Ron Merk directs a party scene for 'Cocktails,' with Jason Wolos on camera.

Merk Mixes ‘Cocktails’ for Television

Michael Fox March 23, 2011

Believe it or not, it’s been a decade since Nash Bridges went off the air, dealing a blow to a cadre of San Francisco actors and crew and a bruise to the city’s ego. In the intervening years, plenty of TV pilots have been set and shot here and the occasional show even made it briefly onto a network schedule. But none of them hit, and San Francisco has been deprived of an ongoing high-profile series that would provide steady work for film professionals and alluring eye candy for prospective tourists. Our little losing streak will end if Ron Merk has his way, and can navigate his nightlife ensemble Cocktails through the LA labyrinth.

Merk, a longtime production and distribution executive who moved here from Southern California in the early 2000s, just returned from nine days of meetings with major Hollywood agencies and name actors. It’s part of the attenuated dance of getting a slick, high-concept TV series greenlit.

“The next mountain I have to climb is to package the show,” he explained over the phone. “Show business is a business of gatekeepers. It’s always been a business of gatekeepers. As I understand it, there are very few people actually talking to teach other at this level. You have to be working with one of those people to get through the gate.”

To that end, Merk is trying to attach a veteran executive producer of several HBO series to Cocktails. At the same time, he’s fundraising to shoot a new trailer. That’s all well and good, you’re thinking, but what’s the show’s premise?

The weekly one-hour drama spins among seven San Francisco bartenders spanning the sexual spectrum (gay, straight, even a woman who disguises herself as a man). Each has a colorful backstory that would make Tennessee Williams blush (or cheer), and their paths converge most nights at an after-hours club presided over by a plus-size transwoman. Merk says to expect plenty of sex, albeit off-screen, and (we’re guessing now) more poignancy than pathos.

“San Francisco is a city that welcomes outsiders of every kind, and I think great drama is often about the outsider,” Merk said. “We have a collection of outsiders as the characters of the show. And ultimately they make a family, in place of or as an adjunct to the family they were born into.”

The bartenders of ‘Cocktails’ strike a pose

Let’s forget for a second the show’s potential impact on jobs and tourists, the series’ greatest contribution might be its unfettered depiction of San Francisco as America’s last bastion of freedom and self-actualization. That’s what I’d like to see, anyway, although it may be too radical even for the crème de la crème of premium cable networks.

“It’s about how if we get to know someone who may appear really different and weird to us, we find they are more like us than unlike us,” Merk explains. “It’s about breaking down stereotypes, it’s about reframing the discussion in our society of prejudice, race, gender—all the things that separate us.”

Merk’s credits include co-writer and director of the 2001 animated feature Marco Polo: Return to Xanadu; his first appearance in this publication was in connection with the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Hercules in New York. Neither project would lead us to expect Merk to create something like Cocktails, which got him so stoked he sketched a storyline stretching out 120 episodes (the equivalent of five television seasons).

“Ninety-five percent of the show takes place at night and indoors,” Merk says. “It’s our presumption that all the bars and all the main sets will be built on a soundstage. It gives you control and allows you to design the space in which the characters move.”

To an L.A. programming exec, that sounds like an ideal scenario for shooting only the exteriors in San Francisco. “It’s my intention is to shoot the show here,” Merk responds. “If that becomes impossible because of economics or logistics—that’s something I won’t have control over—it’s still about San Francisco. San Francisco is a character in a show.”

That will presumably be reflected in the new Cocktails trailer he’s gearing up to shoot. (“Everything is a dog and pony show,” Merk says. “Ultimately you have to give people a taste of what the show is going to look like.”) The impetus is a revamp and upgrade to what Merk calls “Technicolor noir.” When Merk shot the original demo on Castro Street during Pink Saturday, he used a portable unit to light his actor from the front. The effect was to set the actor off from everything in the background that was lit by ambient neon and vapor streetlights. A “happy accident,” Merk calls it, and one he’s going to establish as a photographic style in the new trailer.

Merk and his partner, Ozgur Pamukcu, are embarking this week on a crowd-funding campaign to raise $20,000 to shoot, post and mix the trailer by the end of May. For more information, visit the Cocktails pages at Kickstarter and Indiegogo.

If everything clicks into place, and that’s admittedly a big if, Cocktails would likely debut in the fall of 2012.

Notes from the Underground
Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith received the 2011 Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians for The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. The annual honor is given for outstanding reporting or programming (on television or in documentary film) concerned with American history, the study of American history, and/or the promotion of history. … Seth Thomas, the Jehovah’s Witness who received a liver transplant without a transfusion in Joel Engardio and Tom Shepard’s 2007 documentary, Knocking, died February 14 at the age of 30. … The Art Institute of California-San Francisco hosts a free screening of the films of its Winter 2011 graduating class Friday, March 25 at 7 p.m. at the Viz Cinema. … The next day, the Viz screens the 2007 fact-based, Fukushima-set drama Hula Girls three times, with all proceeds going to the Northern Japan Earthquake Relief Fund.

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