For more than three decades, filmmaker Richard Curtis has crafted his signature voice in the world of movies and television, giving audiences unforgettable characters who have alternatively allowed us to laugh at our ever-so-human foibles and to share a tear at the extraordinary journeys that accompany our ordinary lives. Curtis began to hone that voice as the writer of classic television shows such as “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean” and “The Vicar of Dibley.”
When he moved along to the screen, Curtis took worldwide audiences by welcome surprise with his writing in the tender, poignant comedy classics known as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” This experience set the stage for his directorial debut, the global blockbuster “Love Actually,” followed by his love letter to ‘60s pop music, “Pirate Radio,” which he also helmed. Now, with “About Time,” Curtis gives us his most personal film to date — a comedy about love and time travel, which discovers that, in the end, making the most of life may not need time travel at all. Opening November 1, the film stars Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams and Bill Nighy.
At an entertaining roundtable interview over a fantastic brunch at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, Curtis and McAdams talked about their recent creative collaboration, why this film reaches people on such a deep personal level, how casting contributed to setting the right tone for the movie, what it was like sharing the screen with the talented Gleeson, what Nighy brought to the project, what they would change or relive if they could travel back in time, and the amazing selection of songs and music that were used in the movie.
Q: (noting the unusual morning fog) We brought in some British weather today.
RACHEL McADAMS: Thank you so much. You’re so kind. It’s so funny, because when we were shooting the film, we were hoping for weather like this for the monsoon wedding, and it was gorgeous.
Q: Was that monsoon wedding written in the script?
Or was the weather that day really that bad?
McADAMS: No, it was actually, of course, the opposite. It was totally planned and then the weather was like Italy. So we had to try and hide from the sun because it would have looked so weird to have a monsoon and sunshine.
Q: You guys handled it so well. Was it just to reveal how your characters make the best of a crummy wedding day?
McADAMS: That’s a pretty good interpretation of it. Yes, I think probably.
Q: If that had been your actual wedding day, would you have …?
McADAMS: Would I have had such a good sense of humor? (Laughs)
Q: I don’t think there’s a bride in the world that would have laughed about that.
McADAMS: I know. Richard was like, “And you’re laughing and you just can’t get enough of this.”
Q: That would bring out the Bridezilla in somebody.
McADAMS: It sure would. (to Richard who has just joined the roundtable interview) Hi! How are you?
RICHARD CURTIS: I’m really good. I just sent my son off into L.A. with a car.
McADAMS: I saw him!
CURTIS: Did you see him with his Marvel t-shirt? Why did he think that was the right thing to wear? (Laughs)
Q: How old is he?
CURTIS: He’s 16. And he’s just so excited about some place which sells chicken on waffles.
Q: Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles!
CURTIS: He looked around online. I said, “Where are you going?” assuming it would be like the Getty Museum. And then, there’s a cupcake place.
McADAMS: He had his little list. He was so cute. I said, “What are you doing?” He said, “Well, a lot of food.” (Laughs)
CURTIS: I know. I hope he changes his mind halfway through the day.
McADAMS: When he’s ill, he will.
Q: This was such a beautiful movie. I saw it twice. It’s awesome.
CURTIS: That’s lovely if that’s the case. We’re both quite family people. I heard someone personally the other day say I didn’t have time for meanies.
McADAMS: For meanies?
CURTIS: Someone said that from Toronto. They just meant mean people. If ever we get bad reviews, my daughter quotes this Taylor Swift song that she loves which goes, “One day I’ll be living in a great big city but all you’ll ever be is mean” which I love.
Q: You have this magical capability of reaching people on a deep level. There were so many things in this movie that touched me. Was that your intention when you set out to write and direct it, and if so, what’s the secret to doing that?
CURTIS: That’s a lovely question. I’ve been thinking about it a bit. You always end up trusting your instincts in the things that you write. It oddly enough with me started the other way in that I started just writing comedy. I remember the first time I went to the BBC, they gave me a list of what was funny. It said, “British Rail, Sandwiches, Trade Unions, the Queen.” I didn’t think any of those things were funny. And so, I started off my career trying to believe that if something made me laugh when I typed it that that would end up being funny. Often, they were much smaller things, particularly non-satirical things. I found tiny little bits of personal behavior more funny. I suppose as I’ve shifted into writing about more serious things, when the films have more serious things in them, you just have to trust the same instincts. So almost the first thing I thought of in this movie before I even started dealing at all with Rachel’s story, I’d thought about the father giving the son that advice. The scene on the beach with the father and the son was just a thought I had, and it always, every time I thought of it, struck me as being a very emotional thing, that you’d go to such a tiny thing, rather than a great “take your dad back to the day you won a prize” as it were. So I think you just trust your instincts. You always have to trust your instincts and write about things that interest you and hope that that will be just like we hoped it would be funny when Rowan (Atkinson) and I used to do our stuff. You have to hope the serious stuff will be the thing.
Q: You find the humor in the serious stuff, too, because that’s where you need that comic relief, I think.
McADAMS: Although you do mention the Queen’s dress and how…
CURTIS: I do find the Queen very funny. (Laughter) I actually met the queen the other day. She was funny. She was. She tried to sell stuff.
McADAMS: What kind of stuff?
CURTIS: (Laughs) Well no, we were talking about the fact that there was a thing at Windsor Castle and she was saying, “We’ve got a very good shop there, you know, in which we sell some of our meat.” She was talking about the butcher. And I said, “Seriously, I’ve come about your palace and you’re trying to flub me with stuff.” And then she said, “Yeah. Why would I have the lunch if I wasn’t going to make a profit out of it at the end?” So it was funny. You can’t say any of that because I’ll be executed. (Laughs)
Q: This film is already out in the U.K. Do you know if she has seen it?
CURTIS: No. She’s seen the other ones. I don’t know if she’s seen this one. I know she saw the others.
Q: Can you talk about the challenge of finding the right tone for this film and the importance of casting so that the audience buys into the fantasy?
CURTIS: Casting is going to be a huge part. Rachel is the right tone. It is. I’ve always loved her work. I thought it was quite complicated in this film having someone who was there on the first date and a mother of three by the end. And so, that was a really important thing. Domhnall is a very sweet man and you could see that, and he’s also silly. Trying to find a young actor with a sense of humor is quite a stretch because their job is to kind of take themselves seriously. The Bill (Nighy) thing actually came from him. I sent it to him, and he came back, and we had a meeting, and he said at the meeting, “I’ll do it as long as I don’t have to do any acting.” But then he was the one who perceived that there was another way of playing it which was a sort of mustache-twirling English eccentric closing the door in a dark library full of books, but then because he did it so gently, it means everyone could put their own dad or mom into the scene. And then, the tone when we made the movie was friendly.
McADAMS: Very friendly. It was terribly friendly and warm. I loved it. It was such a beautiful movie to work on because the whole crew was infected with what was happening in the story. We were all appreciating things just that little bit more than you would and sort of taking stock because that was such a key part of it. So, it was really infectious in that way.
Q: Have you had any moments in real life where you’ve thought about what you would go back in time to change if you could?
CURTIS: With me, it’s mainly not seeing “The Exorcist.” That’s mine. That was such a bad mistake. It really was. I remember I was there and I’d had my eyes shut from the very beginning. Then I suddenly realized if I stuck my fingers in my ears, I wouldn’t have to have any contact with the film at all. A woman behind me put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry, darling, the Lord will protect you.” But I didn’t believe her really. (Laughter) I slept with the light on for a year. I was terrified by that film.
Q: You make beautiful movies, not scary movies like that, so maybe that was a life-changing moment for you?
Q: What about you, Rachel? If you went back in time, what would you change? Was there a moment you thought about while working on the film?
McADAMS: Well, it’s the same thing. I wouldn’t go back and paraglide. I was thinking about that the other day. It’s the mistakes you wouldn’t make again. No, that one I really wouldn’t do again. That was terrifying.
Q: What about something you’d want to relive?
CURTIS: For my instincts, the movie is probably right there so far as having lost members of my family. I think I’d go back to any Christmas Day twenty years ago because it’s very hard to remember the texture of people who you lose. Actually the next generation is going to be luckier. At the moment my mom died, I remember literally the moment she died, I thought, “Fuck! We’ve got no film of her.” But I had done this thing when I knew she was getting old where I would sit with her with my typewriter and ask her, “So when did you and Auntie Ro go to London and who did you meet?” I thought it was important to have all the facts. I should simply have filmed her talking about tea or what had happened that day and everything like that. So I think you probably would go back. (to Rachel) You’re younger than me so things are still kind of finer, aren’t they? But I feel as though I would. And then, I think your family is in better shape than mine. I would just go back to anytime in 1976.
McADAMS: My sister, my brother and I, we all did it. My dad had to go away for work sometimes and we recorded on our little Fisher-Price recorder a tape for him to put in his truck when he was driving. We sang jingles from our favorite cartoons and they both had big spaces between their teeth when we were little, and I’ll never forget this, my brother singing “Thundercat” (with a lisp because of his gap teeth) and it was so cute. And then, my sister taped over it with Lionel Richie’s “Dancing on the Ceiling.”
CURTIS: No! That’s an entire album!
McADAMS: So we don’t have it. I would kill for that. But you don’t know at the time. She was like, “But it’s Lionel Ritchie!” (Laughs)
Q: Now everything’s on YouTube. I have all my kids on there but I don’t think I have anything of my parents.
CURTIS: Just film them when they’re not doing anything special and just telling some tales.
Q: Rachel, whose idea was the bangs for your character? Did that help you with the role?
McADAMS: Did we overcut it? (Laughter) We decided, “Hey! That’s a great idea.”
CURTIS: I think probably the moment I saw Rachel, my initial reaction was, “You’re too pretty. We’re going to have to fuck around.” (Laughter) But you were stubborn on making her. She wears a clumpy grey-red cardigan and I was not convinced by that at all.
McADAMS: I would like twirl in it in front of him and be like, “No? That’s not convincing?” (Laughs) He was like, “I’m not seeing it.”
CURTIS: I think the pressure of trying to normalize her came from Rachel a lot there and even that blue dress that you wore. On the whole, you were very keen that she should not be a movie heroine in that movie heroine way, weren’t you? And that we should try to make her as normal a girl as possible.
McADAMS: Just like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”
CURTIS: That’s completely right. I love Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”
Q: There is not a woman who cannot relate to that scene where your character is trying on all the dresses and Domhnall’s character is sitting there watching while you go full circle and come back to the first dress. That was such a perfect scene.
CURTIS: That was almost done in real time, wasn’t it? I mean, it was really rushed. That was fun.
McADAMS: Yeah. We had a lot of dresses. (Laughs)
CURTIS: I still don’t think that there’s any credibility in the science fiction world. Do you? She comes out with one and it’s cut down to there and it looks like “Star Trek.” I don’t think her character would have pulled off that dress.
McADAMS: (Laughs) Yeah. That was a fun day.
Q: Rachel, I read you were interested in the performing arts growing up but you never really pursued acting. Then your parents got you an agent and you pursued acting at college and afterwards when you were an adult. Do you think that helped you or hindered you as an actress? Would you change anything?
McADAMS: It’s funny. I still felt like I was young, even coming up out of university and getting into it at 22 years old. I was on a plane going to Italy making my first movie. I came from a small town so I was a small fish in a very big pool all of a sudden. For me, I don’t know that you necessarily have to go to theater school. It was good for me. I really enjoyed that and I really thrived in that. I finally found a place where I felt like I belonged. But what I really appreciated about my parents was not helping me when I begged for an agent. They took me to meet one, but then he was so wacky and so clearly not the real deal. They were like, “Yeah. We’re cancelling the check.” You know you never pay and there are all those rules because I was just so desperate. He was the oddest guy. He looked like a mime with Kabuki make-up and he kept playing with his ear and going, “Well you have to get pictures and you have to give us all this money.” So, that I would definitely discourage obviously, but I think what came out of that was that I knew I wanted it. I knew that to go to school and put all that time and energy and money into my education in acting, I never felt like it wasn’t completely what I wanted to do. But I did do children’s theater camp and stuff like that. I got a little taste of it and then I wanted more. So they gave me that. But to just go whole hog and take me out of school and all that sort of stuff, I think you have to really love it. I occasionally meet kids who I think are so happy doing this. I’m working on a film right now and the two kids – I think they’re 10 and 13 – and they just eat, drink and breathe film. They just love it and they’re so happy being on set and stuff. So I think there are certainly exceptions to the rule, but I valued coming to it on my own, too. It’s a tough one. It’s such an odd world for a child to be in. It’s such a grown-up world.
Q: How did it feel to play a time traveler’s wife again?
McADAMS: Well I didn’t know anything about the time traveler in this one. Ignorance was bliss in this film. It’s funny. I don’t know what that’s about. Subconsciously, I’m doing these movies with time travel all the time, but I’m never the time traveler.
CURTIS: I felt so bad about that. My daughter has this idea. She was always trying to say that at the very end of the movie, the women in the movie should be walking along the beach. And then, one of them should look at their watch and say, “Oh Christ! We’re late for lunch.” And they should all fly home. (Laughs) And it would turn out that the men could time travel and the women could fly.
Q: What was it like for both of you to work with Domhnall Gleeson?
McADAMS: He’s wonderful. He’s really special. He’s a great comedian, a great comic actor. He has incredible timing and yet he’s got so much heart that he brings to it. He’s so grounded and brings so much love and passion to it. So he was a great collaborator and he’s very funny. He’s always singing and he’s always jolly and happy to be there.
CURTIS: It was a very happy film and I think we were lucky – not lucky because I think you oddly enough make these choices instinctively. (to Rachel) But you were very sweet with him. Bill was very sweet with him. I remember being very glad when we got to the complicated scenes in the end in the table tennis room with the father and son that it wasn’t a grand English actor who I was frightened of. Then Domhnall would have been there thinking, “Am I acting well enough?” It was a good, very supportive group. The families met and we spent a few days together – Lindsay (Duncan) and me and Lydia (Wilson) and Domhnall and Richard (Cordery). We actually just had meals together and talked about our own lives and the bits of their lives that related to the film. I think he’s going to be an amazingly successful actor. I keep getting phone calls from directors about him in really interestingly different [roles] because of that thing about having the ability in a way to be everyman. Someone will ring me up and say, “I’m going to do something about a spy and Domhnall’s the guy who doesn’t realize how deep…” and I think, “Oh yeah, he’ll be good in that.” And then, “I’m doing something about…” I think he’ll be great.
McADAMS: You like him immediately. As soon as you see him, he becomes very likeable. He’s a Weasley (referring to his role in the Harry Potter film series).
Q: Can you talk about the music which added so much to the film? It’s so perfect. Every song is so representative of what was going on at that particular moment.
CURTIS: We had a lot to do with music. I remember the song when Rachel comes out of the restaurant. I made you listen to that remorselessly, even on the night on which she comes out of the restaurant. It’s this song by a guy called Paul Buchanan from “The Blue Nile.” As Rachel was walking out, I was listening to the song through the years to see whether or not it worked with how I’d imagined it. I sent you guys the tape, didn’t I, with “The Luckiest” (by Ben Folds) on it and “Il Mondo” (by Jimmy Fontana) on it and all of that. So it was the one where most of the songs were written into the screenplay and that’s partly to do with how I write, which is I kind of need to be cheered up by songs. But I also need to be the opposite, deepened down. There’s a song called “Downtown Train” which was a Tom Waits song recorded by a group called Everything but the Girl. When I was writing “Notting Hill,” I listened to that every single day because weirdly that was what I wanted the movie to feel like even though it couldn’t be in the movie. We had one or two. Do you remember when I played you “White Wine in the Sun” which is a really moving song by Tim Minchin about Christmas, and I played it to you all to cheer you up, but everybody cried? (Laughter) We had to stop, and Rachel was wandering off, because it was the scene of the Christmas after Bill had died, and they were meant to be doing that. This was the song that sums up exactly to me about family and Christmas, but it was a disaster. (Laughter)
McADAMS: It wasn’t quite the effect that we were hoping for.
CURTIS: If you see that scene as well, Rachel couldn’t wrangle her children. There was one child who was incredibly unhappy.
McADAMS: His mom had to hide behind the couch, and he kept looking for her behind the couch.
CURTIS: But you were really quite a good mother.
McADAMS: I couldn’t even bribe him with food. I was like, “Well, I don’t know. If candy doesn’t work, I’m done.”
CURTIS: But yes, the music was very important.
McADAMS: And that band in the subway was so good. We were so lucky to have them there, because when we were down there, it was like working in a mine or something. We were down there all night.
CURTIS: I didn’t know what I was doing. I couldn’t work out how we were going to edit it, because they were going to be singing the song, and it had to come at whatever point I edited it, and they’d be singing the wrong lines. I hadn’t worked that out. It was one of those days when you just think, “We’re wasting the whole night. It’s not good. I don’t know how we’re going to do it.” He’s a guy called Jon Boden who’s highly rated and he’s in a band called “Bellowhead,” and he’s rather grand in the British folk scene.
McADAMS: Yeah. That was lovely.
Q: So you didn’t really find them in a subway?
CURTIS: I’m quite moved by the fact that they audition for people to play in the subway. And I always feel, imagine being so low on the music ladder that you’re rejected. You’re rejected for busking. (Laughs) That would be a bad day when you go home and say, “I’m not good enough to busk. It’s not that I’m going to have a number one album. I can’t even play for free.”
Q: This is such a great film that I want to keep going back to see.
CURTIS: Can I just say Rachel is a really, really good actress. We couldn’t believe how good she was every day. She so epitomizes every scene that it doesn’t really matter what she then says.
McADAMS: Oh Richard! Thank you.
CURTIS: It was such a joy.
McADAMS: It was a wonderful film. When are you doing the next one?
CURTIS: I’ll only do it if you ask me. I’m not doing it for anyone else.