Richard Curtis, the phenomenally successful screenwriter of “Notting Hill,” “Love Actually,” “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” makes movies that are the cinema equivalent of Paul McCartney’s pop hit “Silly Love Songs.” Curtis would be fine with that description; at an HBO Director’s Dialogue recently at the New York Film Festival, the 56-year-old screenwriter said he listens to pop songs to rev up his creative juices before he begins to write.
Curtis holds a unique voice in English movies, a voice that is unapologetic about expressing profound emotion. This goes against the grain of the stereotype that the English are emotionally repressed and uncomfortable about expressing their feelings. The press, especially the cynical British press, usually give his movies a critical drubbing, but you can’t argue with success: “Love Actually” grossed $247 million at the box office.
It’s been a decade since he directed “Love Actually,” but Curtis’s new film, “About Time,” is as unabashedly romantic and lush as all of his others. It’s a romantic comedy about socially awkward lovers (Domhnall Gleeson and Rachel McAdams), a heartfelt drama about a father and son (with Curtis regular Bill Nighy), all mixed together with elements of time travel.
The film may also be Curtis’s directorial swan song. At the movie’s New York premiere as part of the New York Film Festival, the prolific screenwriter told me on the red carpet that he was taking the movie’s carpe diem message to heart and that he would stop directing to have more time to enjoy life.
The “Notting Hill” screenwriter told me he’d probably go on writing, maybe learn to cook, visit Scotland.
Later during the Q&A after the screening, he said “About Time” sums up much of what he thought was important in life and that it would be the last movie he directs. Then a few minutes later he quipped, “How many times has Steven Soderbergh retired?”
The following night at the HBO Directors Dialogue, Curtis reminisced about his career, the inspiration for his rom coms, and life, love and time travel in “About Time,” which opens Friday, Nov. 1, 2013.
Here are some highlights from the Richard Curtis Q&A with Film Comment editor Gavin Smith:
On the theme of regret in his films and how “About Time” is a culmination of that subject because whenever the central character regrets something, he’s able to go back and make it right.
Richard Curtis: I think the strange thing about having done this new movie is that it’s kind of half a romantic-comedy – and I wouldn’t talk about whether romantic-comedy is an apt term – but the second half is a kind of family drama. I used to think that if you sorted out your romantic mistakes, you would then find happiness. This film, because the wedding’s half way through, goes on to show that you’ve got to pay the full price so life will continue.
I’m increasingly convinced that life is just a pile of good things and a pile of not so good things, and you’ve got to try and face the not so good things and not let the fact that things can be hard spoil all the things that are wonderful. So in a way I think of “About Time” as being about reconciliation more than about regret.
It’s about the fact of him (the central character played by Domhnall Gleeson) accepting that there are tough things and then trying to do positive things and still view your life positively.
On his films being a corrective to Hollywood romantic comedies that always seem to be a happy ending.
I think that’s absolutely right.
This is an interesting exercise I did recently: How many of those people who are together at the end of romantic films do you think will be together 10 years later? Being honest, I’ve only come up with one that I really believe in – the couple at the end of “Brief Encounter,” who were married at the beginning of the film. I think they will still be married 10 years later. But I’m not as convinced that Julia Roberts and Richard Gere (“Pretty Woman”) will stay together longer than a weekend.
On his unique voice in English cinema that focuses on emotion and feeling, which is opposite of the stereotypical idea that the English are emotionally repressed and unwilling to show their feelings and uncomfortable when other people show their feelings.
Part of it is, I’m not English. My Mom and Dad were Australian. There’s a quiz in this U.K. magazine, “The Guardian” – they ask you a question and one of the questions they ask every week is have you ever said I love you to anyone and not meant it. It’s shocking how many people say no, because I do that like 10 times a day. And my Mum told everyone she met that she loved them, so maybe I am contrary to the swing of things.
The second thing is, I’ve always thought of my films as quite close to pop music. There’s a lot of pop music in my films. And when you say that thing about English people not speaking their feelings, of course the answer to that is all the extraordinary love songs throughout the history of British pop music. The Beatles started with “She Loves You” and ended with “I Will” and that fantastic “Grow Old Along With Me,” the last song John Lennon recorded just on his piano. So I think I’m more in tune with that tradition, the tradition of pop songs that say what they mean and say “I love you” a lot. I’ve always been really comfortable with that.
On the opening scene of “Love Actually,” which is one of the first films to bring up the reference to 9/11 and the phone calls from the tower. I recall at the premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater that it made many people in the audience cry.
It’s interesting that it’s controversial. I have been taken to task by other people.
On the sentimentality and optimism in his films.
When I write films, people say they are sentimental and untrue in some way. I absolutely cannot understand that at all, because I look around me and I write films about people falling in love, which happens in this city and would have happened ten thousand times today and there will be four million people in love in the city.
If someone writes a movie about a soldier who goes AWOL, breaks into a flat and murders a pregnant woman, something which has happened twice in history, it’s described as being a searingly realistic film that sees into the heart of society. I just don’t think the math adds up.
On being a filmmaker who speaks up for love.
I ask myself why? It’s so bizarre to me that I look around the world and see and experience so many things, and I keep coming back to an optimistic view of and an interest in love.
When I sit down and my fingers touch the keyboard, my happy childhood and the joy and sorrow that love has brought into my life is the thing that comes out. I don’t do it because I want to win the argument. I’m doing it because I sort of AM the argument.
On what that fulfills in him.
Part of it is, my daughter’s very obsessed by what she calls delight in cinema and on television. She loves things that are delightful, that make you feel happy and fulfilled, and I think there’s something in me that produces something delightful to me and I hope, will be delightful to others.
Then I see my whole career as an effort to put on screen something as delightful as all of us experience when we’re with our five best friends and it’s 10:30 at night and we’ve had two glasses of wine and you’re laughing at and with each other. That seems to me what life is heading for, and it makes me satisfied when I feel I’ve got it, and happy when I make people feel that.
On how he maintains his confidence that what he has written on the page works on screen.
I’m unbelievably lucky because I work with Emma (Freud), who I live with, and she criticizes the scripts a lot and she writes rude set of initials: NQR is the nicest, not quite right; CDB is the one I most dread, could do better.
I’ve limited myself to people who as we discuss it, we keep agreeing on things. Obviously, there are a million points of views on anything, and you’re just doing your best to hone yours.
As for confidence, one of the answers may be by being so critical as you’re writing something. I write about 30 pages a day, and I keep about a quarter of a page, so I’ve already been through a very critical process in order to get to where I even start.
On whether there’s an American sense of humor that’s distinct from a British sense of humor.
I never buy the idea that there is an American sense of humor and an English sense of humor, because the [Monty] Pythons don’t relate in any way to anything I’ve ever written any more than “Animal House” relates to anything that Woody Allen’s ever written. Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t bear much relationship to “Porky’s.”
(Aside: “Porky’s” is Canadian.)
I don’t think there is a house style for our country. I mean it’s been a lucky thing for me that there are so many extraordinary American actresses who it so happens have turned up in my films, maybe because Kate Winslet always says no.
On whether he identifies with any of the character’s he’s created, especially Hugh Grant who’s been a regular in his films.
“About Love” is interesting to me in that I identify strongly with Bill, who’s actually nearer my age, and with Domhnall, who was like I was when I was 20.
I voted against Hugh (Grant in “Notting Hill), because I thought Hugh was too good looking, too posh, and everyone would hate him. I was wrong then, but I think there’s always bits of me in the parts I write, but also bits of my friends, people I know.
On his favorite authors.
I’m really bad on books. I only really like Kurt Vonnegut and Evelyn Waugh. I don’t like Shakespeare’s comedies, so really my major inspirations are probably television and cinema in the end. That’s where my great joy comes. The funniest book ever written was Monty Python’s “Big Red Book.”