“Fame is a different beast now, it’s insatiable” - Ricky Gervais opens up about making David Brent: Life On The Road
It’s been 13 years since Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, the toe-curling main attraction of The Office, left our screens, but he’s back now. On Monday (December 12th) David Brent: Life On The Road, a feature-length movie with Brent front and centre, comes to DVD shelves (you can pre-order it here).
The movie is set 15 years after the events of The Office and follows Brent, a sales rep after leaving Wernham Hogg, as he self funds a tour with Foregone Conclusion, cashing in his pension to take out a band of mercenary session musicians to live the dream, with his own tour bus, t-shirt gun and array of cheap hotels.
Life On The Road is accompanied by a full album, written by Gervais and produced in collaboration with former Razorlight drummer Andy Burrows, who is also the drummer in his touring band. That’s released today and is available to preview and purchase on the right-hand side of the page.
We spoke to Gervais ahead of release, we chatted about why he decided to bring back David Brent, why fame is a much crueller beast these days and why he’s leaving the door open for more...
When did you decide to bring back David Brent? Has he always been in the back of your mind as someone whose story wasn’t over?
“It’s never really gone away, so it was a bit like easing back into an old pair of slippers. Though my version of the character ended 12 years ago I’ve still been involved, I’m the executive producer on the American version of The Office, I still manage the estate of The Office, whether that’s approving a clip for a quiz machine in a pub or putting together the anniversary box set. In 2013 the BBC did an online thing for iPlayer and I had to record an introduction for The Office and I watched it for the first time in 10 years and I laughed, particularly at bits I didn’t remember, I felt proud after that and remembered how much hard work it was.”
“At the same time as that Richard Curtis asked me to do Comic Relief, which I try and do every year, I think he’d always wanted me to do The Office, but this time I felt like I could and I wrote a little sketch. That made me think, for the first time in ages, about what David Brent would be doing now.”
Was it easy to know what he’d be doing?
“I knew he’d still be in Slough, he’d still be a rep and he’d still be trying to be a rockstar. I decided he’d be trying to be like a local Simon Cowell and he’d be working with a young rap act, but trying to worm his way into the songs. I did this six-minute sketch, based around a one liner in The Office, a political reggae song that sounded like it was written in 2001 and that re-hooked me, it was enough. I’m not bringing back The Office, I said I wouldn’t and I won’t, it’d be mad to think the same people would be working in the same office 15 years later, but David Brent will still exist and this is where he’d be.”
The world is very different though...
“The weird thing is The Office was about fame, I’d watched a lot of docusoaps about ordinary people getting their 15 minutes of fame, but it’s a different beast now, it’s insatiable, you need to work to stay famous, people will let cameras in their faces 24 hours a day, they will do anything to stay on telly, it’s a more ruthless and more honed beast. Brent is a relic, he’s a throwback to a sweeter time. In The Office he was a bit of a prat and he stood out among nice, ordinary people, now he’s stuck in an office full of alpha males, the kind of people who go on The Apprentice and proudly say ‘I’ll destroy anyone who stands in my way’. Now he’s not the boss, he’s almost bullied and weirdly seems quite nice.”
You don’t think he’d have given up on his dream?
“He’d be trying to get famous, still, he’d have seen Paul Potts and Susan Boyle and thought ‘I can do that’. So he’s doing it his way, he’s paying for it, so he’s got a bunch of mercenary session musicians who don’t want to be there, but he’s paying through the nose for, he’s cashed in a few pensions and taken a holiday to live a fantasy for three weeks and he thinks he’ll get signed. The thing is, the songs aren’t bad, he’s not a bad performer, he’s not a bad songwriter, but he’s still a 55-year old man singing about driving across America, picking up chicks, it’s just excruciating.”
When did you decide that you’d make a full album to go with it?
“After I did the sketch for Comic Relief, I bumped into Andy Burrows at a Tom Odell gig and I said to Andy that I fancied doing a few gigs and he said ‘Leave it with me, I’ve got a band ready to go’. We had a few songs from The Office and ‘Equality Street’ and I quickly got some more songs together, seven or eight. We started working with the session musicians, who learned all the songs in about a day and we played. I joked with the audience that I was losing money on the gig because of how much the session musicians charged and they all got the joke and, even though I still hadn’t thought of the film, it really started there.”
When did you decide to do the film?
"I came up with the idea for the film in 2014. I knew it straight away, it’s actually what Brent would do, he’d pay for session musicians, guys who he knew wouldn’t want to be there and he’d think he could buy his way to fame. Once I decided on that I wrote it pretty quickly, I think it took me a few weeks to write it. I had about 20 pages when I told my agent, who went to the BBC and they practically ripped my arm off to get it. They wanted to start filming as soon as we could, so I finished Special Correspondents on the 9th of November and started filming this on the 16th. It went so fast, after 10 years of not thinking about it, suddenly it was back and done and dusted within a year.”
How do you think David Brent is different here?
“That’s the other big change in the world, documentaries have changed, it’s much more intrusive and more demanding from people. The makers basically say to people ‘You’d better be interesting, something had better happen today’. In The Office you would not have heard David Brent talking about the stuff he does in this, it’s much more honest and much confessional, it’s naked really.”
You’re directing here as well as writing and starring, do you find it hard to juggle all those responsibilities?
“I find doing everything much easier than not doing everything. Because I’ve written everything I’ve directed, I know what I want, if someone handed me a script for The Matrix 4 then I think I’d probably panic. I know my characters really well and it comes easier to me to do it all, I know what I want on screen, then you can build your team around that. After the early days after I demanded final edit and to make sure I do things my way then it’s just been so much easier, once you get final edit, you keep getting it. It’s more relaxing because I can be open to ideas because I know I don’t have to take them.”
Is that the only way you work?
“The struggle for most people is that they’re interfered with, that’s what drives you crazy. I do what I want and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I demanded it on day one, when I was just a nobody and I’ve had it ever since. Filming is a joy for me, it’s the easiest thing, the hard work has been done. If you get your own way you’re bulletproof, it’s just about having fun then, it’s when you have to fight for it and you get compromised. Do your own thing, get final edit and don’t compromise, that’s the advice I’d give to anyone, I’d rather do something for Channel 59 and do it my way than do it for BBC One and have one person change a single word.”
It’s also a character you know what you’re doing with...
“I know this world back to front and that does mean there’s less pressure. If it was a brand new character or an art house movie about illegal abortion, there’d be more nerves. But people know what David Brent is worth, it’s never a hard sell.”
How did you find writing the songs? It’s not a straightforward comedy album is it?
“They aren’t comedy songs, they aren’t like Monty Python or Bill Bailey, the songs aren’t funny, it’s who’s singing them, it’s the fact that it’s a 55-year old tampon rep singing about driving across America picking up chicks, you’re laughing at the backstory more than the songs. When he tries to go political he gets it wrong, that’s what’s funny, not the words themselves. I sit down and think ‘What’s the wrong way to do this well?’, I didn’t want the joke to be that he can’t sing or play guitar, you have to know that David Brent is taking this totally seriously, not that Ricky Gervais that comedian is making a funny album.”
Did you enjoy recording? Working in a studio with Andy?
“It was so much fun. All these songs are cliches and he steals from people, so you get to play on these different characters. There’s no fear here, it’s just so much fun and really freeing, you can put in a hokey guitar solo or a big Bon Jovi drum intro, it was playing with the cliches of rock and roll, but doing it as though it’s 100% genuine.”
You wrote and created The Office with Stephen Merchant, but he’s not about for this movie, was it always going to be that way?
“It was always the case that David Brent was my character. Everything else in The Office is 50/50, but Brent is mine and we knew this might happen. We just sort of got out of sync, he went on tour while I did Derek and then he came back and I had to do another series and I did this by myself. There’s no horrible lawsuits or fallout, there’s been no fistfight, we’ve just evolved in doing different things and missing each other.”
Do you think this is the last we’ll see of David Brent?
“I don’t know. Never say never. I do like to keep things short and sweet, but this will be nine hours of David Brent in all, that’s not even half a series of the American version of The Office. I don’t want to keep coming back to it, he’s already a bit tragic at 55. It’ll take me two years to take this around the world, we’re doing the album and some gigs. There might be a sequel and there might not, I’d say it’s less than 50/50 on whether I do something like this with him again. I might bring back Brent, I might bring back Derek, I might bring back Extras, but it’s not my next plan, I want to do stand-up after this, then something brand new.”
So what’s the plan after this?
“I’m working on my stand up, I want to do a world tour after I’ve finished promoting this film, it’s going to be called Humanity and I want to take it around the world, so that’ll be three years by the end. I’ll be working and writing and I might have something ready by then. I have seven things on the go at any one time and six of them get left behind. So who knows?”