Never expect a downer of a movie from writer-director Richard Curtis. Love Actually, Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral – his scripts are almost always packed with pure joy. Curtis made a long impressive list of crowd-pleasers, plus a holiday classic that never fails to brighten up the holidays. His scripts are generally packed with pure joy, so his sensibility makes for a fine fit for a movie largely about The Beatles.
Danny Boyle‘s Yesterday is based on an idea by Jack Birth (The Simpsons) and Curtis, who brings his nice and light rom-com touch to a high-concept. As Curtis told us, the movie has much in common with his last film, About Time, his final movie as a director. When we spoke with the writer about writing Boyle’s latest, he told us about his favorite feel-good movies, writing about The Beatles, and not missing directing.
You write such feel good movies, so I was wondering, what are you go-to feel good movies? Which films always put you in a good mood?
Let me start, I’m still very keen and love at the moment 500 Days of Summer. I think it’s ’cause you never know what thing’s coming next. I’m actually not very good at repeat viewing of any movie because, you know, they rob the bank, they get in the getaway car, but 500 Days of Summer it’s always a surprise; what’s the next bit that’s coming up. As a family, we’re obsessed with Cheaper by the Dozen.
I love Cheaper by the Dozen. I love Breaking Away, and I love Local Hero. Those might be my feel good films.
I always laugh when I think about Burt Lancsaster in Local Hero. Even thinking about that movie makes you feel good.
I had a really interesting experience with that movie. I knew [producer] David Puttnam at the time, and he showed me the movie before Mark Knopfler’s music was on it. Wow, that was a lesson because the music makes the movie about Scotland and life. So actually, it was really interesting because it was a much smaller and less resident movie and then that music just takes it to a completely different level. I’d almost be willing to sit through Local Hero without anything, without looking at anything because it just sounds so lovely. By the way, they’re just doing a musical of it.
Mark’s written some new stuff. They picked it up in Glasgow, and it’s just about to come down to London.
Yesterday shows the kind of intimate, personal relationship someone can have with music. For you, what bands or artists have been integral to your life?
Wow. I’m a real music fan, and I never write about music, but Beatles are number one. They’ve kept me company and put me in a good mood for most of my life. There is an English band called The Water Boys that I keep returning to. Absolutely love them. I suppose the big confession is just, obviously, I couldn’t get a girlfriend when I was young because I had orange hair and wore glasses. So, the first person I went out with was Joni Mitchell, and then Joan Armatrading and Kate Bush and then Linda Ronstadt and then Stevie Nicks. You know, they were very happy during the lean years.
[Laughs] Good companions. I know early on in your career you were a comedy writer, but did you have any struggling artist years like Jack does in the movie?
Well no, I got very lucky because my best friend at college was Rowan Atkinson, who was a bonafide genius. So I just hung on to his coattails for a decade. I mean, sometimes I do a list of all the things I’ve written that haven’t come to anything, and I suppose that’s it. You just write whole films, whole TV series that don’t occur. So it’s an intermittent failure rather than a long period. And then my fate changed.
You usually get an idea and let it marinate for a few years before committing to writing it. How’d the idea initially start and evolve for Yesterday?
Yesterday was an odd one actually because I didn’t think of the one lined thesis. Someone rang me and said, you know, would you be interested — and I think maybe even directing — the film with this one line plot: a musician who’s the only person to remember The Beatles. And so, what happened after that is I said well no, don’t tell me anymore. Let me just write my own film. And then I had as I always have [time to think about it] because for most days, I work for the UN. I had my normal 6 months off without being able to write it, and during that time I tried to work out what the movie might mean to me, what bits I’m interested in could be there. So, you know, I thought a lot about impostor syndrome that we all feel and particularly feel like an impostor as a father. And then also, I in a way returned some of the stuff I did in my film called About Time, which is just, what has value? How should you spend your time? And it often comes down to work versus family or work versus love, you know? Your sense of responsibility to the world and then your sense of responsibility to be happy. And that turned out really to be what this movie’s about for me.
Speaking of how you spend your time now, do you miss directing?
Well, no. I mean, I just used to worry when I was director. I just worried that I knew less about the camera than anybody else on the set. I was always slightly disappointed that I didn’t get… I think the movies are conscientiously directed, you know, they are very accurate to what I wrote. I wish they were more brilliant and had stronger visual style, and so it was really relaxing when I was with Danny on set. When I was there, I still worried about the accuracy and whether the emotional variety I think you need is there, but I didn’t have to worry for one second about whether or not it was being well captured and gorgeously shot.
You also said the movie deals with imposter syndrome. How have you dealt with it in your career? Does it ever go away?
You know, you push on. I think you have to accept there are things you can’t do and sometimes you do get it right. I sometimes worried when I was a director the better scene was written, I could think, “Oh I can relax here,” whereas I should’ve done the opposite. I should’ve said, “This scene’s going to work, now how can I make it extraordinary in the way it looks or the way it’s shot,” rather than thinking, “Oh well it’s done, I can just do some close-ups.”
So, you don’t miss it at all?
No. Not at all. I mean, just the agony of not knowing what a shot list was and being in the car at 6:45 in the morning, which is bad enough anyway, and the guilt of eating a very large bacon sandwich when I’d arrive. So no, I’m very glad… I remember the only day I thought I’d done the job well on Love Actually, we got to the end of the day and I said, you know, done. Then my producer reminded me that we another whole scene to do. So, that was bad.
The movie turned out well, though.
Well the thing about Love Actually was, it was an interesting shoot in only having a week with each of the stories. And the edit of Love Actually was murderous.
It was a mess, right?
Yeah, because it was like playing three dimensional chess. You know, you could go anywhere and any of the story’s next. And it didn’t turn out that, that I had a better reach than Love Actually, and I’ve never had a more depressing view of the first cut. I got so much of the pacing wrong and I realized as an audience member it wasn’t going to be satisfactory. I suddenly had to put in three scenes and one of the things just to give you the feeling you were getting somewhere. Otherwise the whole movie felt like a, you know, a bunch of snacks. That movie was nice to shoot and nice to write but hard to finish.
What were some of the difficulties with Yesterday?
Let me think. I mean, one of them was always the end of the movie’s tricky. You know, Danny has this lovely phrase where he says, “Only two things matter on a movie, the beginning and the end, and the end not so much.” So, you know, there was a lot of playing around with those factors, the end song, the “Ob-La-Di” thing, the Harry Potter joke. There actually used to be an engagement, so it took us a lot of work. But the big decision really was how much of the beginning to have. We actually had at least three times as much material before the crash. But again, sometimes it’s the magic of the movie, ’cause sort of first time you saw the look in Himesh’s eyes and Lily’s eyes after the last few concerts, that’s basically the place of the next ten minutes of the movie, you know? It went down from 18 minutes to 15 minutes to 7 minutes before the crash.
After the crash, what else did you consider ridding the world of?
It was tough. I did think of various other things until I came up with something I was vaguely happy with. I can’t actually remember what they were, but I know that that was clearly in the movie one of the crunches, which is how did it happen? Did he just wake up and it’s happened? I finally decided that he was unconscious for 6 seconds when something happened for the rest of the world, maybe his brain retained some information. [Spoiler Alert] So when I think about the two strangers [who remember The Beatles], I keep thinking one of them is in a coma, you know what I mean? [Laughs] So that they also happen to escape the vacuuming up of everyone’s memories. [Spoiler Over]
You’ve said before you like telling stories about the problems that remain even when life is going well. In this movie, the guy basically becomes a Beatle, but his problems don’t go away. When you look at Yesterday and your body of work, what other ideas do you think tie them together?
I think I’ve got two big subjects which in a way do come from The Beatles, which I really do think. I’ve always been trying to get that mixture of joy and love and slight melancholy that I think was sort of injected into me when I was young. It’s weird how you’re interested in something, like I clearly was obsessed by love. I first fell in love at 4, then 7, then 10. I remember when we auditioned for the little boy part in Love Actually and talking to the 10 year olds who came in, none of them had even thought about the idea of love, and yet that was all I thought about at the age of 10. And then I’m very interested in friendship because I think that’s what I’ve actually found work quite hard, you know? I find politics interesting but I don’t want to write about it. You know, friendship, love, time and how it treats you, and music would be the things that I care about most in life and that is therefore found their way into the films.
I think someone’s favorite Beatle can be telling, so who is your favorite Beatle?
I know that I never allowed myself to ask myself that question. I have two sisters, and I never literally, I never allowed myself to think, do I like one more than the other? And I think I had that self-discipline. So my sisters being girls, one of them was in love with Paul and one of them was in love with George, and it was my job to hang onto the whole band. I love all four of them.
Like children, you can’t pick a favorite.
Exactly. But I always lie to the kids whenever anyone of them says, “Who’s your favorite?” I always say, “It’s you. I mean, don’t tell the others.”
[Laughs] Say if you disappeared and I decided to write Notting Hill and got all the credit, would you be okay with that?
[Laughs] Well, that’s a great question. I mean, I have thought about it in the context of this movie, and in the very last joke, the Harry Potter joke, I did think to myself how would I have done, and the answer is I would’ve not done. So my instinct is I probably wouldn’t like someone else’s version of Notting Hill very much. They might not have cast Hugh and Julia, so that would’ve been atrocious. So I’m not sure I’d be happy. I mean, I’m not happy with the finished film so I think I’m not sure I’d be happy with someone else’s version.
Why aren’t you happy with the finished film?
You know, I know where all the bones are buried. I wish Notting Hill had a subplot. You know, I can create anything that could really happen while Julia was away. I feel that a little bit. And in Love Actually, I worry a bit that it’s tonally a little inconsistent, and maybe I didn’t quite crack that but I’m not sure they all quite exist in the same world. When they’re finished, just like your kids are imperfect, you get fond of them. Even with their stupid hairstyles. So, I think I’m growing more fond of my films as I get older and, of course, I never have to watch them, so it’s not too much pressure.
[Major spoilers ahead for Yesterday]
The scene with John Lennon is a very bold choice, and I was moved by it. Where do you even begin on trying to capture his voice and write John Lennon?
You often find there’s a scene 4/5ths of the way through that alters the trajectory of the movie. You know, you set up a problem and then you’ve got to solve it. In a detective movie, you’ve got to find the crook. And in this film, I knew there’d have to be some decisive thing which made him make the decision. And obviously at some point I feel that should be the moment when I play the card that I knew I had, that possibly The Beatles would still be there but not having had the career. So it was always the pivotal scene in the movie. And then what I did with John what I always do with characters, which is that I just write for a few days conversation between them. I don’t write in the scene, I’ll tend to write how does Lily talk to Himesh, just like a friend at a dinner party. I try and get a sense. So I remember the John scene, I almost wrote it for real. I wrote 45 minutes of conversation, and slowly discovered what I wanted the tone to be, and there was a lot in that original stuff with John taking the piss out of him if it were because the guy turns up at his door, with this face of awe, and as far as he’s concerned he’s just a sailor who no one’s ever, you known, he lives on his own in a house by the sea. So the John thing was just trying to fear the moment which we all know so well, and then think what it sounded like in conversation.
Did writing it feel like wish-fullfillment?
Well I think it was. I mean, strangely the other film I was gonna write… my sister, who was very sick for a long time and finally took her own life when she was about 54, I was trying to write a film about, almost like about ghosts. I was just gonna try and see if I could bring her back. But I couldn’t get the tone, it was very complicated and there’d already been… you know, there was the movie called Truly, Madly, Deeply that I really love and I couldn’t get it right. I think that sense of, can you rescue someone from death, which movies are about to do, have been much on my mind, you know? So, by my age you don’t have your parents anymore and stuff so I think I was feeding a lot of stuff into that scene which is often on my mind.
Yesterday is now in theaters.
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