Ricky Gervais on Special Correspondents, The Return of David Brent and More!
The British comic Ricky Gervais rants about fame, celebrity culture, superpowers, the internet, and his two upcoming films!
There are few British comedians who have made such an impact on these shores as Ricky Gervais, from his original sitcom The Office to his snarky duties as host of the Golden Globes. And not many people realize that Gervais has written and directed almost all his shows and movies over the years, and that’s also the case with the two movies he has coming out this year.
Now available on Netflix is Gervais’ third feature film Special Correspondents, starring Eric Bana as hotshot radio news reporter Frank Bonneville with Gervais playing his nerdy technician Finch, whose fame-hungry wife (Vera Farmiga) has just left him… after sleeping with Frank, no less. They’re assigned to go to Ecuador to report on a war there, but Finch screws up and loses their tickets and passports, so they hole up in a New York apartment and make up the news as if they really are in Ecuador. When it looks like they’re about to get busted, they pretend they’ve been kidnapped and things get worse (aka funnier) from there.
Then on Aug. 19, Gervais’ David Brent feature film, Life on the Road, will be released in the UK with plans to get it over to these shores eventually.
Den of Geek was able to get what ended up being a rather extended interview with Gervais where we covered a lot of bases, as he bounced from one subject to the next, sometimes answering our questions or talking about Special Correspondents, but most of the time, just saying whatever happened to be on his mind on that particular day. The brilliance of Ricky Gervais is that when he has a subject he wants to rant about, he really goes for it.
Needless to say, this has been edited down for length.
Den of Geek: One of the reasons I really liked the movie is because I’ve interviewed Eric Bana over the years, and every time I talk to him, I ask if he’s going to do more comedy anytime soon. He was so good at it in the Judd Apatow movie [Funny People], yet he’s always tentative about doing more, and yet he’s great in this.
Ricky Gervais: Yeah, he is great. I didn’t know he started in comedy. I got him because I saw him in Munich and The Hulk, and everything, and I wanted an action hero to be sort of stunted in a small town. I wanted to play with him bullying a little geek like me, and then I found out he was just an idiot like me, it’s great!
He’s very funny and he’s very different than the characters he plays. He also has this thing for cars because he rebuilds and races them…
That’s the other thing. Okay, so I’m scared of everything. I’m scared of roads. Honestly, when I have a new driver, I make them go eight miles an hour. I’m scared of guns, so in this I have to jump into a jeep firing a gun. I was picking the guns, and they were sort of stressing me out a little bit, and then before we filmed, I found out that Eric was a rally driver. I did the “Comedians Getting Coffee in Cars” with Jerry Seinfeld, and as soon as he found out I was a bit scared, it was this macho bullshit thing to do, he found it hilarious.
Fear is funny. I do it. I went on a plane trip with Louis C.K. and it was a little private plane and it was bad weather, so they really take a hit, the small jets. I was scared, but he was more scared, so I found it funny, and I filmed it and put it on YouTube. It’s so funny because he’s so scared and he’s trying to get drunk quickly, and he’s saying things like, “Hitler fucked your mother.” Just the most outrageous things to keep him calm, he’s shouting and I’m crying with laughter because he’s sweating and he’s terrified. So fear is funny.
But Eric was going “I’m the best driver in the world, mate. That means I’m safe.” It was the closest thing to doing my own stunts—firing a gun and jumping into a jeep with Eric Bana.
You wrote and directed this so if you didn’t want to do something, why would you write a part for yourself where you have to do those things?
Also, we had to walk out of the ocean, and I thought, “Why did I write this?” but I often do that. Most of the time I write myself sitting down behind a desk [Laughs]. I learned early on that if you have to get up or walk, or run, you’re doing it for six hours from every angle. I try and do that in other people’s films as well. If there’s a scene where it says “My character gets up and answers the door,” I change that to, “Come in!” I’m lazy, but sometimes you’ve got to do it, because it’s funny, and I really like that ending, because it’s real action—like a spoof of Peckinpah or something crazy—but it’s undercut by the fact that I’ve shat myself and I shoot someone in the balls.
I’ve never seen that before in an action movie, someone shot in the balls, but it must happen, mustn’t it? If you’re firing a gun, chances are that you’ll get shot in the balls. I like the idea that I do something heroic, but I had the dodgy chili, so even though it was fun doing the action, it’s still a comedy. It’s dangerous if you start thinking… when comedians think they’re cool, there’s a problem I think.
Have you found a good stunt double for yourself that looks like you but can still do those stunts?
Well, as I say, I don’t really do anything that needs stunts. I do falling over and slipping over, and have things poured over me—I do all that—the only thing I can’t do is drive, ‘cause I don’t drive. So I have to have a stunt double if there’s any driving scenes. In my new film Life on the Road, I did all my own things. [David Brent] falls over on stage and all that but when he’s driving, I’ve either gotta’ be on a low-loader [a flatbed truck] or it’s someone else in the car because I can’t drive. Not only am I not an action hero, I’m not even a normal human being. [Laughs]
You wrote a movie called Life on the Road even though you don’t drive.
Exactly. He’s a wreck and he’s going on tour, so it’s a double whammy for David Brent.
What started the idea of doing Special Correspondents as a movie? Were there enough ideas to maybe turn it into a TV show or was it always going to be a movie?
I know it looks like I’m quite prolific and I’m always around, but actually, I don’t do a lot of things. It’s just that I do everything when I do something—what have I done? The Office, Extras, Derek, The Ricky Gervais Show—it just seems like I’m around a lot, because I write it, I direct it, I’m in it, and then I do all the publicity, and it hangs around. I don’t do a lot of them and I don’t do ten seasons of 22. I do 12 episodes and a special, and that seems to give it longevity in a way, so it seems like I’ve done more than I have.
Look at the effects of The Office and that was literally seven or eight hours of TV? Same with Extras, same with Derek, same with Idiot Abroad, and that’s all I’ve done in 15 years. I think everything I do, I seem to draw the heat. Like the Golden Globes was three hours of my life, but it sort of resonated, because they hadn’t seen people be slightly cheeky to privileged people before. [Laughs]
I think because I do my own thing—and if you do your own thing, you get final edit, so it’s probably not going to be homogenized, so it’s probably going to be slightly different. Slightly different is enough to have people talk about stuff. I never understood mixed reviews as a bad thing, but I try to polarize. I want mixed reviews. I want as many people to hate what I do as like it, because that means I’m doing something that causes a reaction. People don’t believe me when I say that.
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When you go to your Wikipedia page, it’s pretty vast, so it seems like you’ve done so much over the course of those years.
This is my third movie I’ve directed if you don’t count the specials for Extras, The Office, and Derek—they got nominated for TV movie. Now, I think that’s stretching it a little bit. This is a movie, but those were hour-long TV shows. I’m quite shocked every time when they got into the Emmys or the Golden Globes as a TV movie, whereas this does deserve to be in there, you know what I mean? I think I’m more famous than I should be.
But one of the reasons why I thought Special Correspondents could be a TV show is that you and Eric are so great together. When you think of Netflix, that’s considered more as TV even though they’re doing movies as well. I wondered if there was interest in doing more with this idea?
No, it was actually a studio movie. When I wrote the script and sent it off—I’ve never had a reaction like it. There was a bit of a bidding war, and we actually got bought by a studio, and it was going to happen and then I got a phone call from my agent saying Netflix wants to buy the whole thing out, and make it an exclusive movie. It’s the best of all worlds, because as an artist, you want as many people to see your work, but with zero interference. Usually, to get that, even from the early days, even when I first pitched The Office to the BBC, I said, “I want it my way. Put it on BBC2. I don’t want any interference.” I suppose to get final edit, I’ve gone to more fringe channels, but the truth is that everybody sees everything eventually if it’s good, so I’ve never worried about that.
It’s a long ball game, and now Netflix has come along and it’s the best of all worlds. They have no interference. The sky’s the limit. It’s the internet, it’s global, so it can get network ratings. From a business point of view, they were as generous as a studio could be, so it was like a no-brainer. Also, I liked it because it’s the cusp. I like, not being the first, but I like trying out stuff. Five years ago, when I heard that people like Netflix, I thought, “This could be the future,” and I sent Ted an email saying, “I think Netflix is the future. I want to do my next series with you,” and he sent back, “Well take it!”
I actually got one of my jobs that way. I just emailed someone saying I was interested in doing something and they responded, “Okay.” It’s amazing when it happens because it happens so rarely.
Yeah, well it’s great. That was four years ago and looks what’s happened in four years. I mean, what a success story! The amazing thing about Netflix is that they haven’t changed the genre, they haven’t changed the medium. All they’ve done is pander to the way people are watching things anyway. The binge watch is what they’ve got, that’s what they’ve given the world. Now, I don’t watch TV anymore. I hardly watch cable and something like Game of Thrones—I love Game of Thrones—but I’m not going to watch it week to week. I’m going to save it up until I can binge watch it. The binge watch is the dominant thing here.
One thing I was curious about with Special Correspondents is that I’m really fascinated when filmmakers or actors do stuff about journalism. You must have talked to a lot of journalists over the years, so do you use this to take out any frustrations with the way you play the characters?
No, everything you do in life—because you’re a human being and you’re in a society—you can say is sort of political. We’ve all got an agenda, whether it’s politics with a big “P” or just issues. I’ve never forced them. I don’t do it in stand-up, I don’t do it in TV. I never have a huge agenda. My thing is usually social satire, so it’s about people. It’s much more about types. I deal with things like ego and jealousy, and kindness, and evil. I deal with those bigger, more philosophical and social, and emotional ideas, more than politics.
I’ve never really been, “Let’s bring down a corporation” or “Let’s talk about Bush.” I mean, I don’t really do that. There’s people that are much better than me at it, for one, and two, I think we get it. I don’t think comedy should be a platform. It’s an intellectual pursuit, comedy, and I think as soon as everyone can see your agenda from beginning to end, it’s sort of like, “Oh, I know what he’s doing.” However clever you try to be about it. I know people still say they were enjoying The Invention of Lying until they saw it was an atheist movie, but it wasn’t an atheist movie. What does that even mean? That doesn’t make any sense! [Laughs]
It was strange being on set while you were making it and then hearing all of that when the movie came out. I thought I must have missed that part.
Clearly, even though it was a metaphor. Personally, I do think the scene where he invents religion is probably quite realistic. Spirituality is a comfort and religion is a power, it’s as simple as that. Again, it was more incidental. It was more to explore this man becoming a prophet and what he did with it. In a way, this is a superpower as well. With superpower, you’ve got something that you didn’t know you had that other people haven’t got. You can’t believe your luck, you do good things with it, then you get corrupted and you do bad things with it, and then you redeem yourself and realize that with great power comes great responsibility.
That is the theme of every superhero movie, but you can do it in life. In here, the superpower is that they believe what’s on the radio so they believe their lie is a superpower. What do they do with it? Well, first of all, they do good, and then they get carried away and then they have to get back to square one and do the right thing. I think wealth is a superpower. It’s something that some people have got that other people haven’t got. What do you do with it? You can either do good with it or evil with it. And it can destroy you or make your life better.
I always think in those sort of terms. “What are we watching here? What journey?” and I think with all fiction—comedy or drama—we create our own villains and heroes for role-play of the soul. A film is enjoyable because you go through all those emotions as if it was real and nobody really gets hurt. Villains get their come-uppance or are redeemed, and heroes get rewarded or you feel sorry for them. There’s lots of examples where they’re not rewarded ‘cause they do the right thing. Bogart at the end of Casablanca—he’s not rewarded, but he does the right thing. I love the morality and the ambiguity of it. I love things going right, going wrong. I’m fascinated with good and evil and I always have been.
And everything I do is existential as well. That might be true of being an atheist, like I know that life is all we’ve got, so it’s important you live a good one. But I’ve always snuck that in. But you know, at the end of the day, it’s a fun film. It’s entertainment. It’s not art-house, but yeah, I think it’s at least a notch up from a silly knockabout comedy for adolescents.
That superhero analogy is probably the nerdiest analogy I’ve ever heard, so is that part of Finch taken from yourself? Do you have toys and action figures?
No, I’m not! I’ve never collected comics. I like realism more. For me, the idea of Batman is more appealing than the idea of Superman, because he’s a person. He’s a billionaire thinking what can he do with it? The same as Iron Man. The problem with Superman is he’s an alien that can do anything. He’s bulletproof. As soon as I saw Superman go around the earth backwards and turn back time, I thought, “Well this is all over.” Once you can do that, it’s like… thank God for Kryptonite! [Laughs]
The funny thing is that part of the original Superman movie with him reversing time was probably the closest to the Superman comics from the ‘50s and ‘60s. They were really silly, and he could do things like that. They never were thinking “Oh, we need to make it more realistic.”
Well, I like escapism. I really love escapism. I love films about devils and angels. I love It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s beautiful. I loved Ghost Town. It was a metaphor, and I’d probably like some religious films. I watched Limitless again last night and that was amazing—I loved that! It’s like the ideal plane movie. What a fantasy that is with that pill… but I do want a bit of science in it, even if it’s fantastical. As soon as someone says, “This guy is magic,” like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, I can’t. I can’t do it.
If it goes too far into fantasy, then it’s too much for you?
Yeah, but having said that, I thought I’d hate Game of Thrones, and Game of Thrones is just medieval Sopranos with the odd dragon thrown in. I like that because that’s Machiavellian; it’s about power and the fact that there are odd things going on… I do want some sort of realism, because I think it’s about empathy at the end of the day, and I like real people. They can be ordinary and flawed, and they can do extraordinary things but it has to come from somewhere. That’s personal, though.
Speaking in those terms, the characters played by Vera and Kelly in the movie, they do fit into that because Vera is flawed, as she’s trying to get famous and is obsessed with that while Kelly’s character Claire is sweet and nice.
Exactly. They’re sort of good and evil. I’ve always had this weird thing about fame, and it has gotten worse. When I did The Office, it was influenced by those docu-soaps from the ‘90s with normal people becoming famous for 15 minutes, and that was it. Now, it’s insatiable. Now it’s gone crazy. They did a survey of 10-year-olds [about] what they want to be when they grow up, and they just said, “Famous.” They didn’t even say “pop star;” it’s just “famous.” And now there are people who will do everything to be famous. It’s mental!
It’s just everything for a YouTube clip. I mean, fuck me, it’s crazy, it’s just noise. It’s people on telly going, “Look at me, look at me!” every day. “Look at me, I’m with a famous person. We’re dancing in fucking hats.” I mean, just make something, write something. Write a fucking poem! Oh, God! What’s happened to the world?
We’re used to someone doing something, whether it’s acting or writing something and then people go, “That’s great!” and they get a reputation for that. Literally, if they have an Instagram account and a million followers, that’s something.
Yeah, but it happens all the time. Now, people who were famous for something else—singers who want to stay relevant—they do things. It’s like actors and comedians working their way down to YouTubers, who were on telly, but maybe if it was late night, no one watched it at the time. They want their YouTube clip to go viral, and I think, “Why?” The internet to me… there’s good and bad on the internet. At it’s best, it’s got great shows like Netflix and things go on the internet. At it’s worst, it’s people emptying a drawer out of a fucking window [Laughs]. Dear, God… look at me! Look at me! I’ll do anything if you look at me. I’ll dress up, I’ll dance!
I’m glad you have an outlet for stuff where you can put it into a movie like this and hopefully get some of it out of your system.
Well, it does, because of course, she says it when she says, “I thought you would be bigger in entertainment by now” and “Will there be any celebrities here?” I mean, what sort of question is that? “Will there be any celebrities here?” And when people say celebrities, they mean someone who has their own reality show. They don’t mean the guy who found the cure for cancer or who invented the internet, or the first astronaut. They don’t mean that. [Laughs]
Those guys don’t have time to go to parties. They’re too busy actually doing stuff.
[Laughs] Yeah, they may look a bit pale. “They should get a tan, look at their awful teeth!” “Well, they’ve been in a lab for 12 years.” “They just found a cure for Alzheimer’s.” “Yeah, but what are they wearing?” “Well, it doesn’t matter what they’re wearing, to be honest!”
I’m curious about the David Brent movie and how that’s going. Was there a lot of arm-twisting to do that again?
No, it’s so funny because I did The Office and left it, and I’m not bringing The Office back. I said I never would and I shouldn’t. That would be really weird, just people at the same desks, but David Brent, I wanted to do a saga, because I’m fascinated. It started with a normal person being a bit famous and now it’s 15 years later, and all those things we’ve just talked about are worse now, and he’s the world’s worst. There, he was the boss in charge of basically nice people and he was having the time of his life, and now, he’s not the boss, and it’s a dog eat dog world.
Now, there are people that go into The Apprentice by saying, “I will destroy anyone who stands in my way.” Trump is the role model for people now—their ambition. You’ve got the Kardashians and you’ve got Trump, and that’s some people’s role models now. Ruthless in business, showing off about their wealth, their power. “Build a wall, keep ‘em out, let’s blame them. It’s not us, it’s them!”
Okay, we’ve got that. We’ve got, “Look at me, look at me, I’ll do anything if you look at me and give me money.” You’ve got that. The world’s changed, and David Brent hasn’t really changed with it, so now he’s a man out of time, and it’s even sort of more tragic. Then, he was nearly 40 and it was quite sad. Now, he’s mid-50s and he’s still trying to be a pop star, and he’s trying to play that game.
But it’s all wrong, and he thinks, “Well, look what happened… Susan Boyle got signed.” But Susan Boyle wasn’t a victory for her, it was a victory for the show and Simon Cowell. Those shows, I said it at the end of Extras, they wheel out the mentally fragile to be snickered at by multi-millionaires for our viewing pleasure and shame on us. And David Brent thinks, “Well, I can do that, then.”
Twitter now, I’ve seen it. People would rather be thought of as a fucking idiot or a twit than not be thought of at all. We have professional trolls. We have people who say the most horrendous things for clickbait. Then they get their own show and they go on shows, and say horrendous things, and they say things like, “I hope all immigrants drown at sea,” and they get their own show because they’re controversial. It’s like we reward people for just screaming anything. It’s really odd. You can do something terrible then write a book later. In a Venn diagram, infamy is bigger than fame at the moment.
I probably should let you go because I’ve already gone over my 15 minutes by quite a bit.
Oh, no, that’s alright. I feel bad that I ranted about everything but the film! I should say one thing about Vera. Obviously that role is the fame-hungry evil person that is bullying a nice guy that is a bit of a nerd, who like his radio, but Vera—the first time filming—she said it in such a way that it was funny as well. Even though she was being cruel, it was so funny the way she did it. I just laughed!
I like people insulting me anyways, that’s my favorite thing, but she put such a great touch to it, and then Kelly had to be this sweet part. One of my favorite scenes in the whole movie is when she spills the wine because Vera’s making her nervous. And Kevin [Pollak], obviously amazing. Again, he’s a great comic but he’s always used for these really serious roles, just because he’s so good at it. And we got so many good players. America [Ferrera] and Raul [Castillo], they had the hardest thing to do, because stupidity is my favorite thing. When someone says something stupid, which I got from Laurel and Hardy—so did Christopher Guest and he’s a huge influence on me—that stupidity with confidence and when they’re nice as well.
They’re nice and doing their best and all those awful suggestions. They took a lot of takes. I tried to make it like they were nice normal people. They were childhood sweethearts, they were going to die the same day when they are 90 and that was a safe haven for me. I had this terrible marriag,e and they were like my family and I tried to make it cozy and sweet, but as I say in the film, they’re not the sharpest tool in the box. But their intentions are good.
As I say, it’s not a knockabout comedy, it’s not a broad huge comedy with trombones and fart gags, aimed at 13-year-old boys, but I’m very proud of it. I think it’s a grown-up comedy. I suppose it’s in the vein of something like Tootsie. I never thought I was watching a comedy, I thought I was watching this really sweet Hollywood film with good actors and good roles, and a nice story. The great thing about it is that people will watch it ‘cause it’s on Netflix. They have 75 million subscribers, so hopefully people might as well give it a watch. I’m very proud of it.
That’s actually a good point, because if it is on Netflix, people will watch it, whereas trying to get them to go to a movie theater is like pulling teeth these days.
Yeah, there’s no Hollywood now if you don’t count Marvel. I think what Netflix is going to do is that it’s going to come along and save the auteur, because I think people are going to be able to do films that not only were maybe low budget and not aimed at the lowest common denominator, but people will see them. I think it will be a return to the auteur where you don’t have to make films to get every idiot along on a Friday night or it’s pulled from cinemas on a Saturday.
That’s why all films are the same. That’s why all romantic comedies are the same, because it gets people to go out once a month on date night or whatever and they want to see the film they saw last month.
Have you been able to get Cemetery Junction on Netflix yet?
No, I don’t think it is.
I just saw this John Carney movie Sing Street, which really reminded me of what you did in that.
Yeah, well that was a tiny little British movie based on me growing up in Reading. That was a little bit of a labor of love for me. What do you think Americans would think of that? Well, you liked it.
I think any American who was ever into the British invasion would appreciate it. Obviously it’s a very personal story for you, but it has aspects of all these British rock bands who were emerging back then.
I’ll ask Ted [Sarandos]. I know they’ve got the UK Office on Netflix now, and I’ve tweeted that, because I want people to watch that now. But we played it down when the American Office was coming out, because we didn’t want people to compare it and we wanted the American Office to stand on its own two feet, and it did. I think the result is that when somebody says “The creator of The Office,” they think, “Oh, that must be Steve Carell.” [Laughs]
But Cemetery Junction was one of those nice hidden gems, and what’s nice about movies is that once they’re made, they don’t go away, and people can find them.
That’s what’s really great about word-of-mouth, because word-of-mouth on Netflix can take six months and it’s like the old days. It’s great. It’s not like if you missed it on the Friday night, you have to wait for the DVD. People are talking about it, and it’s there. That’s what’s really good about Netflix, and you really want people to watch your work, as I say, but with zero interference.
Now, obviously we’re back to a cinema release with David Brent. In the UK, it probably isn’t much of a risk, but America, do we do a platform release? Do we put it in a couple cinemas? What do you do? It’s not a blockbuster, it’s an acquired taste. It’s important for Anglophiles and people who like that sort of comedy, but I don’t care, because it’s exactly as it turned out, so I don’t care. I’m so proud of it, and I’m so proud of the album as well, because we’re doing a David Brent album and I’ll do some gigs.
It’s great, because I’ve been working on these two for a couple years now, and they’re coming out within a couple months of each other. But that’s always the way.
Ricky Gervais’ new film Special Correspondents is available now on Netflix while David Brent’s Life on the Road is out in the UK on Aug. 19 and will hopefully get to America shortly afterwards.