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Stephen Merchant: 'Outlaws' is 'Magnificent Seven' with English weirdos, Christopher Walken

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Stephen Merchant: 'Outlaws' is 'Magnificent Seven' with English weirdos, Christopher Walken
The new comedy-thriller "The Outlaws" is now streaming. Photo courtesy of Prime Video

NEW YORK, APRIL 1 (UPI) -- Stephen Merchant says he and his fellow writer-producer Elgin James wanted to imbue their new British comedy-thriller, The Outlaws, with a dash of Western film flavor.

The six-episode series, which debuts on Prime Video on Friday, follows seven people from different backgrounds who reluctantly become friends after they are ordered to pay for their various petty crimes by completing community service hours under the supervision of a power-hungry, but clueless, cop wannabe.

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When a bag crammed with cash falls out of the ceiling of the filthy recreation center they are cleaning up, the miscreants end up clashing with drug dealers and gangsters. The witty, fast-paced redemption tale stars Merchant, Gamba Cole, Rhianne Barreto, Christopher Walken, Darren Boyd, Clare Perkins, Eleanor Tomlinson and Jessica Gunning.

"We talked about it being like The Magnificent Seven, but the least glamorous, least cool magnificent seven ever -- like a provincial, regional English ragtag group," Merchant told reporters in a Zoom interview Tuesday. "It's the idea of making something epic out of some very minor people."

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"Adding to the scale is that sort of Sergio Leone music that makes you think of great, open plains and cowboys in a shimmering heat haze, but instead it is seven weirdos from England -- and Christopher Walken -- hoeing."

Merchant and James said they wanted the show, which also touches on themes of poverty, racism, injustice, addiction, social media influence and family tension, to be socially relevant, as well as entertaining.

"We were writing this through very divided times. Trump was on the rise in the U.S. Brexit was [happening] in the U.K. It felt like people were retreating into their bubbles," Merchant recalled.

"We liked the idea of a show that had these groups of people, who on the surface would clash, and ask if they could find common ground. There was something optimistic and hopeful at the core of the show. But, at the same time, we didn't want it to be heavy and worthy and lecturing you."

James, who is American, acknowledged that he and the British Merchant became fast friends and enthusiastic collaborators, even thought they come from dissimilar backgrounds.

"We'd sit around Stephen's house and tell stories, talk about our past, and even the most tragic stuff would be hilarious," James recalled. "You find the moments in it. And the funny stuff would have a hint of sadness to it, a melancholy."

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James said the show came from their stories, partnership and friendship.

"And then I think we were lucky enough to find the right cast and crew and technicians to actually make that energy appear on screen," he added.

The two most politically polarized characters -- conservative businessman John (Boyd) and political activist Myrna (Perkins) -- were the most challenging to write.

"John was really fun. It's something about doing the polar opposite of what you think or where you stand politically becoming a really great exercise because you end up agreeing with a lot of what he says," James said.

He added that he and Merchant tried to do justice in their portrayal of Myrna and the work that she tirelessly did for what she deemed "the greater good."

"But also knowing what that's like when you spend your whole life for the betterment of the world and then you have to go home alone. That became something that was exciting, but also tricky to navigate."

The filmmakers confirmed that a real piece of graffiti art by the elusive painter Banksy was featured -- and intentionally destroyed by Walken -- during the show, which takes place in Bristol, where Banksy has been known to festoon buildings.

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"The idea appealed to him and all we got back [through our liaison with him] was, 'I'm going to come one night, and you won't know when, but when I find the time, I'll do it.' One morning we came in, and there was this Banksy who wasn't there the night before," Merchant said.

The painting on the side of the building was hidden from the cast and crew until the day they were set to shoot the stunning scene.

"The morning of, I went to Christopher Walken and said, 'How do you feel about destroying a Banksy?' And he said, 'Whatever you need,'" Merchant explained. "So we had one shot to get it right, and there it is, and it all worked out perfectly."

Merchant joked that his story might lead people to suspect that he -- another son of Bristol -- actually is the real Banksy, whose work often carries price tags in the tens of millions of dollars.

"Well, I'll leave that with you," he grinned.

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