Last December, Cinematical was the only movie blog invited to visit the set of Ghost Town over at the beautiful Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, New York. Directed by David Koepp, Ghost Town stars Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear, Téa Leoni, Billy Campbell and Kristen Wiig, and it arrives in theaters on September 19. Check out our report below ...
I always get nervous whenever visiting a film set. In the past, I've been a part of a larger group, which meant I could simply follow behind three other people and hopefully fade into the pack. I never want to stand out. I never want be the guy who's standing in the wrong place, on the wrong wire, or the guy who accidentally coughs during a three-minute period where everyone is silent. Sometimes a film set can be an intimidating place to visit if you're not working there, slaving away for hours upon hours -- there's a sort of team mentality and closeness that's shared amongst the crew that you're not a part of. You're the outsider, the blogger -- the guy who's there to criticize and report back on a project that's not yet complete. In some cases, you're the enemy.
But when you're part of the pack, it's easier to digest the experience. It's easier to not be that guy. However, when I showed up to the set of Ghost Town on a very cold day in December, I suddenly realized I was the only web outlet invited ... and knowing I'd be all by myself on this one, my Neurotic Jew Meter (Thanks Mom!) went through the roof.
Following the Ghosts
Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, New York is comprised of several connecting buildings with one really long hallway. After I parked my car, a woman at a desk told me to "Just walk that way for awhile ...", and I eventually found a guy with a clipboard outside a door marked "Ghost Town". He didn't know who I was, nor did he know the guy I was looking for, but he was cool enough to let me head on inside to continue the investigation without his assistance. Walking onto an interior film set can be weird at first because, normally, you're immediately surrounded by lots of wood -- almost as if someone was in the process of building, and suddenly stopped. There's sawdust on the floor and people huddled around what looks to be the outside of an opened wooden door. Yup, because inside all these pieces of wood is where the action takes place -- and on this particular stage, they set up a dentist's office and a full New York-inspired apartment. (And when I tell you this looked like a real apartment, I mean someone could easily rent this sucker out for three grand a month and hundreds of folks would ignore the odd location for a chance to try it out.)
On the other side of the stage, there was a green screen set up for, I was later told, some "limited effects work," as well as a few trees for a park setting, and after about five minutes of playing "idiot who's supposed to be there but looks like he's not," Ricky Gervais walked by and smiled. I had an urge to grab him and grill him on The Office (British version) and Extras for the rest of the afternoon, but my guide walked up, introduced himself and quickly got me in the mood to learn more about this comedy.
What is Ghost Town?
Ghost Town follows a dentist named Bertram Pincus who has a few cavities when it comes to people skills. When the jerky doctor technically and unexpectedly dies, he's miraculously revived after seven minutes and learns this new lease on life has also given him the gift to see and communicate with ghosts. Unfortunately for Pincus, these ghosts all want something from him, especially one named Frank (Greg Kinnear) who asks Pincus to help stop his widow Gwen (Leoni) from marrying another man. Thus begins an awkward, other-worldly triangle featuring much hilarity and the first lead performance in an American film from one of the smartest and funniest British writer-actors in quite some time.
If there was one thing I was going to do before I left the set that day, it was sit down with Ricky Gervais for ten minutes and pick his brain. I needed to geek out with the guy and laugh a bit, and I'd eventually get that chance ... but first we watched a scene between Gervais and Leoni taking place inside the dentist's office. The attention to detail in this office was ridiculous, and the fact they packed a good 10 crew members plus cameras plus director David Koepp, as well as Gervais and Leoni, was also pretty ridiculous. I was handed what looked like a miniature version of the script, but just with the lines from the scene they were shooting, and was told this was one of the last scenes in the film. Not only that, but it was a pretty emotional one and required Leoni to cry a little bit. They blocked the scene, rehearsed a few times, then shot several takes. By the time it was over, I seriously wanted to give the girl a hug.
Following this scene, I managed to sit down with director David Koepp (who also co-wrote the screenplay), and I asked him what inspired this particular idea: "In this case, I was walking around one day in the village, having a bad day ... with some people ... and I saw a big cut-out tooth; ya know, a sign for somebody's dental practice. I thought, 'That seems like a great job, because you can shove cotton in people's mouths when they're bugging you, ya know? So then I started talking to John Kamps (co-writer) to figure out what is the worst thing that could happen to an utter misanthrope dentist ... and we decided it would be if everyone suddenly had access to him all the time."
Shortly after my conversation with Koepp, this white dentist's coat with a British accent tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Aren't we supposed to talk now?" I tried to pretend I was too cool to care that I was about to sit down with one of my comedic idols, but looking back I'm sure the anxiety was written all over my face. So why did Gervais, who's become one of the hottest and funniest voices in entertainment, choose this particular lead role as his first big Hollywood comedy? "The script, it was funny. And it really sounded like my voice. Ya know when you read a script and you say, 'Whatever, that should be so and so -- they want John Cusack for that, blah blah'. Well I read this and thought, 'I could do this -- it's me. This is my film.' And I got real excited. I'm not sure if they wrote it with me in mind; I'm sure they didn't, and I'm sure I wasn't even their first choice -- you'd have to ask David that -- but it was me ... it was just me. And I had to get it. Usually, I have to think of an excuse not to do it ... and, well, it was just great. And it was funny."
Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to talk with Leoni, but I did get to visit her character's apartment in the film located on the other side of the stage. No matter how many sets I visit in my life, I'll never get over that bizarre feeling you get when first going from some fake sawdust-filled stage to a very real-but-fake environment. In one word, the apartment was "luxurious," decorated with pictures of Egypt, artwork and artifacts (Leoni's character is an egyptologist). Said apartment also doubled for Pincus' home as well.
Another Ghost Story?
Ghost stories have been around for thousands of years, and seem to gain more popularity with each passing year. I asked director David Koepp why it is that we're so addicted to ghosts: "Part of the reason they're so enduring is because, well, first off all they give hope -- because if they are ghosts, then it means we don't die when we die. But also because they work really well in a number of genres. Ya know, in a drama like Ghost, or a horror movie, suspense or comedy in our case -- I just think they offer so many dramatic possibilities; to have someone that's dead, but still around to talk about it really suggests a lot of great situations."
Ghost Town arrives in theaters on September 19.