Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant talk 'Cemetery Junction'
The directors and writers of 'The Office' and 'Extras' discuss 'Cemetery Junction', the first movie they've made together
Your new film, ‘Cemetery Junction’, is the first movie you’ve written and directed together. We hear it’s a lot more serious than people may be expecting. Are you at all concerned that it might not be the Gervais/Merchant production people have been waiting for?
Ricky Gervais ‘I think you should always blow expectations away.You should never pander or do what’s expected, particularly with comedy and drama. It’s always about misdirection; it should always be a surprise.’
Stephen Merchant ‘I wonder what people’s perception of us is, anyway. Is it just Ricky doing a funny dance and me wanking over a pen, rather than all the other stuff?’
RG ‘We’ve never actually done broad comedy. Our shows may have appealed to a broad audience but that was never what we set out to do. Our work should just have stayed at cult level.’
SM ‘People also don’t see the work we do behind the scenes for years on something like this film. They just see you on a chat show and go, “Well, hang on, I thought the last time I saw them they were dicking around. Why are they doing this serious stuff?”’
RG ‘But we’ve always tried sneaking stuff in. Like we always knew “The Office” was meant to be nearly a soap opera with laughs, but actually the themes were more ambitious than the average sitcom. It was quite existential. That’s what excites me. I remember the buzz I got when we finished “The Office”. I still get a buzz when I write a joke. An adrenaline rush. Nothing else does that: watching it on telly, winning an award, money – these don’t give me an adrenaline rush. But the artistic process – having the idea all the way through to finishing it with no one interfering, that gives me an adrenaline rush. I hope every film I sit down and watch changes my life in some way. That’s the truth of it. And that’s what we wanted from this film.’
‘Cemetery Junction’ is the story of three young men trying to escape their stifling lives in a small town during the 1970s. How autobiographical is it for both of you?
RG ‘It’s definitely taking us back to our roots. I grew up in a place exactly like the one in the movie. I knew all of those people, so did Steve.’
SM ‘We’ve romanticised it to a degree. We’ve done that deliberately to make it feel a little bit like a dream of the past, rather than the tough, gritty realism of Britain in 1970.’
RG ‘Even so, my dad was a labourer, my mum was a housewife and we lived on a really working-class estate, but it didn’t seem grim; there was nobility in that life.’
SM ‘I never felt I was escaping an inner-city, drug-fuelled estate. It was quite a pleasant life. But I still felt personally very constrained.’
RG ‘Exactly. It was more about the mindset of the people there. There’s a line that my mum said to me when I was 18 that sums it up. I said, “I’m going to France,” and she said, “What do you want to go there for? There are parts of Reading you haven’t seen yet.” And that’s not a quintessentially English mindset either; it’s exactly the same in Middle America now.’
Having had a lot of international success while you were writing it, did you ever consider how this very ‘English’ story would be received across the Pond?
RG ‘Not really, but then we didn’t make “The Office” for a global market, and it’s gone everywhere. The themes are universal: boy meets girl, man fears wasting his life and wants to make a mark in the world. The same themes that we have in this film.’
SM ‘Funnily enough, one of the main inspirations for “Cemetery Junction” was a line from “Thunder Road” by Bruce Springsteen, which couldn’t be more American: “A town full of losers and we’re pulling out of here to win…” ’
You’ve had so much success with your past projects. Are you at all nervous about how successful this one will be?
RG ‘It’s a success already because it’s exactly how we wanted it to be. If you start trying to do things to please other people – public, critics or peers – and they don’t like it, you’ve failed. If you don’t give a fuck about what they think and you’re trying to please yourself, you can’t fail.’
SM ‘Yeah, but we’d still like people to go to the cinema. However, in the end you have to think of the long-term picture. What’s our body of work going to be…’
RG ‘… in 25 years’ time.’
SM ‘It’s got to be work we’re proud of. Not four sequels in which, yet again, Ricky is mistaken for a Bolivian dictator who looks exactly like him and has to masquerade…’
RG ‘Hold on, let me get a pen… Ultimately, though, you do it for yourself and likeminded people. Bob Dylan had a great quote, he said: “A man can consider himself a success if he wakes up in the morning, goes to bed at night and in between did exactly what he wanted.” That is success and that’s precisely what we do.’
SM ‘The problem is it sounds conceited.’
RG ‘It always does. But it’s true, we do what we do primarily to please ourselves.’
So does criticism have no effect on you?
RG ‘The thing is there are some good critics, there are some bad critics, and then there are some critics that aren’t really critics, they’re gossip-mongers; they’re fed up and they’re jealous: “We’ve won! We’ve won! Their life didn’t turn out like they wanted it! We’ve won!” You mustn’t worry about those ones. But ultimately to complain about critics is like complaining about waves. They are there whether you like it or not.’
SM ‘I don’t want to read reviews even if they’re glowing; it’s not useful to me. Our own self-doubt and anxiety about if we’ve done something right or not is far more important and gnawing than anything some bloke I’ve never met could say.’
Hollywood appears to have embraced you. When you’re over there do you still have the feeling of being outsiders, or are you now very much on the inside?
SM ‘I still feel kind of privileged that they would let me in the country club to have a walk around and have a quiet drink in the corner, but I don’t feel like we’ll ever be real members.’
How did you get away with the comments you made at the Golden Globes about stars like Mel Gibson and Angelina Jolie?
RG ‘Because it’s with their blessing. They get the joke. It’s often a relief that someone will talk normally to them again. I bet they miss that.’
SM ‘I think Ricky still isn’t really one of them. He’s just a Brit coming on, a beer in hand, kind of roasting the celebs.’
RG ‘I had to play it as the outsider. I had to be the wrong person for the job. That way I could say whatever I liked because I’m not a threat in any way at all.’
Do you see this film as being the first of a large body of work that you’d like to look back on in later life?
RG ‘No. I’d like to look back on a perfect body of work. But I don’t care how large it is. The point of art is to make a connection, and I don’t care how many people I connect with but I want every connection to be a big one.’
SM ‘Yeah, it’s not the volume of work, it’s being able to say there was some good stuff. There weren’t endless bad sequels. We weren’t chasing celebrity and money. You know what I mean? We simply created some good shit.’
Author: Interview: Tim Arthur
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