Love Actually is one of the most beloved romantic comedies of all the time. That film is only ten years old, but it’s already fair to claim the film is a classic. Initially the web of down-to-earth love stories didn’t receive uniformly stellar reviews or massive box office numbers, but what kind of madman doesn’t watch it when it’s on cable or come Christmas time?
That wasn’t a shabby way to kickoff the directorial chapter to an already successful career. By 2003, Curtis had written Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Notting Hill, so he was no romantic comedy rookie when he hit it big behind the camera.
Since then, he’s directed two films with The Boat That Rocked and his latest, About Time. The time travel dramedy is about life, love, sorrow, children, and (unsurprising if you follow Curtis’ work) most everyday facets of life. The movie feels like a swan song for Richard Curtis, who is retiring from filmmaking.
Speaking with Curtis at the press day for About Time, the writer/director discussed his reasons for retirement. Here’s what he had to say:
It’s interesting to see About Time after hearing the news of your retirement. Filmmaking is such a life commitment and this movie is about cherishing each day you have. Did some of those pre-retirment feelings slip into the film?
I think so. I was thinking about it a lot. The moment I hold onto is all the scenes on the beach. They were all shot on one very long, very hot, and very frantic day. I remember Bill [Nighy] saying to me, “Maybe next time we’re on a beach together we can just be on a beach. Can we walk along without someone playing with my hair or telling me we only got five more minutes?” [Laughs] It was a happy film to make, but we did think a lot about how lovely life would be without making films.
Did the idea of retirement start on this film?
I started to think about it before. I think my life has been complicated, as lives do get. I lost three out of the six members of my family since Love Actually. The thoughts of how to be happy, how to give your children enough time, and how to take advantage of all the good things you’ve made has been on my mind. On the other hand, Rachel McAdams tempts you to change your mind [Laughs].
[Laughs] I know what you mean. Does your personal life usually inform your work?
I think very much so. It’s a peculiar thing. I mean, why do we write what we write? I’ve only just started to think about it, really. Four Weddings and a Funeral was really just an explanation to my mom why I wasn’t married [Laughs]. I think the strange thing about this film is that I feel I’m both characters. I identify with Tim’s unsuccessful youth and now I’m much closer to Bill’s character.
When did you realize those characters were echoes of yourself?
That came with reflection. Retrospectively I find my earlier films were happy to stop at the wedding. It’s the day you get married when the family drama begins, so 20 years later you might experience another romantic comedy in your life.
You’re an old pro at romantic comedies. Since there are so many genre tropes, do you have to consider them in the writing process?
I haven’t really thought about them. The funny thing is, Four Weddings was not a romantic comedy in my mind. That film was much more based on films like Diner, Breaking Away, Annie Hall, and Gregory’s Girl. Those were semi-autobiographical movies with love at the center of them. I try not to think about the genre. I think I did exploit it in Love Actually, doing very reduced romantic comedies.
For this one, I tried to do some anti-romantic comedy things. For example, I like the idea that these two enormously like each other when they meet. There’s no, “She’s a Nazi and he’s a member of the communist party! How will we ever be able to bring them together?” It’s much more like real life. On the whole, most people initially like the people they spend the rest of their lives with.
How do your scripts evolve over time? Are the first drafts fairly representative of what you end up with?
It’s a long process, because I take my time. I usually spend years before I decide which movie I’m going to write. I have a busy other life, so I have time to sit on a story and let it marinate. The truth is, the very first thought I had for About Time was to see if I can write a movie about a very normal day. I wondered if I could talk about how to be happy and observe how wonderful breakfast is, but I couldn’t find a way to do that. Then I slipped in this idea of time travel.
If a person who can time travel realizes a wonderful day is a normal day, then that might be a plot. It comes in pieces, because the next thing I thought of was traveling back one day, then the father and son on the beach, and then I later went back to figuring out the first half of the movie.
What’s the challenge in showing those wonderful moments in a film following a normal day?
Of the one day version? In that case, it was directorial skills [Laughs]. I think Terrence Malick might be able to make that film, but I couldn’t.
Are you confident as a director or do you see yourself more as a writer?
I think I’ve always managed to believe in the ideal that what I found interesting and well-executed would work. As a comedy writer, the first thing you have to do is trust your own instincts. If you find something funny in the room, then you think it’ll be funny. When I first started as a comedy writer I went into the BBC and they gave me a list of things that were funny. Like, trade unions or the Queen were on the list, and I didn’t think any of them were funny. If the things you find funny, and if they’re done with confidence and properly, then they will get laughs. I try to carry that self-confidence in the stories I tell.
The first film you directed, Love Actually, is a universally loved film. I imagine that would give you confidence going forward as well.
I suppose so. It’s such a weird one, though. I don’t remember it being particularly well-recieved. I mean, the English critics tend to be quite rude about my films anyway. It is a source of great unexpected joy, like, having an ugly baby and then have it turn into something wonderful is how I feel about Love Actually [Laughs].
[Laughs] Why do English critics tend to be harsher?
I don’t know. I’ve always felt comedy can take…you know the person in the playground who goes “ha-ha,” no matter what joke you ever cracked? They’re always going to win. The truth is, I think a lot of them sit down in a much more critical frame of mind. My films are quite gentle films, so…I don’t really know. To be honest, I don’t really worry about it. The great thing is, as time goes by, few people come up to me saying, “I think your film is shit.” On the whole, people come up and say they like you. In time, the people who like your films will watch them.
Forgive me, but now I have to ask, has anyone ever told you your film is shit?
[Laughs] Not very often. I don’t know if you ever saw Woody Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, but there’s a great character in that who says, “I read your book… I must say, I found it very poor.” That’s always been my favorite joke my friends use. They’ll say, “I saw your film. Frankly, I thought it poor.”
[Laughs] Speaking of mean English critics, Rachel McAdams has described you as someone who “has no time for meanies.”
That is true. Distinctively I cast people that I like and sense that we share a lot of the way we feel. I’m more interested in investigating the worries and problems of life when it’s going well, rather than bad guys. When I look down at the street and see lots of people going through their lives, I see very few serial killers polishing their knives [Laughs]. In many of our lives, I think the problem is how to be nice much more than how to be mean. In a way, I’m just writing what I see.
I wrote a sitcom as a nasty guy when I was young, but I think there’s a weird myth that the nastiest things that happen are the truth. When you see a couple have a fight, I don’t believe that it’s the truth of their relationship; it’s one of the many truths. I think when you see a flaw in something and perceive it as the core of something, I don’t buy that. Similarly with sorrow, as well. This film deals with sorrow, but I don’t think that means life is sad. All it means is sorrow is one of the things in life you have to work your way around and understand.
Retiring after three films, what would you say your biggest takeaway is as a director?
Oh, I’ll try to think of a couple of answers for that. My friend [director] Mike Newell from Four Weddings was right, because he used to say, “When the movie is cast, it is made.” The accuracy of casting is huge. When I think about how Rachel goes from her first take to mother of three, I’m so happy I didn’t cast someone who would’ve been great until the wedding day and then kind of weird in the second half of the movie. I’m glad I didn’t cast a mustache-twirling eccentric for Bill’s part, because then no one would’ve identified with him. He plays the part so gently that people can put their own dads into the space he has created.
I think the endlessness of editing is also important. I mean, Love Actually read so well at its rehearsals and we were so confident, but then the movie I shot did not work at all. It took six months of putting everything in a completely different order again, and again, and again to go back to the movie we made, but by a completely different route.
About Time opens in theaters November 1st.