playing with straight edge hardcore bands and solo work dubbed “folk-punk,” before becoming a fellow for the Sundance Screenwriters lab.
On paper, the two don’t seem to go together, but in a creative stance, they have much more in common than you would think.
“As Elgin has said, when you look at us, we don’t seem like an obvious pairing of collaborators,” explains Merchant. “We’re from very different walks of life. And yet, when we first met, we felt a lot of common ground. We liked the same things, we hated the same things…So in that sense, people who appear to have nothing in common on the surface, but actually can find common ground helped us develop that group of people.”
That group of people is officially dubbed ‘The Outlaws’ in the duo’s new series, which premieres on Prime Video this week. The six-episode season comes from a collaboration with the BBC, and Merchant stars in the show opposite Academy Award-winning actor Christopher Walken, Rhianne Barreto, Gamba Cole, Eleanor Tomlinson, Darren Boyd, Clare Perkins and Jessica Gunning.
In the show, seven strangers are brought together for community service, and each character has a vastly different story. There’s a young girl with strict parents who have her on a one-way track to Oxford University, and a series of shoplifting joy rides puts her life on halt; there’s an outspoken and brazen businessman who has a company and a family relying on his work; a young man who is trying to provide for his sister despite a street gang’s nefarious efforts; a socialite with a million Instagram followers and a bit of a drug problem—and the list goes on and on.
“When I was growing up, my parents were involved with community service and they supervised criminals,” Merchant continues. “They used to tell me about the different kinds of people that would come through the doors, and it was really an unlikely mix. That always seemed like an interesting combination of characters that you could put together, and it was a way into a drama or a comedy or a thriller that was perhaps a little bit more unusual. I went to Elgin with that idea and we built it up from there really. [We] thought about the different kind of characters we could introduce into that world who would be interesting to push up against each other. And here we are.”
The collaboration doesn’t begin and end with the characters either. As James notes, the mixing of the comedic and thriller genres also helps the story have more resonance.
“I think in a lot of ways it was the truth—that’s what life feels like,” James explains. “Even in your most tragic moments, there’s still humor. Even if you can’t see it then, you’ll see it later when you tell the anecdote. [The show] became the things that we love. We talked about the movies, the books, the bands that we love—and it was all over the board, it was all over the place…And we got to do something that I think encapsulated all of that.”
The first episode thrusts the characters into refurbishing an old building into a community center in Bristol. There are laughs (Walken’s charming yet lawbreaking grandfather portrayal and Gunning’s annoyingly enthusiastic guard character certainly make sure of that), but by the end of episode one, the story takes a turn. Cue the thriller aspect.
“[We wanted] to have a show that would be something that we’d like to watch. It’s the only kind of principle that you can work on really,” says Merchant. “I’m a sitcom guy and Elgin is doing his more intense dramas, but that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have this great sense of humor and he doesn’t enjoy comedy and all of these different kinds of things, and I think I’m the same. I don’t tend to watch comedy for instance, I tend to watch drama or thrillers. So I like that idea that in the first episode it starts as one thing and then perhaps by the end, you haven’t quite realized, but you’ve ended up somewhere else and it is more intense.”
“Which is ironically what we’ve done with the characters hopefully,” James adds. “The characters seem like one thing and then it turns into something much deeper.”
The unlikely group don’t exactly click right away. There’s some of back and forth between characters, a fight in the first episode and even a bit of betrayal. But, early on, relationships become key, and the end of the show sees ‘The Outlaws’ as a team.
“I like to think of them a bit like the magnificent 7 or the dirty dozen, right? An unlikely group of people who on the surface don’t appear to have anything in common, but are forced to work together and find common ground, and empathy, and mutual respect, and sort of unite to protect one of their own. I think that’s a pleasing and hopefully optimistic story,” finishes Merchant. “When we were first developing it, it felt like Trump was kind of on the rise, and in my country, Brexit was a thing. It felt like culturally and socially politically, both our countries were very divided and everyone sort of retreated into their bubbles. There was a lot of resentment and a lot of hatred, but we were quite hopeful in a sense that the only thing that could break down these barriers is conversation— dialogue and understanding that people are people, and whatever has led them to that moment in their life, everyone has a story. Everyone is unique in that sense.”
All six episodes of the first season of ‘The Outlaws‘ will drop on Prime Video April 1.