The Motion/Captured Interview: Ricky Gervais, one on one

09.06.09 8 years ago

Giles Keyte/Warner Bros

That picture is appropriate.

I saw Ricky Gervais for the first time as I walked into the living room of the house where they were shooting “The Invention Of Lying,” just outside Boston in a fairly upscale neighborhood near a university.

I mean, I’d seen Ricky Gervais before, obviously, in a whole lot of things.  I didn’t see “The Office” until it hit American DVD, and then as soon as I saw it and devoured it, I was a fan.  I have seen some backlash set in, particularly among some of the UK film nerds, but I don’t buy it.  Ricky Gervais is a funny man.  That’s a simple truth.  Consistently, fiendishly funny.

If they were casting Mr. Mxyzptlk, I’d nominate him.  He strikes me as a guy who takes great joy out of the comic torment of others and, without hesitation, himself.  He’s precise in the comic persona he’s created and how he plays it, and watching him work for a day, in take after take, I have a fair idea of why he has succeeded the way he has so far.  He’s got a clear vision of what “Ricky Gervais” is, no doubt from all the years when he was not doing what he wanted to do.  And he’s been canny about building “Ricky Gervais,” piece by piece.  The live shows while he’s doing movies, the successive tours, the way he’s managed the “Office” brand with Merchant, their upcoming reuinion project, “Cemetary Junction,” which marks their feature film debut together.

And there in the midst of it, “The Invention Of Lying.”

[more after the jump]

Anyone who is underestimating this movie right now, or who thinks the marketing materials are the whole film… I’m just saying you may want to adjust your expectations.  You may want to consider the movie as a whole, because this is one of those films that you can’t fully explain in thirty seconds.  Or sixty seconds.  Or even two minutes.  It’s a film with a whole lot of ideas at play.  It’s a comic premise, and from that simple basic “No one in this world lies in any way.  Ever.  Never happened.  Until our main character does and it changes everything.”  It’s a “Twilight Zone” premise, ripe with room to comment on the way we all relate, the way we edit ourselves for the world at large, the way language is a ritual meant to obfuscate… heady stuff.  And it really is all there in the script they set out to shoot.

So after watching him work all day, after watching the way he adjust his performance in take after take, playing off quirks he noticed in the other actors, always using the written word as the anchor but playful, I finally got a chance to sit down with him in the car from base camp to the location.  Just caught him coming from one place, going to another, no one else in the car but the driver.

Ricky:  How’s it going, man?

Drew:  Great. Very good day so far. So, I have to ask… your reputation precedes you in terms of creating your own material. You’re a guy who very much wants to do “your thing.”

Ricky:  Yeah.

Drew:  What got you to even pick the script up?

Ricky:  Well, I like the idea. I just read the idea and then I got involved after I read like the first ten pages.  But I said, “I want to co-write it.”  That was it, and he went, “Of course”. That’s the answer.

Drew:  But you immediately sparked to the idea?

Ricky:  Yeah, I thought… I think it was, it looked very me. I think that he said that he had me in mind.

Drew:  That’s almost always a bad idea because when you’re writing to someone, they have an idea of themselves that probably won’t mesh with your idea of them.

Ricky:  Well, the thing is that he’s a fan of “The Office.” He had a similar… he said that his writing style was… you’d have to speak to him about this. I don’t want to put words in his mouth but it’s one of these things that I thought, “Ahh, that seems like an idea that should have been done but it hasn’t.” And I thought we could do really great things with it. And then I got excited about trying to make it more dramatic, and one of the first things I did was take out some of the… just some of the spikier things that were probably a bit too “this year.”

Drew:  Right.

Ricky:  And then we worked on it. We worked on it all year, and it’s drastically different, but the premise is still the same. In a world without lying, what would a loser do? So I wanted to be that loser, and then he said he wanted me to direct it, and I said, “Well, we’ve co-written it, so let’s co-direct it.” I said that before I even knew if he could direct or not. So I just thought it was a fun idea. I was thinking I should take the odd chance because I’d been so careful. I resisted every film for like five years. I was nervous about it, and I thought if I don’t do this, maybe I never will. It’s like that feeling you don’t want to retire, to ever not put your batting average down. You’ve got to do something eventually, like we got back straight to work after “The Office” and did “Extras.” And we could have just avoided a bad follow-up. I even sent out a thing on “Extras” on the press release, calling it “the disappointing follow-up to ‘The Office’,” because I knew that’s what the British press would say. So I just got in there first.

Drew:  Well, it seems like you… it’s so easy when somebody breaks as a comedian or when he breaks as comic performer, it’s so easy to get overexposed, and all of a sudden you’ve been in seventy-five things in two years and people are tired of you.

Ricky:  Absolutely. I think you get given a good pile of goodwill, and it’s whether you use it up in the first six months or spread it out over a career.

Drew:  Well you’ve been very careful so far, and I think it makes… I’ve been a fan of the work since my first exposure to “The Office”.

Ricky:  Oh, great.

Drew:  So it makes you really hungry for the next thing. It’s not like it’s overkill… you’re really looking forward to what’s coming next.

Ricky:  Yeah, and I’ve probably done the odd thing. I’ve probably done more than I would have done and some things you don’t say no to. You don’t say no to working with “The Simpsons”… the greatest comedy show on television. You mustn’t. Even though going to my bad judgment, I remember saying that all I can do is make this show slightly worse. You know? That’s the problem. But Christopher Guest, the biggest single influence on my comedy, I’d say, and a complete hero…

Drew:  It’s great that he’s in this.

Ricky:  Oh great, great. And we’re going to…. we talk to each other like every couple of days and we’re going to do some things together. It’s just funny. It’s a nice presence just to… it’s just great. Really great. What else? I did “Stardust,” which certainly wouldn’t be a film I’d ever think of looking down on, and it’s a scene in a film with Robert De Niro, and the first thing I said was, “I’m going to get him in ‘Extras’.” And I asked him right there.  And…. “Night at the Museum”… again, certainly not a thing that I think would be me at all… but Ben Stiller sent me an e-mail saying, “So, are you going to return the favor? No pressure.”

Drew:  [laughs] Yeah, no pressure.

Ricky:  Yeah, but, you know, I think that these are the things that I want to put forward on my CV, and that is “The Office,” “Extras,” and this is the next thing. I think that this will be… all those little things don’t matter at all. No one is going to judge me on five minutes in the film or popping up on “Saturday Night Live” or….

Drew:  Right. It’s fun to see as a fan. It’s like, “Oh, great, he’s in ‘Alias,’ and that’s fun.”

Ricky:  I haven’t even watched that. I can’t watch myself trying to be cool. I’ve heard it’s alright.

Drew:  Jen loved it.

Ricky:  It was J.J. who was a big fan of “The Office” and said, “Come on in.” And it’s funny because I was there anyway. I was there for the Golden Globes and they said, “Right, you’re here for the Globes. We can film Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday.” I went, “Alright.” And honestly, I thought, “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Drew:  Now when you talk about how you’ve pushed this more toward the dramatic, one of the things I really like about the work you’ve done has been that it’s not comic premise first, it’s reality first and then some of it is very funny and some is very painful.

Ricky:  That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. I think comedy and drama are different sides of the same coin. And I think the thing about comedy and drama is about likability. It’s about character first. It’s about story. And for me, it’s about empathy, and I think the realer someone is, the further you can go either way with them. You can take them on a journey that’s really harrowing and dramatic if you believe them, and you can, I think, make the comedy work if you can put yourself in that situation. And I think that’s why I’ve been labeled, and it’s a nice label, with this “comedy of embarrassment” or “the excruciating social faux pas.” And that’s because, you know, it was about the realism first. We were trying to do a fake documentary, and we didn’t want to announce it. We didn’t want convoluted plot lines. We didn’t want huge facile characters wandering in and doing a sketch, because that would be funny but it wouldn’t resonate. You wouldn’t think of it the next day. It wouldn’t feel like it was your favorite program. And at the end of the day, I wanted “The Office”… and of course I could never dream that it would get this big or be franchised or whatever… but I wanted it to be, for the people who liked, their favorite program. That’s what I wanted it to be, because I knew what that felt like.

Drew:  It seems to me like there’s not a real long tradition of this.  There are guys who have done, like, the comedy of the uncomfortable… like I’m a huge Albert Brooks fan, especially “Lost in America” and “Modern Romance”, which to me are the most awkward painful films…

Ricky:  [laughs] Yeah. The phone call when he takes….of course, yeah.

Drew:  But then it seems like we got away from that, and everybody was trying to make comedies about heroes and people who are always successful and happy, and to me it seems like farce almost.

Ricky:  Well… in America.  In England, what we neglected was the other side. In England, it was always, you know, loser people… usually middle-aged men, but what they didn’t have that you kept going with was any romance and boy meets girl and that sort of thing. So ours was just these just ridiculous characters, almost inert, just doing stupid things and everything beginning and ending in the same way. Whereas what you lost was the reality of the normal person… the loser being the funny flawed character.  Instead, you got Joey and Chandler and these great apartments and everyone’s beautiful…

Drew:  You look at how they lived and you look at this world they were in… it’s like it suffocates the funny out of stuff.

Ricky: Of course. They were winners on the grand scheme of things, whereas the comedy characters that we came up with, things like Archie Bunker or Sanford and Son… these were rug and bone men with nothing going for them. These were like working class racists whose life had sort of like crumbled. This was like depravity. But yeah, when you look at six unfeasibly handsome people living in a New York apartment, they’re not really losers.

Drew:  Do you feel now like as you’re seeing other people start to push comedy into sort of braver areas again, just in the mainstream even?  If so, do you feel somewhat responsible?

Ricky:  No.

Drew:  Really? Not even a little?

Ricky:  God, I think I’d be delusional.

Drew:  Well, it feels to me like you at least gave people permission. It’s not that they’re imitating you, but it’s almost like, “Oh, I can do that. I can be honest?! I can write honest comedy and I’m not going to get hammered for it?!” It doesn’t all have to be that sort of bright, sunny, ridiculous.

Ricky:  Wow.

Drew:  Because it really feels like the last few years, we’ve hit a new age of kind of honest comedy.

Ricky:  Well, I always wanted to be honest, and myself and Steven, we threw out jokes that were the funniest jokes we’d come up with because we thought they interfered with the realism or the romance so… yeah, we knew there were bigger things.  There were bigger things to worry about.

Drew:  I saw you do it today, when Rob had the ad-lib about Hell…

Ricky:  Yeah.

Drew:  You guys love to ad-lib…

Ricky:  Exactly.

Drew:  …but it wasn’t right.

Ricky:  The world is bigger than all the parts. That’s the important thing, and one thing can throw everything off kilter. And you must never let yourself off. You must never go, “Oh, that’ll do. We’ll get away with it”. You know? Because that’ll happen anyway by mistake. You’ll let yourself off by mistake. So you shouldn’t do it consciously. You have to be above it all and just be very disciplined with it. Just be very disciplined with it.

Drew:  For you to have made this as efficiently as you have, discipline has got to be part of it.

Ricky:  It’s more confidence, really, I think. If I was making “The Matrix” I’d probably panic. I know what I’m doing with comedy and realism and people talking, you know? Yeah, because I can’t be wrong, because I’m making it up as I’m going along.

Drew:  Right.

Ricky:  I’m really wrong if I don’t like it, and I don’t want to do it. So I may not please one person really.

Drew:  That is… I can’t think of a better situation to be in creatively, to actually be the….

Ricky:  Well, I demand it. I never don’t take notes from anyone.  Except you.

Drew:  [laughs] Oh, thank you.

Ricky:  I think there are about two other people in Hollywood that demand no notes and can actually enforce it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve got it with “The Office”. I’ve got it with “Extras”. We just hands down said no to HBO, and it would have been a lot harder doing that in Hollywood if it wasn’t for MRC.

Drew:  I think because you’re making the films you’re making, you’re not putting $100 million on the line each time.

Ricky:  No.

Drew:  You’re doing something that’s a responsible size, so then you get the freedom.

Ricky:  And it’s not like I’m suggesting I’m doing some sort of weird art project.

Drew:  Right.

Ricky:  You know, I’m making a classic Hollywood comedy… you know?

Drew:  Oh yeah, yeah.

Ricky:  They’re going to be scared of me until they see it. I’m not going to turn in this thing where we’re all hopping on one leg and going “NI! NI!” I want to make “The Apartment,” you know?

Drew:  As outrageous as the concept is, and as much as you kind of have to wrap your head around it the first time you hear it, it’s not the movie.

Ricky:  Trojan horse.  Again, the realistic behavior and people saying frank things in a naturalistic way… I know where I am with that.

Drew:  And Rob’s deadly. Just watching him a little bit. His re
lationship with you.

Ricky:  Down the line. That’s what you do. They do it. They don’t need to be funny. He needs to be there.

Drew:  Absolutely.

I want to thank Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson, and Warner Bros. for helping put together this set visit.  Here’s a look back at the interviews I published:

Louis CK

Rob Lowe

Jennifer Garner

Matthew Robinson

Good stuff.  In particular, I want to thank Pete Silbermann, the unit publicist on the film, and you’ll forgive me if I digress here a bit.  When you go to visit a set, you’re at the mercy of the unit publicist, and good ones are increasingly valuable if these trips are going to be worthwhile in any way. 

I sort of got really lucky with Silbermann being the guy on this one, because when I was 13 years old, my friend’s mom managed to get me permission to visit the set of “Starman,” directed by John Carpenter.  It was shooting near my house in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I was told that if I went to the base camp, the unit publicist would drive me out to the set, I’d get to hang out and watch, and then he’d bring me back. 

That unit publicist… you guessed it… was Pete Silbermann. 

And I remember vividly how gracious he was to my mom and to me, and for what greater purpose?  What power could be gained from being above and beyond decent to a local kid and his mom?  None.  And yet, Pete treated the 13 year old me with the exact same sort of respect and care that he treated me at the age of 38 in Boston.  He’s the sort of guy who really represents the industry I love… people with history, people who do their jobs with abnormal professionalism, and that’s Pete Silbermann all over.

“The Invention Of Lying” opens Oct. 2nd, and premieres at the Toronto Film Festival this week.

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