TORONTO (Reuters) - Ricky Gervais sees dead people. And he has found them to be a demanding bunch in his new movie "Ghost Town" as they clamor for help and attention from the only man who knows they're there.
That man is antisocial dentist Bertram Pincus (Gervais), who hates chit-chat, doesn't like the living much, and now, after a colonoscopy gone wrong, suddenly starts seeing ghosts.
The romantic comedy, which also stars Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni, provides a first leading role on the big screen for Gervais, who made his name as David Brent in the British comedy TV series "The Office" and won critical acclaim for his HBO TV series "Extras."
A master in deriving comedy from awkward social situations, Gervais makes the transition to the big screen with a series of droll one-liners. Pincus is hardly a grown-up version of the young Cole Sear from 1999's "The Sixth Sense," played by Haley Joel Osment, whose line "I see dead people" has become a part of pop culture and movie history.
In fact, "Ghost Town," is about as far from a supernatural thriller like "Sense" as a comedy can get and unlike Sear, who is haunted by ghosts, Pincus sees his rough exterior softened.
He falls in love with his neighbor Gwen (Leoni) as her ghost hubby Frank (Kinnear) tries to persuade him to engineer a break up between Gwen and her fiance, a humorless lawyer.
It's one of many favors the ghosts seek from Gervais, as they follow him in the street, crowd into his waiting room or sit patiently on his bed at night.
Asked about his thoughts on the supernatural, Gervais told a news conference at the festival that "I don't believe in ghosts or ESP or any of those things."
But then, after a stern look from director David Koepp," he quickly changed his answer. "I do believe in ghosts...It was a documentary."
Gervais said he was surprised that his first starring movie role wasn't something he and his long-time collaborator on "The Office" and "Extras," Stephen Merchant, had created together.
The writer and actor said he has read hundreds of scripts over the years for lead roles that just didn't feel right for him, so he had been taking smaller parts in movies such as "Night at the Museum" and "Stardust."
Before accepting the "Ghost Town" role, Gervais told reporters he had a few rules: no nudity or kissing because "no one wants to see that," no shots of him talking to himself alone in a room, "because no one does that." And he promised Koepp he would probably ruin at least 30 percent of the scene takes by giggling through them.
Gervais said he knew he lacked big screen experience and he initially was nervous about acting alongside stars such as Kinnear, but now that it's done, he thinks he has a future.
"I'd like to play a bad guy, like the worst person ever," he deadpanned. "Hannibal Lecter, but with less moral conscience"
"Ghost Town" opens in U.S. theaters on September 19.
Reporting by Janet Guttsman, Ka Yan Ng and Cameron French