Ricky Gervais on 'David Brent: Life on the Road,' the evolution of fame and Donald Trump
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By: Gibson Johns
Ricky Gervais talks bringing back David Brent from "The Office" for his new film "David Brent: Life on the Road," the accompanying songbook, the evolution of fame and Donald Trump.
When Ricky Gervais decided to bring the most influential character of his career back onto screens around the world, he knew it had to be just right. A comeback from David Brent, the main character of Gervais' groundbreaking comedy series "The Office," had to be perfect if it was going to work. So he went all out.
With "David Brent: Life on the Road," Gervais has created a multi-platform vehicle for Brent to explore his "tragic," deep-routed desire for fame at any cost. Not only is his return after fifteen years taking the form of a feature-length mockumentary (already out in theaters in the UK and due out via Netflix in the US early next year), but it's also taking shape as a musical album and an accompanying songbook of all of his original songs, each with introductions in the voice of Brent.
Make no mistake about it: This is not about Gervais. "That would be embarrassing," he told me on the phone last month. What he strove to do was to create a "fat narrative" complete with merchandise that would fit right in with Brent's egocentric world in the film.
In other words, it's David Brent's world and we're just along for the music-fueled ride.
I talked to Ricky Gervais on the phone last month about his decision to bring back such an iconic character after all of these years, "The David Brent Songbook," the evolution of fame and why he thinks people are reading into Donald Trump's surreal candidacy for president.
See photos of Ricky Gervais through the years:
Check out my full conversation with Ricky Gervais below:
"David Brent: Life on the Road" has been out for a couple of months in the UK now. Are you happy with how the film has been received over there?
Yeah, I sort of made it for fans, but I also wanted it to be for people who had never seen "The Office." If you've not any history with "The Office," David Brent or the American "Office," then basically it's about a middle-aged man with a boring job and boring life who wants to be rockstar. And I think the album, Life on the Road, has gone down even better (which is odd, because out of context the album must be confusing).
It's a fake documentary, and I've always tried to have everything steeped in reality and realism and all of that. It's not a ridiculous pastiche, you know? He doesn't go on "American Idol" ... it's really true and down-to-earth and sad and embarrassing, but it's also quite hopeful. I think that people will be surprised that they'll like David Brent more than they did before -- they'll certainly have more sympathy for him.
I worked in an office for 10 years, which was a huge influence on me, but I also watched a lot of docu-soaps from the '90s where these guys would get their 15 minutes of fame and that was it. But, now, fame is different: It's insatiable. People will do anything to be famous and stay famous. They live their lives like an open wound, and they'll do bad things just to stay famous. There are all of these TV shows where people will literally do anything. Like, we're going to have "Celebrity Enema" soon. And they're rewarded for it -- for behaving really badly! It's like, "I'll behave like an animal if you keep me on the telly." And they make millions!
And people watch them do it.
Yeah, but Brent's not like that. Brent wants to at least be famous for something -- sure, he's out of his league because he wants to be Bruce Springsteen and he can't be -- but at least he's trying to do something. At least he's writing songs, and he's a decent bloke. He's a bit of a narcissist, but he's like "Terminator 1" compared to people now. It's almost like he's bullied now, at 55. It's a bit sad. I don't know where it ends: You might have a president soon who says things like, "I'd like to punch him in the face!"
Tell me about it.
You know what I mean? Like, when did that happen?! [Laughs]
2016, man. It's been such a crazy year.
It's amazing, isn't it? You know, you have got people who are now famous for doing nothing -- or for doing bad things -- and they're role models. You've got someone running for president who's got more in common with David Brent than he has with JFK: He wants to be famous, too! A year ago he hadn't even thought about being a politician, and you know, he's found this group of people who are going, "Alas, we've found someone who's saying what's on his mind, he's speaking the truth!" Well, no, he doesn't speak the truth -- he just says things that you believe because you agree with him, you know? He's rallying these people that think they've been overlooked, but they haven't. They've just had it their way all the time, and they want it keep it that way. How many times have you heard, like, a white middle-class Christian saying, "We're being persecuted!"? Like, no -- you haven't! [Laughs]
So in "David Brent: Life on the Road," we're catching up with David Brent from "The Office" fifteen years later. Checking back in with him could've gone a hundred different ways, but we're watching him as he pursues his dream of becoming a rockstar. How did you choose this direction for the film?
Well, it couldn't have been surreal. We couldn't have had him suddenly become a millionaire rockstar with everyone loving him. Here we have a 55-year-old cashing in his pension and taking an unpaid holiday leave hoping that Simon Cowell is going to turn up and basically lead him to fame. It's already so tragic. I wanted it to be sad, but I also wanted it to be, again, a scenario where he could get a little bit of a reward: a pat on the back for trying.
I really think there's not enough of that in the world: It's okay to try and fail, because it's better than not trying. That's one of the themes I wanted to hit on. The other one is that it is up to him how he spends his money, and it's up to him to be foolish with it, and who are we to say he needs to grow up?
I think comedy is best when it's saying, "You know? We're all idiots sometimes." That's alright. I think people engage with David Brent because 1. They acknowledge that it's quite realistic and there are people like that in the world and 2. I think deep down it's because they're a bit like that themselves. We're all a bit like David Brent: We all want to be loved, we all make a fool of ourselves now and again, it's just that we don't do it in front of TV cameras. He thinks fame will sort his life out. But I don't know what people did before fame. I guess it's all relative, though: You could've just been the most respected man in a village. Maybe people have always thought that fame will sort things out for them.
I wanted [the film] to be funny, too: It's 90 minutes of funny. You're laughing at him and with him, but I think that it's a bit of an emotional journey: You do sort of feel sorry for him and, at the end, you do want some sort of satisfaction. There are nastier people in the world than him -- he just wants to be one of the gang!
People always say, you know, "Why'd you bring him back after all of this time?" Well, it had to be a long time, otherwise there would've been no point. I didn't want to do a third series of "The Office," because I've already done two and a special, and I nailed what I wanted to nail about the world at that time. But now, 15 years later, the world has changed behind his back: Now there are lots of different attitudes, and the world's a bit worse.
Where did the songs in the film come from? How were you able to write all of them in his voice?
The songs came first, actually. After I brought David Brent back for a little sketch on the 10 year anniversary, I realized I had already written three songs as David Brent for "The Office," so I wrote a few more and I thought it would be fun to do a little gig. We did it at a little theater and it sold out in seconds, but we had 110,000 ticket requests! I thought, "Okay, we've got something here.
You're releasing "The David Brent Songbook" as an official companion to the film, and it features original song introductions to all of the original songs featured in the film, as well as exclusive images of David Brent. What made you want to release this alongside the film?
I realized that it's exactly what Brent would do: He's always wanted to have a book of his poems published, and he's always wanted to have an album out. He goes on about the lyrics [in the songbook] because he has to tell you what to think about his own stuff. He thinks he's Bob Dylan and a credible song writer! [Laughs]
I wanted to keep the merchandise a part of the world, and this fat narrative that we'd created. There's nothing about me on them: My name is not anywhere. It's David Brent's album, it's his songbook. That's important, because if they think it's me doing it, then it's embarrassing! When I bring an album out with my own name, that's when you've got to shoot me.
That's when you've lost it?
Jesus Christ, don't let me do it! No, but it's always part of the narrative and always in character. When I do the live shows, I'm always in character for the hour.
The film was released in theaters in the UK in August, but it's being released through Netflix in the US at the beginning of 2017. Why did you decide to go with Netflix for the film's distribution in the US?
I sort of pushed for Netflix. Everyone thinks, "No, do it in the cinema, and you'll make hundreds of millions!" Well, no you won't. There are bigger stars than me making 40 quid at the box office. There are films losing $90 million at the box office. So, you know, I'd rather people watch it -- and that's not me being humble. A film that makes $100 million at the box office probably had 10 million people go see it. Netflix has 75 million subscribers who have already paid! So they might as well watch it. And when they watch it, that's when I could do a tour of America, as well. So, it's really not me being humble!
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It's a more realistic model these days.
There's no better model for me: As an artist, you want to reach as many people as possible but without having to compromise at all. So, I make it for me, and then it goes on Netflix. They pay me very well, and it's a win-win. I want people to watch it. If people watch it on Netflix and then buy the album or the songbook, it's much better for everyone. It's more interesting.
Cinema now isn't about competing with the other films in the cinema; it's competing with everything else in the world! It's competing with staying in, it's competing with having a drink outside at the pub if the weather's warm, it's competing with YouTube, you know what I mean? That's why everyone's going, "Oh, we're doing another 'Superman,' because you all liked the last one!" Outside of, like, Marvel, Hollywood is now just Sundance and TriBeCa. Everything else is a franchised Marvel film and people dressing up in costumes.
It's all franchises and reboots and sequels. There's nothing original happening anymore.
It's crazy! It was really a no-brainer for me. I did bring it out in the cinema in the UK and Australia, because I knew it could hold it's own there. It's a much smaller thing [there]. As far as putting it out in cinemas in America and South America and Asia, that's tricky. That's a lot of work and I'm a very lazy person. [Laughs]
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