Richard Curtis is one of Britain's most successful comedy screenwriters, known primarily for writing the romantic comedy films The Tall Guy (1989), Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) and its sequel in 2004, Notting Hill (1999), Love Actually (2003) and The Girl in the Café (2005), as well as the hit sitcoms Mr. Bean (1990-1995) and The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007).
He is also the co-founder of the charity Comic Relief. In addition, he directed Love Actually (2003), Pirate Radio (2009) and his latest film, About Time (2013).
- What inspired the time travel idea in About Time?
The genesis of the movie is from a conversation I had with a friend of mine about how we would spend our perfect day, and we both realised that we would not want to win a prize or go out on a date with a supermodel.
We would just want a normal day, making breakfast for the kids and walking around and talking to people you love and meeting people you liked at the end of the day. I thought that was an important observation and I would love to write about the joy of normality, but how do you do that?
So I came up with the whole structure of the movie to try and say: If you could have all the choices in the world as to how you would spend time, might you, in fact, end up just spending time in exactly the way you are doing through choice, rather than through trudge and necessity?
So the time travel trick is a way of trying to say something very simple.
- Was it difficult to land upon the rules for time travel?
I did my best and sometimes you would really stumble and realise that certain things would not work.
I had to drop certain things because they did not fit the time travel, but the basic thought, the realistic thought that you might only be able to time travel back to bits of time in your own life which you can remember, was a decent starting point. I did not really want to get into ‘changing the world’ stuff.
- What was one of the things that you had to drop because of the time travel element?
I can’t remember, but one problem I had to deal with was the wealth issue. In fact, the line in the movie that I am most pleased with is when he says, ‘I never met a genuinely happy rich person,’ because I tried to write a lot of things about him putting money on horses and making money and all that stuff.
Then I realised actually, if his dad could face it directly by saying that money won’t make you happy, I could get rid of all that stuff.
- Bill Nighy said he felt a bit of pressure paying someone who reflected your own father...
That’s the lovely thing about the fact that Bill Nighy plays the part. He does feel a bit like a member of my family. We have done five or six things together and it was such a relief.
When we first spoke about it, he said, ‘I don’t really want to do any acting at all and I am just going to try and be me’ and I think that is what makes the part delightful, because it is not over characterised.
I think most people will feel that they see something of their dad in that part. It is a very simple relationship. So it is not really about my dad, except that he did play table tennis with me every day of my life.
- Did your dad always let you win at table tennis?
Yes. He was always as good as I was and I did not really spot it until I was about 15 and I thought, ‘This does not really work, why is he always exactly at the same level that I am at?’
- You have said that About Time will be your last film as a director...
I think that is probably true. A friend of mine, Stephen Daldry, is making a movie in Brazil at the moment and that is a movie that I wrote [called Trash]. But at the moment that is how I feel because this movie is about trying to use the days of your life.
I’m not running out of days but there are not as many as there were and three of the six members of my family have died since I last made a movie.
So I am just thinking that if I had 1,000 days, which is what it takes to make a movie, is that what I want to do?
If I want to spend time with Bill Nighy I might be better off just going on holiday with him, instead of making a film. So that is my intention at the moment, to make life a bit simpler.
- We see a shot of Josh McGuire reading the novel Trash in About Time
That’s right. I loved the book. I read it, thought it was a great adventure story and I loved the idea of writing that kind of a movie, somewhere between The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
At the end of Notting Hill (1999) Julia Roberts is reading Captain Corelli because [Notting Hill director] Roger Michell was going to direct it. But then he had a heart attack and didn’t direct it so I was trying to pull it off this time!
- You have thrust Domhnall Gleeson (Tim) into his first major leading role with About Time, kind of like his benefactor...
I don’t feel like his benefactor. It’s the other way round, probably. I benefit from him being in it. It was a huge risk because I don’t know if you saw Anna Karenina (2012) but when he auditioned for me he still had that beard and he looked like a homeless person.
He did not look like a Russian aristocrat, because he was not wearing a nice uniform. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans and he stumbled off the street looking like an extra off Deliverance (1972).
It was risky to cast him because I did not really know what his face was going to look like, particularly since he had to play 21 years old. But I do think he is a wonderful actor and really his performance in this is amazing because without doing anything he gets from 21 to 29, from being a boy to a man with three children and you don’t quite know how he has done it.
The key thing for me always is that people can be funny, and Domhnall Gleeson does a TV sketch show back in Ireland. In the same way, Hugh Grant used to be in a comedy troupe called the Jockeys of Norfolk.
It is crucial that when I want people to be funny they can still liven up and step back and do those jokes and things.
- When writing the dialogue for About Time, did the characters teach you anything?
That is an interesting question. All I can say is that for me, the message of the movie is a serious one, which is that we should treasure every day.
When you say to yourself that the most important thing is family and the texture of family then I think writing the movie and making it has made me try and follow that path.
There is a famous case of a fellow called Thomas Clarkson who was an Oxford student and he wrote an essay about slavery in 1840 or whatever and he was riding along on a horse and he stopped at a pub and he had a revelation.
He thought to himself that if these things [in his essay] were true then he would have to spend the rest of his life stopping slavery. He had written it for one purpose and then he suddenly realised, ‘Oh, if that is actually true, I should live it.’
I feel a bit like that about this film. If it’s right that what I write about is the thing that I value most, then what I have got to do is not to worry about days like today and just enjoy them.
- What do you think are the most important rules for creating romantic comedies?
I think the golden rule for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) was that it never occurred to me that I was writing a romantic comedy, because I thought it was an autobiographical film with some love in it.
I think the moment you start to think, ‘I am going to write to the rules,’ you might be in trouble. I mean, I think there are rules about act one, act two, act three, but I have never read any of them, so I do not know anything about them.
I think the thing is not to think that it is a genre, just to write about love you experience or love you would like to experience, or a dream you have experienced, and then it will be sort of true. In some ways, apart from the time travel element, this is the simplest story.
It is a very uncomplicated relationship between these two people; they like each other. The problem is they keep not having met before, but when they meet they get on each time.
- What do you think of romantic comedies in general?
It is a question of defining. The films I have loved most over the past 15 years are, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), Lost in Translation (2003), Like Crazy (2011), 500 days of Summer (2009) - they are very romantic films but they are not stuck in the genre.
I have tried to write films more like that, I feel. One of the things I hope you will notice in this film is that there are lots of people that you have not seen in a film before. Part of the great enjoyment of writing a film is that when you audition you suddenly find that there are all these extraordinary actors out there.
No matter what you have written, you will find someone who is exactly right in a really interesting way. Josh McGuire (Rory) has not been in a film before, Lydia Wilson (Kit Kat) has not been in a film before and Will Merrick (Jay) has not been in a film before.
It is really lovely to see young people who are better than what you have written.
- What else are you working on?
Mainly Trash and there’s a TV film I have written which Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench are in. It is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl book called Esio Trot.
About Time is released on DVD & Blu-Ray 3rd February.
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