'Cemetery Junction': set visit

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are currently shooting their first movie together. Tim Arthur reports from the set of 'Cemetery Junction'

Time Out has been invited to the set of ‘Cemetery Junction’, the first full-length feature to be written and directed by the multi-award-winning partnership of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. Set in Reading in 1973, it follows the lives of three young working-class friends, Freddie, Bruce and lovable loser Snork, as they spend their days joking, drinking, fighting and chasing girls.

We’re not in Reading now, though. We’re in the grand basement of Victoria House in Bloomsbury, and the cast and crew are just breaking for lunch. I’m swept down a corridor by a tide of supporting artistes dressed in crushed velvet dinner jackets, baby blue evening gowns and wigs. As they head off to the makeshift dining hall, I overhear one of them say loudly: ‘I hope the lunch here is better than the rubbish they served up on “The Bill” last week.’ I watch them all sit down and then, almost as a single unit, reach into their bags to produce a mobile phone, instantly shattering the period illusion. Is this real or have I somehow been transported into a scene from ‘Extras’?

I’m led into a giant ballroom being set up for the next scene. Out of the darkness I can hear Gervais’s hyena-like laugh. Then I see two silhouettes looming from the smoky gloom, like Gandalf and Frodo striding out of a naff Christmas disco in Mordor. As both emerge into the light, it’s apparent from their smiling faces that they’ve had a successful morning. The altitudinous Merchant bends down to shake my hand and instantly begins to apologise for his Terry-Thomas ’tache. ‘Sorry about the facial hair. It’s for the film, obviously.’ 'Don’t knock it,’ Gervais butts in. ‘It took him two years to grow, bless him.’ ‘When it comes to acting, that’s the extent of my preparation really. A new moustache or a limp and I’m in,’ the BFG adds in his Bristolian burr.

It’s obvious from their banter and bonhomie that they’re enjoying the process of co-directing a movie. ‘It’s all been very harmonious. We’ve been working together now for 11 or 12 years and we’ve built up a kind of profound shared understanding. In fact, a lot of people say that they often hear us finishing each other’s sentences like some old married couple.’ Ricky nods in agreement. ‘The serious truth is that there’s always been a profound respect between us. We’re incredibly lucky that we see eye to eye on about 98 per cent of everything.’ After one particular take, I witness this mutual understanding at work:

Ricky: ‘You know what we should do? We should…’
Stephen: ‘Yep, absolutely. And then maybe the camera should come in on…’
Ricky: ‘That’s it. Yes. Let’s do that.’

Unlike on previous projects, the two of them are taking a back seat on the acting front, with small cameo roles allowing them to concentrate on the direction. ‘But don’t worry,’ assures Merchant. ‘If you’re a Ricky fan, you’ll get enough of him. But not enough to annoy you if you don’t like him.’ The lead roles are taken by three relatively unknown actors: Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes and Jack Doolan.

Both directors seem equally pleased to have uncovered some exciting new thesp blood. ‘We wanted to find our new Jimmy Dean, John Travolta and Lou Costello. When you cast, if you see a 1,000 men, half of them are going to be “EastEnders” types, perfect for some new gangster movie, and the other half of them are going be Mr Darcy,’ says Gervais. He nods over to Doolan (a young, British Jack Black-a-like) who’s standing in a darkened corner listening to an iPod, clicking his Cuban heels and singing along to Slade’s ‘Cum on Feel the Noize’, which he’ll be performing when the cameras start rolling again.‘We’ve noticed that a lot of British cinema embraces the loser and goes for gritty realism, which can be great but not a very nice ride,’ Gervais says.

‘We wanted some of that blue-collar truth, but with good-looking people and good lighting.’ ‘We’ve always mocked people trying to be cool before,’ adds Merchant. ‘Middle-aged people attempting to maintain their youth. This is about young people who are forced to make tough decisions.’And at that moment, a runner comes over and informs them it’s time to get back to work. I’m then swept up again in that wave of extras, making their way back to the dance floor and all looking suitably replete: I assume the catering staff did them proud.

Cemetery Junction’ opens in April 2010.

Author: Tim Arthur





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