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Cemetery Junction - Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant interview

Cemetery Junction

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RICKY Gervais and Stephen Merchant talk about some of the inspirations behind their latest project as writers and directors, Cemetery Junction, including why Bruce Springsteen’s Thunder Road played such a big part.

They also talk about their career to date and why they are always aware of their legacy…

Q. As well as being autobiographical is it true that you based Cemetery Junction on the Bruce Springsteen song Thunder Road?
Ricky Gervais: Yeah. That was all we had. We’d been knocking that idea around… that sort of escape/coming-of-age film for some time. When we started writing this, we probably wrote two other films that we discarded and started again. But that’s the one thing we had.

Stephen Merchant: It was the way that he was able to romanticise… I’m sure if you took that song apart, and who knows what his influences were. But to us, the picture of that song was always some small town, somewhere, we weren’t sure where… it felt kind of blue collar and yet there was something romantic about it and something kind of romanticised about that place.

Ricky Gervais: It leant itself to a film plot or a film theme. We also wondered why America has really had the monopoly on those sort of films – you know, driving across… getting out. So, we tried to do our own English version. We wanted to do our own English version of Rebel Without A Cause and Saturday Night Fever. We think we did it. And then we had to find our James Dean and John Travolta and I think we did it again.

Q. How hard was that?
Ricky Gervais: That was hard. I was panicking at one point thinking: “They’re not here! They don’t exist.”

Stephen Merchant: He thought: “God, I’m going to have to do it!”

Q. You saw loads of actors, didn’t you?
Ricky Gervais: We saw a thousand, apart from the ones we cast. But the weird thing is that 500 of those will play Mr Darcy one day… and it’s either that or they’ll be saying: “You f**king slag!” It was like that was the choice. They were either gritty east enders or remarkably posh.

Stephen Merchant: Everything’s so class specific over here and you sort of forget that, particularly as the films you grew up with starred James Dean or Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. But you then realise the fact that you don’t quite know where they’re from. Where are they from?

Ricky Gervais: Where’s our Paul Newmans? Where’s our Robert Redfords? We’ve got Jason Statham, who is great… blue collar and cool, which is fantastic. And we’ve got Hugh Grant, which is great. But where’s this crossover, this blue collar guy who is cool? Where is our James Dean? Where is our John Travolta and Steve McQueen? I really think we found something close to that. For example, Tom Hughes… the charisma he exudes as Bruce is great. And it’s funny because where we have got that is in our rock stars. We’ve got it in Liam [Gallagher] and we’ve got it in Richard Ashcroft. Sometimes I’d say “more Liam, more Richard” to Tom.

Stephen Merchant: It’s interesting that music in this country… we sort of sold something to America with The Beatles and they sold something back. And we’ve never been afraid to embrace American style rock ‘n’ roll and make it our own over here. And yet somehow we’ve always felt slightly ashamed it seems in cinema of doing it… like somehow we’re selling out or not being true to the cynical British spirit. So, once you accept that there’s no reason why you can’t import that romanticism and that Hollywood gloss…

Ricky Gervais: Of course, it’s often done terribly, terribly badly when we try… that’s the other thing. But on the other side of the coin, Hollywood is responsible for some of the greatest and worst movies of all time! Getting it right for us is putting our vision on-screen without interference. And we don’t apologise for that. We did it for The Office, with Extras and we’ve done it with this. We only try and please ourselves. But that’s what you do – you try and please yourself, because you know what you’re thinking and anything that gets in the way of that is a compromise. We’d love people to go and see Cemetery Junction but if they don’t like it, that’s fine. I’ve always thought that about everything that we’ve done, or I’ve done. It doesn’t really matter to me… as long as it’s as I wanted it. That’s all the matters.

Q. Coming back to what you were saying about English music…. it is about working class boys trying to escape, and yet that hasn’t been done in film…
Ricky Gervais: Because there’s not a lot of places to go, in a way. As Steve said, you can drive 1,000 miles across America and find yourself, whereas if you drive a few miles from Slough you’re in London anyway, or you hit Wales and you’re in another country! Also, wherever you are in England it’s still raining [laughs]!

Q. Did the weather prove a problem when filming? You seem to have caught a break there…
Ricky Gervais: Well, that was another thing. We wanted to evoke those memories that people have of the long hot summers in the ’70s. Whatever else is happening, things are better in the sun. We were so lucky… we had the two weeks of the year that was glorious sunshine in Britain. Without that, it would have been another drab British drama that didn’t look good. And so, you realise that you need a bit of luck as well.

Tom Hughes in Cemetery Junction

Q. How was bringing the young lads – Christian Cooke, Tom Hughes and Jack Doolan – on set. Did you notice any of their knees knocking?
Ricky Gervais: I didn’t sense it. If they were nervous, they really didn’t show it… although we did see them getting more into it and trying new stuff. They’re all very different in their approach and I think they’ll go very separate ways in the next thing they do. But we’re always learning. We’re making it up as we go along and, again, we don’t apologise for that. We don’t care if someone says: “It’s not done like that…” That makes me want to do it more.

Stephen Merchant: For instance, a lot of actors learn their lines…

Ricky Gervais: [Descends into trademark laugh]

Stephen Merchant: But the thing that we always find interesting is that people have been asking us questions now about being directors, saying ‘and now you’re directing…’ But we’ve felt that we’ve always been directors. We’ve directed everything we’ve done!

Ricky Gervais: And do you know why? It’s because TV directing isn’t taken seriously, but we always took it seriously. We always thought we were making a movie when we did The Office. We treated it like this was going to be around for 25 years… it was a really important show to us. It was the same with Extras. We were practising with Extras… particularly the special. I mean that was a TV movie the Extras Christmas special.

Stephen Merchant: To us, directing is as much about getting the performances. And again, people who don’t do it professionally often underestimate how hard it is to get a good performance…

Ricky Gervais: They just think it’s knowing what lens to put on now. And that’s part of it, and we really made sure it looked lovely. But as Steve said it’s the nuances, the story… it’s those little things you see third time around that hit you on an emotional level that we’re proudest of. You know, Bruce putting his hand on his Dad’s arm… that’s the thing that I’m going to love and cry at in 25 years time – not the fact that we did a dolly shot.

Q. So, who’s harder on who as directors and do you still find that you surprise each other?
Ricky Gervais: No, we come up with ideas all the time… but when we get there we’re 95% there, on the same page, agreed. And that’s because we’ve written it as well. With this film, we’ve lived with this for a year in its finished format before we turn up on set. I’m sure if somebody handed us Matrix 4 we’d argue and panic. But when it comes as a package…

Stephen Merchant: Obviously, Ricky would want to play the Keanu Reeves role… [Ricky Gervais trademark laugh]… But no one wants to see him doing a kind of 360 degree shooting scene!

Ricky Gervais: They’d need a lot of pulleys!

Stephen Merchant: And how the hell would we do that!

Q. Stephen, you cameo in the movie briefly but hilariously, complete with a moustache…
Stephen Merchant: Well, that was intense. I’d underestimated that actually I’d have to keep that moustache for five days. It took us about a week to do that sequence. I had to go home, walk around and live life with a moustache.

Ricky Gervais: It’s weird. He looks taller with a moustache… even taller. It drew attention… it was the highest moustache I’d ever seen.

Q. How much fun was it recreating the look of the ’70s?
Ricky Gervais: It was fun but, again, we didn’t want it to be one of these projects you see on TV where everyone is walking around in 1973 in Reading looking like David Bowie. That didn’t happen! If you walked around like David Bowie in 1973 in Reading, you’d get beaten up. The 1970s in a small town was more like the 1950s.. and that’s the truth. The backdrop was probably Victorian. So, we made sure we got that. Of course, it’s there when it needs to be… when you go into a nightclub we showed it. But it didn’t really matter where Cemetery Junction was set, or when it was set – what matters is that it’s a universal story about escape and stifled ambition. And it’s the same everywhere in the world.

Cemetery Junction

Q. But does setting it in Reading make it more personal for you?
Ricky Gervais: But as I say that doesn’t matter. Everything you do is autobiographical, so yeah we drew on things like what my parents were like, what my mum was like and all that. But we always try and make sure that it is realistic, true to life and anecdotal but it’s also universal and global. I think that’s why The Office went around the world. On the face of it, it looks so quintessentially English and parochial that it would never travel. But it has universal themes. It’s about boys meets girl, a decent job at work and making a difference. Again, it doesn’t matter where you are, or what time you’re in, it’s the same for everyone and it’s the same wherever you go. I might lyric that… I might give it to Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney.

Q. This is the first time you’ve really tackled a coming-of-age theme though, isn’t it?
Stephen Merchant: That’s right. A lot of what we’ve done before has been about people in middle age, or approaching middle age, and the decisions they’ve made and how they’ve ended up at that point, and perhaps been sort of stuck in that point. In a way, those are themes that always interest us but this time from a different perspective. This is about having the sense that you’re suddenly confronted at a very young age about decisions that will impact the rest of your life. You can wake up at 65 and not have realised that “Jeez, I never wrote that novel”…

Ricky Gervais: But you can do that with a good life as well. You can enjoy it all but that’s what took you away from it. In fact, being oppressed and having a struggle is probably a good catalyst. It’s much better than having a cosy little middle everything life in a way. But it’s not a snobby look at any of those things. We’ve always drawn this existential view of life: what’s the point? What’s important? What are you going to do with it? And how are you going to look back?

Q. That is reflected in the quality of work…
Ricky Gervais: It’s reflected in the business side of things as well. We are always worrying about the legacy. We don’t do things that are here today and gone tomorrow. We want to be proud of everything we’ve done in 25 years time. We want to be able to look back and say: “I did The Office and Extras and a film called Cemetery Junction.” So, it’s got to be perfect. And when I say that I mean that we’re happy with it.

Stephen Merchant: You missed something out from that [list]… the Barclays voiceover! [followed by another trademark Ricky laugh]

Cemetery Junction

Q. So, as long as you’re happy with what you produce is it fair to say you don’t feel the pressure? Or that you’re not worried about the great British tradition of building people up to knock them down?
Ricky Gervais: I don’t feel any pressure at all because I don’t care. That’s an occupational hazard… but if you’re doing anything of any worth, and not doing something that’s safe and anodyne and trying to be populist and a national treasure, then you’ve got to assume that as many people hate what you do – and you – as like what you do and like you. But I wouldn’t have it any other way because that means I’m doing something right.

Stephen Merchant: Actually, I’d prefer to be loved by everyone… and I would like to make millions of pounds from this film [deadpan]. The thing for me is that I’d like people to see it just so they’ll keep letting us make other ones. I also feel a commitment to people who’ve give us money…. the audience. We don’t pander but we want them to see it, otherwise we’d do it at home and stick it in a drawer. So, that’s important. But as Ricky says, there’s a difference between just wanting to please an audience by making the project as appealing as you can, and trying to do your best.

Ricky Gervais: I get so sick of people asking: “What’s your demographic?” Or: “Oh we’ve got to aim this at…” No, you have to aim it at you. You do the thing you would love… make the thing you would love and be proud of. There’s enough people in the world that, if you do that and do it well as a single vision, they’ll go: “That’s my favourite thing ever!” That’s the buzz for me… that I did it for myself. And I have made hundreds of millions by the way [turns to Stephen]. It’s just not shared 50/50. But that’s why I don’t give a f**k [laughs like Ricky].

Q. What’s next for you both? Are you working together again?
Ricky Gervais: Well, we do one thing at a time and we don’t care whether it’s set in stone or whether it’s right or wrong. When we hit, we know it’s the right thing to do for us. The next thing…

Stephen Merchant: We’re opening a tea-room.

Ricky Gervais: [Chuckles] Yeah… the next thing we’re doing is shooting a pilot called Life’s Too Short at the end of June, which is the next thing we’re writing and directing for TV – probably HBO and the BBC again. It’s about the life of a showbiz dwarf played by Warwick Davis. It’s a Curb Your Enthusiasm meets One Foot In The Grave meets Extras… with a dwarf!

Read our review of Cemetery Junction

Read our interview with Tom Hughes and Jack Doolan

Read our interview with Christian Cooke

  1. Ricky and Stephen are creative geniuses. This is a great interview, explainnig how they go about their craft in a fiercely determined, absolutely independent way. Long may that continue…

    Stu    Apr 15    #