Ricky Gervais is back in the director’s chair for a new Netflix original called Special Correspondents. The film, which is a remake of the French film of the same name, stars Eric Bana, Vera Farmiga and Gervais, and tells the story of a radio journalist Frank Bonneville (Bana) and his technician Ian Finch (Gervais) who decide to pretend to cover an uprising in South America and fake their own kidnapping.
Ahead of its premiere on the video streaming service on 29 April, MCM Buzz was able to meet with Eric Bana (Star Trek, Hulk, Munich) to discuss the film, ad-libbing and what it’s like to work with Ricky Gervais.
What initially drew you to the role. Was it the idea of media ethics?
“Oh yes! No, it was Ricky, I got a call saying that he was working on this particular project and I thought, ‘Oh I’m a huge fan that sounds great, I’ll watch it.’ And then they said they would send me the script. I asked what for and they said that Ricky wanted me to play the character Frank Bonneville. I didn’t even think that Ricky actually knew who I was! When someone you are really a fan of knows who you are it’s amazing that they actually know you exist. So that was the main reason. I also read the script and thought it was a great premise. I saw the French version of the film and I was pretty sure that Ricky could do a funnier version of that since the premise had more comedy opportunity in it. So I sort of jumped on it.”
What in particular do you like about Ricky’s work?
“I’m a fan of everything. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s probably because of my background that I identify with his work. If the characters are good you can get away with a lot more in comedy. My other favourites – like Christopher Guest [This Is Spinal Tap] – are the similar because in their world it’s the characters that keep you interested and make you sit through a film; they are almost above the material. But with Ricky he quite often executes it at both levels because the characters are just completely watchable no matter what they’re doing, and the writing is funny as well so you get the best of both.”
He was the writer, director and your co-star. So what was it like to work with him in these different roles?
“I wasn’t envious of him at all in terms of the pressure but he handled it really well and there were plenty of times when we were having lots of fun and he’s just pissing himself laughing. And then you realise that he must be stressed with us at some point not getting this scene because he’s the director and he’s going to have to edit it. So it swings between having fun and telling Ricky, ‘Seriously – we’ve got to get this. You’re going to really need this shot in the edit let’s not break for lunch just yet please.’ Then he says, ‘F**k it, we’re going to get it – let’s go for lunch.’ ‘No, no just please five more minutes.’ So it was weird – I would go from being the one laughing to giving him a slap saying, ‘Come on, we’ve got to get it together,’ which seems kind of bizarre.”
You started out in sketch comedy, but after that you’ve done quite dramatic films. So is comedy what you want to get back into?
“My brain still works as a stand-up, where my background came from. I was in sketch comedy for ten years before I started doing drama. My brain hasn’t changed, and to this day on set I think as a sketch comedy writer. So that’s one of the reasons why I’ve never written a narrative feature because that’s not how my brain thinks. I still make observations and break scenes down into three minute ideas. So in this case I thought this film was a good way to go and do something that’s going to be fun, and I got to work with one of my idols so I felt very safe. If it was with someone I didn’t know and they had no comedy background then I wouldn’t do it.
“It was a combination of Ricky being in charge, and feeling very confident that we could come up with something extra that wasn’t on the page because we would work well together. Ricky actually didn’t know about my comedy background, so a lot of the stuff we got in the film just came about from us having fun in the shoot and finding more potential for laughs in different places. That just came from us having a good time and him realising he could get me to do anything.”
Talking about having a lot of fun on set, was there anything that we didn’t see on set that were funny?
“I know the initial cut was very long but there were a few things that we went for in some scenes that became really long, and in the end there would be a whole tangent of something that had nothing to do with the plot. Some of those got cut but others are still in the film. That’s the spirit of ad-libbing. You know there’s a good chance that it won’t be seen but you still do it anyway because it’s fun.”
For your character did you draw from any real-life experiences?
“I think subconsciously for sure. Australia has a really big radio culture so I still to this day listen to a lot of talk radio. I’m sure I was inspired by certain radio and television people from there. You can always sniff a Frank Bonneville, someone who thinks they should be moving on and doing something bigger than what they are. So no one specific but definitely a bi-product of what I’ve seen and heard over the years. I didn’t do an internship or anything in preparation for my role!”
Your character can be quite mean and abrasive, especially to Ricky’s character. How did you balance to make him still likeable?
“Unfortunately I identified, much like myself, that the angrier Frank gets the funnier the dynamic is. I have experienced that in my own life where I’m really pissed off and going on a rant and people would be laughing at me. Ricky felt that the more abusive I got the funnier the scene was, so we kept that angle going.
The only thing I was very conscious of was when Frank finds out that he slept with Finch’s wife because we couldn’t muck around with that moment. We have to see that he is really floored by that and devastated by it, so I knew that was one moment we wouldn’t get away with if he acted abrasive. I think throughout the film he is dismissive of Finch, but he grows to warm to him and really it wouldn’t be the end of the day if people thought he was a bit of a dick.”
It seems you had quite a lot of fun on set, but did you face any challenges with this role?
“Not really, no. Just trying not to laugh and getting the day done! There was quite a lot of dialogue, though, and Ricky would – I think it was a bi-product of him being a director too – give me a lot of lines on the spot. And actually some of them wouldn’t make any sense if I said them. So my dialogue kept getting bigger and bigger as time went on, and Ricky was a big fan of palming off dialogue to me.”
The film touches on the media’s obsession with celebrity culture. What’s your feeling on that?
“I loved Vera Farmiga’s character and how she made everything about her. The point where she’s on the tonight show and says she actually brought her guitar in was so funny, and it definitely echoes things that occur now. I thought it was a great character, and I don’t think that anyone but Vera could have pulled it off. She was so mean but so charismatic, and I think that it was very hard to pull off. I probably didn’t answer your question, but I just think that it’s a reality of life. I don’t think celebrity culture is the right term; it’s narcissism culture – people aren’t obsessed with celebrities but people trying to be celebrities. I feel a bit uneasy about it sometimes.”
Interview by Roxy Simons