Written by Dylan Callaghan
Matthew Robinson is the kind of guy you like to see win – even if you are a little jealous.
He’s the first-time co-writer and director of The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais’ newest and most deftly honed shot at American cinematic movie stardom. The film boasts a joyful cast and cameos that include Ed Norton, Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Christopher Guest, Rob Lowe and even Phillip Seymour Hoffman as well as Gervais himself in the role of a lovable loser who discovers the ability to lie in a world where no one can.
So how did Robinson score all of this? We’ll get to that in a second, but the reason you like to see him win is the fact that, amidst the even-keeled likability of his soft-spoken, cerebral, Russian literature studying nerdishness and his cynical, ultra dry wit, you feel the beating heart of a fella who knows he should give up on hope, love, and mankind, but just can’t do it.
He’s the first to decry the plausibility of a fairy tale and the one who wants it to come true the most.
That’s why the fairy tale that happened to him feels so right. After toiling fairly fruitlessly for a decade as a scripter in L.A., he hit his career nadir and went to his ideas file in search of rescue. What jumped out was a year-old skit he’d penned the morning after watching a Twilight Zone marathon. It focused on a doughy schmo on a date with a fox in a world where no one could lie. Thirteen days later, he had a finished script for The Invention of Lying.
Which brings us back to Robinson’s real-life fairy tale. After writing his script, he got it to producer Lynda Obst, who said she’d try to get it to his comedic hero, Ricky Gervais.
“I had put it out of my head because I didn’t want to be heartbroken when he didn’t respond,” recounts Robinson. “I’m in the 11 a.m. showing of Grindhouse at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre on a Friday and I accidentally leave my phone on. I see this really long number so I pick it up, and it’s Ricky Gervais. He’s saying things that you’d be embarrassed to admit to people that you’d dreamed of Ricky Gervais saying to you.”
Photo: © 2009 Warner Bros. Pictures
Jennifer Garner and Ricky Gervais in The Invention of Lying.
To put an even finer point on Robinson’s uncomfortable fondness for Mr. Gervais, he adds, “I had even played that game with my wife where you say, ‘If you could have dinner with anyone in history, who would it be?’ Hers were like Catherine the Great and Shakespeare and I just very quickly said Ricky Gervais. Boom, done.”
Very shortly after that phone call, he was indeed having dinner with Gervais in London and retooling the script with him. Of the dream becoming reality, Robinson says, “There’s like a 50 percent chance I’m sitting in a mental institution right now and none of this is real.”
He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about why the script’s first draft came so easily to him and why a world without lying is a bad place to be.
So, to go back in time, a year before your career nadir, you’d written what was essentially a sketch?
Yes, it was an eight-page sketch of two people who had to tell the truth on a date and one of them was a loser. That was all there was to it. And the sketch is unchanged in the movie.
When you ultimately revisited it, was it out of desperation?
Yeah, I returned to my vault of ideas and it was the one I was most excited about. I let it marinate in my head for a few days and came up with a few more scenes, and I came up with the idea that, what if that loser on the date could totally flip it and come back lying?
From that point you were off and running?
Yeah, and the scenes I started thinking up sort of gave me the world. It was literally the easiest thing I’d ever written. It just sort of spilled out.
So after you got a few more scenes and the world you wanted this to take place in, do you then go to an outline?
No, I rarely outline. I just wrote. I just logically tracked each moment to each moment and fluidly went through it organically.
So you essentially had three main moments?
Yeah, and the all happened in the first 40 pages, and I had no idea where I was going after that.
Once you strung those together, did the rest just pour forth?
Yeah, it was unlike other scripts because it was really easy to just say, “Alright, what would you do first? Okay, did those. What would you do next? Oh, you would accidentally do this and that would set off this chain of events.” It was very natural, and it seemed very obvious to me what would happen. I [also] had a certain agenda of what I wanted to poke at comedically, and it was very easy to get to those subjects.
I understand the conceptual mechanism of the film, but what for you did this story really turn out to be about thematically?
It came to be about the complete gray area of lying and honesty and the beauty and power of lying. Without lying, there’s no fiction, there’s no art, there’s no imagination, there’s no potential. There’s no ability to see yourself as anything other than what you are in that moment. There’s a coldness and sadness to honesty.
Is this sort of a reevaluation of lying?
I think it will hopefully spur a lot of conversation afterwards. It opens up a lot of good questions in terms of art and religion and love and trust and all of these big topics that can be so contingent upon how you feel about lying and honesty.
If I were to force you to make up a moral to this film right now, what would it be?
It would be a very cold, dark world without lying.
To what extent did you get to go back and forth with Ricky Gervais on this script?
We did four or five serious rewrites together. Ricky’s main goal was to get a really great Billy Wilder-esque love story into the film. The love story I had in there originally was very cynical and distant and cold. He wanted to get something genuinely emotional and real and hopefully touching in there.
Did you ever have any secret reservations about that direction?
No. It’s great because that’s what I love so much about The Office and Extras, and was so in awe of – the facility to keep real emotion on the table without sacrificing seriously funny comedy.
Right, to be dry or even cynical...
And then be able to turn it on a dime and have you crying. I think there are few people who have ever pulled that off the way he has.
So in a sense it was kismet beyond your fan-ship of Ricky Gervais, he did a key thing for the script?
Completely. It was not the film or script before that it was after him. He added so much and gave it a real heart and emotion that was lacking in mine.
On a mechanical level, how would you guys write? Would you sit in a room together or would you e-mail?
We did all the writing in rooms together. I went to England a few times he came here a few times, and we would outline scenes together and then I would go off and write them up. But by the time I left we would have 90 percent of the dialogue. He’s really great at sitting in silence for a few moments then popping up and having the whole scene ready and acting everybody’s part out in front of you. My job at that point was to type as fast as humanly possible.
Did you come from away from this experience with any lessons that you think are worth mentioning?
The main thing that I really learned from Ricky was integrity. Not that I didn’t have it before, but I really learned the importance of the ability to block out the rest of the world and really focus in on what you want to see on the screen. I would think the main ethos behind his creativity is confidence and trust in yourself, to only be concerned with what you would wait three days in the rain to see.
To what extent did this experience reiterate the idea to you that the sort of Chaplain-esque heart and sweetness, even the fictional fairy tale aspect, is still central to why people want to watch movies?
I think that really is one of the main themes of the whole film, questioning that need to have the ideal or romantic notion of something, the prettier lie, and whether or not that actually does create a better world, whether or not that fantasy does become reality.