Talking to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the co-creators of The Office and Extras, is a lot like listening in on one of their side-splitting podcasts. This certainly makes life easy for any journalist who’s lucky enough to interview the Brit wits. When EW got Gervais and Merchant on the phone recently to discuss the first feature film they’ve written and directed together, Cemetery Junction — an ensemble dramedy set in working-class ’70s England, featuring supporting roles from Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson, and due to arrive in theaters next year — we hardly had to ask any questions at all to get the banter flowing freely.
RICKY GERVAIS: Steve is still dialing in, because he is not as clever as me, to be honest. That can go on record…Well, I’ll tell you what, Simon. Let’s start the interview. If Steve Merchant manages to work this out, then he can join in. Or that’s his punishment: He doesn’t get in one of the most prestigious magazines in the world. [Begins yelling at Merchant] What are you doing?! Well, just dial the right number then, in the right order! That’s all you have to do with a phone!
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is he there in the room with you?
GERVAIS: Yeah. [A beep is heard] Oh, there you are.
STEPHEN MERCHANT: Oh, here I am…But now I can hear you in the room and on the phone.
GERVAIS: Well, go into a cupboard and shut the door! Then it’ll be like we’re in different countries. [Pauses] Oh, there’s an echo here, Steve. That’s very true. What is that door there?
MERCHANT: [Smugly] Why don’t you go in a cupboard? Then it’ll be like you’re in another country, what you said.
GERVAIS: [Laughs] Um, yeah. [Sounds of investigating the room] Let’s see. What is it? There might be another door. Is it a cupboard?
GERVAIS: Oh, he’s just walked into someone else’s office! [Cackling with laughter] Good. Okay, well, let’s talk quietly. I’m facing away from him now. I’ve got a tissue, and now I’m talking into the tissue, so you can hear me and Steve can’t, hopefully.
EW: Okay, let’s hope that works out. So tell me about Cemetery Junction.
GERVAIS: Well, as you can see, we’re very slick, professional directors, so nothing goes wrong on our set. [Pause] No, joking aside, I think we are. We’ve worked together now for about 12 years. We come really well-prepared, because we write and direct all our own stuff. So yeah, it’s going really smoothly. Dare I say it? It’s even better than we expected. And I expect it to be brilliant, because I’m involved. So you can imagine how good it is.
EW: That sounds pretty good.
MERCHANT: Can I just flag out that I think he was being ironic there?
GERVAIS: [Laughs] Steve’s worried about me being misrepresented in the press. It’s okay, they’re Americans! They’re nice and honest. Don’t worry about it.
GERVAIS: Steve, I will never get my comeuppance.
MERCHANT: [Laughs] But the film itself centers around three young guys growing up in a small town. One of them is dreaming big, he wants to escape the blue-collar life which his dad, played by Ricky, has, working in a factory and window-cleaning on the side. He aspires to something else. And he meets Ralph Fiennes, who works for a big white-collar company, and he decides that’s his way out. But it starts to sort of distance him from his other working-class mates. But if that sounds kind of gritty and English and working-class, that’s not the case at all. We’re very inspired by a lot of American movies of the past, whether it be Saturday Night Fever or Diner.
GERVAIS: We’re sort of celebrating that blue-collar lifestyle. We’re celebrating these guys, wasting their summer drinking and chasing girls and fighting. Their feathers will fall out eventually, but not this summer. I remember the first time I watched Saturday Night Fever — I didn’t feel sorry for him because he works in a paint shop. I didn’t even care particularly about the nuance, that he was wasting his life. I thought, “Wow, what a cool guy. I wish I could dance like that.” And that’s why I trained, and now I can dance like that.
MERCHANT: As you may have seen in The Office.
EW: It sounds like tonally, this is a bit different from the other projects you’ve worked on together.
GERVAIS: It’s very, very different. And the big one is that we’ve left the celebration of the uncool and the unsexy behind. The Office was steeped in irony, and obviously people were funny because they weren’t funny. We liked them because they said the wrong things. Whereas this is more down-the-line. This is our Saturday Night Fever meets Diner meets Rebel Without a Cause.
EW: What has it been like working with Ralph Fiennes?
GERVAIS: It’s fantastic. I was in Toronto, actually, doing a junket for Ghost Town, and I was in a restaurant with my girlfriend, and he was across the other way with a friend having dinner. And I’ve never done this before. But we’d already written the part for him, and I just thought, “Well, I’ve got to go and ask him.” We already knew what an amazing actor he was, but if I hadn’t seen In Bruges, we probably wouldn’t have thought he was right for it. We just loved the fact that he undercut his own stature and presence as this amazing Oscar-nominated actor and did a really funny piece, full of character, full of credibility. There was only one person for it. He read the script and liked it. And he was an absolute joy to work with, wasn’t he?
MERCHANT: Yeah. What’s extraordinary about him is that in any given scene, with very subtle variations with his look or with the tone of his voice, he can give you very different interpretations of the same lines that you’ve written. That was a real thrill.
EW: And how about Emily Watson?
GERVAIS: Really good. Again, she really embraced the character. We were really impressed with both of them. The thing is, for me and Steve, we’ve worked with all these people, and people think that we take it for granted. But we still pinch ourselves that Robert De Niro did a bit in Extras for us, and that Kate Winslet wants to work with us and dress up as a nun. We still can’t believe that we’ve got this access. So yeah, we know how lucky we are.
EW: To what extent is this film’s story based on your own lives growing up?
GERVAIS: Oh, I mean, everything’s autobiographical, isn’t it?
MERCHANT: Well, they’re incredibly cool and sexy, for one. That’s not us.
GERVAIS: [Laughs] Yeah. But yes, of course it is. Everything you do is your memory, your vision of something that may or may not have happened.
EW: Do you guys have any other projects coming up that you’d like to mention?
GERVAIS: This will take us up to the beginning of next year. We’re both doing live stuff. I’ve got a tour to do, and little bits and pieces. We’re doing some more podcasts and audiobooks with the great Karl Pilkington. I mean, we’ve worked with Ralph Fiennes and Emily Watson and Kate Winslet and Robert De Niro. But none of them come close to the round-headed buffoon that is Karl Pilkington.
MERCHANT: But don’t tell Robert De Niro that.
GERVAIS: [Bursts into laughter]
Be sure to check out the First Look section of this week’s issue of EW, on newsstands today, for an exclusive shot from the set of Cemetery Junction.
PHOTO CREDIT: BBC