CS Interview: Richard Curtis on the Success of Yesterday
Danny Boyle’s ‘life without The Beatles‘ fantasy Yesterday earned over $142 million worldwide this summer, becoming one of the year’s big sleeper hits. ComingSoon.net spoke with Yesterday screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually) about the success of the film, and you can read the full interview below!
Yesterday stars Jack Malik (Himesh Patel, BBC’s Eastenders) as a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). Then, after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that The Beatles have never existed … and he finds himself with a very complicated problem, indeed.
Performing songs by the greatest band in history to a world that has never heard them, and with a little help from his steel-hearted American agent, Debra (Emmy winner Kate McKinnon), Jack’s fame explodes. But as his star rises, he risks losing Ellie — the one person who always believed in him. With the door between his old life and his new closing, Jack will need to get back to where he once belonged and prove that all you need is love.
ComingSoon.net: How does it feel to have done a successful mid-budget romantic comedy the way the current industry is?
Richard Curtis: Well, that’s such an interesting question. You know, I’ve been reading a few articles about this. I mean, I live in hope that everything goes in cycles and that this sort of film will continue to be made and continue to thrive. I’m delighted that “Good Boys” has been a good hit over the last few weeks. And I think you’ve just got to make the movies you believe in and feel comfortable with. I certainly wouldn’t ever say, well, I must write a bigger budget movie. In fact, while we were making this, Danny argued for taking the budget down, so that we’d have more freedom. So I’m delighted and surprised that it’s successful, but I’m a great believer in—and I think that my favorite films over the past few years are things like “The Big Sick” and “(500) Days of Summer” and “Little Miss Sunshine”. These are some of my favorite films, so I hope they’ll go on being made.
CS: When you did “Four Weddings and a Funeral”, that film had a very low budget for the time and was a resounding success. Do you think a film like that would even have a chance nowadays, or would you need to make it “Four Weddings and an Iron Man”?
Curtis: (laughs) Well, there are two things out there. I mean, one is the budget and one is the marketing budget. So I think the truth is go on making the movies and then hope that the studios have the courage to invest in the necessary marketing. You know, when you make a really expensive movie, the marketing is in their calculations from the beginning. Whereas, when you make a less expensive movie, I’m sure they’ve got two marketing budgets in their minds, one of which is if they smell a hit, and the other one of which is to make their money back. That’s a good flexibility of less expensive movies.
CS: With “Yesterday” you didn’t have a Brad Pitt and you didn’t have a comic book IP, but you had the Beatles… and the Beatles got a Brad Pitt salary. I think those songs made up something like a third of the budget?
Curtis: Well, no, it’s not a third. But that is true. That sort of goes along the way, doesn’t it? “Four Weddings” was a hit because we had the IP of weddings. That’s very famous indeed. So obviously there’s ones that have been using music a lot, but movies use Christmas and they use school and stuff like that as well. So I think often the success of something is because it does have something that everyone relates to in it, even if that thing is a famous property.
CS: If you think about the Beatles post-“Abbey Road” and post-“Let it Be”, when the band had broken up and going into the 70’s… if you think about it, they were probably going through a kind of a PTSD, almost, with all they went through during that decade. Do you think Jack experiences a similar kind of PTSD from that level of fame?
Curtis: Well, that’s a lovely idea. If I were ever to do a sequel, I should do it with post-Beatles songs and when he suddenly remembered there’s another whole catalogue. I remember my friend Douglas Adams, who was a Beatles obsessive who wrote “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” and him saying that the great Beatles album was the first set of Beatles solo albums, and then the second greatest Beatles album was the next Beatles solo album, so there’s certainly a mighty body of work there.
CS: You could do just an all Wings sequel. Have there been any actual talks with you or Danny or the studio about continuing Jack’s story?
Curtis: No, no, I don’t think so. It would be set in the school system too, with budgets cuts to the British education system. So I don’t think that would have quite the same level of acceptability.
CS: The movie has a similar sort of magical realism tone to your film “About Time”. What do you think is the secret to doing a magical realism premise in a way that doesn’t verge into too absurd for audiences?
Curtis: Well, I was rather surprised. If you’d asked me 10 years ago, am I going to write two films about that, I would have been rather taken aback. I mean, I haven’t quite worked out why I’ve gone in that direction twice. I mean, my answer to that, which needn’t be anyone else’s answer is to try and keep everything around the concept, almost as ordinary and mundane as you can. You know, so on “About Time”, you know, I didn’t have a time machine. The dad didn’t say, “Step into my laboratory.” You know, and similarly, on this one, we tried to keep it as low key as possible. And then, so I suppose that’s my answer, is by keeping it real, you make the concept more real. I think the same is true of “Big”, things like that, and when Spielberg made “E.T.”, he was so aggressively making a movie about really normal suburban America. So I think that would be my thing. And then, the other thing is not to get too caught up in the technicalities of what’s happened, you know, because if it’s something that can’t happen, the more you try and work out how it can, the more you worry the audience, whereas you just want the audience to go with you.
CS: Right. Yeah, it’s better to just be like, “Oh, something happened, and now this guy has to deal with it,” rather than trying to figure out how it happened.
Curtis: Yes, exactly, exactly.
CS: And I think it was an interesting pairing with you and Danny because Danny’s tastes, he’s a very visual director. He has very eccentric kind of tastes. He’s very similar to one of his avowed heroes, Nicolas Roeg in the sense that he just kind of does the movies that he wants, and sometimes they hit the zeitgeist, and sometimes they don’t. What do you think made this one work?
Curtis: Well, it was a great joy because Danny did have all those skills that I didn’t have as a director, to do amazing things. And when we first met about it, he said there’s a style of football called gegenpressing, which is where you just put pressure on at every part of the field. And he said, “I will do things where we take a scene, and then I really push it.” So the scene where he goes on his computer, Danny spent a lot of time on to make that as visually extraordinary as possible, whereas I think I would’ve done it in a much more mundane and less interesting way. So I considered that a real plus. But the other thing to Danny is that he does commit to the style that that film is in. So one of the reasons have so many different styles is because he really respects the material, and so he’s a great one for not changing the lines on the day. So his sort of flexibility and imagination doesn’t extend to messing around with the script.
CS: Himesh Patel, so obviously people can’t stop talking about how extraordinary he is in this movie, and he just locked on to working with Christopher Nolan. How do you feel about not just how he did in this movie, but just his potential as a movie star?
Curtis: Well, look, I’m hoping everything’s going to go marvelously. I mean, he was one of those—I’m such a passionate believer in the importance of casting. He had all the qualities we needed, sort of a modesty and charm and self-doubt, all those kind of things. So I think I have high hopes for him, and a lot of it is to do with those two things, the sort of integrity of him as a person, and a modesty, so that he’s got a very solid base to build on. You know he’s a decent guy. You know that something’s fundamentally sort of truthful about him. You feel as though you see the person when you look at his eyes. So I’ve got high hopes he’s going to go on to do a lot of very interesting work, and I’m glad people are seeing that already.