Off the back of hosting the Golden Globes and on the eve of the launch of the DVD and Blu-ray of The Invention Of Lying in the UK (both of which are out today), Ricky Gervais spared us some time for a natter on the phone. And here’s how it went…
There’s a boldness and strength of idea underpinning The Invention Of Lying that you don’t seem to get in the vast majority of Hollywood comedies. Do you think that’s why the film struggled to find an audience in America?
Well, I think everything has to fight hard to get an audience in America.
I think the reason why critics and websites didn’t like it was obviously the religious element. I think some people felt cheated that they weren’t warned. But I don’t know what you do with that. Whether I should put a warning ‘contains atheist material’. I don’t know. Strange, really.
One reviewer said that ‘I don’t know why Ricky Gervais feels the need to shove his atheism down our throat’. I thought, woah, well this is one film that dares to presume the lack of God, whereas every other film I’ve ever seen presumes a God. There are door-to-door Bible salesmen. It’s taught in schools as fact. Children are indoctrinated with it from the age of four. And I’m the one shoving the ideas! Surely, we can have a discussion about it?
It seems a little bit unfair. And I don’t think it is atheist propaganda, in a world where no one has ever had the ability to lie, as an atheist, to suggest I believe that religion was started by man. And I put that in a film. I’d be a hypocrite to say anything else.
Did you sense that reaction was going to come?
I did. But I didn’t think that intelligent people would be so worried about it.
I tell you why I think that the film is actually more subversive than most other films. It’s because it was couched in quite a sweet Hollywood rom-com. It wasn’t a dark indie film that was a terrible existential damning sort of film. It was a really sweet, uplifting Hollywood rom-com. It just happened to be a film where there was no God.
Coming after Ghost Town, that too struggled to find a cinema audience, but it’s getting a solid DVD afterlife…
Yeah, I think when you do films like that, when it’s not a big, broad comedy with people falling over naked – it’s not one of those sex comedies that come out and get everyone under 14 to come out and laugh at erection jokes – I think that it’s a long haul game. It’s just like Spinal Tap: it did nothing at the box office, and now it’s probably one of the biggest comedies ever. And I think that’s what you’ve got to think of. You have to think of these things in terms of 25 years.
I don’t know who invented this thing about if it doesn’t do $50m on a Friday night it’s a flop. A flop is a film that took less money than it cost. Now we’re $30m up. And I think that it’s just growing. The DVD sold, I think, 70,000 copies in the first hour [in the US]. It was also the number one comedy both sides of the Atlantic for a week. But it was never going to be Avatar. And I think we’ve got to put this in context.
You should have made The Invention Of Lying in 3D with blue people in it?
But I’ve never done anything aimed at the mainstream. The Office wasn’t aimed at the mainstream and it just kept growing and growing. It’s in 90 countries, it’d been remade in seven. The American remake is going into syndication now. And I think the same’s just happening with Extras now. They want to remake it in Korea and China.
I think if you put everything into it, it’ll find an audience. They don’t have to go and see it on a Friday night and forget about it by Saturday morning. Word of mouth is the strongest thing and it’s always served me well, and it’s going to serve me well forever.
Everything I’ve done has been hated initially. Everything. The Office was slagged off, got no audience, it was going to be cancelled. Extras was more hated because people loved The Office. My stand up? Every review when I first started, every stand up I’ve ever done has been hated. But then I’ve got a record for the fastest selling tour of all time.
Do you know what I’m saying? I make this for me and like minded people. I love people loving my work. But I don’t care if they hate it either. That’s what will make you do something anodyne and broad and awful, if you want everyone who goes and sees it to quite like it. I don’t want to do that. I want as many people who see it to hate it as love it. That’s what makes something interesting.
It was a film where you also picked some fabulous comedy talent for the cast…
I just picked all the people I’ve always wanted to work with!
The problem you set yourself, though, is when I went back and rewatched the film, the dialogue has to be quite tight. It’s not how the trailer portrays it, just as people being honest. It’s, for me, people consistently answer questions that they’re not asked. But you had a cast who were very improvisational too…
Yeah, but they couldn’t improvise. We found that you couldn’t go off plot, and you couldn’t say words like “believe me” or “honestly”, because people didn’t need to say those. If someone went “Oh, Jesus”, we were like “stop, cut that, you can’t say that”. It was so difficult to improvise.
That’s what I figured. The script seemed very lean…
Yeah, very script driven. But then everything I do is. People think The Office is improvised, but it wasn’t. It was really tightly scripted. The skill in doing something like that is to make it look improvised, but for it not to be.
There have been some awful British films that were all improvised. And people go it’s just like Christopher Guest. And you go no, it’s not like Christopher Guest. It’s a load of terrible sitcom actors trying to talk over each other. And when you do something that involves improvisation, when you get a crew laugh that you then take into the edit in the cold light of day, it’s the written lines that work. They’re the ones that stand the test of time.
One thing about the film. I love the old Dudley Moore movie Crazy People…
Is that the one where they advertise the cars…?
Yeah. I saw your ‘honest’ Coca-Cola and Pepsi adverts in the movie, which I thought were very in the spirit of Crazy People. Did Pepsi ever get in touch?
No, but we had to have it lawyered, so with Pepsi and Coke we only did things that were factual or satirical. So I think Pepsi came off worst! With Coke we said it was brown sugary water, and I think that’s all true. But ‘for when they don’t like Coke’ is more damning! But they’re bigger than us, they can take it!
What I also found interesting is that you co-direct. Usually, co-directors have been brothers, life-long friends of directors of Disney movies. Where’s the appeal for you? You’ve now worked with two different co-directors in such a short space of time. How does that work for you?
Well, it’s luck, isn’t it? I found Stephen Merchant and it worked a treat. And the same with Matt Robinson. You make your own luck, and I think it comes from respect. I think you respect each other and trust each other.
But I have a rule, and it started with Steve and I used it with Matt as well. And that’s this: if one of us doesn’t like something, it’s vetoed. It needs two votes to stay in the film. That way, you’re left with a film that both of you like from beginning to end. It’s twice the compromise. It’s as much as I ever want to compromise. It’s got to be you two against the world: you don’t need one more compromise because two of you are enough. You do it for yourself and like minded people.
Was it Patrick Stewart doing the voiceover on the caveman prequel film in the DVD extras?
That’s right, yeah! It was probably the most expensive DVD extra of all time…!
I thought it was better than the entirety of Year One…
[Laughs] I haven’t seen that!
How have you found the reaction to the Golden Globes?
Well, I don’t know what people around the world thought of it. But in the room it was great, and afterwards everyone seemed to like it. And I went over to New York last week, and I’ve never had a reaction like it. People on the street coming up and saying they loved it. It was like I was a returning war hero! It was heart-warming.
One Ghost Town question: we loved the giant molar keyfob you had in it….
Did you keep it?
No, no. I don’t know where that is. I think David Koepp kept it. That was a David Koepp special joke. I loved it as well…
Finally, your next projects. How are Cemetery Junction and Flanimals coming along?
Cemetery Junction is the best thing me and Stephen [Merchant] have ever done. I’m so excited about it. That will have people saying it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. But all I can say is, like The Office, and like Extras, and like everything I’ve ever done, it turned out exactly as we wanted it. That’s all I can say. Whether people like it or not is out my hands. But it’s turned out exactly how I wanted it to.
Flanimals we’re starting casting next month!!
Ricky Gervais, thank you very much…
The Invention Of Lying is out now on Blu-ray and DVD.