Here's something that doesn't happen often: I forget how I met Matthew Robinson.
It was via e-mail, I know, but I forget why or what the first communication was. It was well before I was asked to fly to Boston to visit the set of "The Invention Of Lying," so by the time I did leave for that trip, I was already comfortable enough to e-mail Matthew the night before to tell him I'd see him there.
I figured he'd be the conduit between me and Ricky Gervais, who I found myself intimidated to meet. It's not every day you meet one of the masterminds behind a global comedy phenomenon, after all.
What surprised me is just how open both Matthew and Ricky were once I arrived. Linda Obst, the film's producer, was the first person to greet me when we arrived at the McMansion where the sequences were being shot. This is the house Ricky gets after his lying starts to really take off, and it's a pretty big scene in the film, made up of several mini-scenes. I was warned by Linda that there were actually two separate video villages on the set. If you don't know the term, "video village" refers to the area where the monitors are set up for the director to sit and watch during each take. Normally, there's just one, but evidently, Ricky and Matthew and director of photography Tim Suhrstedt had their own small video village, and then there was one for "everybody else." Considering these two guys who had never met before this film are co-directing, I expect that wee bit of privacy is required when they're debating creative choices, and I was more than happy to give them the space.
[more after the jump]
So, of course, as soon as Matthew saw me, he walked over, introduced himself, and abducted me away to the private video village so we could talk. It was a chance to just observe Ricky and Matthew working together, and I spent the whole morning with them, slipping away to talk to Jennifer Garner or to interview Louis CK, before finally joining Matthew for lunch, the first time I formally turned on the recorder while talking to him all day. Look for guest appearances during the interview by Jake, Matthew's assistant and long-time friend, as well as the great Louis CK.
As the recording begins, we're discussing the careful way they were negotiating language in the movie, and how they were aware during shooting that this was going to be a PG-13 movie.
Drew McWeeny: Is that something you guys are constantly aware of? Are you being very careful with how you...
Matt Robinson: Well, we took care of it in the script. I mean, we made the decision. It wasn't forced on us at all. We did sort of an MPAA/studio pass, and they told us basically you're like three fucks and two shits away from a PG-13. And basically we looked at it and realized we had like the least R-rated R ever. It was kind of a waste of an R. It's the kind of a movie where I think if you saw it, and then realized it was an R you'd go, "Well, why?" We have zero nudity, zero violence. We just had like three too many fucks. So we cut those back. We've got one fuck now. And we used it in a really funny great way.
DM: And sometimes that actually... if you only have the one, it really makes it count...
DM: Apatow's films, when he embraced the R again, it's like, "Okay, great." And it is. But there's certainly nothing shocking at this point. They can say whatever they want and you get to the point where it's like, routine...
MR: Yeah. That's why you've got to get Jonah Hill in there because he's the only one who can actually make it shocking again.
DM: Well, Jonah takes filthy to a different level, quickly.
MR: That's what's real awesome about him in this movie is that this is a drama role for him almost.
[In the background, one of the Assistant Directors walked into the lunch tent and loudly yelled:
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR: We're back in 12! Back in 12!
WHOLE CREW: Boooooooooo.]
MR: He was really great. He's got serious, heartfelt, like, goose-bump scenes.
DM: Good. I think Jonah's tremendous and I... again, I think he's still so new to the business that people are just figuring out what range he has or what they can try with him.
MR: I think he's got drama in him. I really do. I think he can play some really serious roles. He has so much gravitas to him and so much vulnerability.
DM: That's the thing, yeah. Even in "Superbad," you sense that in a couple of moments where you go, "Wow, this kid cuts pretty close." So you said you were at "Grindhouse" opening day when Ricky first called you, and you were asking about Dark Knight, so it seems like you're a fan of...
MR: I'm a massive movie nerd. Huge.
DM: Was comedy always where you knew you wanted to go, or was that just one of the things you wanted to try?
MR: Comedy is always what I feel like I'm best at, but this was the first comedy script I'd written in six years. I'd been working on horror movies. I've been working on adaptations of Dostoevsky. I've been working on a drama. I hadn't been doing anything funny. I got bored with funny because, like, my early 20's? That's all I did. I had like a satirical rap group in L.A. that was called the Tri-Lambs. You've heard of it?
MR: It was funny. So we played with Tenacious D and all those guys and like Metal Shop, and we were part of sort of like the comedy music scene in L.A. for awhile.
DM: I'm wondering if I saw you then because....
MR: We played a lot of movie premieres. We did a lot of....
DM: I may have.
MR: And then, you know, I wrote a really bad studio comedy for Paramount and, like, I just felt burnt out with comedy. I took a really shitty job writing really bad TV scripts for Ashton Kutcher for like a year. And just like taking shit writing assignments basically. Thankful for the money and the work, but just like kind of shit that at the end of the day would just like make you feel really shitty about yourself. But I always write down ideas. Everytime... I've got like a giant book of ideas and I've had this one... about a year before I wrote it, I came up with the basic idea. My wife and I had been watching "Twilight Zone" episodes all weekend, and I'd been reading... what was I reading? Oh God, why am I forgetting his name? Anyway, I was reading this author who does these really crazy sort of quirky sci-fi short stories, and I don't know... I woke up one morning, and I think my brain had been so infused with that kind of big concept storytelling, short form, that I woke up with the idea of a world where lying doesn't exist. And I think I mentioned it to my wife and she said something along the lines of, like, "Sounds a bit like a crap 'Liar, Liar'," and I was like, "Yeah, probably". But the idea sort of remained. I sat down, and I wrote the opening date scene as a sketch. Without any bigger world. It wasn't part of something else... it was just a loser on a date with a hot girl in a world where lying doesn't exist. And I sat on that for a year and I didn't do anything. And then I got fired from my shit job, and I got fired like the week before Thanksgiving. I had no money. I was just feeling like the lowest point in my life. What the fuck am I doing? Nothing's panning out. Like really bummed out about everything. So I knew there was no chance I was going to get another job until January/February, because nobody fucking hires between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. So I sat down and I looked at my books of ideas, and I saw that one again, and I read that sketch, and I thought it was funny, but I didn't really think I could turn it into a movie. So I was driving around one day, and I came up with two scenes. The... well, I won't say what they are because one of them wasn't in the script you read, but two important pivotal scenes in the movie. And with those three scenes in mind, I felt like, "All right, there's a movie there." So I sat down, and I wrote the whole thing in record time for me. I think I wrote the first draft in like thirteen days. And that was basically the draft that Ricky read. I gave it to my closest people... like every time I finish a script, I give it to the five same people. I give it to Jake, I give it to Olly, I give it to my wife, I give it to my mom, and I give it to my friend Jamie, and they were all like, "This is fucking... this is better than anything you've done," and they were all like, "I think you've actually got something here." And Olly, who at the time wasn't my manager, just my friend... he was a manager. He was like, "Okay, I'm going to represent you now. I think we have something we can work with." And within, like, a week, I was getting phone calls from CAA, Endeavor and Broder and like every agency trying to get me and it was crazy how fast it all happened. Everyone's like, "This is the next big thing. Oh my God, this is going to be a million dollar sale. You're going to blow up. It's an amazing script." The town's all abuzz about it, and then my agency... I ended up staying with Endeavor, but I got bumped up to a better agent there. They wanted to take us to one of their marquee stars, and I said, "I'd rather hold off on that because I kind of have Ricky Gervais in mind," and they were like "Well, that's amazing. Let's think about that," but they were like, "Don't get excited, because he never does anything like this." So they didn't even want to go to him, because they were like, "We sent him 100 scripts"... literally, they have sent him 100 scripts in the two years he's been with Endeavor. He's read maybe three of them. His girlfriend reads them all, and she tells him what's worth reading, and the only other script that he liked was "Ghost Town", and he starred in it, and he read this one and liked that. But I got it to Linda, and she got it to him, and it all happened very backdoor. It all happened in a way it shouldn't happen, which is like a friend of the family, Linda, is like having a general and him happening to go, which is weird for him. Like when he talks about it, he's like, "There should have been five or six different ways it didn't get to me, and it's so weird that it got through all those. I don't take generals. I don't read scripts. I don't meet with strangers. I hate dinner." It's like usually he'll have somebody come and meet for coffee and it'll be ten minutes. And it wouldn't work that way because it would have been too fast, and they wouldn't ever have started talking about it, but because they had dinner and because he had to talk about something through dinner, they might as well talk about the script and then they got... you know? It was just like every... it just went against all the things he usually does, and somehow it was meant to be, I guess. There was too many weird things that shouldn't have happened that it got to him.
DM: You talk about writing in thirteen days, and I hear that a lot... that when something really clicks with the writer... because I've had things that I've worked on like for a year, and you torture yourself, and at the end of it it's not the thing you thought it was going to be, and it's frustrating. And then you turn around and you write something that just sort of "pow," and almost always, that's the thing that clicks because there's something about that immediacy. You almost can't second guess yourself. You almost can't...
MR: It came out of desperation and anger, too, and depression. I was in a really bummed out state. And like it really did feel like it's my last fucking chance. I've got to write one more fucking thing, and hopefully I'll get a better agent out of it and like get sent out on some meetings and get some fucking low pay re-write jobs and maybe like work my way up a bit more and... but that was literally as good as I thought it was going to get. I was just hoping to get some attention. I was going to try and write something that was kind of shocking and like impossible to not notice and sort of something that felt different. But it is weird. I feel that is how it happens, and I've completely changed my writing process since then so I sort of write things fast. I've written a few scripts since this one, and it's fast and immediate... just throw it on the page and see what happens.
DM: I do think there is something about... as a writer, when you give yourself all the time in the world and you have a million options, that's when you hit quicksand. Just bogged down by it. I think the best writing is kind of on instinct.
MR: It forces you to write what you want to see because you're never thinking about it. Never thinking, "Oh, I should have a scene like this here." Never thinking like..
JAKE: "That's so familiar to me somehow."
MR: Oh yeah.
JAKE: "Where have I seen that before?"
MR: It just turns up that instinct, and you're only writing this as an audience member, you know?
[Louis CK came walking by, in costume, with his lunch, and Matthew greeted him warmly when he saw him.]
MR: Are you ready to do some fucking acting today? You're going to act your cock off today, right?
LOUIS CK: What am I doing today? Just mooning the camera...
MR: You've got a scene where you walk in, and he's hitting himself in the head with this metal thing.
LOUIS CK: Do I say anything?
MR: Yeah, you've got like 3 or 4 lines.
LOUIS CK: Oh.
MR: That's a lot for him. I think you say, "What are you doing?", and he says, "I'm trying to kill myself," and you go, "That's going to take a long time like that," and he goes, "Yeah, I deserve to suffer," and then you go, "If you die, can I have your stuff?", and he goes, "Yeah, good news is there's a pair of socks coming to you," and a huge smile breaks out on your face, and we pan down, and you've got holes in your socks. It's a fucking "Simpsons" joke, but it works.
LOUIS CK: Really? A pan down?
MR: Whatever. Such a stupid comic reveal. "Socks?"
LOUIS CK: Seems like a long way to go for that joke.
MR: We're going to waste a lot of film doing this. Is that what you're saying?
LOUIS CK: You can do a dissolve during the pan down to save some time.
MR: Fade to black. Fade to somewhere down your shins.
LOUIS CK: Or a dissolve.
MR: That'd be funny.
JAKE: I'm going to throw these mashed potatoes at someone.
MR: Why don't you make a mountain out of it?
JAKE: If I build it, will they come?
MR: "This means something. It's familiar."
JAKE: I've seen that before.
DM: That by the way is the best looking movie on Blu-ray so far.
MR: I have it.
DM: That is outstanding how good that print is. I've seen that so many times, and until I saw that version, I had no idea. There's very few like older films on BluRay still, and that's where I think it really gets shown off is when you see film grains, and it really looks like film again.
MR: I have all the Kubricks on HD-DVD. I was a late adopter for Blu-ray. I have, like, 50 HD-DVD's.
DM: I've got quite a few. Get this, we gave them away at BNAT this year. We gave everybody an HD-DVD player at BNAT this year. Good call!
MR: Fuck me.
DM: We had like 250, and every one of them is now a doorstop. They're good upscalers, but I mean, you know...
MR: Nobody's going to come to my house and steal my HD-DVD's or my fucking HD-DVD player, so I'll still use them.
JAKE: I will.
MR: Fuck me. That sucks.
JAKE: I was going to do it for your birthday, but...
MR: The Kubricks look fucking great.
DM: They do. And "Bonnie and Clyde" on BluRay is awesome.
MR: I want the Peckinpahs. That's what I want next.
DM: A friend of mine worked on the "Godfather" restoration that they just finished, and he said...
MR: Robert Harris's release?
DM: Yeah. They said Robert Harris's work on that is unfucking real. Especially the second one. It's finally as dark as Gordon Willis meant it to be.
DM: So there's parts where it's black, and it's never looked like that on video. They always brighten the grain up and ruin it. It's going to look nice.
DM: That's what I love about "Close Encounters"... those amazing nighttime blacks.
MR: The "Blade Runner"... that print looks amazing, and I saw that when they played that at the Landmark in L.A. on digital. Looked gorgeous.
DM: That was a hell of a presentation.
MR: Yeah. It looked amazing.
DM: So would you try other stuff down the road?
MR: Yeah, I mean, I've got another comedy that, God willing, I'll be able to do next that I'm really excited about, but yeah, it's weird. I think I'm more excited about my non-comedy stuff than my comedy stuff. I mean, I've got a few scripts that I'm still working on that I would love to do eventually, but I mean, you know, I think in my heart I'm just a big film nerd, and so I don't... as much as I love comedy and I think it's what I'm best at... it comes easiest to me. It's probably why I'm not as excited by it, I don't know. I mean, obviously, I couldn't be more excited by this movie, but I just mean, like, the concept of only doing comedy the rest of my life...
DM: Well, it's weird, because you do get put in a box relatively quickly. Like whether I like it or not, you know, it's horror. That's what I write, and there's no getting out of that. Not yet.
DM: So I think if you are a big film fan, it's a little nerve-wracking realizing you might get put in that box even if you love what you do.
MR: It's not easy to jump out.
MR: Especially when you're doing comedy...or horror. Those seem to be the two genres that, like, there's not as much parallel moving.
DM: People really think of it as a skill set, and they think, "Okay, you know how to scare me and that's enough."
MR: Yeah. Well yeah, I'm working on a Dreamworks animated movie right now, that's sort of a big sci-fi thing, and hopefully that'll help, and I've got a Warner Brothers comedy that is also a comedy sci-fi, so somehow I'm working towards... they're both comedy a bit, but they're both very action packed...
DM: You can ease into it, I think.
MR: ... very action packed sci-fi kind of stuff, like along the lines of "Galaxy Quest," or....
DM: Which is one of the few I can think of that actually gets...
MR: I fucking love that movie. It's one of my favorite movies. It's a masterpiece.
DM: Yeah, and they pulled off something that you don't see often. Sci-fi and comedy are a tough mix.
MR: Really hard. Yeah. But yeah, I'd love to jump into this horror movie script that I have that I've been working on for six years that I think is the best thing I've got. I think it's awesome and it's small and it's easy and it's brand new, but we'll see. But I think I will do this comedy script that I wrote last summer that I really liked next if possible. It's much smaller than this, even. It's half the budget.
DM: It feels like you're building the right way in terms of making the films the size they are, because you end up with less people mucking around with you and...
MR: Exactly. And hopefully I can stick with these producers. They just throw you a check and say invite me to the premiere. They really do. It's amazing and they protect you from the studios. We've got Warner Brothers and Universal as our distributors and every time we get notes or anything, MRC says fuck off. Their model only works for small movies and that model doesn't work on a fucking $100 million movie.
[At this point, Matthew said, "Off the record..." then told me a quick story about a case where MRC defended Matthew and Ricky on a decision that was evidently a big deal for all involved.]
JAKE: I didn't know you can do that. "Off the record." You can just say "off the record," and say what you want and that gets cut out?
MR: Well, if he's nice.
DM: It's not the law or anything, but...
JAKE: Off the record... [points at Matthew] Huge homo.
MR: Off the record? I want to blow you. (laughter)
DM: If I told you how many times I heard that.
MR: Off the record. Meet me in my trailer, pants optional.
And as far as what happened after that...
... well, like the man said. That's off the record.
My last on-set interview, with Ricky Gervais himself, will run here this weekend. My thanks to Warner Bros and to Matthew Robinson and everyone else on-set for all their help in putting all of these together.
"The Invention Of Lying" plays the Toronto Film Festival, then opens in theaters Oct. 2nd nationwide.
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