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."