Sunday 25 February 2018

Boys on film

Ricky Gervais
Ricky Gervais

Declain Cashin

The first thing you hear is the laugh. He might be out of sight, in a far-off hallway, but there's no mistaking the distinctive cackle of one Ricky Dene Gervais. It rises above the din on the set of Cemetery Junction, and, upon hearing the whooping chortle, the cast and crew in the immediate vicinity collectively halt what they're doing and tilt their heads ever so slightly in that direction, like the faithful pausing for the Angelus.

It's July 1, 2009, in the midst of an all-too-brief heatwave, but rather than basking in the scorching sunshine, Day & Night is underground in the All Star Lanes bowling alley just off Bloomsbury Square in London. It's week three of a two-month shoot on Cemetery Junction, a coming-of-age comedy drama about three twentysomething friends set in the titular Reading suburb in 1973.

It soon becomes clear why this below-level bowling alley was chosen for today's filming. The interior -- the bar, lounge and dining area -- looks as if it hasn't been updated since the 70s: it's all wood panelling on the walls and scuffed leather seats in the booths.

A clutch of extras sit around chatting and joking, all of them decked out in vintage flares, patterned shirts, platform shoes, and big heels, the men striving that bit further for verisimilitude by sprouting moustaches, long hair and mullets that are more architectural monuments than tonsorial.

The scene being filmed today is a brief bar fight consisting of one punch and a crash through a wooden frame. It features for about 15 seconds in the opening credits of the finished movie, but nevertheless takes an entire day to shoot. "Not too boring I hope?" asks Gervais, who materialises from the corner of the set, dressed all in arty black, huge grin still pasted all over his face.

Cemetery Junction is the first movie written by Gervais and his long-time collaborator -- and co-director on this project -- Stephen Merchant. It focuses on the lives -- or lack thereof -- of three childhood friends: ambitious, clever Freddie (played by the unfeasibly pretty Disney prince lookalike Christian Cooke), loveable Jonah Hill-esque slob Snork (Jack Doolan), and cocky rebel Bruce, a factory grunt with not so much a chip, as an entire stone quarry on his shoulder, as played by Tom Hughes, an actor with a startling resemblance to Cillian Murphy and cheekbones that look as if they have been augmented with Toblerones.

The unknown leads are bolstered with some heavy British talent too, including Ralph Fiennes, Emily Watson, Julia Davis, and the ubiquitous Matthew Goode as Cooke's rival for the heart of the rather fetching Julie (Felicity Jones).

It's a film about that Patrick Kavanagh Stony Grey Soil-syndrome of both loving and hating the place you're from, and the passionate, conflicting desire to escape from it. It might be a movie about the three lead characters growing up and asserting their place in the world, but Cemetery Junction also provides that arc for Gervais and Merchant. It's a funny movie, of course, reflecting and mining the sexist and politically incorrect climate of the time, but also more serious, poignant and, dare I say it, mature than audiences might expect.

During a break in filming, Day & Night sits down with the pair, who manage -- just about -- to refrain from taking the piss out of one another (mainly it's Gervais at Merchant's expense) to talk seriously about their big, joint movie debut. Having spent 12 years co-writing two era-defining TV comedies -- The Office and Extras, both of which ran for two series and a Christmas special apiece -- Cemetery Junction has allowed the duo to develop their latent filmic sensibilities.

"Some British films have seemed like extended versions of TV shows rather than movies," says 48-year-old Gervais.

"We wanted to avoid that. We didn't want to make this grim and gritty with 'slash-your-wrists' style realism. We wanted our characters to be like American heroes; we wanted this to be the English equivalent of Saturday Night Fever, Rebel Without a Cause and Diner. We stopped doing those here in the 60s; this is our answer to Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which is our hero of British cinema."

To that end, casting the three male roles proved quite tricky. "We had 1,000 people come in: 500 Mr Darcys and 500 'you slaaaaaags'," continues Gervais. "We had a very strict remit to find the people that were real and effervescent and cool."

The exceptionally hot weather at the time of filming also had a touch of kismet, according to Merchant. "We didn't want it to feel grim and overcast and grey like so much of England can be at times," the 35-year-old says. "This is a 70s that perhaps never existed, but it is as we remember it growing up. It was bright, it was hot in the summertime.

"We remember things being colourful and exciting, and there's something nice about nostalgia, even if it's fake nostalgia."

Period music is also crucial to the movie, with the soundtrack rocking to the tunes of Elton John, Led Zeppelin and Mott the Hoople, among others. "Sometimes the music comes first for us," Gervais explains.

"One of our favourite songs is Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen, a line from which is an inspiration for this film: "It's a town full of losers and we're pulling out of here to win'."

This leads to the inevitable question: how much of it is autobiographical, especially on Gervais's part as he grew up in Reading?

"It's obviously based on experiences growing up, but it's not about me or even Reading as such," he answers. "It's the small town mentality. The Office didn't have to be in Slough; there's just a town like that everywhere. It could be Sheffield or Bristol for that matter, where Steve grew up." (In terms of acting in the movie, Gervais plays a small part as Cooke's father, while Merchant makes a very quick cameo.)

Given the longevity and productivity of their partnership, there doesn't seem to be any problems or conflicts when it comes to sharing the directing credits.

"When we first met, it was luck," says Gervais (see panel). "You meet someone like that once in your life where you see eye to eye on almost everything. Also we wrote this, so before we got into a room with other people, we've lived it for two years. We know what we want."

Their small-screen success opened a lot of doors for them in Hollywood, and they admit that after The Office won two Golden Globes, studios wanted to throw money at them to make a project together. "I don't think we were experienced enough at that point," Merchant admits. "The people I admire in film are Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder, people who have really learnt their craft from hard experience. If you do one sitcom and go, 'Huh huh, this is easy' you do, dare I say it, end up with Mutiny on the Buses, brilliant as it is, but perhaps not right for a modern audience."

At this point, the directors are needed back behind the camera, and as we walk towards the set, I ask the two guys what they were like in their early 20s, the age of their screen trio. "I was a New Romantic, for the first bit of it, and that's it really," Gervais replies.

"I was the guy being pushed to the floor," the 6ft 7in Merchant says before continuing: "Actually I wasn't because I was too big, but..."

"Did you sag in the middle when they pushed you?" Gervais interrupts.

"Like a huge willow." He pauses this time. "I said huge willow in case you misheard." Another pause. "He's got a huge willow." One last pause. "He's got a big knob." Then the cackle explodes again.

"Oh come on, we're trying to sound like serious filmmakers here," Merchant pleads.

"Yeah because we were going to come across as all Kubricky and Scorsese and I've just ruined it," Gervais shoots back.

Yes, with Cemetery Junction, Gervais and Merchant might be showing signs of growing up, but, thankfully, they're still allowed to act their shoe-size, and not their age, every now and again.

Cemetery Junction in out April 14

Irish Independent

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