The writer-turned-director of “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral” fame talks to TheWrap about making a romantic comedy in the 21st century
Richard Curtis has spent the last two decades telling love stories.
The first movie he wrote, “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” launched Hugh Grant’s career and was, at the time, the highest-grossing British film in history. He followed that up with several more critically and commercially successful films, some of which broke his own record and all of which portrayed bumbling lovers.
“It's very odd how you are attracted to the same subjects,” Curtis told TheWrap. “I take comfort from painters. Marc Chagall must have known there was more to life than people dressed in blue carrying flowers, but every time he painted that's what came to him.”
Yet despite his films’ thematic similarities, Curtis has never succumbed to formula. His stories have always felt fresh – touching but funny, romantic without being too schmaltzy.
That is more important now than ever given Hollywood’s diminished interest in traditional romantic comedies. Every studio wants the next “(500) Days of Summer” – one of Curtis’ favorites – but nobody wants another “Sleepless in Seattle.”
Curtis claims he has never set out to write a romantic comedy, but with “About Time” in particular he was “very aware” of the need to eschew archetypes.
“In most movies, the two protagonists couldn’t be more different,” Curtis said. “He’s a member of the Nazi Party. She’s a member of the Socialist Workers Party. Will they ever fall in love? Most people fall in love with someone they like.”
That’s why the central pairing in his latest movie, portrayed by Rachel McAdams and Domhnall Gleeson, are both nerdy and sweet.
Gleeson is the same “orange-haired clown” Curtis was at the age of 21 – a normal guy who just wants to fall in love.
Yet Curtis’ attempts to tell a slightly different story also led him to a subject he’d somehow skipped in most of his previous films – his family.
“It’s odd to me that I left my family out of ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ and ‘Notting Hill,’” he said. “The characters didn’t appear to have parents or relatives.”
To rectify that, he put a bit of himself into another character — the father, played by Bill Nighy. The bond between father and son is the film's most touching relationship and has left most audiences weeping.
“Viewers all seem to have the same response,” Nighy told TheWrap. “There are a lot of fathers getting mysterious phone calls from sons and daughters.”
Nighy has worked with Curtis many times before, describing him as one two “great pieces of good fortune” in his life. The other is David Hare, for whom Nighy is shooting a TV movie.
Despite the success of Nighy's past collaborations with Curtis, including “Love Actually,” the well-mannered Brit describes “About Time” as his favorite of Richard’s movies.
Nighy plays the patrician in a family of men who can travel back in time. While Gleeson first uses this power to correct his past amorous mishaps, Nighy eventually advises him to enjoy the life he has – not the one he can recreate.
“When you get to my age you look at the clock and say ‘I better pay attention,’” Nighy said. “Significant things happen and you can’t appreciate it because you prioritize the wrong things.”
Curtis’ cooked up the idea for this movie after experiencing that same revelation.
“I've been talking to a lot of my friends about why we weren't happier in our 20s,” Curtis said. “Work didn’t really matter; we didn’t have any responsibilities. We were happy being poor.”
Monetary issues are no longer a problem, but he's still tackling happiness. He has promised his girlfriend he will not work as hard, which is one reason he has sworn off directing, which he describes as “a thousand days of pain.”
That will afford him more time with his family — and to write.
So what will he write about next?
“It's so odd that you return to the same subjects,” Curtis mused, returning to the same subject that began our conversation.