The only part of the filmmaking process that Ricky Gervais dreads is the promotional tour.
“I don’t think it’s good for anyone,” he recently told IndieWire. “We’re begging you to be nice about the movie ’cause every little [bit of promotion] helps, but it’s nothing about the film anymore.”
Fortunately, working with Netflix (which he has done for the past few years) has given Gervais a break from “those five-day, 10-hour junkets in the hotel, where every journalist gets five minutes and wants to kill themselves afterward. Do you know what I mean?”
Gervais says “do you know what I mean?” a lot when you talk to him. He wants to be sure he’s communicating his points clearly. Which is interesting, given that what matters the most to him these days is making sure that whatever he does, he has complete control over it. “That’s all I care about, is it turning out like I want it,” he said. “I don’t care about anything else.”
That’s made Netflix a welcoming home for him, a relationship which began several years ago with an email to Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, before the streaming service even got into the original content game. “I found out Ted’s name, and I sent him an email, and I said, ‘I think you’re the future; I want to do my next show with you.’ And he sent back an email: ‘We’ll take it.’ And that was ‘Derek.’ I hadn’t even written it yet.”
He liked the experience of working with Netflix so much that he managed to convince them to buy out the original distributors for both his 2016 feature “Special Correspondents” and his newest release, “David Brent: Life on the Road.” “[‘David Brent’] was originally going to be a studio movie, and I persuaded my people to go Netflix. It’s exactly same as ‘Special Correspondents.’ ‘Special Correspondents’ was a studio movie that Netflix came and bought them all out. And they did the same with this, apart from the UK and Australia,” he said.
“Life on the Road” represents Gervais’s return to what will perhaps always be his best known role: David Brent, the inept boss of the original U.K. version of “The Office.” The character always secretly harbored dreams of music stardom; in the new film, David decides to live out the life of a rock star with a self-funded tour — which does not go particularly well.
Premiering on Netflix on Friday after its initial UK release last summer, the film has received both praise and criticism. But it’s a pleasant return to the mockumentary format that Gervais (along with original collaborator Stephen Merchant) revolutionized with the 2001 series. And as mentioned previously, what matters to Gervais is that it’s completely his own vision.
Gervais’s philosophy when it comes to these matters is not “ignore the reviews,” to be clear. There’s nuance to it. “When when you make a TV show or film, you do your best guess, then you put it out there, and then there’s nothing you can do about it,” he explained. “If someone comes up to me on the street and says, ‘I loved that film,’ I go, ‘Oh, thanks very much, cheers.’ If you come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t like that film,’ I go, ‘Oh, there’s nothing I can do about it.’ You know? I can’t go, “Oh, I wish you had told me before I made it; I’d have done it differently.” You know? It’s like, there’s nothing I can do now! It’s everybody else’s. It’s not mine anymore; I’m moving on to something else.”
It’s a period of time he calls “the aftercare,” and in his words, “the only way I don’t worry about the aftercare is if it turned out like I wanted. I can’t regret it. I can’t suddenly go, ‘Oh, it didn’t win an Oscar, so maybe I don’t like it.’ You know? I know that I feel bad if I compromise or did something against my better judgment to make it work better, and then it still didn’t. That’s the terrible thing.”
And that’s why he focuses on making sure he can make his projects on his terms: “If you get your own way, and you enjoyed doing it, you’re pretty bulletproof.”
Before Netflix, Gervais was used to making one type of compromise to avoid others. “Usually to get final edit, I’ve had to go to the fringe. I went to BBC2 and not BBC1. I went to HBO, not NBC. All those little decisions you make; that’s the compromise I made. I knew fewer people would watch it.”
But now, like a lot of other creators, he’s happy to sing the praises of the streaming giant. On Netflix, he believes, “You haven’t got those ridiculous hidden pressures when you make a movie that’s either on a network, or a theater release where it’s got to have an immediate appeal on the first weekend or it’s deemed a failure. You go back to good old-fashioned filmmaking, really. You do it for yourself and like-minded people.”
This isn’t to say he ignores the reviews. In fact, he noted that when someone says they ignore reviews, “people either think that you’re lying or that you’re arrogant. That you think that bad reviews, they’re wrong. That’s not the case. I think they’re right! But I think a good review is right as well, because it’s one person’s opinion.”
“I know I’m gonna get five-star reviews and one-star reviews,” he added. “I know that before I do it, and I don’t do anything to change that, except do what I want, because everyone’s different. It’s not arrogant; I just know it’s inevitable. If you’re doing anything that’s not completely anodyne, or watered down, or safe, or tried and tested for everyone, as many people are gonna hate it as love it, and everything in between. Because everyone’s different.”
That said, “If I read 20 reviews and 19 of them are brilliant, and one of them was bad, that’s the one that’s in my head. That’s the one I remember,” he laughed.
He definitely remembers the first review he ever read of his work: The Evening Standard’s 2001 review of “The Office,” published with the headline “Summer Stinker.” “I often retweet it as ‘This is my first review I ever got,'” he said. “Just to let people know that that could have been downhill, and so you’ve just gotta stick to your guns. You’ve just gotta do what you want, really.”
Gervais spoke for nearly 30 minutes, touching on his recent “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” appearance (“which was amazing, because he wanted to discuss atheism, and I think it took people aback that there was a theological discussion on a network chat show”), and as so often happens these days, the current political climate.
“I’ve never been political before,” he said. “I thought there was no politics of funny. And yet, now I’ve seen a huge divide, this huge angry divide, that you’ve gotta be on one side or the other. And I’ve just worked a bit doing my new stand-up show, and my schtick has always been saying the wrong thing, you know. Getting it wrong on purpose, playing that right-wing bore, sometimes, and flipping between the two, and the audience are clever enough to know. But now I think, ‘Oh my God!’ There are real people like that in the world now.”
I noted an observation I’d seen elsewhere, that the “right-wing bores,” in his words, had always been around, but hadn’t felt like they could honestly express their views until now.
“That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right,” he exclaimed. “They knew it was impolite to say it. And now, after Brexit, there are people out with placards like, it was okay to be racist now ‘because we won.’ And I think, what do you mean? What do you mean, ‘win’? We all lost. It was crazy.”
He then referenced another comedian: “Chris Rock said a great thing. I think it was about these cases of some police brutality. He just said, ‘No, there’s not more racism around. There’s just more cameras.’ Which I think is fucking beautiful.”
One of the first things he said in our conversation proved prophetic, as he realized at the very end of the call. “Once I get started on a rant, I go off on one,” he confessed. “I think I went off on different digressions and none of it was to do with the film.
“But it’s been a pleasure anyway!” he added.
“David Brent: Life on the Road” is streaming now on Netflix.