The Invention of Lying is set in an alternate reality where lying does not exist. Everyone from politicians to advertisers speaks the truth, with no thought of the possible consequences. Can this be the subject of a high concept comedy? If it’s co-written and co-directed by – and starring – Ricky Gervais, it’s something not hard to believe. Gervais plays Mark, a man who suddenly develops the ability to lie, quickly finding fame and fortune. But when the world starts to believe his every word, can it prevent him from impressing the woman he loves (played by Jennifer Garner)? We asked the man himself to find out.
In the film you are a big liar. Are you a big liar in real life?
It’s funny, because making this film I found out that I’m a very honest person of integrity and that I lie every day. Let me qualify that: I don’t do big lies, I don’t do cover-ups. I’m a very, very honest person. But when someone says: ‘Can you come to the christening of my baby?’ I say: ‘Oh, when is it?’ ‘Saturday.’ And I say: ‘Oh I can’t, I’m… giving blood… at an orphanage’ because life is too short. What I would never say is: ‘Nah, it would bore me, you’re not really a great friend and I’d rather be at home in my pants, drunk!’ I do little white lies to protect people’s feelings.
The film is a highly original concept and really makes you think.
Oh, thanks. I think it’ll surprise people either way. Those who think it’s going to be quite a modern, spiky, cynical comedy are going to get shades of tradition as it’s a bit of a throwback. But then people who expect a straight Hollywood rom-com are going to be a little bit shocked by some of the serious things that we hit on. It’s an exploration into bigger themes of life and death. But the focus groups all said they thought it was original and that really excited me. That was the point; that was important to me.
As a barely-disguised ode to atheism, it is quite a controversial film – not your usual Hollywood rom-com as you say…
Initially we went outside of the studio system and we made the film ourselves; all independently financed. And then we sold it to Warner Brothers and Universal. That didn’t just make business sense because I own 50 per cent of the film; it meant that I at least made the film I wanted to make. It was really important to me that I get a few things in this film and that it wasn’t compromised. You don’t want to be perverse; you don’t want to be ridiculously original for the sake of it because that’s a Pyrrhic victory if it’s awful. But you do want to have one vision and your ideas on the screen – but then you also have to make sure that people will actually go and see it.
When you were making The Office and Extras you had complete creative control. With a Hollywood movie, do you have to concede a certain amount of that control, even if you are the co-writer/director/producer and star?
Well, not in this case. Because this was only like US$18, 20 million…
Oh, only US$20 million?
Yeah, that’s pretty good. When you see the stars [that are in it], I think most people would assume that this is like a US$60 million film, but it’s not. I’ve pulled quite a few favours.
Indeed. Rob Lowe, Jennifer Garner and Jonah Hill co-star with you. And then there are cameos from Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Christopher Guest… How do you get so many people working together?
They do it because it’s a bit of a day off; they do it because it’s a laugh. They don’t need me. Robert de Niro doesn’t need to do Extras. Philip Seymour Hoffman doesn’t need to pop up in The Invention Of Lying. He does it because he thinks it’s a fun thing or because he wants to work with me or other actors.
But how do you approach these people in the first place?
I wrote an email to Philip Seymour Hoffman. I wrote to his agent saying we’d love Philip to do a cameo and they sort of went [dismissive] ‘Umm, yeah, OK’. What they wanted to say was ‘He’s won an Oscar! How dare you!’ And then they went: ‘Do you want to send a personal email to him about it?’ I just thought, you know what, the film is probably the least important thing here. So I’ll read you the email I wrote. It said: ‘Dear Philip, please be in my new movie. There is no money because I spent the film’s entire budget on pectoral implants, but don’t think of them as my pectorals; think of them as our pectorals. Ricky Gervais’. She phoned back laughing, saying he loved it. I think he had just come off a film where he was playing a paedophile priest or something – that’s his art. I mean, this fella wins Oscars. He came over for a laugh for a day with me and that’s how I look at it.
So that’s the secret – cheeky emails?
No, not really. You’ve just got to take a chance. I [took the part in] Stardust because my scenes were with Robert de Niro and I wanted to ask him to be in Extras. It was towards the end of the day and I’d sort of played it cool as I was chatting to him. But then I just went: ‘I think you’re amazing!’ and I said ‘I do this show called Extras’ and I was trying to explain it to him. I don’t think he had seen it but I told him that I had an idea for him and I sort of pitched it to him quickly between takes and he went ‘I’ll call you, I’ll call you.’ And I thought: ‘Well, he’s just being polite.’ A couple of days later, the phone went and he said: ‘Hi, it’s Bob, we were talking about that thing.’ And I went: [sigh] ‘I thought I told you never to call me!’ And he laughed. So again, I took a chance.
You’ve said in interviews before that you’re an atheist. What do you think happens when you die?
I know what happens. Your biological functions cease to be, some carry on, some leave bacteria activity in the gut, some secretions carry on like keratin in the nails and hair, you lose body temperature, everything goes still, you’re then a piece of meat, with nothing but a legacy and memories in loved ones’ minds and that’s the end of you as we know it.
The Invention Of Lying is released on November 19.