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Rom-Com Legend Richard Curtis on Why He Walked Away from Directing

Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

If your vision of Brits falling in love includes awkward pauses, insecurity, and massive amounts of self-deprecation, you’ve got Richard Curtis to thank. As a screenwriter, Curtis is responsible for the most iconic British rom-coms of our age: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary. As a director, he’s responsible for one more: Love Actually. He’s also a former writer for Blackadder and one of the founders of Comic Relief — like a quirky best friend in one of his rom-coms, the man wears many hats.

Now, Curtis has turned his attention to another British institution. His new script for Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle, follows a struggling musician (Himesh Patel) who wakes up in a world where he’s the only person who remembers the Beatles and needs to decide between using his knowledge to become a star or settling down with his lovestruck friend (Lily James). “Danny is obsessed with the idea that the Beatles would’ve endorsed a movie where the premise is they don’t exist,” Curtis says. “That’s the sort of quintessential Beatles joke: You’re happier in a world where nobody gives you any credit whatsoever.” In a phone conversation with Vulture, Curtis discussed his love of the Fab Four, his films’ cultural impact, and why he stepped away from the director’s chair this time.

What was the first Beatles song you ever heard?
It would have come out of a small box carried by a babysitter, when my parents would go out. The only records we had were Nat “King” Cole’s Unforgettable and two copies of The Sound of Music. I can’t remember specifically, but for some reason or another I think it’s “Please Please Me.” I do remember I was hooked from the get-go. I’ve got a favorite album, which is Hard Day’s Night, partly based on “If I Fell” and “And I Love Her.” My first zap of the Beatles was all about that joy and happiness and exhilaration, the way even in the sad songs you feel uplifted.

Did you have a favorite Beatle back in those days?
Not really. I had two sisters. One was in love with Paul, one was in love with John. If I never allowed myself to think which of my sisters I loved most, then I never allowed myself to have that thought. I think I just loved the four of them. They seemed like the perfect gang. I always used to dream of opening up the cupboard and all four Beatles would be inside, with Ringo squeezed at the back on the drum.

I’ve read that you wrote 3,000 pages for Notting Hill. How many pages did you write for this one?
I do have a bit of a habit of when I get two characters together, I just try and write a lot of conversation between them. Have dinner with the characters, spend the night with them, so I discover how they talk. Then I try and extract the essence of their relationship from that. I write a lot, and fast, and then sometimes I have to really focus and say, “This is exactly what the scene is about.”

What was the first conversation you wrote here?
I’m slightly obsessed with Crocodile Dundee. Everybody remembers “This is a knife” and all that stuff, but in that movie they spent a whole hour in Australia. And I’m a great fan of The Deer Hunter, where they spent so long before they go to war. So I started writing quite a lot about failure, about all the gigs, about picking yourself up again after another thing’s gone badly. There were a lot of conversations between Himesh and Lily about giving up, what was the point of it all, and everything like that.

In another life, maybe you’d be writing big dramatic epics where you could have those hourlong first acts.
I’m actually rather attracted by the idea of writing shorter films now. I think there’ll be a moment where people actually say, “Wait a minute, if we could get a really good film that lasted 70 minutes, we could have five more showings.” I sometimes wonder whether that should be my aim, to write the first illegally short movie. Let’s see whether you can get it on eight times between 12 o’clock and 12 o’clock.

Your movies have become an important cultural export for the U.K. They help determine what people outside Britain think of the country. How cognizant of that are you when you embark on a new project?
I think I think about being true to what I know. My first movie experience, I came over and wrote the film for an American producer who’d seen something of mine. I was very aware when I finished that I didn’t really know what I was talking about. It was set in Boston, and I thought, I don’t know what’s in their fridge. The only way that I can do it is by trying to be quite accurate about what I know. So Notting Hill was set in Notting Hill because I live there. This movie’s set in Suffolk; it’s the one county outside London that I really know, because I’ve been there for 25 years. I haven’t deliberately set out an image of Englishness, no more than the guy who made Diner was setting out an image of Baltimore. But I do notice. I’ve got an office on the Portobello Road [in Notting Hill] and once in a while, someone down there will say, “Thank you very much,” because the crowds have held up.

You began as a screenwriter, then moved to a phase of your career where you were directing your own scripts; now you’re back to just writing. I’m curious how the experiences compare.
I was very lucky from the start that Working Title [the production company behind the most famous British films of the past 30 years] supported me in being the most present that a writer could be. The first one I did was called The Tall Guy, and that was directed by a friend of mine. He just said. “Come in. You can be here every moment,” and that sort of became the tradition. It was particularly nice of Mike Newell, who’s such an experienced director, to allow me to be so present at all the casting, all the shooting, and all the editing [of Four Weddings].

It is complicated sometimes to be on set with another director because I will have a feeling of how things should be. It’s hilarious, because the director’s got to be allowed to do three takes before you jump in, so for me, the most terrifying words in the English language are “Moving on.” What? Sometimes they’re just completely happy with the first three, whereas I thought, I’m sure he’s going to do a more melancholy take. Or, We’re gonna nail that text slightly better. I’m on a fishing line, being tugged in, and there’s that awful moment when I have to leap in and say “Actually, could we do this?” But Danny’s a very amenable and friendly guy. Once in a while he’d say no, but on the whole it went very well.

Was it a conscious choice to step away?
I always found the directing quite tough. I tried very hard to be true to the material and make it the best I could, but I didn’t have that sixth sense of what effect the camera is gonna have, like Danny. I always felt tortured by the impostor syndrome that this movie’s about, that feeling that everyone else on the set actually knew more than I did about how to direct. So I made up my mind I wasn’t gonna do it again. I was just going to work harder at the relationships with directors rather than be the director myself.

Was there anything that crystallized that decision for you?
I don’t want to be rude about the director Richard Curtis. He tried very hard. But my favorite film before I made About Time was Like Crazy, by the director Drake Doremus. In fact, I hired Drake’s cameraman [cinematographer John Guleserian], and what I noticed was that the visual style of my movie was not as distinctive as the work that John did with Drake. I started to think that it’s not hiring a good cameraman, it’s the relationship between the cameraman and the director. I wasn’t sure that I was ever gonna be happy. I had this weird way that the better the scene [the less ambitious I was]: As long as I do a wide shot, two closes, I’m on the way. I think now I should’ve done the opposite. If I knew I had a good scene, I should’ve been more daring with how it was shot. So I made up my mind to take a gamble with this film. It has 17 songs, and the director’s gotta have a visual style on each song. I knew that Danny could do that, and I doubted whether I could. He would know he was doing in each song, rather than getting up that morning and saying, “Oh no, here we are, No. 14.” I was in incredibly safe hands with Danny.

Part of the theme of Yesterday is about learning how to have a good life without being a world-famous superstar. If you had never become a successful filmmaker, what’s your vision of your own alternate timeline?
I’ve got sort of three jobs. I do Red Nose Day, some work for the U.N., and then I do my movies, and I’m a family man. I do feel squeezed. That’s kind of my daily dialogue with myself: Am I making the right decisions? I often think about two things. One is, if Four Weddings had been a failure, I probably wouldn’t have made a third film. I think I would’ve had a rather satisfying life in TV. And then there was one film I turned down which turned into a series of films, which would’ve definitely given my career another arc. But so it goes.

Can you give me a hint about what film it was?
It’s suddenly occurred to me I shouldn’t say.

Was it Lord of the Rings?
I’m not saying. It wasn’t Fast and the Furious.

Ed Sheeran has an arc in this film where he has to come to terms with the fact that his music is not as good as the Beatles’. Has someone else ever filled that role for you?
Oddly enough, that’s a rather profound question for me. My first experience of writing was writing stuff for Rowan Atkinson, and he was an astonishing genius when he was 18. So that was the context of my career: I was always second best, and I got used to that very early. It doesn’t worry me too much. Nowadays I love people doing better work than me because it means I can enjoy something I love in two hours, rather than having to spend two years making something I have quibbles with. For instance, I remember watching 500 Days of Summer, which is a movie I adore. I love every bit of that.

I think most people would say your movies are as good as 500 Days of Summer.
After I make films, the next time I see them, they just become a very expensive diary. I watch them and I think, Oh God, she was in a bad mood that day. I remember having a conversation with Chris Martin and he said, “I go out in front of 60,000 people, they know every word of the songs. I get this endless reminder of what might be good about the work.” And of course when you make movies or TV, you don’t get that. But last Christmas, a friend of mine did a version of Love Actually, which I hadn’t seen in years, with a live orchestra. He asked me to come along and introduce it, and I stayed. That was so nice, because I didn’t have any experience with people’s enthusiasm for it. Suddenly I was in an audience of a thousand people loving the film. I thought, It is all right.

One last question about Yesterday: Have you heard what the Rolling Stones think of the movie?
I don’t even know what Paul thinks! [Laughs.]

Richard Curtis Reveals Why He Stepped Away From Directing