G host Town is like an antidote to those factory films that have come out over the past few years that are aimed at adolescent boys," says its star, Ricky Gervais, over the phone from Los Angeles. "They're all about boob jokes and smut, while this reminds me of something like It's a Wonderful Life or Groundhog Day, one of those lovely redemptive sort of things."
Especially Groundhog Day. Because Ghost Town, directed by David Koepp, is a funny love story with an old-fashioned Technicolor glow.
It's unexpected in a good way from the creator-star of the original BBC version of The Office and the BBC-HBO show Extras. Even advance publicity and news articles have described Gervais as an eccentric or offbeat choice for a romantic leading man because of his individualistic looks and sharp, critical humor.
When you see the movie, you realize in an instant that the humane basis of his acerbic wit will allow him to conquer St. Valentine's territory without sacrificing his integrity.
Gervais has not turned cherubic. His character is a misanthropic dentist. But as Dr. Bertram Pincus, he finds himself falling head-first for a brainy, beautiful Egyptologist (Tea Leoni) after the ghost of her dead husband (Greg Kinnear) enlists him to prevent her second marriage.
If Ghost Town is the hit it deserves to be, perhaps studio executives will realize that romantic comedies click when they are smart and handsome, not overglamorized. And perhaps it will convince Gervais that discerning audiences flock to him not just for his comic dexterity but also for the mad compost of ambitions and longings that mark him as a combustible Everyman.
The New York-based Koepp (who shot Ghost Town in his home city) says it isn't easy to persuade Gervais that he's more than the sum of his comic personas. When he shot Gervais' final close-up - a shot that focuses the dentist-hero's hope for a blissful future with Gwen - Koepp kept moving the camera into the star's face, "Closer, closer, closer. By the time we got to the closest shot I really pinned him down and ran the camera 9 1/2 minutes, till we ran out of film." Koepp says his attitude was, "I'm going to stick a pin in you and stick you to this board and you're going to act. And when I finished, I said, 'You can say you're a comic, or you're fat, or all the other things you like to say about yourself, but you can also act.' "
Koepp says his plan for a movie broad in premise and subtle in execution made it the right vehicle for Gervais, who had never starred in a film or TV show that he didn't also create.
Gervais agrees. "When I first read the script, I got a chill down my spine," he says. "I felt this was my movie. I turned down a hundred scripts before that, because I thought they were arbitrary or bad, or someone else was better for the job. And I read this, and I thought, 'This is for me.' "
Once he signed on, he became the complete collaborator. Koepp's final tally is that 85 percent of Ghost Town came from the script he wrote with John Kamps, and 15 percent came from two days of rewrites with Gervais in London and a slew of on-set improvisations.
"If this is what being an actor for hire is, then it's fantastic," Gervais says. "I wouldn't do it if I couldn't have that much control, because there's much better people than me. If you want someone to stand in the right place and say the lines, then every actor is better than me. When people hire me, they do hire me for the whole package: what I can bring on and off the camera. I always say to them, 'I'm not a real actor, but I can make this part good.' "
Gervais laid down ground rules from the outset. "There would be no talking to myself in a room," he says. "Interesting, but I don't like it, even though it's a film about ghosts. No nudity because no one wants to see that. I told David I'd only ruin 30 percent of the takes; in the end he said it was closer to 50, from laughter, usually mine. And the ban on kissing was very specific, because I didn't like it when they kissed and you thought they lived happily ever after. One of my favorite endings to a film was The Apartment, where the girl says, 'Shut up and deal,' and you know a real relationship will go on and they're soul mates. That's what I wanted to go for."
Koepp remembers the rules differently - "I don't wear wigs, I don't do accents and I don't kiss anybody because nobody wants to see that." But he concurs that the fun part of the filming "was the days when we would find the space for him to start coming up with stuff." During an uproarious dinner scene with Gwen and her straight-arrow, human-rights lawyer fiance (Billy Campbell), Gervais' Dr. Pincus, desperate to join in the conversation, blurts out, "How can teeth be self-righteous?" In the script, to cover it up, the dentist simply said, "They can't." Instead, says Koepp, "Ricky ran it into 45 seconds or a minute of nonsensical ramblings that I think are hysterically funny."
Relishing the memory, Gervais explains, "I love the postmortem of a joke that goes wrong socially. We did that in The Office. If drama is supposed to be real life with the boring bits taken out, we took the boring bits and made a feature of them. ... So, this dentist bursts out with, 'How can teeth be self-righteous?' and then goes on for a minute about 'their dentin outcrops covered in enamel,' we laughed - and I said, 'Dave, you might want to check the science on that.' "
Koepp continues, "By Take 15, I would say OK, use the first part of Take 2, then go back to the script, then pick up that thing you did in Take 9, bring it around with funny gestures from Take 12, and then try something new." Gervais says they did "Frankenstein-monster" stitching "on the script and on my own stupidity." But the creature came to life, partly, says Koepp, because Gervais was able "to act and write and, in a way, direct, all at the same time."
Gervais has always believed that comedy rests not on one or two characters but on the creation of a whole comic world. "I've seen sitcoms where stand-ups come into a room and they do some of their stand-up in a sitcom and I think, 'No, that's two different disciplines; you don't need to crowbar yourself in like this. Let's start again.' And it's very different again being in a film than in a sitcom. Whatever you do has got to be relevant on a different playing field. If I went crazy in Ghost Town, it would ruin the film. You need balance; you're nothing without the other players. Very often I take the straight-man role. I think Bertram Pincus is a bit of a straight-man role." But he's a straight man who makes the leading lady laugh - and thus may win her heart.
"What I'm very conscious of," Gervais concludes, "is a comedian trying to be cool or be sexy. So the feelings here had to be earned. They had to be real emotions, everyday emotions people identified with. There's a difference between sweet and delightful and warm, and saccharine, manipulative, awful." He calls the latter "Hollywood Route One. It's a fine line, and I think we managed to stay on the right side of it."