In real life, Ricky Gervais does not believe in ghosts. Put them on the big-screen, however, and he's more than game to see dead people.
Gervais, who stars in the supernatural romantic comedy "Ghost Town," always is willing to tag along with a filmmaker telling a good story about things from beyond.
"I'm a skeptic across-the-board of ghosts and elves and ESP and the afterlife. But it doesn't change the fact that the romance of Hollywood lets you take someone on board on a journey against their will, really, if it's done well," Gervais said in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Ghost Town" premiered ahead of its theatrical release Sept. 19. "For an hour and half while I'm watching `The Bishop's Wife,' I believe in angels. While I'm watching `A Christmas Carol,' I do believe in ghosts, and while I'm watching `Miracle on 34th Street,' I believe in Father Christmas."
"Ghost Town" casts the British actor as misanthropic Manhattan dentist Bertram Pincus, who likes his job because people cannot talk to him while he's stuffing cotton balls in their mouths or taking molds of their teeth.
A near-death experience while under anesthesia leaves him with the ability to see ghosts _ and they literally are everywhere, in the park, at his office, crowded around his bed at night. Pincus is the key to letting them rest in peace, if only he can muster the decency to help them clear up unfinished business they have with loved ones.
Greg Kinnear co-stars as Frank Herlihy, a conniving adulterer in life who maintains his scheming ways after he's snuffed out in a sidewalk accident. Frank promises Pincus that he can make the pesky ghosts go away forever if the dentist will break up the impending remarriage of his widow, Gwen Herlihy (Tea Leoni).
Along the way, Pincus learns that by shutting himself off from love and companionship, he's essentially a dead man walking himself.
"`A Christmas Carol' I think is the best ghost story ever told," Gervais said. "It's amazing, and I took something from that, about this guy who doesn't realize there's more to the world than just being a punctual, professional dentist. He's missing out on what's important, which is human connection."
Kinnear's favorite supernatural tale is "The Exorcist," which he saw with a friend while living in Greece as a boy.
"We had heard about it, and my friend told me there's a shot of the devil in it, and we had heard enough to know that this thing is going to be scary, so I was good and worked up when I arrived. But nothing, of course, can prepare you for that movie," Kinnear said.
"There was also `Darby O'Gill and the Little People,'" Kinnear said, referring to the 1959 supernatural fantasy set in Ireland that featured a terrifying banshee foretelling doom. "That banshee scared the bejesus out of me. The banshee stands still as one of the great ghosts in the movie world. Although I did see it recently on cable. I was like, showing my daughter. I saw a little bit of it and said, `Look at that scary thing.' And she's like, `Yeah, well. OK, whatever.'"
"Ghost Town" co-writer and director David Koepp shares Gervais' skepticism about spirits and hauntings.
"I don't believe in ghosts, but I believe fervently in ghost stories," said Koepp, who also made the ghost tale "Stir of Echoes." "They have this bigger-than-life premise that people will accept and drama that can be neatly structured around it, because they're about loss and longing and love. They touch on so many deeply felt human emotions."
Among Koepp's favorite ghost stories: the 1930s and '40s supernatural fantasies "Topper," "Blithe Spirit" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir."
For scary ghost stories, he prefers the classics over modern Hollywood's special-effects extravaganzas, hushed tales such as 1963's "The Haunting," whose fear factor arose more from what remained unseen than any actual manifestations.
"There's another good one, the Ray Milland movie `The Uninvited.' It has one of the best ghost or haunted-house moments I remember," Koepp said.
A failed songwriter, Milland's character initially is charmed by his new working space, an attic in a seaside house, and he gushes enthusiastically about how he'll be able to write there. Over the course of a few minutes, though, some sinister presence changes his mood.
"He starts saying stuff like, `Well, who am I kidding, I'm never going to write a song. I'm a miserable failure.' By the end of this four-page scene, he's sort of looking down at the rocks on the beach and contemplating suicide, and he just looks and says, `I hate this room,'" Koepp said. "It's great, because it's the house working on you. Great. No special effects. Just creepy."
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