Director's Cut: Richard Curtis ('About Time')


Richard Curtis probably somehow had a hand in making your favorite rom-com. He wrote and directed "Love Actually," and wrote "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Bridget Jones' Diary," among many others. The latest proof of Curtis' ability to make you happycry is his newest writer-director effort, "About Time."

Starring Domhnall Gleeson (best known as Bill Weasley in the "Harry Potter" movies) and Rachel McAdams, whose participation in another romance where time travel is a central plot point is evidence of the script's strength, "About Time" is about a young man name Tim (Gleeson) who learns that the men of his family can go back in time. He mostly uses his gift to correct small wrongs and romantic faux pas (like a less-than-suave reaction to a girl asking him to apply sunscreen to her back) until he learns a hard lesson of when time really counts. (Bill Nighy turns in a strong performance as Tim's father, one that'll have you reaching for the phone to have an inexplicably sniffly just-called-to-say-hey chat with your own dad.) sat down with Curtis last month in New York City to discuss "About Time," the film's carefully selected soundtrack and his greatest romantic mistake.

FILM.COM: Congratulations on the movie. What kind of reactions have you been getting from people after they watch it?

RICHARD CURTIS: I feel it's a movie where I'm slightly taken aback by how emotional people are going with the movie. It's more emotional than I thought it would be. I think the second half has more of a cumulative emotion than I thought, which makes me very happy. I mean, almost the first thing I thought of was the scene on the beach with the little boy.

Ugh, stop it. I can't.

And that does seem to resonate.

Absolutely. And then it's like a sneak attack, because you think, like, you see the poster, and you just draw on your knowledge of movies and everything and you assume "Oh, something terrible is going to happen with him and Rachel McAdams," but that's not necessarily the case.

Yeah, yeah. It is true, I love the fact that I could write a romance between people who always get on with each other, and the time travel messes them around. But I don't have to start with "she's very ambitious and he's a hobo," you know? They liked each other from the beginning.

You are obviously very prolific. How do you separate meandering thoughts and ideas from movies that you should write?

What an interesting question. I think that, one, I think I've always let my films -- fester is not the right word -- bake for a quite a long time. I have a second life, in fact, I run a charity for half my life. So I take huge chunks of time off writing. And I tend to think of things, and I wrote the first page of this in 2005. So they've got to sort of pass the test of time. And I thought of this idea about kind of making a film about the sort of the sacredness of a normal day. And then I thought that in order to do that, I'd have a great big time travel thing. And then I slowly built it up, and I think after about a year of thinking about it. You think that actually this does mean something to me, this is the one that I'll do. And then you really start to work seriously on it.

How many ideas do you have going at once? Are you a one script at a time guy?

Well, while you're making a movie properly like this one, I have this and whatever the charity stuff I'm doing is, but I have sometimes where I'll be working on one or two scripts at the same time. But to be honest, I don't like doing that because on the whole, the best ideas you have on a film are not when you're writing it, they're when you've finished writing it and you're wandering around the street. And if the moment you finish on one project you immediately go on to the other, you won't think of the good --

The things where you're like, "Damn, I could really punch it up with…"

Yeah, exactly. And, suddenly you don't need this or you could join that.

Do you base characters on people you know?

I don't know, it's always something. I mean, it's still a mystery to me. On the whole, I think they are a model of imagination, autobiography, two people I've met, and some idea from somewhere, you know. If you look at his sister, there's some of it that's [actress] Lydia [Wilson] herself, there's some of it that's my sister, there's some of it that's my daughter, and there's some of it that's a girl I met when I was sixteen, I remember her running around with no shoes. It's a funny old mystery what then constitutes a whole character.

A lot of writing is wish fulfillment, too. Is this anything like the relationship that you had with your father, or a relationship that you had?

Well, I've definitely used wish fulfillment over the years. "Four Weddings and a Funeral," I was at a wedding, I met a girl, she asked me where I was staying, she was staying in the same hotel as me, and then a friend of mine said, "Do you want to come and stay at my house?" and I said yes. Mmm, should've gone back to the hotel. [laughing] So, the movie is what I should have done.

And that's where the time travel comes in.

Well, yeah, I could have used some time travel. But, this one -- well, both my dad and mom had died while I'd been writing this film, as it were. And there's actually no doubt that the kind of dream of being able to spend more time than you're given with your dad is definitely a sort of wish fulfillment, you know.

Right, exactly. Unless you can time travel and I don't know about it --

It's very low tech time travel, at least.

Yeah, no I think it's an odd movie, in that clearly it clearly is about time travel and yet, the time travel is so low tech that I think after about a half an hour people sort of think, "Oh, right the time travel," it's like it had to be there.

How do you choose your leads for this? All three of them, Domhnall, Bill and Rachel, are in almost every single scene.

Actually, it was three very different bits of casting. Bill, I know very well. Sent it to him, had an interesting conversation where he said he didn't want to do any acting.


Yeah, he said I should just play it really low and gentle. Rachel, who I love, I've asked to do things before. And I just sent it to her, you know, never dreaming she'd say yes. And then Domhnall, proper looking at 25 actors of his generation, seeing lots of people, and it was tricky because he auditioned with this huge orange beard that he had for "Anna Karenina" and he looked like this sort of, uh, he looked like a guy from the Appalachian mountains with a knife in his boot. But, then, you know, he was so definitely the right person. And then we filmed him and he still looked like he'd just come out of a homeless shelter.

That's amazing. And they have such great chemistry. Was there any worry about the fact that Rachel had already done "The Time Traveler's Wife," and that this was another time travel movie?

I know, that's why I thought she'd say no. I mean the only, there was this funny moment when Rachel was shown the first cut of the trailer and she rang me up, "Oooh, it can't be. There's a shot that's exactly the same as the shot when he asked me to marry in Time Traveler's Wife" and so that, she said "Do you mind?" and I just said, "Oh, I don't mind at all. No one will know except for you and the guy who directed Time Traveler's Wife."

Yeah, I don't think there are that many people who are like, "Right there! I caught you."

Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Do you watch your movies with audiences ever?

Yeah, we test them. I'm very interested in that bit of the process. Particularly when I used to make movies that were mainly jokes, it's very good. It's good for timing, it's good to know. And the thing is, it's good for comedy, knowing when you've succeeded and failed, and it's good also for repetition. Sometimes you do things more than once in a movie because you don't think that you've quite made the point enough. And then when you watch it with an audience, it's completely clear, as it were, that they've fallen in love, and so you don't need a second scene like that. I mean, in this film, there was, after they got together, there was a very sweet scene where they met for dinner and she fell asleep into her food because she was so tired, and it was a good, old funny scene, but it was completely unnecessary because you knew they were going to be fine. So, no, I like testing the films. I mean, sometimes you get horrible people talking afterward about things they haven't liked or understood.

Have you ever had that, where they don't know who you are?

Yeah, you're always meant to be anonymous, and then they're horrible. This time, there was one horrible screening. And then we had two nice ones.

Did you recut or was it just an anomalous audience?

No, no, no. It was definitely just the weird group. What had happened, they had this sort of panel afterward of 20 randomly chosen people and if there are two people in that group who really didn't like the movie, they can undermine the confidence of the other 18.

When you're just standing there, say that people are walking past out of a screening and talking about it amongst themselves, have you ever been tempted to walk up and be like, "Let me clarify this thing you're complaining about"?

Nooooooo. But, no, the really interesting thing is sitting in the middle of the audience and getting a sense of interest and whether it is drifting away and stuff like that It is helpful.

And when people cry. This is a big cry movie. It's uncomfortable to watch in press screenings, because it's all these people you work with.

I love that! That makes me so happy.

So when you see or hear people crying, are you like, "yesssss"?

You know, it's quite interesting. I feel as though when we tested the movie, it wasn't as emotional as it is finished. I think it might have been one of those films where it needed the final bit of music and the grade and everything like that to finish the movie. But, I've also, I think, left a certain amount of time for what I think is the saddest scene 'til the end. I just remember the night we were going to see "Dead Poets Society" -- you remember that movie? -- and the saddest scene was the last scene and then it just came to an end and everyone was a mess. I think I've given a sort of grace period. A little minute and a half for people to, uh, fix the mascara.

When you're writing, do you have lines and situations that come to you and you file them away for later if they don't fit exactly what you're working on, but you know they're good?

It's interesting. I do use cards when I write, quite a lot. So when I first start to write a film, I do sort of write a strange mixture of prose and dialogue and thoughts and then I will put them all down on cards and then see whether or not they add up to a story and get them in the right order. And sometimes that's up to where even when you're at the end you've got 10 things you really wanted to say, or that someone said, or little jokes that you think will really work that never fit into the film. And the last line of this film, which I think absolutely sums up the film, where he says, "We're all traveling through time together and it's our job to relish this remarkable ride," that was actually written after I'd seen the film, and that was, you know, the last line of the finished movie.

Is there anything that was particularly painful to cut from this movie? It sounds like it was maybe originally a lot longer.

It was longer. And there were just some funny scenes which I loved, but they didn't take the movie on, you know, emotionally, or in terms of plot. Because I fooled around even more with time travel. There's a line right at the end when she's very pregnant and she says "I think I'm going to have the baby tonight" and he says, "You can't believe the detail in which I know the route to the hospital." And that's actually a 10 minute section from earlier on in the movie when he didn't know the route to the hospital when they had their first baby and they got stuck and he was at Abbey Road, and he had to join the people on Abbey Road pretending to be the Beatles, and she came up and was very cross that he went into Abbey Road and all of that, all of that gone.

And it's great, because the line still works, and is a funny line.

I think it's a bit dodgy, but, anyway, it's going to be a very satisfactory DVD. It's going to have lots of extra bits. When we did "Four Weddings," there was nothing on the DVD, because it was such a cheap film, we just used everything we shot. But this movie, there's extra stuff.

And you obviously have some very popular films that have stood the test of time. "Love Actually" is coming up on 10 years now. Is that hard to believe?

No, I've lived a lot of life since "Love Actually." I think the funny thing about "Love Actually" is how unexpectedly famous some of the people who I cast have become. Because the movie was meant to be a mixture between the fame being brought with like Hugh Grant, and then less famous people, you know, like Martin Freeman's in "The Hobbit," Andrew Lincoln's in "The Walking Dead," and January Jones was in "Mad Men," so I think the film kind of looks more over-cast than it did when I first shot it. It's like full of famous people now.

I believe the little boy, now, is in "Game of Thrones." He suddenly turned up with a sword. But he looked very different.

What do people say to you most often about "Love Actually"?

Well, I'm really surprised and delighted that people do watch "Love Actually" a lot. When I was young, I used to watch "White Christmas" every Christmas. Now I watch "Elf" every Christmas, so I love that idea. I mean, in "Love Actually", I get a lot of talk about Emma Thompson's performance, particularly when she finds out what's happened. And I consider that very lacking because, obviously I wrote, "she stands by the bed and looks a bit miserable," but it was her who did that extraordinary emotional thing.

Why do people say they like it?

I think that, what I love is the idea that it makes people feel like Christmas has come and that they can bear watching it time and time again. I think, probably, the secret of "Love Actually" is that you don't know what's going to happen next, because there are so many plots. Whereas, when you're watching a thriller you know, "Oh, this is where he gets killed," or we find out about the dodgy typewriter, but I think the thing about "Love Actually" is, because - and that's what made it so difficult to edit, when we were making it - you could put any scene from any story after any scene from any story. So it was like three dimensional chess. So, I'm relieved that the gamble paid off. And then people say, "Do you want to do a second one?" And the answer is no. Because it was by the skin of our teeth that the first one worked, and I don't believe that it would happen again.

What would the second one be called? "Love, Sure", "Love Kinda."

I wanted to do a documentary series called "Love Factually" which was going to be about the different stages of love, but I think someone's done it now. So they broke my copyright.

You've written and been involved in a lot of iconic rom coms now. Do you like watching rom coms? What kind of movies do you watch?

It's interesting. I like what I would call "funny films about love," which is not the same thing. So I really love movies where I think the person really cares about the subject of love and when I sense that they're only doing it because it's a formula, I'm much less interested. So, I loved "500 Days of Summer," which I think was really from the heart. I loved "Lost in Translation." I loved a movie you must watch called "Like Crazy." So I love good films about love, and I think, you know, that's perhaps more interesting than the idea of romantic comedies.

This movie has an amazing soundtrack, and the songs very much play into the narrative of things. I've read that you're very involved in the music selection for your films.

Completely. I mean, this one, the movie was written based on some of those songs.

That Nick Cave song, "Into My Arms," was perfect.

Yeah, there's the Nick Cave song, in my heart and mind, particularly the Ron Sexsmith song ["Gold In Them Hills"], and Ben Folds's song ["The Luckiest"], which was always going to be the beginning and end of the movie.

As soon as the piano came in on the Nick Cave song, I was like, "This is over. It's all over."

[laughs] And I tell you what's funny about that, it's turned very low. Because the Nick Cave song has the best first line of any pop song: "I don't believe in an interventionist god," but I didn't want anyone to actually be listening too hard, and I wanted anyone who knew the song to be slightly frustrated that it was so low, that when it comes in at a proper volume. And then it was so, there's always a point in a movie with extraordinary luck, and it never even occurred to me when I was shooting that sequence that "Into My Arms" would change its meaning and it would end with them both holding their kids as they walk up the stairs and that's one of those magical things that sometimes happens with pop music in movies, where you get something between the lyrics and the film that you didn't think you were going to get.

Yeah. I was thinking about it afterward, I just imagined you actually listening to this song and being like, "I know what my movie is going to be." Because that's like the song. The lyrics could be a thesis statement for your movie.

I was so pleased that Nick said yes, but actually it turns out very weirdly. Sometimes, you find people are fans of "Love Actually" which is really odd, one I think Nick Cave, it's his favorite film. And the thing I found out the other day that Nicolas Winding Refn says that "Four Weddings" is his favorite film. And I wouldn't dare watch any of his films, I'm so frightened by the level of violence. But, apparently he admires the form and structure or something, I don't know. But that is a weird idea. Nick Cave watching "Love Actually."

"About Time" is now in theaters.