Interview: 'About Time' Writer & Director Richard Curtis on Happiness
by Alex Billington
November 12, 2013
"This is the big one that I wanted to do." Now showing in theaters everywhere is the film About Time, the third film (following Love Actually and Pirate Radio) directed by screenwriter/filmmaker Richard Curtis who resides in England. I've thoroughly enjoyed his past scripts and have immense appreciation for About Time, and was lucky enough to catch up with Richard a few weeks ago for an interview about his latest film starring Domhnall Gleeson & Rachel McAdams. While there is a time travel element to it, our chat covered casting, writing & time travel as well as rumors that this is the last film he'll be directing anyway. Read on!
Curtis' About Time began playing in US theaters on November 1st, and opened in the UK on September 4th. The film is about a young man, played by the red-headed Domhnall Gleeson, who learns he can time travel and uses this to his advantage to better his life by finding the perfect girl. It's not what most are expecting, but is nonetheless a charming and very sweet film that tells a heartfelt story about finding happiness in life. Curtis admits his intention was to make a film about exactly that - finding happiness. Full transcript below.
So I was just reading about this online and I just want to confirm: is this really the last film you are going to direct?
Richard Curtis: The movie is a movie saying that we should relish every normal day and live it just for the day itself, not for what the day might achieve. And the problem with directing movies is it's like three years of something where you are putting in quite tough work every day on the off chance you make a good film at the end of it. So I thought maybe I wouldn't take that gamble again. So my plan is to try and see if I can live by my own rules.
Has anyone tried to stop you? Has anyone said, "I want to see you direct more"?
Curtis: Literally you. It's just... [laughs] It's just you. Look. I don't know. We'll wait and see what happens.
With About Time, how did this first come together? What were the origins of the story? What pieces of it did you originally envision and then build around?
Curtis: It was... It was a slow growth. I had a lunch with a friend of mine called Simon, who lives in New Mexico and I don't see him very often. He came over. And we tend to talk properly. We were talking about whether or not we were happy. I slightly surprised myself by saying, "Not really..."
Curtis: Just happy, in life. Was life making you happy? And we then had a discussion about what would constitute a perfect day. And he was saying what he would do. And I was saying that I used to think a perfect day would be flying to Monte Carlo and having a date with Grace Kelly and winning a million pounds and getting a text saying, "You've been nominated for an Oscar." And now I hate all of that. It's too scary and strangers...
And, sort of, the day we were having was the perfect day. I was just having lunch with my best friend. I had taken my kids to school. I was going to have dinner with the family. I thought then for the next week that would be a subject I should really write about—how to be happy; how you achieve happiness in ordinary life rather than always looking for extra, big things and achievements to make you happy.
And I thought that was a good thing to write about but quite sort of simple. I thought, "How can I make that point in an amusing and entertaining way?" I thought, "Ah, I'll tell you what I'll do. If I use time travel I can have somebody who can do anything, who can pick any day, who can choose anything. If that guy then decides that a perfect day would just be an ordinary day, then that might be a film worth watching." So, then I started thinking about time travel and all the jokes, and then all the sad things, happy things in my own life. And suddenly there was a film there.
I really love the messages in the film, what you're saying about finding happiness. It seems like a very personal story for you, about making something that is almost your send-off, to say: "Look." Anyone can watch this and this is the advice you would want to give them.
Curtis: That is absolutely it. I think that I've sort of realized that my old films, the romantic comedies, were half the story that... you leave your family, you find love, you get married, as it were. And then, "Oh wait a minute." You have children. You have another family. You and your girlfriend take care of your old family. So I've realized that romantic comedy leads to family drama leads to romantic comedy. And I'm so pleased that I've made a film which gets me up to where I am now and takes into account—I've lost three of the six members of my first family since I wrote Love Actually. So, things have been sadder and I'm trying to find a way of finding happiness in that context and to pass that on. And I do feel it's a film that is caught up with what I think about life, rather than the old ones which were, in a way, a nostalgia for first love.
I also like that it doesn't spend too much time on the first meeting, which is something some people get caught up in. Instead of going back and re-trying the first meeting over and over, it focuses on the much longer side of the story.
Curtis: Yeah, it does, it does. One of the reasons I think that both the actors are so extraordinary is that without changing their hairstyles much they do actually age 10 years in the course of the movie. Yeah, and I quite liked the idea that this was a movie about two people who aren't very different and don't have huge fights. That, in fact, they get on really well every time they meet. The problem is because of time travel they keep on forgetting that they'd met and there are all sorts of tricks about it all.
Yeah, and it's a slightly strangely structured movie. I hope its got as many jokes as the other ones did. It gets a bit sadder at the end, but maybe that's not unpleasant though.
I think it really needs that at the end, especially with all the characters have gone through, the importance of where it ends up.
You carefully balance the inclusion of sci-fi and time travel but simply as a tool to tell the story. Did you ever want to make it a bigger device or was there was more to it while filming?
Curtis: Well, when we were making it, all the way through we assumed there would come a moment when we added a bit of sci-fi sparkle. And when we finished the film, you know, the time travel is just done by like 10 very quick cuts, or 16 short cuts. And we gave those to four special effects houses and we said, "Do something fabulous." Some of them put it backwards in slow motion. One of them did a rotoscope thing where they cut out the characters and made it 3D, and we added some music. And then when we looked at it we said this is just completely wrong. The trick of this movie is that the sci-fi element very quickly seems ordinary. I think about 20 minutes in everyone just thinks, "Oh, this is a guy who can travel in time and that's just his quality, like he wears glasses or stupid shoes." And I think that in the end it turns out to be a kind of anti-time travel time travel movie. It uses all the time travel stuff but without it feeling like it's a science fiction thing particularly or without it feeling that time travel can actually solve your life.
Exactly. How much research did you do to work out the complexities of time travel?
Curtis: Well, I mean look—because we've all seen lots of science fiction stuff I didn't do any research at all. I just tried to think it through. There are some real battles. And I made up some rules of my own, this particular thing that you can't travel to before when you had a child because you'll have a different child. I was very simplistic about how you would time travel. My instinct is if you thought, "I'll time travel," you probably just close your eyes and clench your fists and think back to yesterday.
And I didn't go back to other sci-fi movies. I thought that would be a dangerous thing, other time travel movies. But in the end I remember that some of the films I most love are time travel films. It's a Wonderful Life [Frank Capra, 1946], my favorite film, I suddenly realized, "It's a sort of time travel. He goes back in time and sees what would happen in his world if he hadn't been there."
After seeing this, I must admit I love Domhnall Gleeson. He is just perfect in About Time. Was there a story behind finding him and why did you think he was going to be perfect for this?
Curtis: Domhnall was an amusing auditioning process. I wanted to audition lots of young actors and just see if I could find the perfect guy like we did with Hugh Grant all those years ago. But, unfortunately, Domhnall came in with an enormous orange beard because he was in the middle of filming Anna Karenina. So he looked like one of the guys who came out of the woods in Deliverance with a big knife. He looked really wrong. He couldn't have been more wrong. And I had to really fight to see through the beard. I auditioned him once and then twice, and then I put him on film. But he had this key thing. He is a very good actor. I think he's a very sweet man, which I like. I like to like the people I'm working with. And then he's got a real comic instinct. And that's always key for me. And it turned out he'd done sketch shows on TV in Ireland, and he really did like the funny side of it. So that combination of acting, sweetness, silliness...
Which is what makes his performance so perfect. And I also heard that Zooey Deschanel was originally cast before Rachel McAdams...?
Curtis: I don't know how I feel about that...
Curtis: [laughs] I don't know what I think about that.
Well, I was going to ask - how much of a different movie would it have been if it were Zooey versus the one we now have with Rachel McAdams?
Curtis: It's such a weird thing. It's like a time travel issue, isn't it? Because everything falls in such different ways. We actually cast a different actor [than Hugh Grant] in Four Weddings [and a Funeral] and then we lost all our money. And then he wasn't available when we came back. And I think you don't know. I mean, just every single stage of the process would be different if you made a different decision at a different point.
Rachel McAdams is fantastic in it, too. At what point did she come in? Was this after you had cast other parts?
Curtis: The thing about Rachel is I have tried to ask her to do things before and she said no. I thought our chances were low because she had done Time Traveler's Wife. So, when we did get 'round to asking her it was with low expectations but with high hopes. And I think... I mean she did turn out to be just—I really felt she was an extraordinary actress. This is the thing, it's such an odd part, her part, because there's not much conflict in it apart from the mess-up with the time travel. And she's got to do this amazing thing of aging without aging and turning from basically a first date to the mother of three.
The thing about Rachel is that every scene she's in she just sums up the emotional temperature. You know, if you want her to be joyful, if you want her to be doubtful, if you want her to be normal, she just does it so beautifully it almost makes me think that my lines are unnecessary. As long as she's portrayed that, it doesn't matter if she says what I want, which she did.
How much improv do you allow on set?
Curtis: Well, there was... When I did the Pirate Radio movie there was quite a lot because there were nine big boys in a room, and I would say to them, "Mess around for five minutes. Then do my stuff. And then you can fool around at the end as well." There was much less of that in this. But on the other hand, we had lots of time together. I mean there are some scenes where I am very aware that Rachel and Domhnall were... the scene where they propose to each other, they weren't happy with what had been there, and we spent an extra day rehearsing it and it came out very different from what we thought it would be.
So I would say not too much but enough freedom to make my script noticeably better.
What I love about your scripts and the movies you've directed is how wonderfully eloquent the dialogue is and how natural it sounds. Where does that come from? Is this just something that naturally flows out of you when you write? Does it take many revisions to perfect?
Curtis: Well, I do write a lot. So I write 20 to 30 pages a day when I'm writing properly. And I'm thrilled if one-third of one page turns out to be good. So, to some extent, you know, it's like being a gold prospector. There's a lot of dirt and earth, and then sometimes I'll see, oh, I've got a particular rhythm here. And then I think I know because of my sketch writing days if there's a little nugget there how to make it bigger and sort of more solid.
I think that, to some extent, the magic, if magic occurs, is between my lines which are very carefully written, and then performers who can make that scene natural and informal. In auditions I often find that people either make it dull or you can see the structure behind it. In Rachel and Domhnall I found two people who could pull off that trick of it feeling real, but you can tell it's kind of heightened.
Will you continue to at least write and produce even though you may not direct anymore?
Curtis: Well, look. One of the reasons I say I'm not going to direct anymore is to create some space in life in order to find out if there are new things that come into my head. But I am actually already doing a Roald Dahl adaption with Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench, and then a film that Stephen Daldry is making down in Rio de Janeiro about three trash kids called Trash, which is why at the end of the film the guys reading a book called Trash. So this film is really just an ad for the next film [joking]. So I'm sure I'll go on. I'm sure I'll go on writing. But it's not a bad idea when you make a film to say this is the big one that I wanted to do, because that raises your ambitions.
Richard Curtis' About Time arrives in limited US theaters starting November 1st, expanding to wide release on November 8th this fall. It's a very sweet, deeply meaningful film that I highly recommend. See it now.