The other half of the creative equation for The Invention of Lying is co-writer and co-director Matthew Robinson, virtually an unknown who was introduced to Ricky Gervais via his treatment for the movie and suddenly found himself collaborating with his hero. Besides Gervais, Robinson is probably the best person to talk to about the ideas and sense of the humor behind the movie, so we sat down with him during a rare break in shooting. The conversation eventually degenerated into a talk about Gervais’ podcast foil Karl Pilkington and shooting assistants in the nuts with the fabled Nerf guns that have been discussed much on Ricky’s blog.
ComingSoon.net: I guess the question everyone will ask you is how you first met Ricky? This is your first time working with him and you’re co-directing and co-writing so how did you first get involved with this? Matthew Robinson: Well, I was just a massive Ricky Gervais fan. I wrote a script, never in my wildest dreams thought it would get to Ricky. Producer Lynda Obst went to England to work on something she was doing there and set up a general meeting with him, and he said straight up, “I only want to do things that I wrote.” Gets there and she was a very good champion of me and she kept pushing the script. Finally they started talking about the premise behind it at dinner, spent the entire dinner talking about the premise. He went home and read I think the first 20 pages and called me personally on my cell phone, pretty much attached on the spot.
CS: You already had the idea and some kind of script before he came on board? Robinson: I had written a first draft which was pretty different from the one we ended up with but it had some of the scenes and a lot of the ideas, and I wrote it with him in mind. I was just a struggling L.A. screenwriter with a huge love for comedy and for Ricky Gervais in particular, and wrote a script for fun with him in mind with the highest aspirations of maybe using it as a sample to get more work. It happened to get into his hands through the sheer will of Lynda Obst and it just sort of snowballed out of control from there.
CS: What was the timeline for this movie in terms of when you first wrote the script and then got in touch with Ricky? Robinson: I wrote one of the scenes a few years ago as a skit, and it was one of the opening date scenes of the movie, and it was just about two people on a date who can’t lie. And then about a year, year and a half later, I went back to that and started thinking of other ideas and came up with a few other scenes, and then came up with the idea of, “Well it would be amazing if one of the people in this state all of a sudden COULD lie.” Like he would be a superhero, and then from there, I slowly built the story.
CS: Was it all intimidating at first to be working with him? Robinson: It was. I was really nervous definitely. Six weeks after he called me the first time I was in London to do a rewrite of the script with him and knocking on his office door to meet him. I wasn’t a Ricky Gervais fan. I was an obsessed Ricky Gervais fan. I could do every episode of “The Office” for you, I could recite the podcasts, so I had a problem. So yeah, knocking on his door was really intimidating for sure, but in five minutes, whether it’s just that he’s really good at calming people down or what, but we were like old friends within five minutes, making jokes, laughing. I couldn’t have been calmer or more happy and it’s been that way ever since. We just immediately clicked and it’s like we share a brain. It was the easiest collaboration I’ve ever had.
CS: And your directing and writing styles mesh very well? Robinson: We haven’t had any problems, yeah, it’s been really easy. We know what we want. We both have the same idea of what’s funny and what we like and what’s neat and what works, and we’re very very rarely ever not totally in sync and know exactly what we want.
CS: How did the directing come about? Obviously, he hasn’t directed a film, so have you done some directing, whether it was film school or otherwise? Robinson: I directed “Jurassic Park” and “Indiana Jones”… no, no… I did do “Schindler’s List” though. After “The Ice Storm,” I thought I’d branch out a bit. No, I’ve never directed before. I’ve done short films, but this is my first time directing, and this is Ricky’s first time directing a feature.
CS: How did it come about though? Did you both just say “Let’s direct this together”? Robinson: It started with me saying “I want you to direct this” ’cause I don’t trust anyone else with it and he said, “I don’t want to work that much, so why don’t you direct it with me and then there will be no problems” and that was pretty much it.
CS: I understand that you have alternating days where one of you directs one day and then the other does the next? Robinson: No, I direct everything. No, it’s been an easy directing process. We both do everything. It’s not like a Coen Brothers thing where one person deals with the technical and one person deals with the talent. We split it down the middle, we talk to everybody, we’re both as equally involved in our camera setups and our casting as we are in acting and writing decisions. We have a very strict rule that if one person doesn’t like something, both of us don’t like it, and it’s not good enough for only one of us to like something. We both have to like something. In that way, there’s not one detail in the entire movie that’s a compromise.
CS: As far as the casting, were there any parts written with specific actors in mind? Robinson: They weren’t really, but it happened really quickly. I don’t care who you are, that’s the most fun part of pre-production is putting together your cast, and the first person we came up with was Louis C.K. We were both at dinner, the first night we had ever hung out, and we had just spent the entire night talking, sharing our favorite Louis C.K. jokes, and by the end of that meal, it was just… “Louis C.K.” It was a revelation basically, it was very easy. From there, Jennifer Garner was a very easy decision as well. We wanted a young, beautiful age-appropriate woman who was really funny and really smart and could carry the female lead in our movie, and the answer was obvious. Rob Lowe was obvious, Jonah Hill was obvious, Tina Fey was obvious, and then we just started getting miracles. They’re all amazing miracles, as amazing as you can get, but then Chris Guest and then a couple other mystery cameos we can’t name yet, but it’s shocking that they’re in this movie. Patrick Stewart even, it’s awesome, it’s crazy.
CS: Was there ever any point where you thought, “This guy wants to work with us, we want to work with him, let’s write a part for him.” Robinson: No, we never wrote any parts for anybody. We don’t believe in that. The script is sacred, and if God himself wants to be in this movie, if there’s not a role that’s right, we’ll never add in a role for the sake of it.
CS: With that in mind, is there any room for improvisation as you go along? Robinson: There’s a good amount of improvisation, yeah. Every single person in this movie has written a handful of funny jokes on the fly, which are some of our favorite jokes in the movie that will make the final cut most likely. We always get the script down, because we know worst case scenario, we’re happy with our script so we’ll at least get that on film, but we definitely encourage everybody to play and everybody’s great. Every day somebody will come up with a joke on the fly that I can’t believe we didn’t figure out on our own, and that’s fun.
CS: Has any actor really given an exceptional performance that blew you away? Robinson: Well, obviously, I have to say all of them, but I think the three big surprises are… I think people will go, “Holy sh*t! Jen Garner is really funny.” I think people knew she was funny but I don’t think they knew she was this funny. I think Louis C.K. can be a star. I mean, I’m obsessed with him. I think he’s amazing in this, and I think Jonah Hill, people will be amazed by his dramatic work, and how sweet and serious and vulnerable he can be. He’s definitely really funny in this, too, but he plays a more serious part. He even told me himself that it’s the most dramatic stuff he’s done and he nails it really. It’s intense.
CS: I want to get back into the premise a little bit. Being that this is a world where no one lies, how do people avoid getting angry or not have any sort of emotional reaction to other people’s honesty? Robinson: No, there’s emotion. What we did is that it’s the exact same world as the one we live in now, but we have surgically extracted lying. We haven’t changed anything else. People are still people. Everyone still has the same faults, everyone still has the same insecurities and the same worries and the same fears. They just can’t lie about them. If I was to say to somebody, “You look really bad in that outfit today”… while that’s a rude thing to say, they wouldn’t be offended that I said it. They would just go, “I know, I feel bad about it. I wish I could afford nicer clothes” or “I wish I had better taste.”
CS: No one ever goes, “I wish you wouldn’t be so honest.” Robinson: No, definitely not, and nobody’s offended either, but if I were to say “You’re ugly,” you wouldn’t get mad, you would just go, “Yeah, that sucks. I wish I wasn’t.” But that’s it. So people, they’re not robots. They have the same emotions we have now, there just isn’t such a thing as shock or awe by something somebody says, or offense either. There’s no pretense, and at the same time, if someone is unattractive, you wouldn’t say to someone they’re ugly if they’re not. You’d only say someone is ugly if by our social standards, that person is considered less than attractive.
CS: A lot of Ricky’s stuff is very character-driven while this seems very plot-driven. Is that a valid assessment? Robinson: No, it’s a big concept movie, but it’s the documentary version, focusing on the least significant person in that world. That’s what was exciting for us, to take this massive idea and look at the least significant person in that world and see how it affects them, and to base it completely on character. Most of our scenes are small and intimate and just all about comedy and the writing and the performances. We have very few in-jokes, there’s none really, about the world. We limit ourselves with the amount of background prop jokes and posters and things like that, because we don’t want people constantly looking in the background for jokes. We want them concentrating on the writing and on the performances and on the concepts. Therefore, we really don’t spend much time dealing with… it’s not what you’d expect in a very big comedy version of it where there’s constantly huge scenes like, “Ooo… what does Times Square look like in this world?” Our character isn’t rich enough to go to Times Square. We don’t see the Statue of Liberty. We’re in a small little town and that’s the world that we stay in, and the story gets big and the scale gets larger, but we don’t grow with it. We stay focused on that one character and it’s only about characters.
CS: Was it at all tempting to do those easy jokes, just based on the premise? Robinson: No, it was more exciting to not do that. It was more exciting a ridiculously huge, ambitious concept and fight to always keep it small and intimate and about the writing and characters. I think in that way, much like you won’t see the shark very often in “Jaws” and it makes it scarier, you don’t see the larger ramifications of this world as much, but I think your brain fills it in more, and I think it’s funnier and more real and even bigger than if we attempted to have giant CG cityscapes of what this world will look like. You know it’s there, because we’ve given you enough for your brain to fill it all in, but we don’t tell you the jokes.
CS: Do you think people who are into “The Office” and “Extras” will be able to get into this just as easily? Robinson: Ricky Gervais fans are going to poop themselves by how happy they are with this, but I also think they’re going to see something that they’ve never seen before. Come one, come all, even if you’re not a Ricky Gervais fan, I think you will enjoy this, but Ricky Gervais fans have no fear. This is exactly what you wanted in his first movie. Exactly.
CS: Can you talk about some of the other characters? We obviously already know Ricky, Rob and Jennifer. Who is Jonah Hill playing and are these all people in this general area? Robinson: Yes, Jonah plays Frank, Mark’s neighbor, and he’s a depressed guy who lives in his apartment building and wishes that him and Mark can be friends, but Mark, who is already one of the least cool people in the world happens to be too cool… even for Frank. It’s our chance to see somebody who is a little bit lower on the food chain and he’s a very depressed person.
CS: What about Christopher Guest? Robinson: He plays the equivalent of a movie star in our world. We don’t have movie stars because there’s no fiction, but they have something else, which is sort of the equivalent of movie stars. He plays the biggest movie star in their world.
CS: I want to ask about the “Man in the Sky” who has been referred to while they’re on this dinner date. There seems to be some sort of all-encompassing thing, so is this a fourth wall type thing where everyone knows there’s someone else out there writing this? Robinson: Well, there’s a lot of different things that Mark, Ricky Gervais’ character, invents in his travails, some of them on purpose, some of them by accident, and I won’t give away what that one is, but that’s one of the many things that he invents on his journey.
CS: So by figuring out that he can lie, does Ricky start changing this world and the characters in his life? Robinson: Yes, some of them he does on purpose and some of them he does but he’s not aware that he’s lied or made something up and other people have forced him to fill in the blanks.
CS: Is Ricky keeping his British accent in this or is he doing an American one? Robinson: No, he’s doing a British accent. His mother is in the movie and his mother is British, and there’s a flashback scene to his father in England. We explain it. We don’t say like, “When he was 19, he moved to America and blah blah blah” but you find out there is a reason he moved here with his mother and we see a flashback to England. It’s enough so that nobody is going to think about it.
CS: Rob said there’s an explanation of this world and that the movie goes back to the cavemen to show the origins of the world. Robinson: Rob shouldn’t have told you that! But it’s gotten out a little bit. We give an explanation as to why it’s possible for a race to get this far without inventing lying. We fill that in enough but at the same time–not to curse–but it’s a f*cking comedy. All that matters is that you’re laughing and you love it.
CS: Even though you’re focusing on this one part of the world, what’s going on in the rest of the world? Are there wars in a place like this where no one lies to each other? Robinson: Sure, there definitely would be. There’s definitely conflict, and people are still just as flawed in this world as they are in ours. The only difference is that the wars would probably be over things that you can’t (lie about). There’s no mistake. It’s like, “I want this land.” “Well, I want this land.” “Well, what are we going to do about it?” “I’m going to take it.” “Oh no, you’re not.” And then you’ve got a war. It wouldn’t be based as much on ideas and miscommunication and things like that. They would just be straight-up, “I’m going to take your stuff. What are you going to do about it?”
CS: So it would be like, “Okay, we’re going to send a big bomb over there now. Watch out!” Robinson: It would still suck in that war.
CS: I was thinking that even though Rob’s character is the bad guy, he doesn’t lie, yet he’s still kind of an @$$hole even though he’s telling the honest truth. Robinson: Sure, but at the same time, something that you’ll see more in the finished version, but we really love playing with the idea that no one’s to blame in this world. If anything, it’s Ricky’s character that’s throwing everything into question and ruining everything. ‘Cause they had it all worked out. Their world is very black and white, things made sense, and along comes this guy who throws it all into question. While Rob definitely plays his nemesis, we’ve had fun playing with the idea of how much is he really to blame with just happening to be better-looking and smarter and funnier and more educated and wealthier and better in every way. It’s not his fault, he just is, and he’s not lying, he just knows what he is.
CS: I can’t help but notice that you have a tattoo that says “Truth.” Robinson: It says “Speak Truth” and I got that tattoo eight years ago and it’s a total coincidence, and it’s before I ever came up with the idea for the movie. Total coincidence. Everyone thinks I got them two days before we started shooting. I could show you the receipt. It was like 2002 or something, it’s a long time ago.
CS: As a Ricky Gervais fan, was it very exciting for you to meet Karl Pilkington? Robinson: It was one of the highlights, yeah. That was awesome. That was definitely one of the most intimidating people to meet so far, just because if you’re a fan of the Podcast, he is such a revered… he is a God among men.
CS: Ricky has said that he’s no longer focusing on his own career and his new goal is just about… Robinson: Making Karl Pilkington a household name, yeah.
CS: Is this movie going to be what breaks him into mainstream America? Robinson: Well, he doesn’t have any dialogue, and he’s only in one scene, but hopefully. It was pretty much just for us and for the behind-the-scenes of the DVD and just Ricky could have someone to torture for another day, to take the assistant off our assistant Jake and put it on Karl Pilkington for 24 hours.
CS: I’ve been reading the blog, and since we’ve been here today, we haven’t seen the Nerf guns on set at all. Robinson: Yeah, we lost a lot of Nerf darts, but we still have a massive arsenal in our trailers, and we had them out last week for a few hours. They definitely pop out at least once every three days or so. I’m not going to say that it’s gotten boring shooting Jake in the nuts, but I wish he had another painful place to shoot them in just so we can switch it up a little bit. There’s only so many times you can shoot Jake in the nuts. That’s not true. No, it never gets boring.
CS: Do you have a lot of footage of that happening for the behind-the-scenes material? Robinson: We actually want to take a classical music piece, possibly Beethoven’s 9th, and just we have a thousand shots of hitting Jake in the nuts. We’ve got one move called “The Assassin” where someone comes up with a Nerf dart and a giant missile, gets him in the nuts, then he falls over, and then there’s one that shoots six darts at once, and while he’s bending over in pain and agony, you get him with six in the face, and then falls into the fetal position and shakes, and then that is the coveted move. We’ve pulled it off three times. He’s definitely wising up to it, but he is very sleepy in the morning and it’s very easy.
CS: Will you be going to England for all the editing and post-production? Robinson: I’m going to be in England in three weeks and I’m going to be there for three months, and yeah, we’re going to do all the editing, all of the post, in England, so I will come back with a really pretentious British accent hopefully.
CS: You’re probably going to get this a lot as well, but you know that some people are going to say, “This is just like ‘Liar, Liar’ in reverse, except that everyone else tells the truth and Ricky lies.” How do you feel about that and how do you think this movie is going to separate itself from that? Robinson: Sure, it is “Liar, Liar” in reverse in terms of the premise, but we’ve created a whole new world that’s an alternate reality, but at the same time, we’ve really focused a lot on the love story and really making it sweet, while we do–without being arrogant–think we have the funniest movie of the year, we also think it’s really sweet and people are going to be really surprised hopefully by how touching it is and real and honest.
CS: The premise obviously has a very dark aspect to it and there’s also a darkness to Ricky’s humor but is there any chance that this can be taken as being mean? Robinson: I think not at all. I think by the end of this movie, if we’ve done our jobs right, you will feel so filled with love and happiness and sweet feelings. No, I think it’s a really heartfelt, honest, sweet real movie, not different from the ending of “The Office” or the ending of “Extras,” with sweet, real human emotion, not Hollywood emotion.
CS: Do you think anyone might come out of this movie and say “I never want to lie again.” Robinson: No, not at all. I think they’re going to walk out and go, “Thank God we can lie! I wouldn’t want to live there for very long.”
CS: Do you ever step back and go, “Wow, I’m working with Ricky Gervais”? Robinson: No, because if I did, I’d have panic attacks all day, so I just go with it every day. I mean, it’s a dream, I feel like I’ve won a contest.
CS: Do you feel any pressure from the fact that Ricky’s fans are a demanding bunch and this being your first feature? Robinson: Yeah, I wouldn’t if I wasn’t one. All I can do is make the movie I would pay ten dollars and sit in line for three hours in the rain to see, and that’s what this is. I imagine that most Ricky Gervais fans will feel the same way, but we’ll see. This is the movie that I am dying to see and that’s the only reason that we’re making it. For both of us. This is the movie we wish existed so we made it.
CS: Do you have other scripts that you’ve been working on yourself that you might want to work on next? Robinson: Yes, of course. I’ve got a bunch of comedies, a bunch of movies that I’m really hoping to do, but right now, all our concentration is on this and making this great.