Richard Curtis

About Time is out in Australia on October 17 and it is definitely worth a look (you can check out my review here).  I was fortunate enough to speak to rom-com guru Richard Curtis about his new film. You can download the full audio of the interview by clicking here.

Matt:  Romantic comedies are my least favourite genre as I seem to find them so cheesy and formulaic.  But I can think of three that you’ve written that I’m a big fan of – Four Weddings & A Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary and a personal favourite of mine, Notting Hill.  What’s the secret?  How do you come up with a great romantic comedy?

Richard:  Thank you very much indeed for saying that.  I remember once bumping into the American comedian Chris Rock and he said “normally I don’t like these films but I think you’ve put in some ‘man’ jokes”.  I think that’s the answer.  I started as a straight comedy writer doing Black Adder and things like that and so I do try to make them as funny as I can for a wide audience.

Matt:  But I have to be honest – I didn’t like Love Actually.  I know it’s loved by so many people and it’s been seen on free-to-air TV a million times here in Australia.  I realise you get a lot of compliments but do you actually get people who tell you they don’t like a particular film?

Richard:  Oh yes. Particularly critics – they love telling me they don’t like the films (laughs).  On the whole, one of the lucky things in life is that if people are going to be unfriendly, they tend to do it behind your back and so you can wander around without knowing that everyone thinks less of you.  But yes, I do think Love Actually is a film that has split people.

Matt:  There’s a clear message in About Time and it seems to tie back to the lyrics from a Baz Luhrmann song that you mention in the film, “Everybody’s Free”.  Where did your inspiration come from for About Time?

Richard:  It came from a conversation with a friend of mine called Simon.  We were talking about what our perfect day would be.  We said it wouldn’t be flying to Las Vegas and winning a million pounds and then finding out we’d be nominated for an Oscar.  That would be too tense and worrying and full of strangers.

Actually, the perfect day might just be having lunch with your friends, dinner with your family and taking the kids to school.  I wanted to write a film about that but I couldn’t work out how to tell such a simple story.  So I decided to come up with a huge mechanic and introduce time travel through a person who can change everything in his life all the time and then have him still reach the conclusion that relishing a single day is the most important thing you can do.

Matt:  Time travel movies are always tricky because you’re going to have some viewers trying to pick out flaws and say “well that couldn’t happen because of the Butterfly Effect” or “let’s just go back in time and win the lottery”.  Do you have to put a lot of thought into making it “believable” when putting the screenplay together?

Richard:  You really do.  It’s full of complications as to what should be and what shouldn’t be.  It’s incredibly complicated and I’m sure there are some whopping big holes but it’s also a great mechanism for humour.  That’s the thing I really loved about it.  We’ve got quite a few jokes about travelling back in time and fixing romantic and sexual disasters.

Matt:  I like the way in which the two leading characters, Tim and Mary, meet for the first time – in a pitch black restaurant where they can’t see a thing.  Where did that idea come from?  Does such a place exist?

Richard:  There does!  There’s a restaurant called Dans le noir in London and I actually went out to dinner with Rachel McAdams and Domnhall Gleeson and it was a pretty freaky evening.  You really can’t see a thing.  You don’t know if you’re eating strawberry moose or chopped liver.  Also, it’s socially unnerving because you can’t hear a smile.  You’ll say something that you think is funny and it was greeted by total silence.

My motivation was wouldn’t it be lovely if you’d kind of fallen in love with a girl before you’d seen her.  I wanted to give her a big entrance.  Rather than having a pretty girl on the edge of a room, it would be fun to have someone you’ve already gotten to know but haven’t yet seen.  So when you get out of the restaurant, you’re already affected.

Matt:  And what can you tell us about Domhnall Gleeson?  I realise he’s the son of Brendon Gleeson and he’s had a lot of small roles in films but it’s a big step up to take the lead role in a romantic flick alongside Rachel McAdams.

Richard:  I’ve always loved the idea of introducing someone who people don’t know terribly well.  Hugh Grant was relatively unknown when we cast him in Four Weddings & A Funeral.  A lot of the films I love such as Gregory’s Girl and Breaking Away and Diner – these movies were full of young men who people didn’t know.

The great thing about Domnhall is that he has this terrific sense of humour.  He’s done a lot of sketch shows back in Ireland.  It was hard to cast him though because when he first turned up, he had an enormous orange beard because he was in the middle of filming Anna Karenina.  He looked like a serial killer from the Appalachian Mountains.  It took an act of faith to cast him but I think it paid off.

Matt:  I was reading on the internet that there were a few other actors that were being talked about for the female leading role but Rachel McAdams came in pretty late in the process.  Is that right?

Richard:  Yeah.  I’ve asked her to do things before actually.  She’s one of my favourite actresses.  We held back from asking her to do the film initially because she’d done The Time Traveller’s Wife.  I therefore thought she was just going to say no and hurt my feelings.  In the end, we did offer it to her and we got lucky.  She’s really lovely in this film and has to do this complicated job of going from first-time, young girl, romantic figure to a mother of three.  

Matt:  I was thrilled to see the cameo from Richard Griffiths who sadly passed away 6 months ago and I believe it’s the final screen appearance.  How did you get him for that short scene?

Richard:  I worked with him before on The Vicar of Dibley.  It was a really touching day because both Richard Griffiths and Richard E. Grant are in this scene where something goes massively wrong in a theatre.  It was the first time they’d been in a film together since Withnail and I which is one of the great English comedies.  It was a complicated day though because there were three of us called Richard.  So when anyone said “Richard”, all three of us spun to attention.

Matt:  I’m glad that we’re now at the end of another Hollywood summer blockbuster season because I’ve become exhausted by all the sequels and reboots, all the super hero and comic book movies.  Do you have any thoughts on the future of the film industry with so much money being spent these days on films that all seem to be created from the same mould?

Richard:  I actually love some of those films.  There are always people predicting that things are going to get worse but I see a lot of movies I really love at every level.  About Time was very inspired by a film called Like Crazy – a tiny little American movie that was made for about $250,000.  So while some movies are getting more expensive, there are still a lot of beautiful movies being made at the other end.  I’m not too gloomy.

Matt:  Would you love the chance to do a $200m action blockbuster?

Richard:  No.  I’d rather do a $200,000 movie that you make in three weeks.  One of the problems with movies is that they take too long and they’re a lot of hard work.  That’s why I’ve always loved television as the process moves so much faster.

Matt:  I’ll finish up by looking into your own future.  I was reading that you’ve written the screenplay for Trash, the new Stephen Daldry film.  What can you tell us about that?

Richard:  I just got back two days ago from Rio De Janeiro and I hope it’ll be a great film.  Stephen is such an interesting director.  It’s about three kids on a trash heap in Rio De Janeiro who find a wallet that they explodes through society.  It turns out to be at the centre of a scandal.  I think of it as The Bourne Ultimatum only with teenagers in it.

Matt:  Well, we’ve got About Time to satisfy ourselves in the meantime and I think it’s a great film, despite my aversion towards romantic comedies.  Richard Curtis, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Richard:  Well that review sounds a lot better than the dreadful Love Actually so it’s one I’m very happy with (laughs).