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Ricky Gervais on The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais tells the truth about his new film

You can’t say the guy wasn’t asking for it. There he was, sitting in the front row of a Toronto press conference wearing a not-very-stylish bicycle helmet with what appeared to be an iPhone glued to the top of it. Apparently he works for a local radio outlet owned by the Virgin megacorporation, and uses this getup to gather streaming video for their Web site.

He is explaining this to Ricky Gervais, star and co-director of The Invention of Lying. Gervais made a point of showing up exactly when the press conference was supposed to start, which is to say at least five minutes before any of his co-stars were there. He asks us to look at our watches and make disapproving noises when they do arrive.

As the rest of the cast troops in, co-star Rob Lowe does a double take as he notices the oddball in the front row. He gets the short version of the explanation: “This is the Virgin radio head cam.”

It always pays to be nice to the press, so Lowe tells the guy something he needed to hear: “I got a piece of advice. Don’t wear the cam on your head and you won’t be a virgin anymore.”

Brutally honest, perhaps, but that is after all what this comedy is about. The Invention of Lying takes place in an alternate world identical to ours except for one thing: The concept of lying is completely unknown. People only ever tell each other the truth.

This is not something that works to the advantage of Gervais’s character, Mark, a researcher for movies. He’s not exactly a writer, because, as Gervais explains, “In a world without lying there’s no fiction. I play a screenwriter, and the films we make are just things like people reading out the history of the fork.”

This is not a world where people’s physical attributes are judged any more kindly than they are here. When Mark shows up for a blind date with Anna (Jennifer Garner), both agree that she is clearly out of his league. Even when she comes to reciprocate his interest, she feels compelled to go for the match (Lowe) who would provide genetically superior children.

A mid-life success as the creator of the original British reality spoof The Office and the HBO series Extras, Gervais has always made comic hay out of his short stature and pudgy build. (A British tabloid once ran an unflattering full-body profile photo of him with the caption “Is Ricky pregnant?”) The Invention of Lying is no exception.

“I’ve always done that,” Gervais admits. “I think it’s funny. A comedian has to let the world know he doesn’t take himself seriously. As soon as a comedian starts trying to be cool or macho or believing his own hype, he ceases to be funny, because comedy’s about empathy, and you’ve got to be the underdog. All my favorite people, like Laurel and Hardy, I love them because they’re precarious, because they fall over. Or people like Bob Hope, the putzes who would laugh in the face of adversity. Some people are funny because they’ve got a blind spot, like [The Office’s] David Brent, he doesn’t know what an idiot he is. And we laugh at him. Someone like Woody Allen knows his lot’s bad, so we laugh because he’s angry and surrounded by idiots. But at the end of the day they’re still the loser you like.”

The biggest challenge in devising the film, based on an idea by writer Matthew Robison (who co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed it with Gervais), was not getting carried away with their premise.

“We didn’t want to bog people down with too many details,” Gervais says. “There’s quite a lot going on in the film. It starts out a high concept comedy then it moves to drama and there’s lots of stuff going on. So we had to cut down on the peripheral stuff so that people could concentrate.”

Inevitably, you leave the film thinking about how much of our world wouldn’t exist if not for lying. Advertising, for instance, exists in this world—but it’s truthful advertising. Gervais swears that the best thing Coca-Cola could ever do would be to use his idea for a commercial for their prime competitor: “Pepsi—for when they don’t have Coke.”

As you might guess from the title, Mark is eventually struck by the idea that if he says things that aren’t real, people will bend to his will, which is always a useful power to have. (Especially when they can’t figure it out for themselves.) In the movie’s most brilliant piece of sustained invention, Mark’s efforts to console his dying mother with a lie about the better world that awaits her are overheard and spread around the world, and in no time at all he finds himself the inventor of something else: religion.

The notion that religion is based on a lie is not one likely to sit too well in red state America, especially coming from a performer who is an avowed atheist. Asked for the most memorable truth-telling moment of his life, he remembers a day “When I was eight years old. I was doing Bible studies—I loved Jesus. He was my Superman, he was better than God because he was a man, he was kind. My [older] brother Bob came and asked why I believed in God? And my mother went [warning voice] ‘Bob…’ So I knew she was hiding something. And I thought about it and thought about it, and within an hour I was an atheist. That was something he felt he had to tell me. And then he went, ‘The Easter Bunny’s dead.’”

Gervais denies, though, that the film is meant to be an argument for or against any spiritual position. Asked if he’s worried about a conservative backlash, he says “I don’t see why we would ever get hate mail. We decided that in this world that’s how religion started. It’s an alternative world and it’s by no means atheist propaganda. I love films about angels, like It’s a Wonderful Life, but [when I see one I don’t think] ‘Oh, they’ve come down on one side here.’ I don’t leave the cinema with my faith in God or lack of it challenged, and I don’t think that people who believe in God should take this as an affront. It was an artistic choice.

“I am an atheist, but when my mother was dying if she had asked me is there a heaven, I would have told her yes. At no point do we say that there isn’t a god in this world. We just say that these people haven’t thought about it or discovered it yet. [In our world] Mankind was told about it, whether you believe it or not—at some point someone told someone else that there was a god.

“It’s a theme of the movie that a world without the ability to lie isn’t as good as world where you can lie and you make moral decisions on when you should and shouldn’t. That’s what makes us moral people—having those decisions and coming down on the right side.”

Asked if ever lies in his own life, Gervais admits that “I sort of lie all the time, but it’s to protect people’s feelings. ‘Can you come to my baby’s christening?’ ‘Oh, I can’t, I’m busy.’ You don’t say, ‘Oh, that doesn’t sound like a great day out. Baby, little fat thing, looks like Winston Churchill? I don’t need to see yours.’ That’s what makes you a nice member of the human race, that you can chose when to make a good lie.

Read the full text of Gervais' press conference

Watch the trailer for The Invention of Lying

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