Richard Curtis, the phenomenally successful screenwriter of “Notting Hill,” “Love Actually,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” makes movies that are the cinema equivalent of Paul McCartney’s pop hit “Silly Love Songs.” Curtis would be fine with that description; at an HBO Director’s Dialogue recently at the New York Film Festival, the 56-year-old screenwriter said he listened to pop songs to rev up his creative juices before he began to write.
Curtis makes no apologies for making movies where characters express strong emotions and which goes against the grain of the stereotype that the English are emotionally repressed and uncomfortable about expressing their feelings. The press, especially the cynical British press, usually gives his movies a critical drubbing for this very reason, but you can’t argue with success: “Love Actually” grossed $247 million at the box office.
It’s been a decade since he directed “Love Actually,” but Curtis’s new film, “About Time,” is as unabashedly romantic and lush as all of his others. It’s a romantic comedy about socially awkward lovers (Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams), a heartfelt drama about a father and son (with Curtis regular Bill Nighy), all mixed together with elements of time travel.
And although Curis has only directed thee films, “About Love” may be his last. At the movie’s New York premiere earlier in the month, the prolific screenwriter told me on the red carpet that he was taking the movie’s carpe diem message to heart and that he would stop directing to have more time to enjoy life.
Curtis also told me the film’s message. “It’s that we should relish every normal day of our lives. And I thought in order to say something so simple I’m going to have to create a guy who can go anywhere. Who’s got the whole paraphernalia of time travel and if that person concluded that the most wonderful thing was simply a normal day with your kids and your friends and the people you love than that might be a story.”
The “Notting Hill” screenwriter told me he’d continue writing, maybe learn to cook, visit Scotland.
Later during the Q&A after the screening, when asked by the moderator if he was really going to stop directing, Curtis confirmed he was, that “About Love” was a good place to stop. Then a few minutes later he quipped, “How many times has Steven Soderbergh retired?”
The following night at the HBO Directors Dialogue, Curtis reminisced about his career, the inspiration for his rom coms, and life, love and time travel in “About Love,” which opens Friday, Nov. 1.
Here are some highlights from the Richard Curtis Q&A with Film Comment editor Gavin Smith:
In a way, all of the films you’ve written and directed deal with the central idea of regret and what people do with regret and how they act as a result of regret. “About Time” is kind of the culmination of that theme because whenever the central character regrets something, he’s able to go back and make it right. Many of the characters in your films have made mistakes and have done things they regret and they want to somehow make it right, fix that thing or capture that opportunity that they missed. Can you talk about that idea in your films?
RC: I think the strange thing about having done this new movie is that it’s kind of half a romantic-comedy, and I wouldn’t talk about whether romantic-comedy is an apt term, but the second half is a kind of family drama. And I used to think or used to make out that if you sorted out your romantic mistakes you would then find happiness and this film, because the wedding’s half way through, goes on to show that you’ve got to as it where, pay the full price so life will continue, and I’m increasingly convinced now that life is just a pile of good things and a pile of not so good things and you’ve got to try and face the not so good things and not let the fact that things can be hard spoil all the things that are wonderful, so in a way I think about “About Time” as being about reconciliation more than about regret. It’s about the fact of him (Domhnall Gleeson) accepting that there are tough things and then trying to do positive things and still view your life positively.
You came along in the late 80’s and 90’s and made films that make a strong case for expressing feelings, which was contrary to the stereotypical idea that the English were emotionally repressed. Was that the idea?
RC: I love you saying that. Part of it is I’m not English. My Mom and Dad were Australian. There’s a quiz in this magazine, “The Guardian,” which they do in the U.K., they ask you a question and one of the questions they ask every week is have you ever said I love you to anyone and not meant it. And it’s shocking how many people say no because I do that like ten times a day. And my Mum told everyone she met that she loved them, so maybe I am contrary to the swing of things.
The second thing is I’ve always thought of my films as quite close to pop music. There’s a lot of pop music in my films. And when you say that thing about English people not speaking their feelings, of course the answer to that are all the extraordinary love songs throughout the history of British pop music. The Beatles started with “She Loves You” and ended with “I Will” and that fantastic “Grow Old Along With Me,” that last song John Lennon recorded just on his piano, so I think I’m more in tune with that tradition, the tradition of pop songs that say what they mean and say I love you a lot and I’ve always been really comfortable with that.
Isn’t it interesting that the English are able to express such loving, tender feelings in music and perhaps in other arts but they can’t actually say it to each other face to face in a room.
I’ll tell you when they are jolly good at it, is when people are dead. There’s a lot of high emotion at funerals.
In the beginning of your career you were writing for television by the time you were 23 for a series that was very popular called “Not The 9 O’Clock News” and then you continued to write all through the 80’s. What was it like to write material that would be in front of a national audience at such an early age?
I was extremely lucky because my best friend at university was Rowan Atkinson, who was a blinding genius. He was absolutely extraordinary. I remember the first time he appeared on stage when we were at university and you could see all the guys who worked in the theater there and were doing bland, boring productions of “The Duchess of Malfi” and “Richard II” and Howard Brenton plays, and just weep and shrink in the knowledge that they’d seen someone who would be famous and was already brilliant, and so I got this job on this terrible show really writing for Rowan and because of Rowan.
I remember wandering around while “Not The 9 O’Clock News” was on, looking through peoples’ windows to see whether or not they were watching it because your experience is only in a room with a few people recalling something. It’s a kind of private, normal experience and you don’t really get the feeling that you’re in front of 10 million people.
“Four Weddings” was a very interesting experience because really everyone in England saw “Four Weddings” and that was much more identified with me, so I think maybe that was the first time I felt a kind of warmth.
How hard was the transition from writing for television to writing your first feature, “The Tall Guy”?
There are two things. I was never allowed any emotion in any of the TV work that I did. I worked with slightly cold people only being funny… I had a huge amount of soppy stuff to get out of me by the time I was their age.
The explanation for my whole career is what happened in between. (Curtis described a life altering experience in his 20’s with an American film producer, where he was asked to pitch a story idea. The script didn’t pan out and ended in Curtis being sued by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.)
(From then on) I never ever wrote then a film which I hadn’t thought of a year before and had allowed to sort of stew to make sure it actually meant something to me, and I said that I would only write about my street basically, so the next film I wrote was “Camden Town Boy,” which was later called “The Tall Guy.” It was set in Camden Town where I lived and it was about a guy with Hay Fever, which I had, who was in the theater with a guy called Ron Anderson, which is suspiciously like Rowan Atkinson, and so it was getting all those things wrong, which meant that I knew then exactly what I was going to do, so it was that that made up my mind what kind of thing I wanted to write.
After “The Tall Guy” you wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and you have a producing credit on the film. Everything you’ve written since then you’ve been an executive producer. How much more involved were you in those films rather than just being the writer? Were you involved in casting decisions and present during shooting? How did that evolve?
I am the luckiest person in the history of the movies. And my experience is not very representative but I went with a group of people called Working Title, two producers, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner… And they seemed to agree with me that there was no point in anyone making these very personal films if I wasn’t allowed to express my opinion in every point of the process.
The whole story of my film career has… in fact been about keeping control no matter how difficult that is, and I don’t really understand and I can’t speak for writers who do not fight for control and it’s been very complicated, but not a difficult thing.
Mike Newell, who is a very senior British director, who I asked to do “Four Weddings,” I picked him after a bizarre three weeks when my girlfriend and I watched 100 films and we finally watched a TV film called “Ready When You Are, Mr. McGill.” We suddenly thought that’s what we want “Four Weddings” to be like. We had a list of ten directors. We rejected them all. We couldn’t see anything in their work that smelled right.
And then went to Mike and they made a deal, Working Title… that I would be involved at every single point so I was there on every day of the casting and every day of the shooting and then at the end of every week on the edit… The shoot was unbelievably tricky because we had no time, and I had a strong opinion about everything and Mike was a very good director and I was only intermittently right.
I just think that If you’re going from A to B, and if you go five percent off in a bit of casting, and then five percent off in another bit of casting, and then five percent off in how someone’s dressed, and then five percent off when they change their mind, and then five percent off on how they do the scene, you very soon making completely the wrong film.
Was there a precedent for a film like “Four Weddings and a Funeral” in English cinema? It seems to me like it was the first of its kind.
I don’t know. “Four Weddings and a Funeral” is meant to be a romantic comedy. I’m sure it’s a romantic comedy but I didn’t know that. The films that were in my mind when I was writing it were “Diner,” a movie called “Breaking Away,” which is a cycling movie – you should see it, it’s a fantastic film – “Gregory’s Girl,” (1981), little, intimate, fun, Scottish movie about love at school, and then “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” so there weren’t many from the English side. But I thought I was writing a sort of semi-autobiographical comedy film with love as the plot center.
Which was the autobiographical bit?
So much of it is. Emma (Freud) over there (he pointed to a woman sitting on a couch) is the mother of my four children and we made the decision not to get married and then changed the ending of the movie so as to justify our decision to my mother. And she never liked the film but that also had to do with the swearing.
Which brings us to your new movie “About Time.” The movie is a time machine where you go back and fix it.
He only fixes a few things. One of the things I like about the film is that every time the two lovers meet they really like each other.
I like writing a film about two people who were always going to get on well and who were always meant for each other. He’s just fixing out the circumstances. You can’t change the heart. I suppose that’s the thing.
When you co-wrote the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s “War Horse,” was that a learning experience for you?
It didn’t break my rule because it was set in England but if it had been set on Mars I would still have said yes.
He was extraordinary to work with. Most directors when you hand in your stuff they will say, “Ooh! Couldn’t you do that better somehow?” And they give you a little bit of help, but Steven, he says, “Nice try, how about?” And then he comes out with about eight minutes of cinema. Then he says what about the fact if one of them was arrested and they were put in this place and the other one’s outside and then he comes in the middle of the night, and he breaks down the door and they’ve got two horses waiting outside. And then you say well no, I’m not sure because I don’t think they’d have a prison that near the lines, and then he says “Ok. How about?” And then he comes up with another seven-minute thing and another. It’s an extraordinary, jubilant experience and then you pick the best one and pretend it’s yours.
Is there a particularly striking example of an actor who took what you wrote and created something that far exceeded your dream of what that character would be?
Oh there are lots of examples. Bill Nighy’s performance in “Love Actually” was much better than I had in mind. And it was hilarious because I was trying to decide between two bits of stunt casting for that part. I had an idea of two actors I thought might be quite funny, both of them sort of famous in different areas. I never even told Bill… And I said to Mary Selway (the casting director) find me someone for the read through who I will definitely not cast in the part. And she said Bill and I said, “Oh yeah, I don’t want him, but I think he could be good but at least I won’t be tempted to cast him.” And then Bill came in and it was just perfect and we never auditioned anyone.
I think the big thing is people who add a kind of soul to the comedy.