If you don’t know the name Richard Curtis, then you’re clearly not a fan of British humor or romantic comedies, more specifically. You’re more than likely to know some of his work, whether it’s Rowan Atkinson’s Blackadder or Mr. Bean or writing Four Weddings and a Funeral, the first two Bridget Jones movies or his most known work, Love, Actually. It’s that combination of versatility and humor that has made Curtis a bit of a national treasure in England.
His latest movie Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle, is a quasi-SF movie about a world where a Sussex-based singer/songwriter named Jack, played by newcomer Himesh Patel, is the last person on earth who remembers the music of the Beatles (or about their very existence). He tries to tell his childhood friend Ellie (Lily James) and his family but no one will believe him, and soon, he’s impressing the like of megastar Ed Sheeran and his manager (Kate McKinnon), who wants to get Jack under contract. It leaves Jack in a position where he can accept his newfound fame or tell the truth.
Yesterday might not seem like something you would normally read about on The Beat, but I’m guessing there is some large crossover of a section in a Venn Diagram of comic book readers and Beatles fans … as well as with Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle fans… that might be interested in knowing more about Yesterday.
As The Beat got on the phone with Mr. Curtis a few weeks back, he was just ordering some tea, just to make this interview that much more British…
THE BEAT: Are you in Liverpool right now?
Richard Curtis: Actually, it was hilarious. We did interviews all morning, and it was like we were in a hurricane, and then I’m just talking on the phone now, and it’s blazing gentle sunshine. (chuckles) But I think that is a metaphor for the movie business anyway. It’s never how you want it to be.
THE BEAT: I read a little about how this story came to you and then you brought it to Danny Boyle. Is it common for Tim [Bevan] from Working Title or other producers to give you a story to work from? I always assumed you started from scratch and wrote your own stuff and then directed some of it.
Curtis: Oddly enough, they’re always slightly different stories. I’ve done a lot of adaptations. I never think I have, but then I did do Bridget Jonesand War Horse, so I’m quite used to starting from different places. This was a very unusual one. In fact, it wasn’t Tim and Eric [Fellner], it was Nick Angel, who has always done all the music for our films, who in fact rang me up and said, “Would you be interested in either of these two?” and one of them was a musical based on the music of Elbow — who he knows I adore but I didn’t want to do that one – and the second one was this idea, which just immediately struck me as something I’d love to have a go at. I always feel like the Beatles were the reason I took up doing anything creative in the first place.
THE BEAT: I was really surprised as I’m sure many people are that other than the Summer Olympics in London, you hadn’t worked with Danny Boyle before. You both have been on this same career trajectory since the ‘90s.
Curtis: They’re either surprised or they’re shocked that we’re doing it now, because in some ways, people would have said that Four Weddings and Trainspotting couldn’t be further apart. We actually did a little bit in the Olympics ceremony when Rowan Atkinson did a parody of Chariots of Fire, and that’s when I got to know Danny and realized he wasn’t a scary angry person but actually a really energetic and delightful person with a huge sense of humor. I actually asked him to do Notting Hill twenty years ago, but he turned that down flat. This was just an amazing moment, because I’m not sure I would’ve thought of him, but he wrote to me just about something else and said, “If ever you’ve got anything do pass it by me.” I had just finished [the script for] Yesterdayand my girlfriend said, “If you don’t send it straight to him, I’ll leave you.” Danny got back within a day or two, so it was sort of a mini-miracle in its own, a miracle of timing.
THE BEAT: Had you worked together on the James Bond movie as well or is that just the usual gossip?
Curtis: No, no… in fact, one of the reasons we rushed this movie a little bit because Danny was meant to be doing the Bond film but then just as we were halfway through the edit, he dropped out. It meant we had a little bit more time to polish this one.
THE BEAT: When you have a movie where the Beatles’ music is such an important part of the story, so at what point do you go to ask to use it? Do you go to Paul McCartney, does Working Title do that or Danny or all of you?
Curtis: Well, that was the advantage of Nick being involved right at the beginning. First, I spent a couple months checking that I really wanted to do it and what the plot of the story would be, and then I’m pretty sure that it was at that point that Nick went to Sony and said, “What do you think?” I think just because it was going to be Danny and me, I think they said, “It sounds safe enough. You don’t actually have to get the Beatles’ permission but they would never dream of letting a movie happen with 15 songs without asking them,” but Sony and Apple handled that.
THE BEAT: Was Jack always going to be of Indian or Pakistani descent in the script or was that something that came out after finding Himesh Patel?
Curtis: No, it just came out of the casting. We saw a lot of people. It was a very complicated part to cast, because [Jack] has to be funny and charming and be able to sing and play music. It halves the size of the field, and Himesh just walked in one day. There’s a worrying version of the film where it just sounds like covers, as it were, or like somebody playing music and saying, “I’m as good as the Beatles.” We were getting worried after a day or two of casting that everything felt like they were stage school kids a bit, and then Himesh came in. As you can see in the film, it’s a terribly simple, clear attitude to the songs, and what these versions do is make you want to hear the songs more and remember how great they are, rather than thinking, “Ooo, I don’t like this version.” He just did have a magical way with the music and then also, which is so lucky, was really good for the other two ingredients we needed.
THE BEAT: Jack’s parents are also hilarious, so it led to this fortuitous thing that added even more humor to the movie.
Curtis: Well, I know. That’s the thing. If you make a slightly bold decision, good things will follow. They’re two very famous comedians in the UK who used to do a show called Goodness Gracious Me, and they’re friends of ours. They’re actually married in real life. I do think that was a lovely rich performance, and of course, for someone like me who is trained in comedy, you’re so grateful for those brilliant smaller performances. When I saw Kate McKinnon’s audition, it literally made my year ‘cause I thought this was going to be so great and maybe the lines will be funny, and then Kate made up about half her lines anyway.
THE BEAT: I was going to ask you about that, because I feel you can tell Kate to play the worst possible agent/A&R person ever, just be awful, and she comes up with that great stuff.
Curtis: (laughs) Well, she claims that it’s based on her agent, who is a great friend of mine, so I think that’s very hurtful indeed, because she’s a wonderful woman. It’s kind of interesting working with Kate, because she was working hard on both sides of it. She knew how keen I was to make it as funny as possible, but also, of course, she didn’t want it to be a turn, so she also wanted it to be good acting, too. She was a job, and she’s become such a close friend.
THE BEAT: I guess Ed Sheeran was also a friend of yours, but how do you convince him to be in a movie where he’s going to be poking fun at himself in some ways?
Curtis: You know, Ed is really a remarkable young man. I really do know him… we just got to know him well, strangely, because in a way, the movie was about Ed. I know him, and he used to go out with someone we knew before he was famous, and then suddenly, he was the most famous person in the world. He lives nearby, and he comes and plays football with my boys. Suddenly, he’s now engaged to a girl he was at school with, and so that’s where I got the confidence that that was the proper circle. Instead of going off and marrying someone very glamorous person in Hollywood, that he ended up he knew when he was a teenager. He knew that I had done that, so he was well inclined towards the project, and he’s all for taking the piss out of himself. I believe they’ve started selling Ed Sheeran wigs on his tour now. You know they used to have Beatles wigs? You can now by an orange wig, so he was completely up for that, and him and Danny got on very well. It was really interesting seeing someone who you think will be able to act and does it instinctively very well, sort of learning the technique, too. Ed is all about hard work, and one of Danny’s big notes is “Listen to the other person.” I sometimes think with slightly inexperienced actors, they are holding their line in their head and waiting until they know it’s the moment to speak. Danny said, “Don’t worry too much about the lines. Just hear the question he’s asking you, and you’ll say the right thing back.” It was a real joy. At first, he was like, “Is it really going to take eight days?” Then when we said, “It really is, probably twelve,” and he was great.
THE BEAT: Do you have any idea what you want to direct next?
Curtis: I’m not going to direct. At the moment, I don’t have any plans. I get such a relish from seeing bits of this film where I just think that Danny has done such a marvelous job there, but no, I don’t have any directing plans.
THE BEAT: This movie is such a wonderful confluence of you and Danny and the cast, and it all just worked out, and I loved it and can’t wait to see it again.
Curtis: Well, thank you so much, and you can’t imagine what it’s like for me. I was thinking, you know the crash at the beginning? I was just trying to think, “What would the Richard Curtis version of that be,” and I thought, “Well, it would be a shot of the bus, a shot of a man on the bicycle and then a cutaway to a person on the other side of the street looking surprised and then cut back,” and now with Danny we get that great shot of the world and the slow motion thing and the violent crash and the lights going out everywhere else, and all of that. I’m very happy with how it’s turned out, and I’m really glad if you like it.
Yesterday hits theaters on Friday, June 28.