Interview: Ricky Gervais & Stephen Merchant on CEMETERY JUNCTION!!

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant about their first feature film together: €˜Cemetery Junction€™. The last interview with Ricky Gervais that caught my attention saw him reject the interviewer€™s questions and generally act quite defensively. I suspected that this had more to do with the tone and agenda of the journalist in question than of Gervais€™ general temperament, but still I was unsure what to expect from these two icons of modern British comedy. I expected that there would be a list of rules before entering the room and that someone would say €œRicky doesn€™t want to talk about €˜The Office" (the hit television sitcom that turned Gervais and Merchant into international stars). But, to my surprise there were no such rules and, in fact, Gervais readily incorporated €˜The Office€™ (and it€™s almost equally acclaimed follow-up €˜Extras€™) into the answers to many of my questions. I entered the room and shook both of them by the hand, asking them if they had done many interviews that afternoon, as I set up my recorder. They apparently had, €œbut it€™s all part of the job€ Gervais acknowledged cheerfully before adding €œI can€™t complain€. €œBut you do anyway€ quipped Stephen Merchant with his trademark dry delivery. With that Gervais broke into a sustained chuckle and the ice was broken. The interview was off to a flying start: (potential, light-spoilers ahead for those who are sensitive of the slightest details)... Robert Beames: Firstly, I€™d just like to say that I really enjoyed the film. I saw it this morning and I think it€™s my favourite film of the year so far.

Stephen Merchant: And that€™s a guy who€™s obsessed with film. Ricky Gervais: Oh that€™s great, oh thank you! That€™s very exciting.
RB: Everyone seems really happy with it. If you€™re interested: the reactions of people leaving the screening were all positive. I haven€™t talked to any journalists out there that weren€™t positive.
RG: Oh good! That€™s always good!
RB: Anyway, you made €˜The Invention of Lying€™ last year and that was your first film as a director, unless I€™m mistaken and you€™ve made shorts...
RG: All we€™ve ever done is we directed every episode of €˜The Office€™ and €˜Extras€™ and then I did that, but this is our first feature film together. SM: It€™s interesting you mention that because we€™ve been talking about that a lot today actually about people have started saying €œthis is the first film you€™ve directed€ it€™s like...
RB: It€™s like people have forgotten the television?
RG: Yeah! It€™s like nothing else matters. SM: The things that are important about directing are things which we love like casting the right way and making sure you get actors that you can work with who€™ll really bring that world to life and that€™s not as easy as you€™d think. RG: I know why you€™d think that though because usually TV directors are jobbing directors. They are not the auteurs: they don€™t worry about everything. SM: That€™s why a lot of TV is shit. RG: I know, I know, but it is though. But we took €˜The Office€™ as seriously as we take film.
RB: When you look at good TV shows like €˜Curb Your Enthusiasm€™ or something, they tend to have consistent directors who work with the writers.
RG: Exactly, it€™s auteurs! It€™s auteurs, in some ways, it€™s a vision. And also the other thing is €˜The Office€™ and €˜Extras€™, I think, were quite filmic in our approach to them in that we did want that trajectory, we did want an emotional story, we did want the story in twists and turns over that period and we cast like it was the most important thing in the world. We didn€™t just borrow things from other sitcoms, we started from scratch and we did everything we started from scratch. We grew the ingredients and we saw it through to the end. And we€™ve always done that. I think people are surprised that it€™s [€˜Cemetery Junction€™] such an out and out drama, again: I don€™t think they should be that surprised because we€™ve always snuck it in with €˜The Office€™ and €˜Extras€™. There has always been an emotional journey and, dare I say it, quite poignant, teary moments.
RB: Well, I was going to bring that up so I€™ll jump ahead to it now and say that I actually welled up three times during the film.
SM: Good. RG: I, even in the read through and every time we shot it, I nearly choked at the mother saying €œ1964€ and Bruce€™s hand on his dad€™s arm.
RB: The bits that choked me up were when Emily Watson delivers the thing about coming into the room and asking if her daughter is ok.
RG: Oh yeah?
RB: It really summed everything up for me because she€™s someone who€™s got her own problems and she€™s put upon and she€™s overheard them slagging her off almost, but she comes in and goes €œare you ok?€ and it felt very much like she was really honestly a mum at that point.
RG: That€™s right. And also you realise that she€™d kept it from that girl all her life. Also what I liked about Emily Watson is that she was the heart of that, she was the oppressed women and what made it so important for us that we got her right , is that she guided us: she saw Freddy when he said €œyou missed out Julie, sir€. She saw that and she knew that he was a different man. He danced with her; Julie saw him dance with her and thought €œoh that€™s what a man should be like.€
RB: Even though you obviously write these moments and you know Emily Watson is a really good actress so you€™re not too surprised, but does it still surprise you at the end of the day when you€™re watching dailies and you see your words...
RG: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. SM: Those people always bring something extra. RG: The way she does that and people like that underplay it. At the time you don€™t think anything of it, but when you look back at it on a screen they fill your heart. Honestly, they€™ve got something else, they€™ve got an alchemy. It€™s indescribable and I don€™t know how they do it. And that€™s the difference between a great actor and a film star and you can be both. There about fifty people in the world who are both. SM: Well Ralph Fiennes turned up and I think the first thing he did was that big... RG: Speech. Remarkable. SM: Wasn€™t it? That big monologue he€™s giving the guy and he came in word perfect, bam, there in front of two hundred extras, nailed it. We were embarrassed; we didn€™t have any direction to give him... €œdo you want to do it again?€
RB: Not to bandy around grand terms, but I thought it was almost Chaplin-esque the way that you had another moment that choked me up where you see on Brucie€™s face him realise that he€™s been a shit the whole time.
RG: What a lovely scene. Doesn€™t he play that well for a man new to cinema? And of course Steve Spiers. The exciting thing for us was finding those people we gave those little roles to in €˜The Office€™ and €˜Extras€™ and didn€™t use again like Matt Holness who turns up in €˜The Office€™ and then turns up here, Steve Spiers and David Earl who plays Brian the cafe owner. I€™m so glad you say Chaplin-esque because...
RB: Well specifically the bit at the end of €˜City Lights€™ when that final shot where he realises and everything€™s in his eyes...
RG: That€™s what I was gonna say! The thing that we love about filmmaking is that it€™s about a look. It€™s painting a picture. It€™s a story you can do with just shots. You don€™t have to have dialogue and exposition and that...
RB: And that is cinema.
RG: And that is cinema! That is cinema! That excited me more and more through this process. We sort of learnt it with €˜The Office€™. The reason we sort of came to it with €˜The Office€™ is because it was being shot for a documentary, we had to have people doing things behind the documentaries back. Tim couldn€™t talk about loving Dawn and you couldn€™t show it because they€™re being filmed, so we discovered that if he looked at her and he didn€™t know he was being filmed and she wasn€™t looking at him: it said it all. And that€™s quite Chaplin-esque that did it with someone looking at someone and then you shoot to the reaction shot. SM: But also Chaplin was always criticised for being sentimental and a lot of English critics like to sneer at sentimentality. RG: €˜The Kid€™ will still make you cry... and that was one hundred years ago!
... RB: I wanted to ask about the Alf Garnett-style breakfast table scene and what I liked is that it€™s something from all through your comedy, in that it seems €œnear to the knuckle€ and yet your heart is always really in the right place.
RG: Yes.
RB: And what I would say about that is that it€™s often generalised, lazily I think, that American€™s don€™t get irony, but there€™s is enough evidence that British people really don€™t get irony.
SM: RG: Absolutely! Thank you so much! It€™s ridiculous! It€™s one of those stupid received bits of wisdom...

RB: Yes.

RG: Americans do get irony and here€™s the evidence: I want you to look at €˜The Daily Show€™, €˜The Simpsons€™, I want you to look at every cool piece of Americana about a putz or a fool who is in the wrong place at the wrong time, from Jack Lemmon through. They get irony. What they don€™t do is use irony all the fucking time! Two Brits meet they go €œoi you bastard€ €œyeah you fucking wanker.€ They don€™t do that. They say €œhow you doing? You ok?€ and they mean it!
RB: One more thing, if I can be quick, is I know you are both Woody Allen fans. I love the thing in €˜The Invention of Lying€™ where you use his titles.
RG: Yes. I rip off the best.
RB: Did you consciously... you know how in Woody Allen films when he maybe feels he€™s too old for the lead he€™ll cast someone like Ed Norton as a surrogate Woody Allen. One of the things I liked about Christian Cooke€™s performance and maybe this is because he plays your son, but there are bits where he delivers it like you and I wondered if that was a Woody Allen thing...
RG: No! No! It turns out (and we didn€™t know this at the time) but I since saw him in interview and he said he was huge fans of us and apparently he€™s seen all our work and he€™s been to see all my stand-up shows, so that wasn€™t our decision: that was his. It€™s very flattering.
RB: OK. It must have been an honour to work with a cinematographer who has also worked on Woody Allen films, as fans.
RG: Every break we€™d sidle up to him and go €œwhat did Woody have for lunch?€ He said €œhe€™d sometimes get a chopped banana at four o€™clock€ and I€™d go €œright€. SM: Sometimes we€™d ask €œwas that scene better than Woody, would Woody have done it like that?€ RG: We kept teasing him! We kept going: €œare we as good as Woody Allen?€ and he€™d go €œtogether you are!€
As they both laughed, the PR lady returned to finally call an end to our meeting. I shook their hands a second time and Ricky kindly thanked Obsessed With Film for coming to speak with him. I got the impression they (Ricky in particular) had genuinely enjoyed the interview, which felt much more like an informal conversation than the usual Q&A exchange. Far from the usual condescending tone of the typical movie-star interview, both Gervais and Merchant spoke to me almost as though we were meeting socially. There wasn€™t the slightest hint of ego and if either of them were tired and irritable after five hours of interviews, they certainly didn€™t show it. I left knowing without doubt that Gervais brash stage persona is exactly that. But you shouldn€™t have to meet him to figure that out€ that is, unless you don€™t understand irony. €˜Cemetery Junction€™ is released on April 14th across the UK and my full review will be up here before the week is out.

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A regular film and video games contributor for What Culture, Robert also writes reviews and features for The Daily Telegraph, and The Big Picture Magazine as well as his own Beames on Film blog. He also has essays and reviews in a number of upcoming books by Intellect.