Interview date: 10/19/2009
Run date: 11/11/2009
Although Bullz-Eye had hoped to be able to speak to writer / director Richard Curtis in person whilst attending the press junket for his latest film, “Pirate Radio,” things didn’t go as planned: he was called away suddenly on a family emergency, necessitating the cancellation of his interviews. Being the trooper that he is, however, Curtis was back on the promotional trail within a few days time, and he was glad to take a few minutes on the phone to make up for our lost time in London. The primary topic of conversation was “Pirate Radio,” of course, but we made time to ask him about the upcoming “Doctor Who” episodes that he’ll be helming, the chances of ever seeing a “Blackadder” film, his work on HBO’s “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” and a little lost classic called “The Tall Guy.”
Richard Curtis: Will!
Bullz-Eye: Richard! It’s a pleasure to speak with you.
RC: Ah, and you. I’m in a strange room with a chandelier the size of…wow, the size of me.
BE: I’ve only got a ceiling fan, so I think you’re up on me.
RC: Uh, yeah. (Laughs) It’s like being on the set of “Titanic.”
BE: Wow. Well, I’m sorry we weren’t able to cross paths in London, but I did get to see the film, and I very much enjoyed it.
RC: Oh, thank you very much, indeed. No, I was called away by family grimness.
BE: So I have heard, and I’m very sorry to hear that. So the title has changed, obviously, from “The Boat That Rocked” to “Pirate Radio.” Of course, I have to ask why.
RC: Well, I think it was…now, I always fancied the idea of having “pirate” in the title, but to call the movie “Pirate Radio” in England would be like calling it “The Post Office,” because it’s just such a generic and well-known thing. And so when Focus said, “Should we at least look at some other titles,” I leapt on that because I thought it sounded fun and piratical. And I want to give that impression. (Laughs)
BE: See, my first thought was that some suit somewhere had said, “If just a few people think that Johnny Depp is in this film…”
RC: (Laughs) I don’t think that was it. But we do have Bill Nighy, who stood next to Johnny Depp.
BE: Exactly, and that’s half the battle. Well, I guess I’m not entirely surprised that the film got a shorter cut for America, but what criterion was involved in making the cut?
RC: Well, that’s interesting. You know, I think there was a tiny feeling from some people that the movie was a bit long in the UK, and...I didn’t feel that. (Laughs) But on the other hand, I did feel…I’m very guilty of, when I read that a movie’s a bit long, it does put a reservation on my going to see it. I missed out on a couple of films that I really wanted to see last year because someone had said that they were a bit long, or I read it. So I thought, “Well, I don’t want that popping up even in one tenth of the review.” So I had another look at it with that in mind and did the cut very quickly. I mean, originally, the assembly of the movie had been much, much longer, so I was used to cutting this movie down. And I just did anything where I thought maybe…I think we cut things that were sort of joyful rather than funny. That might’ve been one of the things. And obviously if you’re going to put a knife in anywhere, it had to be things that didn’t have any plot complications tied into them. There are lots of things that couldn’t go, so it was almost self-selecting.
BE: So what’s your personal history with the world of pirate radio?
RC: Oh, it’s the world of a fan. I was at boarding school. I was sent by my parents, who lived in Sweden, to a boarding school when I was 8, in 1985. Which was pretty traumatizing. And I just remember that I had a little transistor and I used to listen to it, full of fear that it’d be discovered by the prefects under my pillow when I went to bed. But I just had this huge image of a world of freedom and friendship and a forum where people could do whatever they liked. I loved the music obsessively. And, of course, the strange thing about those days is that, if you heard a song, there was no other way to access it. You couldn’t go onto a computer. You just had to listen the next day and hope they’d give you the drug again. So I was a very obsessive listener when I was little, and when I finally thought that I wanted to do…I’ve always been completely passionate about pop since then, and I thought, “Well, if I’m going to do a movie about pop music, I don’t want it to be about heroin addiction. I’d rather have it be about the heroes of the North Sea.”
BE: So were there any songs that were cost prohibitive to include in the film that you really wanted?
RC: One or two, I think. I think we tried to get a couple of songs by the Doors that were well over a million dollars, so that wasn’t done.
BE: When it came time to include…I don’t know if you’d consider them token Americans or not, but did you have particular people in mind that you were looking for?
RC: Well, no, I think I wouldn’t call them token Americans. Only insofar as, when they started the radio stations, there was no one in England who’d done that job, so there were quite a lot of Australians and New Zealanders…that’s why we’ve got a New Zealander as well…and Americans. There was a wonderful man called Emperor Roscoe who I remember, who was one of those rhyming DJs. You know, “I bring you the station across the nation with your imagination,” and all those things. So it wouldn’t have been right not to have an American. And then I’ve just made a pledge to myself that I’ll never make a movie that doesn’t have January Jones in it, so obviously she had to be in it.
BE: Well, that’s a pretty decent rule.
RC: Yeah, I think it’s important to have some principles in life that you stick to.
BE: I heard that Philip Seymour Hoffman, though, came onto the project relatively late. Was there anyone else in serious contention for his role?
RC: I mean, we saw a few people for the role, but partly because Phil was on the very first list we looked at, and he wasn’t free. And then it was one of those wonderful things where our movie slipped by a month and his movie came up by a month, and suddenly we could fit him in. But it was a miracle. We jumped up and down like young men when we heard he was going to do it, because he would always have been my first choice, because I wanted the part both to be funny, which I know that he can do, but also to kind of be the soul of the film, the heart of it.
BE: Poor Jack Davenport’s character, Twatt…the name’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it?
RC: Yes, but that’s so much fun. (Laughs) Fair enough. The scenes…there’s always a worry when you show the baddies that the humor count ‘s going to go down, so I thought, “Well, I’ll just throw in a wild card to try and keep things bumping along.”
BE: After I watched the film, I was talking to a friend of mine, and I said that, for as much as I enjoyed it, there were moments where it felt more like a series of vignettes rather than being as cohesive a film as it might’ve been. And his reply was, “Uh, have you seen ‘Love, Actually’? That’s actually his forte.”
RC: (Laughs) And that’s a fair enough criticism. It’s actually something I quite like. I think I said somewhere that…even though these are two very great films…I had in mind “Animal House” and “M*A*S*H.” And they’re both vignette movies. I actually quite like that thing in “M*A*S*H” where one thing happens, then another thing happens, and then the next thing happens. And I don’t mind that. I tried to put in a fair old chunk of plot, but if one thing happens after another…? I wanted people to feel as though they were living on the boat, just seeing what happens from day to day.
BE: Well, actually, I didn’t know if was just something that had come about because of having a background in sitcoms.
RC: Not really. I mean, in a way, it might be a reaction to having written quite a lot of romantic films, which do have that remorseless plot structure. You know: meet, love, lose, re-meet. That kind of thing. And I loved the idea that I wasn’t having to go along, to pull that rope in all the time. I think actually sitcom, in a way, is the opposite. And, you know, the sitcoms I did was a show called “Blackadder,” which was historical and rather uber-plotted. There was always a conspiracy and a death and a serious problem.
BE: Since you’ve brought up “Blackadder,” I’ve just gotten the new set that’s been issued.
BE: What are the chances of the oft-discussed “Blackadder” film?
RC: Oh, pretty slight, I think. (Laughs) It was actually…”Blackadder,” we’re all very proud of it, but it was very, very tough to do. We were a very hands-on, argumentative group of about seven people, and I think the reason why…and I say this as praise to the others rather than myself…the reason why it’s so rich is because nobody would ever accept saying a dull line. But it was…I think we’d all die of heart attacks within about a week of getting back together again.
BE: As long as we’re talking about TV, you worked with Anthony Minghella on the script for “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.” Were you happy with its reception in the States? Certainly, it took a little bit longer for it to make it on the air here than it did elsewhere.
RC: I’m pretty used to the critics knocking me around a bit. That seems to be traditional, I think because I’m fairly optimistic, and there’s a pessimistic caste of mind to the British critical community. So it was a joy, and…I mean, I think some of the critics I read from America were fantastic. Maybe the Weinsteins only sent me the nice ones, but I was delighted with how it was received
BE: Well, it was nominated for Best New Series by the Television Critics Association.
RC: Oh, well, then, hooray. (Laughs)
BE: What do you think is your most underrated film?
RC: Gosh. Well, I think they’ve all been overpraised! (Laughs) I don’t know. Oddly enough, I was very sensitive about “Love, Actually.” “Love, Actually” really did take a broadside from the British critics when it was released, even though it was popular with audiences. But, strangely, I’m fine about that now because I think it has become just for normal people, partly because it’s a Christmas film, something where, in a way, I get more people talking about that now than any of the other films. So that was the answer. I’m not sure that it is now.
BE: Well, I’m a big fan of “The Tall Guy.”
RC: Oh, well, then, yes, there we go. That’ll do. (Laughs) That’s a good answer. And I’m delighted. That was…we had good fun on that film, and we were so pleased it made a dollar. We weren’t ever disappointed with how it did. But I love it when people have actually seen it.
BE: Oh, yes. I discovered that one even pre-“Four Weddings.”
RC: Emma Thompson’s first film! And I so remember her audition, because I thought she wasn’t the girl. Because I’d seen her doing sketches at the Cambridge Footlights, and they were all very Millicent Martin. And you honestly could tell within 15 seconds of looking at her screen test that she was going to be a great movie actress. Just that absolute lack of…nothing between the camera and the emotions and you.
BE: Now if we could just get “Elephant: the Musical” on iTunes.
RC: (Wistfully) Ah, yes. I was hoping, if the movie had been a huge hit, we would get it into the West end. But it never quite took off.
BE: What can you tell me about “Lost for Words”? I know it’s on your IMDb page, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge.
RC: Well, it’s a film that’s really being written by my brother that I worked with him on back at the beginning, and then at the end. You know, sort of re-writing with him, and also working out the story in the first place. It’s a quite adult romantic funny film. I really hope it gets made. But you never know with movies.
BE: What’s the word on your “Doctor Who”?
RC: (Bursts out laughing) Well, the word is that my children are very excited!
BE: As are a few very geeky Americans. (Laughs)
RC: Well, we’ve got a brilliant guy playing Vincent van Gogh – which is who it’s about – who you should look up on YouTube. He’s a guy called Tony Curran, who really could not look more like. He’s a wonderful actor who was in this brilliant movie called “Red Road” that came out, a rather serious movie. But he’s going to be great. I’ve had a lot of fun. We start to shoot in about a month.
BE: What’s your “Who” history? How did you come into the show?
RC: “Who” history? Enjoyed it a lot when I was young, probably drifted away in the middle years, and then, of course, it was stopped, and I’ve watched pretty well every episode of the new manifestation, ‘cause there’s so little family TV, so few times when you can sit down with the whole family and everybody get something out of it. So I’m a serious new convert.
BE: To bring it back to “Pirate Radio,” since I know we’ll be closing up soon, you’ve got a semi-stable of folks who are returning, but how do you go about choosing the new faces to include in your films?
RC: Well, it’s a very serious business. I was taught this by Mike Newell, who was an obsessive auditioner. I mean, obsessive. And he always saw it…when we were doing low budget movies, he saw it as basically a way of rehearsing the movie. By the time anyone got the part, they’d been in three times, done it, thought it through, and talked it through, so they didn’t need to get any notes when we were shooting it. So trying to find Talulah Riley or particularly trying to find Tom Sturridge was a long journey. We must’ve seen 50 or 60 people, everyone between the ages of 20 and 28 in the UK… (Laughs) …and you were just looking for that strange moment that’s a bit like love, where suddenly the lines take off rather than fill you with shame and embarrassment. I mean, Tom was, I think, a particularly lovely find. And he’s so sweet about the film, ‘cause he says that, for him, making the film was exactly the same experience as what happens to the character: he arrived on a boat and found Bill Nighy and Philip Seymour Hoffman instead of arriving on a boat and finding The Count and Gavin.
BE: Now, how much of the boat camp did you yourself participate in?
RC: Oh, all of it. I suffered fully. I was there from beginning to end, with the smelly candles hiding the smelly boat. (Laughs) It was great, that. It was lovely the way the cast…I remember so clearly the first meeting, all these people sort of nervously edging ‘round each other, and then three days later there’d been so much alcohol and game-playing that everybody was… (Trails off, laughing) And what that did, more than anything else, was establish that democracy of the shoot. You know, it was a film where even the best actors would find themselves being background artists for day after day after day, and it was so important that everyone felt that they belonged and were the same.
BE: Well, everyone else got wet. Were you thrown in the water at any point?
RC: No. (Laughs) It was really cold.
BE: Did you fear that at any point?
RC: No, we had a big argument with Universal whether we were allowed to put anybody in the water. They said it was unsafe for actors to go in the North Sea. But we threw a few of them in, anyway.
BE: Well, I talked to Nick and to Talulah about their fun little nude scene. Was it awkward for them to shoot, as far as you could tell?
RC: No! Nick’ll take his clothes off at the flick of a… (Hesitates) I was going to say “flick of the wrist,” but I’ve got a feeling that’s very wrong. No, not at all. It was all very friendly and easy. And, of course, it’s easier doing sex scenes when you’re trying to be funny, I think, than when you’re trying to be passionate.
BE: Do you think there’s any point in the film which you would describe as farce, or is it pretty straightforward drama and/or comedy?
RC: No, but, look, there are always situations where it’s…well, I think the scene with the two naked men in the bathroom is verging on farce, even though the inspiration for it is Shakespearean. I don’t know if you remember it, but I think twice in Shakespeare’s plays there’s what they call “the bed trick,” when somebody goes in and it’s another person who comes out of the room. So I would claim that it’s Shakespearean farce. (Laughs)
BE: So what are your hopes for the film in America? My understanding is that it was not necessarily the biggest hit in the UK?
RC: Yeah, well, look: in the end, I’ve always said that I’m making my movies so that my six best friends can enjoy them. And I hope that it finds an audience and that the audience enjoys it. At the moment, the great joy of the testing process on films is that you do have some sort of realistic thing about what’s going to happen if there are people in the cinema, and the audiences that I’ve seen it with here have been noisier and a bit more engaged than the UK ones were, so we were pretty happy with that. I can only say that I hope it’ll find passionate friends.
BE: Excellent. Well, I will do my best to keep you on target, but it’s been a pleasure finally getting to speak with you.RC: Thank you very much indeed. That’s very sweet of you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you as well.