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Ricky Gervais: "With art you have to be a complete fascist"

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What’s Ricky gone and done now? His most ambitious project yet, that’s what. Lucy Jones visits him on the set of his new film

“Would you rather live without testicles or without a penis?” Ricky Gervais and Eric Bana are improvising on set, unaware that ShortList is earwigging. 

A surprisingly in-depth discussion ensues with Gervais suggesting that it might be tricky to get an erection without balls. “Well, would you rather have testicles instead of breasts and breasts in the place of testicles?” Bana asks. “Chesticles?” The debate descends into incoherent howls of laughter.

It’s a boiling hot day in Toronto, Canada, and ShortList is on the set of Special Correspondents, the new film co-produced, written, directed and acted in by Ricky Gervais. It tells the story of two war reporters who end up faking frontline dispatches from a room above a tapas bar after misplacing their passports on their way to the hot zone.

Frank Bonneville, played by Eric Bana, is an arrogant, narcissistic New York-based radio journalist, in Bana’s words, a “bit of a dick”, while Ian Finch (Gervais), is the station’s sweet, geeky, comic-loving technical producer. Predictably, things get somewhat out of hand for the disorganised duo.

The idea is loosely inspired by Gervais’s single, mostly forgotten viewing of 2009 French film Envoyés Très Spéciaux: “Just the idea that two idiots, one throws away his passport, and they fake the thing, that’s all I can remember,” says Gervais.

Buoyed by a fine cast that includes Kelly Macdonald and America Ferrera, the result is a farcical tour-de-force harking back to classic character comedies: Gervais compares the film to Tootsie, Groundhog Day and It’s A Wonderful Life. “It’s not a typical knockabout comedy, it’s grown-up and thought-provoking, despite the scene you just saw,” he says.

THE REAL DEAL

Even though Gervais has written and directed a couple of films (The Invention Of Lying, Cemetery Junction), he describes Special Correspondents as his most ambitious project yet, since he’s responsible for every aspect of its production. “With TV you can get away with a very loose plot and watch your favourite characters bumble around and do funny things,” he says. “With a film you’ve got to hook your audience.”

Gervais explains that he looked outside the traditional system to get the film made, thanks to the major studios’ overly cautious approach of commissioning by committee. He found a natural partnership with the more creative-friendly Netflix.

“We’re in a new phase,” he says. “All big movies are franchises or superheroes. TV started taking over the art of it all, doing things that wouldn’t make it as films because the lowest common denominator crowd demanded something they’d seen before. Whereas The Wire and The Sopranos, these epic things, they were the art factories. Now Netflix comes along and does real movies that haven’t been focus-grouped. It’s bringing back the auteur.”

Gervais has demanded his say on final edits since The Office, and Netflix promised not to interfere. It meant he could run the film as he wanted. “I work fast because I know what I want. If I was to be given the Matrix 4 I‘d panic, but here, it’s mine. I wrote the script and I’ve lived with it for two years.”

Behind the scenes, it’s apparent this is very much Gervais’s baby. The canteen is mostly vegan – he is a vocal animal welfare activist – and the cast and crew run to his schedule, starting and finishing early.

“I am hands on and a bit of a control freak,” he confesses. “In terms of art, that’s not a negative thing. With art you have to be a complete fascist. It’s not a democracy, art. I couldn’t do it without these people, but direction is a matter of taste and answering 10,000 questions a day. They hate me all day but they love me at 3.30 when they’re at home,” he says.

At least he’s a jovial dictator who entertains the troops. “‘Why are you such a bad actor?’ was their first question,” he banters as he leaves the interview chair for Bana.

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Gervais with co-star America Ferrera

FIRST TO CRACK

Eric Bana didn’t need much persuading to join the cast. He may be known for his dramatic parts in Hollywood blockbusters but he started out in sketch comedy in Australia, and instantly loved the script. “I was p*ssing myself,” he says. “I would’ve signed on if it was half as funny because of Ricky. This draft got funnier as we got to know each other. Coming into work and p*ssing yourself laughing every day isn’t something you do on a drama.”

America Ferrera plays Brigida, the owner of the Spanish tapas restaurant in which Finch and Frank pretend to be broadcasting from Ecuador. Her account of filming gives an idea of Gervais’s organic style of direction: “He’s always running lines through his head trying to work out the funnier way of saying it,” she says. “I was so concerned about keeping a straight face but Ricky is the worst, he is the first one to crack. He’s laughing for seven minutes and can’t get it together.”

Special Correspondents is a typical Gervais social satire, its humour arising from sending up recognisable real-world archetypes. Gervais is vocal on Twitter about social issues, but doesn’t sneak his politics into his work. “I won’t go after a big corporation, president or dictator, but I’ll go after a sleazy boss, or arrogance, stupidity and ignorance, because they’re funny.”

That said, Gervais hopes that, ultimately, audiences will root for the good-natured Finch.

“In art and fiction, we create our own heroes and villains so we can do a role play for the soul,” says Gervais. “Deep down we want our heroes to get rewards and our villains to get their comeuppance or redeem themselves or say sorry.” Role play for the soul, with added knob gags – that sounds like something Gervais should have on his business card.

(Images: Netflix)

Special Correspondents is on Netflix from 29 April

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