Q & A with Writer-Director Matthew Robinson


As part of ZAMM.com’s ongoing series of filmmaker interviews Martin Grove talks to Matthew Robinson, co-writer and co-director with Ricky Gervais of the comedy “The Invention of Lying”, premiering Sept. 14 at the Toronto International Film Festival and opening wide Sept. 25 via Warner Bros.

“The Invention of Lying” takes place in an alternate reality in which lying — even the concept of a lie — does not exist. Everyone from politicians to advertisers to the man and woman in the street speaks the truth and nothing but the truth with no thought of the consequences. But when Mark (Ricky Gervais), a down-on-his-luck loser, suddenly develops the ability to lie, he finds that dishonesty has its rewards.

In a world where every word is assumed to be the absolute truth, Mark easily lies his way to fame and fortune. But lies have a way of spreading and Mark begins to realize that things are getting a little out of control when some of his tallest tales are being taken as, well, gospel. With the entire world now hanging on his every word, there’s only one thing Mark hasn’t been able to lie his way into — the heart of the woman he loves.

“The Invention of Lying” stars Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner (“Juno”), Jonah Hill (“Superbad”), comedian Louis C.K., Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested Development”) and Fionnula Flanagan (“Yes Man”) with Rob Lowe (“Brothers & Sisters”) and Tina Fey (“Baby Mama”, “30 Rock”).

Written and directed by Ricky Gervais (“The Office”, “Extras”) & Matthew Robinson (his first feature), the film was produced by Lynda Obst (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”, “Sleepless in Seattle”), Oly Obst, Gervais and Dan Lin (“Terminator Salvation”, “Shorts”). It was executive produced by Ted Field, Paris Kasidokostas Latsis, Terry Dougas and Sue Baden-Powell.

Q: When did you come up with the idea for “The Invention of Lying”?
A: About a year before Ricky and I started working on it. I had been inundating myself with “Twilight Zone” episodes. I think my wife and I were both sick and we had gotten the “Twilight Zone” box set and stayed in bed all weekend watching many, many “Twilight Zone” episodes. I think because I was so inundated with that I just woke up one morning with these “Twilight Zone” ideas. One of them that I wrote down that stuck with me was a world where people can’t lie. I was just trying to think of really good “Twilight Zone” episodes that they had never made and this seemed like an obvious one. I thought I’d sit down and write a comedy version of that. I just had this idea for a blind date where two people can’t lie and I thought how funny that would be. So I wrote that scene down, which ended up being the opening scene of the film. I set that aside for a few months because I didn’t think it was a film.
Q: What happened next?
A: I came back to it a little bit later because I’d come up with the scene of one of the characters’ mother dying and having to make up heaven in order to send her off not scared and feeling a little better about life. I thought that was actually a touching scene. I’d always had this idea of a Coca Cola ad where the guy has to be really honest and the whole premise of the ad was basically “It’s Coke. It’s very famous. You know it. I know it. Just please keep buying Coke.” I thought that would be such more respectable advertising than these long drawn out CG polar bear things. I just always wished they would be a bit more honest.

So a couple of those elements together just felt like enough to sit down and translate a film out of it. I wrote the whole thing really quickly — in about two weeks. I was pretty happy with it by the end of this. It eventually got into the hands of Ricky Gervais, who called me and loved it and wanted to somehow get involved. He didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do with it, but he just knew he had to have something to do with it. I went to England and we basically chucked the third act out and rewrote it together, but pretty much the rest of the film stayed. I think the shooting script was about 65 or 70 percent of that first draft I wrote so quickly.
Q: This is your first movie as a director — actually, as a co-director. We don’t see many co-directing situations. How did that happen?
A: It happened pretty organically. Ricky and I spent a good amount of time together writing the script and we started putting together lists of directors we thought would be great to go out to with it. I think that at this point Ricky had pretty much decided that he wanted to play the lead, but he wasn’t putting himself forward to direct it yet. So we were putting directors lists together. We went out to dinner one night and he was just very worried that someone was going to ruin it. But at the same time he was equally worried that he would ruin it and didn’t want to direct it himself. I agreed and I was worried about it. My wife, meanwhile, was kicking me under the table and I had no idea why.

Afterwards she was like, “He was hinting that he wanted to do it with you. Why don’t you put yourself forward?” And I would say, “Oh, that’s insane. Of course, he wasn’t saying that.” I flew back to L.A. and, of course, when I landed an e-mail from him (arrived) just bluntly saying, “Do you want to direct it with me?” I accepted. I was nervous about it because, obviously, I’d never directed a feature before. I’d always had aspirations to do it and it’s something that I’ve been working towards my whole life, but I was just awed to be writing with Ricky Gervais let alone thinking of anything else.
Q: Now he had directed episodes of “The Office”.
A: Yes. He and Stephen Merchant had directed everything that they had done together, including “Extras” and “The Office”.
Q: Had you directed any TV?
A: No. I had directed a few plays in L.A. and a few shorts and a few commercials and things like that.
Q: So this was a big step for both of you into feature directing.
A: It was. It was really great having a co-director on it, as unusual as it was. But it felt really natural and really easy because we just sort of defined our roles early on.
Q: Who did what?
A: Well, what was easy about this is that we decided we would both do everything and that we would just be a committee of two. We just had a very simple rule at the beginning, which was that one “no” equals two “no’s” and only two “yeses” equals a yes. So if either one of us doesn’t like something, the other one automatically has to not like it. And only if both of us like something is it approved. It was a nightmare for everybody else involved in the film because they had to walk around with two sets of everything and had to get both directors to sign off on everything. But it enabled us to have a film that there’s nothing from the biggest details to the smallest that both of us didn’t want in the film.
Q: Was it relatively easy to agree on everything?
A: It was. This wouldn’t work if we had very different sensibilities because you would end up always arguing. I think there was maybe five percent of the things in the film that we ever had to sort of compromise on. But I think that 95 percent of it we never would have had to have those rules for anyway. We just had the same sensibilities and the same ideas. That’s why it worked out so easily. The minute he read the script he called me and in a simple sense just “got it” and saw exactly what I wanted out of this. We just sort of shared a filmmaking comedic language that was very similar — and for no reason I understand. I mean, we’re separate in age and continents and lifestyles and everything. Somehow we just connected on this film.
Q: To be able to co-direct do you need the DGA’s approval?
A: They did not officially approve that. You have to have a precedent of having worked with each other before and you have to have some sort of proof that you will continue to work (together). Basically, they don’t want to approve co-directors unless that’s who you’re going to be working with forever and always have worked with.
Q: Well, you guys had not previously worked together.
A: No. Not at all. I understand that. Otherwise, people would be handing out co-directing (positions all the time). You’d give your lead actor “co-director” if you wanted to use it as a leveraging tool. Or people would just start throwing it out as rewards. Or people would start demanding it.
Q: Like producer credits.
A: Exactly. I think this is the way they prevent the director credit from becoming like “Well, we all kind of directed it together really,” which could so easily happen with almost every film because people start taking ownership of it.
Q: How did you work it out then?
A: We were a non-DGA film.
Q: And what does that mean?
A: It means we’re not in the Guild and it means that we couldn’t use DGA first and second AD’s.
Q: But there was no effect in terms of being able to get a distributor or anything like that?
A: No. We already had our distributor, I think, before we had gotten the DGA decision.
Q: Who is distributing it?
A: Warners domestic and Universal international.
Q: How did they respond to having two first time feature directors?
A: I think we offered them a package that they couldn’t refuse. It was cheap. We had already gotten all of our financing from MRC (Media Rights Capital) and we had a really big cast. We came to them with Tina Fey and Rob Lowe and Jonah Hill and Jennifer Garner and Ricky. It was a small budget film. Warner Bros. really wanted to be, as they say, in the Ricky Gervais business and they had been courting him for a long time. So it was just a very easy decision on everybody’s part.
Q: So Media Rights Capital financed it?
A: Yes. They were the first people involved. It was Ricky and I and a script and we went out to Media Rights Capital and they gave us a budget that they would spend on it and our people told us that that was very feasible and a generous budget and it wouldn’t be hard to make this film on that budget at all. And Media Rights Capital told us we’d have full creative control and as close to final cut as two people can get and that was enough for us. We didn’t think we were going to get a better deal than that.
Q: What was the film’s budget?
A: Our budget was eighteen and a half million dollars.
Q: Well, that’s a very affordable budget by today’s wild standards, but you were able to make the movie. How did you make it work?
A: We shot in Massachusetts outside of Boston where they have some great incentives. There were only a few places where we could afford to shoot it and that was one of them. That had the best look for us, as well. We wanted sort of a small town Norman Rockwell classic American East Cost town. The majority of the film was shot in Lowell, Mass. We just loved the way it looks and it was close enough to Boston for people to commute. It was very easy to shoot there. It was a 36 day shoot spread out over eight weeks.
Q: So you probably had to keep moving pretty quickly.
A: Yeah, but the film has the scale of “My Dinner With Andre”. It’s a really simple film for the most part. We don’t have any big set pieces. We’re a small thought driven film of mostly people talking and sitting and laughing and walking. There’s very few big sequences. We had pretty easy days. We were wrapping at 4 or 5 some days and there were very few night shoots. It was a very easy film to shoot. I don’t think anyone could ever make an easier film than that outside of a student film.
Q: When did you shoot?
A: April through June of ’08. I got Ricky the script in February of 2007 and we started filming about two months after that. It was very fast.
Q: So the movie gods were with you.
A: Yeah. We had really good timing. MRC had only done a few things. They were really wanting to get things moving. We were one of their first big pick-ups. Ricky had the timing right. We had to worry about the strike a little bit.
Q: The Writers strike ended in February of ’07 so you came in right after things started to get rolling again.
A: Yeah. But the script had been locked for months so it wasn’t a problem.
Q: Looking back at production, what were some of the bigger challenges that you faced?
A: Not really. It all went as planned for the most part. We had such an insane cast that almost every three or four days you had a new actor coming on that you were really excited to work with. So every few days it was very fresh and new. You’d wrap Tina Fey and Jeffrey Tambor would come in and a few days after that Jonah Hill would come in and Rob Lowe and Jason Bateman. Every few days we’d show up on set and there’d be some new actor that we had put in our wish list and were so amazed to have. It was never laborious. It never felt long. It always felt like we were doing something new and fun. And we moved really quick from location to location.

I think the only difficult sequence was our most complicated sequence, which was this caveman scene. It was originally supposed to be the opening of the film, which is actually not the opening of the film anymore. It’s now re-cut to be sort of a short film prequel that’s going to be on the DVD.
Q: Why did you cut it from the film?
A: Mainly just for timing reasons. It was a seven or eight minute long sequence. We loved it, but we just felt it wasn’t necessary and it was a long intro into the film. And that was a hard thing to cut. But we had high winds and we were standing out in the freezing cold in the middle of a rock quarry and everyone had to wear these skimpy caveman loincloth things. Everyone was miserable and it was raining intermittently. It ended up looking really nice and dramatic and cloudy and prehistoric. But that was the only thing that was (difficult) and everyone was irritable for those few days standing in a few feet of mud.
Q: Ricky besides co-directing the movie appears in it, as well.
A: He only had one day of the whole shoot that he wasn’t on camera.
Q: How did you guys handle directing scenes that he was in?
A: It was easy. We had been working on his character for over a year together and we had rehearsed every scene while we were writing. There was no work we had to on him as an actor on his character. We would try different options and play around and try to get loose with the material, but directing him was the easiest thing in the world because we had already been sort of directing him for over a year. It was very simple.

Working with the other actors, we would start doing a few takes by the book and stick to the script for a while and once we were happy with the script we would loosen up and let everyone do whatever they wanted to do for as long as we could afford to do it. We did a lot of two camera shooting so we were able to do a lot of improvising and a lot of them ended up in the film. There’s probably five or six jokes in the film of Tina Fey’s that she just made up on the day that were great. You know, somebody does something that makes everyone laugh and then you do it again. We’d just try to run that same funny thing again a few times to get a few options. And then someone would do something else funny and we’d run that a few more times. It’s like writing on set. You just let people riff and then you remember the things you liked and you keep working on those.

You always lock the script first so that if you end up wasting time or not getting what you want at least you know (you have what you needed). People always get a lot more relaxed once you’ve gotten the scene right and you can let go of it. Then everyone’s really comfortable to start playing around. Some actors are much more used to improvising and do it naturally and some you push a bit more and find out they’re actually really good at it.
Q: Looking ahead, do you want to direct again?
A: I would love to direct again. I would be very excited. I’m finishing up a script that I love that I’ve been working on for the last year or so during post-production and if I had my druthers it would be the next thing I directed. It’s an even smaller film than this, but a comedy again. Other than that, I’ve got a bunch of projects that I’m developing. My dream would be to be able to keep directing.