From writer/director Richard Curtis (Love Actually), About Time is charming, endearing, heart-warming and, at times, a real tear-jerker. The story follows Tim Lake (Domhnall Gleeson), whose father (Bill Nighy) tells him, at the age of 21, that the men in their family have always had the ability to travel through time. He can’t change history, but he can make his world, and the life that he shares with his beautiful girlfriend Mary (Rachel McAdams), a better place.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, Richard Curtis talked about why he waited to make this film, editing it down from a three-hour cut, the casting process for the lead roles, how challenging it was to set a scene in a restaurant that serves in complete darkness, and whether this will really be his last film as a director. He also talked about the two projects he’s written since this – Esio Trot for the BBC, with Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench, and Trash, directed by Stephen Daldry – and how he ended up writing the “Vincent and the Doctor” episode of Doctor Who. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: You first thought of the idea for this film in 2005, but then decided to wait until you were a bit older to write it. Why did you wait to wait to tackle this story?
RICHARD CURTIS: In a funny way, it was the other way around. I still had some youthful glee, so I thought I’d better write Pirate Radio while I was still feeling young and perky, and before my knees went. I thought this was a film where I was bound to get better qualified to write it, as time went by. I can’t remember quite what stage I was at then, but I think I had both my mom and dad, and I don’t have them any longer. I knew it would be something where extra time would probably give me extra wisdom.
So many people mention Love Actually as their favorite romantic movies of all time, and seem to really hold all other romantic movies up to it. Does that feel daunting, at all, in putting out About Time, knowing that people will compare the two films together?
CURTIS: I don’t think so. It’s such a big deal, doing a movie, that the question of its comparison with another thing that you’ve done fades pretty fast. It’s such a big, long relationship. That’s not really a thought you can hold in your head when you’re saying, “I better have another go at that first scene,” and “What am I gonna do about that character?,” and “How can I make this thing funnier?” While you’re making a film, it’s very hard to hold the idea that you’re in comparison to another one, in your head. Also, one of the reasons I did Love Actually was because I didn’t want to do another film that might resemble Notting Hill. In the same way, About Time is a way of dealing with things in a different way because of the time travel. I would have only felt pressure on Love Actually, if I had decided to go for another 10-story film, really. This one is a little film, even though it’s got the big conceit in the middle of it. It hasn’t got that many characters, and it deals with them over a long period of time. Love Actually had 20 or 30 characters, over two weeks.
One of the great things about the time travel aspect of this story is that you don’t over-explain it, but instead just let things play out. Was it important for you to show instead of verbally explain those time travel rules?
CURTIS: I think there would probably become a point, in the time travel rule telling, where people would switch off, so it was better to do it by demonstration. There are so many tricks to it and so many questions about time travel that it really did turn out to be a very fruitful area to write in. I just tried to think of as many movie moments or jokes connected to it as I could, rather than set up a whole thesis.
How tricky was the editing process for this film?
CURTIS: Actually, this wasn’t one of the hardest. Love Actually was an absolute impossibility. It actually took an extra three months because it was like three-dimensional chess. Any scene from any character could go anywhere. With Pirate Radio, because we’d done so much improvising and fooling around, I think the first cut was five hours. That was a problem of its own. This one wasn’t too bad. I think the issue with this one was that, in the second half of the film, which has a curious shape, it was a question of sustaining the tension and drama of the movie, over the long tale. The first half, in a way, tells itself. It’s got lots of qualities of a romantic comedy in it. It’s six years and three children and lots of family dramas, but in some ways, this was easier rather than more difficult.
How long was your first cut for About Time, and do you have a lot of deleted scenes that could be on the DVD?
CURTIS: Yeah. The first cut was three hours. I had an hour to lose. And there are some things cut that were very precious to me. There was a long sequence when she was pregnant with the first child, which was very autobiographical. They get in the car together once her water has broken, and he doesn’t know the way to the hospital, which was exactly what happened to me with the birth of my second child. My girlfriend shouted at me, “You only have one job!,” and Rachel did that so beautifully. Finally, they got stuck on the crossing at Abbey Road, where there’s always a traffic jam because people are taking photographs, and he rushes out from the car and actually has to pose as one of The Beatles. And then, he time traveled. In the end, we cut the whole of that because the movie was changing its nature and going from the wedding day to the birth of the child, and we were in a different kind of film.
CURTIS: The whole casting process is complicated. We thought she’d say no because she’d done a time travel film. She was the perfect casting for it, but we sent it to her without much hope. Fortunately, she was able to forgive or forget the fact that she had done a time travel film before. There were other actresses who I could imagine getting to the wedding, but going from first glance, all the way through being a mother of three, with that innocence and sweetness, and an innocence and maturity, was quite a combination.
Did you have ideas for actors to play Tim, or were you open to seeing different people through the casting process?
CURTIS: That was genuine old-school casting. I’ve done it three times. I had an endless search for Hugh [Grant]. I did it with Tom Sturridge. For Pirate Radio, we saw everyone of his generation. And with this, I did it again. I tried to see 20 or 30 young actors. Domhnall [Gleeson] was the first one to make it funny. That’s always the tough thing, finding someone who’s got a sense of humor. Then, it turned out that he’d done sketch shows in Ireland and comedy was high on his priority list. He’s got no vanity to him.
How did the scene in the restaurant in the dark come about, and was that something you had to fight to keep in and not have to trim down?
CURTIS: Look, it turned out to be the toughest thing in the film. We didn’t expect it. It was something I had heard about, and I really loved this idea that you might have fallen in love with the girl before you see her. You don’t have to do that zing moment when you cut across a party, and you could actually get to know someone. But, it turned out to be very hard. Me, Rachel, the producer and Domhnall all went and did it, and it was a spooky night. You can’t hear a smile, so you say something you think is funny and it’s greeted with total silence. But, I thought we’d be able to shoot it in very, very, very near darkness. Neither of the actors would be able to see each other and we could re-enact it. That turned out to be impossible because any lighting meant they could see each other completely, and we needed some light. So, we did a sound recording of it. We picked up a few glimpses, which you see in the movie, and then we did a sound recording in the total dark, in a soundstage. Four actors sat in total darkness, re-enacting the scene, over and over again. I think I wrote a three-minute scene, and now it’s one-and-a-half minutes. Since it’s pitch black, it turned out to be the most complicated piece of the process.
You’ve said that this is your last film, as a director, but are you personally convinced that you’re really never going to direct another film? Would you consider doing so, at some point, if you just couldn’t see someone else directing a script that you’ve written?
CURTIS: Well, that’s probably the thing. It is my intention, at the moment. I’m really trying to pay attention to the message of the movie, and go on a walking holiday with Bill [Nighy] instead of walking onto another set with him. At the moment, this movie has gotten me to where I am, in terms of thinking about life. I suppose the truth of the matter is that I’m very happy to write films for other, better directors, like Steven Spielberg or David Yates. But if I did eventually, at some point, write another one of these personal, semi-autobiographical movies, I suppose I would have to direct again. I just can’t foresee it, and I’m not encouraging myself.
Have you written anything since About Time, and are you currently writing anything now?
CURTIS: Yeah, there are actually two projects that I’ve done that are both adaptations. One is an adaptation of a Roald Dahl story, called Esio Trot. Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench are meant to be doing that in the Spring. That’s a TV thing, actually. It’s a delightful event TV thing for the BBC, for either Easter or Christmas. I’ve also written an adaptation of a very interesting book called Trash, which is set in Rio de Janeiro. Stephen Daldry has directed it, and it’s mainly in Portuguese. It’s a Bourne Identity for kids. It’s about three kids who find a wallet on a trash heap and get involved in a great adventure.
I recently spoke to Chiwetel Ejiofor and, when I asked him if there was a genre he’d love the chance to work in more, he said he’d love the opportunity to do another romantic comedy because you’re the only one who’s given him a chance to do so, by casting him in Love Actually. Even though you’ve said you don’t want to direct anymore, could you see yourself writing another role for him, at some point?
CURTIS: That’s a very good question. On the whole, I have to be honest, I try not to write roles for people ‘cause you only get heartbroken when they actually go off and do a Martin Scorsese movie instead. But, that’s a really interesting thought. I’m a great fan of Drake Doremus. I’m sure there are people who, if they came to me and said, “Would you like to work on something together?,” then it might be a temptation that I couldn’t refuse. Who knows? At that very moment, I might be on a trip to a Scottish island and just not free to work.
How did you end up writing the “Vincent and the Doctor” episode of Doctor Who? Was that something you hoped to do and wanted to do for some time, or was that a totally surprising thing that came up?
CURTIS: I know Steven Moffat, who produces it, and he had written me a couple of times. I think it just reached a tipping point. My kids were so keen on the show, and we were going away for the summer and I had an idea. It was this idea of traveling with Vincent van Gogh, which does relate to the movie I finally wrote, in a lot of ways. I thought it was just a lovely idea, so I would work it out with my kids on holiday, and then write it. I didn’t have to produce it or direct it. It wasn’t something I’d intended to do, for years. I just had the right idea, at the right time. I was really thrilled with it. It was fun. It was lovely, being a servant to an established show, rather than on a movie like this where you have to do everything yourself.
About Time is now playing in limited release, and opens nationwide on November 8th.