“He won’t do it,” says Ricky Gervais, striding over to RT. He’s referring to his round-headed friend Karl Pilkington. Last time we sat down with Gervais he’d suggested Pilkington – co-star of his phenomenally successful podcast series with Stephen Merchant – as a film reviewer for the Tomatometer. “I said, ‘They’ll pay you £50.’ He wasn’t interested. I said, ‘We’ll dress you up as a giant tomato.’ He went, ‘Oh, this is getting better and better.'”
But while Gervais has failed in that particular recruiting mission, he and Merchant are on fine form today. It’s late July and RT has come to the Shepperton Studios set of Cemetery Junction, their first feature film together after success on the small screen with The Office and Extras. The atmosphere is light, the cast and crew seem to be enjoying themselves and Gervais’ trademark cackle rings regularly through the air.
Taking its name from a road junction in Gervais’ hometown of Reading, the film stars Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson and Matthew Goode. Relative newcomers Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes, Jack Doolan and Felicity Jones, play its young leads. “It’s a film about escaping your roots and that small-town mentality,” explains Gervais. “There’s a line in it which my mum said to me when I was 18. I told her I was going to France and she said, ‘What do you want to go there for? There’s parts of Reading you haven’t seen.'”
“It’s about a group of working-class lads in the 70s, one of whom aspires to be better than his dad – played by Ricky – and not go to work in a factory,” continues Merchant. “Instead, he goes to work for Ralph Fiennes’ character; a sort-of white-collar job. He finds a role-model in him but in doing that he starts to drift away from his friends who are still in that world. It’s the story of them, really, and whether that friendship will last.”
Gervais and Merchant on set, rocking the Miami Vice look.
Like all of their work to date, there’s a sense that this is a comic take on a delicately-observed slice of real life, but it’s not just the hometown location that makes the project feel all the more autobiographical than The Office and Extras. “The coolest kids in school when I was growing up,” says Gervais, “the best footballers, the best fighters, the ones who got a girlfriend first — now they’re bald and stacking shelves. The Office was that feeling of, you’ve already wasted some of your life and you don’t want to wake up and go, ‘That was it.’ With these kids we’ve condensed that pounding feeling that there must be something out there. They’re 23, not 33.”
It seems, too, as though the comedy in Cemetery Junction will come from a slightly different and perhaps unexpected place. “We’ve lost that level of irony,” Gervais tells us. “We’ve lost that level of, isn’t it funny that they’re bad? Isn’t it funny that they’re stupid or they’re saying the wrong things? With this we wanted to give them a rip-roaring adventure — we want you to like these guys. They do get into fights and they do drink too much and chase girls, but it’s to be celebrated.”
And that’s the key point for Gervais and Merchant — this isn’t your average British film. While much of the British industry seems to wallow in gritty realism, get lost in romantic fantasy or strap on a bonnet and put on a posh accent, Gervais and Merchant hope that Cemetery Junction will strike away from pack and, perhaps, present a slightly less blinkered view of life in Britain. “We liked the idea of making it very contained in this small town in the 70s, but with that sort of swagger that you get in Butch Cassidy,” explains Merchant. “It’s a much smaller story about tiny lives, but in their heads it’s epic. No-one lives their lives going, ‘I’m a nobody and I’m pathetic.'”
Gervais continues: “Their world is as big to them as it is to us; it’s just that they sometimes don’t go outside of their square patch of it. Even in the kitchen we’ve tried to make it cinematic. We’ve used the widescreen this time; we’re not shooting for telly. And we’ve got our soap-opera radar — anything that looks slightly cheap is out. We were very conscious that we didn’t want this to look drab and dingy, and curtains drawn and kitchen sink. We want this to look like Hollywood doing early-70s England. And we have taken liberties, you know; it’s sunny every day in Cemetery Junction for that summer.”
Casting the central roles was the biggest challenge — finding actors in Britain who had the screen presence to strike that epic quality. “In the States, I think one of the reasons there are perennial heroes like Steve McQueen is because they’re classless,” says Merchant. “I think it’s one of the things that are tricky in making British films, because class always comes into it. It’s quite tricky to find something that feels neutral and allows you to think about the story and not the class of the characters.”
“[Our actors] just had that,” says Gervais. “They walked into a room and suddenly they were film stars. They weren’t phoning their agent saying, ‘I’ve got The Bill tomorrow and I’ve got a small part in Holby and I might do a play.’ They were going, ‘I want to be a film star,’ and they got it straight away. Plus they were cheap, and we’ve signed up for 50% of their earnings until they’re 68!”
If that’s not strictly true, as we suspect it may not be, Gervais told RT last year that the plan was to extend the world into a TV series so the pair could further explore these characters, so this may not be the last time they work with the young cast. The spin-off is still on the cards, they said, but nothing was certain. “It’s an option, but we never hold ourselves to anything like that. I’d like to, but anything could happen. We might think it ruins the legacy of the film, and that’s important to us, and we’ll turn it down. We might love it; we might do five series this time instead of two. I think the likelihood is that we’ll probably write it, at least, because that’s the real joy for us, the writing.”
L to R: Felicity Jones as Julie, Christian Cooke as Freddie, Tom Hughes as Bruce, Jack Doolan as Snork.
“It’s all speculative,” agrees Merchant. “We’ve been totally focussed on this script. But we like the characters, and we’ll be doing a scene with Ricky and we’ll go, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…'”
“What we’d lose is the one big story,” adds Gervais. “But we’d have more fun with the smaller characters. My character, for example – it could become about the family unit, so it’s more of a sitcom.”
For now though, the focus is on delivering the film amidst the pair’s other commitments. In addition to their work together, Gervais, also has a stand-up tour to do (he’d probably be keen on us mentioning that it’s sold out, as his last tour was) and his first American directorial feature, The Invention of Lying, to promote.
So with all the work on their plates have there been any tensions between them? “We see eye-to-eye on 98% of stuff,” says Gervais. “And when we don’t see eye-to-eye, we’ve got one rule: one veto and then it’s out, or let’s do them both and we’ll see in the edit. There doesn’t need to be arguments, really. And we work so fast, and it’s such a joy. It’s so much fun. The only thing I don’t like is getting up early.”
“Or doing the work,” adds Merchant.
“Or doing anything.”
“Anything that takes you away from the sofa.”
Gervais unleashes that cackle again. “Yeah, so all my scenes were on the sofa. At one point Steve went, ‘Ricky, are you actually asleep?'”
Cemetery Junction is released next year. Ricky Gervais’ home on the web is rickygervais.com, where you can fail to buy tickets for his sold-out stand-up tour.