Screenwriter, producer, and director Frank Merle has worked in both Movies and the theater. Merle graduated summa cum laude from The Theatre School and went on to co-found the Keyhole Theatre Company in Chicago where he served as the Artistic Director.

Having always been interested in movies, Frank created a short film titled “What Joan Knows” for which he won an “Award for Excellence” at the Geneva Film Festival. His second movie project called “Morgan's Last Call” was awarded the title of “Best Short Film” at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival.

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His success with these films prompted him to create a trilogy of short horror films titled “Gnaw,” Art Room, and “Carnage of Graves Farm” which also went on to win several awards.

In 2013, Frank created his debut feature-film titled “The Employer,” a psychological thriller that won nearly a dozen awards on the festival circuit. Now, Frank is preparing to release the third installment of his “#FromJennifer” found-footage-styled series that has amassed quite a fan following on the internet. In this edition of the series, the main character Jennifer Paterson is having a bad week--having lost her job, been dumped by her boyfriend, and finding out that a sex tape of her is being shared online. When she decides to create her own sexy revenge video, things take an even worse turn.

Recently, Frank Merle granted an exclusive interview where he discussed his experiences in entertainment and his hopes for the future.

Making films and writing scripts

Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to pursue a career as a filmmaker?

Frank Merle (FM): I always really loved films, but it’s not something I ever thought I could do until I started making amateur videos and putting them on YouTube.

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Being a bit of a perfectionist, I tried to learn as much as I could about the craft, and pretty soon, I discovered that I’d learned enough to try to go professional. My big break was when one of my heroes, the legendary actor Malcolm McDowell, agreed to take the title role in my first feature called “The Employer.” That was huge for me because it meant a bigger budget for the film, and it meant that more people would see the film. It also meant that the rest of the cast and crew brought their “A” game to the project.

MM: How did you hatch the script for “#FromJennifer”?

FM: It started as a conversation I had with a friend of my who is an actress. She was bemoaning the fact that she often finds herself passed over for roles in favor of others who have a bigger social media presence. I shared with her that I’ve had that same experience, from the other side of it, pressured by producers to cast the actors who have the most followers. The absurdity of this leads me to the basic premise of the film, which is an actress who goes over the edge trying to achieve internet stardom.

MM: Can you tell us a bit about the character of Jennifer and how you come up with the situations in which she finds herself?

FM: I wanted Jennifer to start out as a very typical struggling actress, someone relatable. None of the bad stuff that happens to her at the beginning of the film is her fault; it's all just a streak of bad luck. I think we've all been there, near the breaking point, at one time or another. But this time, it's all too much for Jennifer, and she snaps. It happens when she's sitting on the edge of her bed, in misery and contemplation, for such a very long time that we have to fast-forward through it. After that scene, the things that start happening to her become quite bizarre, because she starts putting herself in more and more extreme situations. But that's because her grip on reality has slipped. I don't know whether or not she's responsible for her actions in the second half of the film because we're definitely dealing with a case of mental illness by the end. That's why I think the ending has a mix of tragedy and irony, since she eventually achieves the fame she was looking for, just not in the way she intended.

MM: Why did you start with short films and what was the process--and budget--like for filming them?

FM: I never went to film school, so making shorts was my education. It was an investment in myself. I bought every book I could on the subject of filmmaking, and I bought myself a used semi-pro video camera and just started doing it. While the process of filmmaking is very, very different than putting on a show, I found that certain skill-sets of mine crossed over from stage to film, such as leading a collaborative group of artists to help tell a story through acting, and set design, and lighting.

Horror, theater, and advice

MM: So, are you a really big fan of the horror genre overall?

FM: Oh, yes, and from a very young age! I especially like anything horror-related that came in a series of films: Freddy, Jason, Michael Meyers, they all had several films each, and it was always fun for me to see how the tone of a movie series could change depending on what new writers and directors would bring to it. Wes Craven and John Carpenter are my favorites, and I admire Kevin Williamson’s work on the Scream screenplays, because of the blend horror and comedy so well.

MM: What was it like to interact with the cast on “#FromJennifer”?

FM: Horror fans will recognize two names in the cast. First is Derek Mears, who played Jason Vorhees to rave reviews in the 2009 “Friday the 13th.” He plays Butch Valentine, a misunderstood guy with social anxiety disorder who forms an unhealthy bond with Jennifer. Second is Tony Todd (Candyman, Final Destination) as Jennifer’s manager Chad. He brought a menacing quality to the role that I didn’t originally intend but was the right choice. The two female leads, Danielle Taddei as Jennifer and Meghan Deanna Smith as her frenemy Stephanie, are relative newcomers, but they’re perfect in their roles, and I have a hunch this film will lead to a lot more acting opportunities for them.

MM: Do you still do any work in theater and what are the major differences between working on stage projects versus film ones?

FM: I produced and directed over thirty professional stage productions in my hometown of Chicago, Illinois, before I moved to Los Angeles to pursue film full-time, and I haven't done any theater since. I don't miss it at all because I've discovered that film is the medium for me. The director has a lot more control over the final product in the film than in the theater, and the potential audience after all that hard work is vastly larger for a film than for a stage show since the film is forever while even the most successful stage shows close eventually.

MM: Where do you see yourself in ten years from a career standpoint, and what advice would you give to fledgling filmmakers?

FM: Hopefully in ten years I’ll still talking to the press and promoting my latest movie! As for advice, there’s nothing stopping you these days from becoming a filmmaker. You just have to invest in yourself by taking the time to learn how to do it. Gather some friends, grab a camera and start shooting--now you’re a filmmaker!