Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant chat up Quint about their next flick CEMETERY JUNCTION!
Published at: Aug. 27, 2009, 4:27 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant have brought me a lot of joy through both the original THE OFFICE and their follow-up show EXTRAS, not to mention the US Office which they both get producer credit on.
I’m also a great fan of their podcasts which we get a chance to discuss below.
So, naturally I was very excited to chat with them both, especially since the interview focused on their currently in the works first feature film together called CEMETERY JUNCTION.
The only thing from the film that I had seen (outside of some behind the scenes bits on Gervais’ blog) was this trailer:
I love that trailer. It doesn’t tell me anything, which might not be great for me going into this interview, but as a movie fan I love seeing teasers that don’t feature one iota of footage from the flick.
The interview was a phoner through one of those conference services. When I dialed in Gervais was already there, but Merchant wasn’t. There was a little bit of small talk (excluded because it’s boring) before our happy little family was complete.
So, with that let’s start the interview. Enjoy!
Stephen Merchant: Hi.
Quint: Hey, how’s it going?
Stephen Merchant: I’m all right, how are you?
Quint: I’m good. We were just talking about the insanity that was Comic-Con and how I’m trying to recover from that at the moment.
Stephen Merchant: It’s a pretty wild event, is it?
Quint: It’s insane, a hundred thousand geeks all trying to see the same stuff… It can be quite smelly.
Quint: I really appreciate you guys taking the time to talk to me. I have been a huge fan of both of yours since THE OFFICE.
Ricky Gervais: Thank you.
Quint: I don’t know much about your movie, except for what I’ve been reading on your blogs and from the teaser trailer. So do you guys want to talk a little bit about CEMETERY JUNCTION and what it’s about?
Ricky Gervais: Sure. It’s set in the south of England around 1973. I suppose it’s about class and ambition and escaping that stifling small town mentality. The class is probably particular to England, but certainly the escaping a small town and going to work for your dad, I think is a pretty universal… well, not problem, but an event. It’s sort of about that. Obviously, it reflects the slight change in attitudes, but we have also come to realize that things haven’t changed that much except with the internet and mobile phones. I don’t know what you would be doing in 1973 to be honest. Without the internet…
Ricky Gervais: You would be writing on toilet walls, wouldn’t you?
Quint: (laughs) Me? Probably.
Stephen Merchant: It’s funny you talk about class, Rick, and people sort of tend to think of that as being a particularly English thing, but actually in a way the class in our movie is a bit more like you would find in an American film in that a lot of it is governed by money, about working class people who have made good and who have made money and the way that has impacted them and how one of our heroes comes from a blue collar world but aspires to work hard and climb out of that.
In that regard I suppose it’s a little bit more like something like… We have often cited SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER. It’s not really about class directly, but obviously it’s about the kids on the tough side of the streets.
Quint: That’s a pretty universal theme, I think.
Ricky Gervais: Exactly and unlike a lot of British films we have tried to capture the glamour and coolness and sexiness of that blue collar guy who is possibly wasting his life, I mean the best summers in his early years and then paying for it later. I mean, these guys do go out drinking and chasing girls, fighting, getting into trouble, and there’s a line in it about their feathers falling out, but not this summer.
We have also left that big style of irony behind. With THE OFFICE and all, there was a celebration of un-coolness. It was anti-sexy in a way and that’s why it was funny and this is straight down the line what we want to see. We have done this thing where… We found men being men, for better or worse, that’s one side of it that we wanted to find our Steve McQueen and our Paul Newman and we wanted to leave behind these meterosexuals that go from being fops in Jane Austen novels to James Bond. We didn’t want that kind of thing.
Quint: There is definitely a lack of men’s men in movies these days. We don’t have a Robert Shaw anymore, you know?
Ricky Gervais: Exactly, but we have certainly found a couple for this and it’s about this group of twenty-somethings, as Steve said, that are blue collar and one of them, our romantic hero Freddie, he goes to work for a big insurance company where he meets this sort of Gordon Gekko type figure in Mr. Ralph Fiennes, who is very aspirational, who shows off his wealth, because as Gordon Gekko would say he thinks greed works. But he also tries to buy in culture. He’s one of those people that wants to tell you that he came from nothing, but he couldn’t really buy the taste that goes with it.
Ralph does this amazing portrayal of this guy and the reason that Freddie wants to go and work for him, as he says in the movie “I don’t want to end up like my dad who comes home aching every night” and I play his dad. I work in a factory and I’ve got a window cleaning round as well and that’s what he is trying to escape.
Stephen Merchant: Ricky as that character provides a lot of the comedy of the film, because we have sort of tried to mix… You know, we have got humor in it obviously, but obviously we have tried to include a lot of the drama which we have been bringing into our work ever since THE OFFICE really, but we have been a bit brave and not been afraid to embrace that, but there is a lot of humor, particularly from Ricky with his wife and his mother who lives with him, but there’s also drama and romance.
Ricky Gervais: It doesn’t seem like… When I think about it, it doesn’t seem like a comedy really. I don’t know, it seems more like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER meets DINER meets WALL STREET. It’s got all of those themes and it does have a great soundtrack of course with everyone like Elton John to Bowie and all of those guys…
Quint: Those movies you mentioned, they all are really funny in their own right, too.
Ricky Gervais: Yeah, it’s not stand ups wandering through a movie schtick. It all comes from the situation. It all comes from the character and the plot.
Quint: That sounds really cool and I’m especially looking forward to seeing the combination of your sensibilities and with something like Ralph Fiennes, who I’ve always heard has a good sense of humor, too. I have actually seen a picture of him in full Voldemort costume flipping the bird to the camera, looking all serious. So, I have the impression…
Ricky Gervais: He’s very dry. He knows the power. He knows what power he’s got. You know what I mean? He can do it with a look. He knows who Ralph Fiennes is and he knows exactly why people laugh at what Ralph Fiennes does. His presence is quite remarkable. He really is from that same school as Daniel Day Lewis, intense, brilliant actors, but they have got a deft touch and they also understand nuance and they know what’s right for the film and he has done an amazing job.
Quint: Speaking of nuance, I saw on your blog that our favorite Karl Pilkington is in the movie.
Ricky Gervais: He’s got a tiny little character. It’s a non-speaking part. It’s purely for our own amusement and purely for the shape of his head… we wanted to dress him up for a day and it be justified.
Stephen Merchant: Well he was originally wearing a wig in this film, wasn’t he Rick? But we felt that that was…
Ricky Gervais: He was too comfortable with it, because he was hiding behind it as a character, but when we were just about to go, the make-up guy took the wig off to adjust it and he looked so ridiculous and I burst out laughing and I said “Right. Definitely not!” and we made him do it. It was like we pulled his trousers off in front of the crowd and he said to me when he turned around to see me screaming with laughter and pointing at him, like 150 extras, he said to me “This is like a dream.” (laughs)
Quint: That’s awesome.
Stephen Merchant: That was a good day.
Ricky Gervais: But we are so excited about the ambition of the film and we are so excited about these unknowns. Apart from Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and maybe me, you wouldn’t have seen any of these guys.
Quint: Let’s talk a little bit about how you found them. Was it an open call?
Ricky Gervais: It was exactly the same as how we found all of the people for THE OFFICE and EXTRAS. We cast and cast and had in mind exactly who we wanted and we waited for them to walk through the door, but you know what? We don’t want to whinge, but we could have cast this film in America in a week. You have got those guys, but here if you see a thousand twenty five year old guys, half of them all talk in slag (Gervais puts on the accent) and “go straight into EASTENDERS or a gangster movie that’s going straight onto DVD. Cunt!” Right?
Then the other half were doing an adaptation of Jane Austen and we had to find our Steve McQueens and our James Deans and our early John Travoltas and we just kept looking. I think at one point, Steve, if I remember there were like three other guys that we had nearly settled on hadn’t we?
Stephen Merchant: Absolutely, but going back to even the days of THE OFFICE, we were always very sort of obsessive about the casting. We just kept on going. If we had the time, then we just kept looking, because you never know who is going to come in the door.
Ricky Gervais: We had a phrase… Also, we attend all of the casting sessions. The poor casting director, who ever has that job, I mean we are there all of the time and they come through and we think they found them and we use the phrase “They are safe, but we have still got three weeks.”
Again, in THE OFFICE someone else had the job until Mackenzie [Crook] walked through the door. Someone else had the job and then Mackenzie walked through the door and took it from them. In EXTRAS, someone else had that job before Ashley Jensen walked through the door. And she came back five times, so that’s how obsessive we are to find the right people.
Stephen Merchant: But also, as Ricky says in England it’s harder to cast particularly young cool people and then there just aren’t as many actors around, but I’ve always been a fan of those films that I watched when I was younger that I never knew who the cast was. I remember seeing SWINGERS for the first time and was blown away that they had just this completely real group of friends who they obviously were, but they were like… As soon as I watched that film it was like Vince Vaughn was a mega star in my eyes and I had never seen him before in anything. He instantly won me over he was so good.
Ricky Gervais: Absolutely!
Stephen Merchant: It’s quite rare. Nowadays there is just so much easy short hand casting in films, with the same people getting cast in the same roles.
Ricky Gervais: But there are really half a dozen people in America that do that. I knew the first time I saw… After I saw a film with Paul Newman, I felt “Well this man is a god.”
Quint: There are some people that are meant to be living up on the screen, yeah.
Ricky Gervais: Exactly. Like Robert Mitchum. Those people. We have a guy in this who plays Bruce’s dad and he looks like Robert Mitchum or Harry Dean Stanton. We found these people… Steve, was it Billy Wilder who said “Nobody wants to look at ugly people?”
Stephen Merchant: Nobody wants to look at ugly people, which is why we are not playing the leads!
Ricky Gervais: Exactly!
Stephen Merchant: Maybe on TV, but not in film.
Ricky Gervais: But you know what? We like to treat all of the things we write and direct and produce or whatever. We treat them like an animated movie. In an animated movie if a leaf falls from a tree, someone meant that leaf to fall from a tree, that’s not an accident. Someone painstakingly drew that tree a thousand times and we do that in our film, we care about every aspect. There is no accident.
We even say “can you go up again with that word?” and you have to find actors that not only are brilliant and can do it how you want it and give you something extra to surprise you, but that doesn’t mind being a part of the bigger picture. And I hate the bits (as an actor) where you just have to do it because it’s a transitional bit. I want to get to the acting bit, the drama, but all of the other bits are just as important in making a film, because you have got to be a conductor and you have got a thousand things on your mind and it has to be just right and that’s the fun for us.
Stephen Merchant: Also we didn’t want it to be a television sitcom episode on the big screen, you know? We wanted it to feel like a film to warrant people actually going to the cinema to see it, you know? That’s always the danger of people who have come from television.
Ricky Gervais: Also, you have got to realize that we did THE OFFICE in 2001 and after the second or third episode there was a real buzz in England and it really took off, certainly in the industry, and we were invited, we had seven meetings in one week were I just got tossed about and these film companies all offered us between three and eight million pounds to make any film and we took their business cards and we said “We will call you when we have got one.”
We were busy. We were doing other stuff, but we have seen a lot of people from TV jump early and they say “I’m going to do a film, I’m going to do a film.” “Yeah, you are going to do a film, but it’s going to be an expensive TV episode of what you do. You are going to have a couple of blokes from the tele and it’s going to straight to DVD.”
Quint: And that will be it for you guys…
Ricky Gervais: And that’ll be it. Or you might have a couple of goes at it, but…
Stephen Merchant: Ours probably will go straight to DVD, but we are aiming big!
Ricky Gervais: Ours is going straight to Internet. “Best Youtube video ever!”
Quint: So, what’s the release schedule on this then? When are you going to put the movie out?
Ricky Gervais: I think in spring, certainly in England. It’ll be out in England first. It’s Sony and they are very excited about the world and not just England and America. I think it will be England first, but I don’t know. It might be a platform release in the states. It is accessible. We have kept one eye on everyone in the world at least so they understand what’s going on. If we are being honest, we really care most about America and Britain and that’s understandable. America is Mecca of all entertainment really, from film and comedy and TV. We are very excited about it.
I am saying it’s the best thing we have done, but then that should be how you think. Why would you ever not think that? It’s crazy. If we didn’t think it was best thing to do we wouldn’t do it. In fact it has been on the back burner for about five years until we cracked it. I think this is the third film we wrote around that thing. We started again twice, I mean literally started again and so it’s got to be worth it, you know? These are multimillion-pound projects, so it’s no good in just doing it for a laugh. This is forever and we have always done things for our legacy.
Stephen Merchant: I think what excites me particularly about it and I think Ricky as well is that one of the things that we really like with doing THE OFFICE and I think one of the reasons people really responded to it, was that it felt like there was a really little world there and there were characters and it was kind of heartwarming in its own twisted way and it was pleasurable to just spend time in their company and I think that’s what we have tried to do as well with this, as well, is to create this little hermetically sealed world with all of these minor characters as well that you can enjoy, because there are so many films now that sort of feel, good as they often are, they feel formulaic. You can often tell what’s going to happen just from watching the trailer.
Ricky Gervais: Oh yeah.
Stephen Merchant: We just want to give a feeling that it can be feeling really warm and you would leave the cinema with a real sort of smile on your face that wasn’t just because you saw robots blowing up, but because you felt like you engaged with the characters, you know?
Ricky Gervais: Even in the genre we have aimed at, which is loosely a comedy drama romance… whatever. As Steve said, the films that come out like that really are the same film that you see every three weeks. I don’t know how they get away with it, but they do and I think that we try not to give people the same meal they have had everyday of their lives and it is an acquired taste. It’s scary in many ways, but the reward is so much more. Do you know what I mean?
Quint: That’s the secret, especially if you are trying to make this a kind of launching point for these new actors that you have found.
Ricky Gervais: Everything I have ever loved is an acquired taste. It grew on me and it got under my skin and it gave me a funny feeling, you know? I think that’s what we are trying to do here, so yeah.
Quint: Alright. Thank you guys so much for taking the time and keep up the podcasts please!
Ricky Gervais: I don’t know if you know, but we are developing… we just got a thirteen part series with HBO that we are animating with the podcasts.
Quint: Oh really?
Ricky Gervais: We are halfway through that and then that will be out just after Christmas on HBO.
Quint: And Karl is going to be a worldwide star.
Ricky Gervais: We have found a real life Homer Simpson. That’s the thing about Homer Simpson, he is my God, but I can never really meet him. You can meet Karl. He’s an amazing being.
Quint: (laughs) Brilliant. Thank you, guys.
Stephen Merchant: Bye.
Ricky Gervais: Bye.
If you haven’t been exposed to the wonderful world of Karl Pilkington then I’ll give you a tiny taste via Youtube below:
I like what Gervais and Merchant had to say about CEMETERY JUNCTION, playing up their strengths in casting, but venturing a little more into the dramatic arena. I’m very interested in checking the flick out whenever we might get it here.
Hope you enjoyed the chat. It’s the tip of the iceburg as I wade through these Comic-Con interviews and the ones that have piled on since, like Mike Judge and Jason Bateman for EXTRACT. More coming, I promise.
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