Film Unreal: Salisbury native reflects on newly released directorial debut

Published 12:10 am Saturday, February 4, 2023

By Brad Dountz

SALISBURY — Will Merrick is having a moment right now. The co-writer and director of “Missing,” a new mystery thriller film where the story takes place almost entirely on computer or phone screens, is from Salisbury and is still awestruck by how audiences have reacted to his new movie.

“I’ve been sneaking into theaters. I’ve been going into theaters, hiding out in the back and listening to people react,” he said.

Merrick attended the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, where he worked his way to becoming the co-editor of “Searching,” a 2018 film that also takes place all on screens that “Missing” acts as the pseudo-sequel to. Merrick directed this film with his editing partner Nick Johnson, who has been there with Merrick as both navigate their Hollywood careers.

“We just met at a Starbucks halfway between our places for 20 minutes to talk about whether we should edit ‘Searching’ together and have been working together for almost a decade,” Merrick said.

Merrick said they work “seamlessly” with each other and once he got the opportunity to actually direct a film this time around, it seemed like the perfect chance to accomplish something they have both dreamed of.

“The director of ‘Searching’ didn’t want to take on another movie all told on computer screens, but I think he and the producers were looking at each other thinking, ‘You know what? Since this movie was practically an animated movie in some ways, and our editors kind of took the lead on that, maybe we should ask them if they want to direct a sequel.’ So, that’s how it happened,” Merrick said.

“Missing” tells the story of a teenager who searches for her mother after she disappears while on vacation. The influences on this movie, according to Merrick, include “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Gone Girl” and the internet’s reaction to true crime. Having an editing background, the experience directing his first theatrical film was very “humbling” when Merrick dealt with editors who went over and dissected his footage.

“As an editor, I always was very critical of other people’s mistakes. It’s kind of your job as an editor in a way because you’re trying to get those out, but I think when you’re directing you realize how hard it is to not get something wrong,” Merrick said.

Merrick and Johnson are both credited as directors and screenwriters for “Missing,” but the writers from “Searching” are credited with the story itself. The two of them were given an in depth outline, but no character names or dialogue, so it was their job to fill in the missing pieces. “The very first time they sent the outline, I sat down and actually made popcorn and read the outline with popcorn,” Merrick said.

Merrick was originally a self-described skeptic of films that take place on screens, but has definitely come around to the storytelling medium.

“The biggest challenge is definitely keeping it fresh so that every scene is told on screens in a new, and sort of, unexpected way. … My favorite part is just the sheer amount of times you find yourself in a situation where you’re doing something that in a small way has never been done before.”

“Missing” stars veteran actors Nia Long, Joaquim de Almeida, Ken Leung and  “Euphoria” actor Storm Reid. Even though Merrick and Johnson were relatively new to this kind of filmmaking, they still had to be ready to clarify or help the actors with other aspects of the story on the set.

“They had to have a lot of trust in us because we’re first time directors and being able to edit a couple movies that did well in the past doesn’t mean you know how to talk to an actor or work with an actor…Especially since we hadn’t done this before, I think listening to them was a big part of it if they had an instinct,” Merrick said.

“Missing” opened to fourth place at the domestic box office. Merrick says all the success is “a mixture of incredible and impossible to actually believe. I’m in the denial, what’s the opposite of the five stages of grief? I’m in the denial phase of that.”

Merrick plans on continuing to work with Johnson on whatever their next project is. But he knows that it won’t be on screens. He has lofty expectations and goals for himself, but it’s that kind of ambition that got him where he is now.

“I think after doing such a math problem, house of cards mystery movie, we want to do just a high stakes, non-stop, monster chase style thing. That would be really, really fun,” Merrick said.

“Missing” is now in theaters nationwide.

Will Merrick, Megan Suri, Storm Reid, Nia Long and Nick Johnson attend the premiere of “Missing” in Los Angeles.

A behind the scenes look at Will Merrick, Storm Reid, and Nick Johnson.

Storm Reid and Megan Suri in a scene from “Missing.”

The poster for “Missing.”