"About Time," Richard Curtis' new time-travel romance, isn't a perfect time-travel movie. Just ask Richard Curtis.
"I'm sure it's not flawless. I know the mistakes," Curtis, 56, said in an interview with HuffPost Entertainment. "I know where the bones are buried. But I did my best."
His best is more than good enough. Written and directed by Curtis, "About Time" is a charming, big-hearted film about Tim (Domhnall Gleeson), who, at 21, finds out from his father (Bill Nighy) that the men in their family can travel through time. Tim's goal, once he's processed that information: to find the woman of his dreams (as it turns out, she looks an awful lot like co-star Rachel McAdams).
Curtis, the screenwriter of such modern romantic comedy classics as "Four Wedding & A Funeral" and "Notting Hill," and the writer-director of "Love Actually," spoke to HuffPost Entertainment about the inspirations behind "About Time," and why he would hesitate to call his latest feature a romantic comedy.
One of the first things that jumped out to me in "About Time" were the visuals, which hew more toward an indie sensibility. I noticed that John Guleserian, who was the cinematographer on "Like Crazy," shot "About Time." Why did you hire him?
I've had this before with actors. I remember we were trying to cast a part in "Blackadder." We had lots of meetings and we said, "We want someone like Brian Blessed. We want a Brian Blessed type." Someone finally said, "We could ask Brian Blessed?" It was a bit the same with John. I kept saying, "I saw 'Like Crazy' and that was so beautiful. I loved the informality and brightness, so whoever we get, we have to get it to look like 'Like Crazy.'" Someone finally said, "You know, just ask the guy! See if he's around." So I both love the way he made it look, but he also basically did the whole thing with the camera on his shoulder. That meant it was a very relaxed atmosphere on set -- none of the sticks and the tracks and all of that.
Why was that look appealing to you?
I had experience with a much more informal way of shooting on the boat film, "Pirate Radio." I really liked that. I liked that feeling. When I first started making movies, it was this weird thing, like a straightjacket. You would do a wide shot, then a two-shot, then you'd re-light. That was such a killer of atmosphere. You never felt you were getting the whole scene. You always knew that four-fifths of what you did was irrelevant. So I really wanted an informal style with this. I'm not a great visualizer when I write, but this film, perhaps a little bit more, I had a very strong image of the Cornwall place and the beach. I thought long and hard about when Rachel first appears. That was something very important to me. So I've gotten a bit more visual as I've gone along.
Was Rachel cast because you felt like having a big Hollywood actress in that role was necessary?
No, I was more worried, as always, about the quality of the person. I think there are tricky things in this role. She has to go from first date to mother of three, and I could think quite a few people who could get to the wedding, but it's quite harder getting past that part. I love Rachel and always have; I think she should have gotten an Oscar for "The Notebook." It's one of those great tragedies where someone's first performance is a definitive movie performance, and they forget. It's like Ewan McGregor in "Trainspotting" or Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate." She just turned out to be three times as good as I expected.
"The Graduate" and "The Notebook" are films that don't fit into an easy genre classification. Do you consider this film a romantic comedy?
I don't know. When I first wrote "Four Weddings & A Funeral," I definitely didn't think it was a romantic comedy. I thought it was a film like "Diner," "Breaking Away," "Gregory's Girl" -- a kind of semi-autobiographical movie with love in it. On the English poster for "About Time," it says, "A new funny film about love." I'm more comfortable with that, because I don't think "(500) Days of Summer" is a romantic comedy, but it's a great, funny, romantic film about love. I think "Lost in Translation" is a masterpiece that's a funny film about love. I'm more comfy with that idea. I think romantic comedies can get locked into a kind of formula.
The formula here definitely gets tweaked.
I love fooling around with the romantic thing, and I love the fact that the wedding is in the middle of "About Time." I have had a revelation as I have gotten older, which is that my old films were just half the story. I think there's an interesting circular thing here, which is if you have a family, the son or daughter of young lovers leaves, goes off with his or her friends, finds a significant other and gets married. Then they have a family of their own, who starts to take care of their own family. I've seen that the structure of life is family drama, romantic comedy, family drama, romantic comedy, family drama. I'm glad this film does both in one.
Was finding someone to play Domhnall's lead role very difficult?
It was very difficult. It was really impossible to find Hugh, too, when we did "Four Weddings"; he was our 70th person. The problem in this case, which was just circumstantial, was that Domhnall auditioned with his "Anna Karenina" beard. So he walked in like a member of Canned Heat or like he was drifting out of the woods in "Deliverance" with a big knife and a cute looking pig. It was tough. We had a couple of auditions, but then I started to see the man underneath. The key is that he's a lovely actor and he's a very sweet man. That's nice for me, to hire people who have good character. Then also he's got the funny thing. He has done a lot of sketch shows back in Ireland and he loves being funny. He has a nice, stupid sense of humor. That is always the magic combination: to do the jokes as well as doing the heartfelt stuff.
Did his improv background allow you to push the comedy harder on this film than if another actor had played the part?
The great sorrow in my life is that when I audition the films, which I hope are going to be funny, the first 30 people who come in, there's not a joke in sight. You think, "What did I do?" At last, someone comes in and you think, "Oh, right!" Uncle Desmond, that part was a slightly odd part. What kind of person is he? Nobody got it right, then suddenly Richard Cordery came in and he was both immensely touching and also funny.
That character is very touching. I teared up during one of his scenes. Do you try to get that kind of emotional reaction from the audience?
That's been one of the exciting things about the film. For people who are enjoying it, I'll only say that, the emotional churn seems larger than I expected. I think that's interesting to me. I didn't quite realize that the structure would allow for that. I'm delighted that it seems to have real emotional traction.
Why did you decide to make this a time-travel movie?
The story was that I wanted to make something very simple about the idea of relishing a normal day. My first thought was, "Can I make a film about breakfast, lunch and dinner with people you like?" But I couldn't. So I then made this huge machine. I thought about how I could make that observation about ordinary life. I thought I could have a guy who could perfect his life and change everything, but then decide that the thing to do with his skill is nothing at all. It's really an anti-time travel movie.
Did you have any other movies in mind while writing this one?
Not on the whole. I know that when I made "Love Actually," I was aware that I was working in a genre where I really loved Robert Altman's films -- "Nashville," "Short Cuts," "M*A*S*H," which had a strange, piece-meal structure. On this one, though, I wasn't thinking of anything else. Retrospectively, I suddenly realized that "It's A Wonderful Life" is a time-travel movie. He goes back and sees that his ordinary life is, in fact, something to celebrate and take joy in. But I didn't have that in my mind. In fact, I was actually almost trying to make a film about a few songs. Particularly that Ron Sexsmith song, "Gold In Them Hills." I listened to that song all the time. I've always been obsessed with that song. Ben Folds' song "The Luckiest," too, is such a bold statement of saying, "Here I am, I'm in love, and that makes me the luckiest man in the world." "Mid Air," by Paul Buchanan, is the song that happens when Rachel's character walks out. I played that for Rachel every time she stepped out. I said, "If you're not as good as the song, we'll have to keep retaking this shot."
Was there any song you couldn't get?
No, but there's a Nick Cave song, "Into My Arms," in the film. Bill says, "I wanted that Nick Cave song." I've got takes, though, where he says, "I wanted that Stevie Wonder song" or "I wanted that Crowded House song" or even "I wanted that song," [just to be careful]. Sometimes there are songs that inspire me, but you can't fit them in. There's a song called "Downtown Train" by Tom Waits, and a particular recording by Everything The Girl. The whole of "Notting Hill" was written listening to that song, but it's an American song and, lyrically, it didn't fit in.
You mentioned "Love Actually" before, and you end "About Time" with shots of real people in a way that recalls the finale of "Love Actually." Why do you like doing that?
It is nice to pull back into real life. I suppose when you're writing about something very simple and ordinary, that there is love everywhere in the world and that love can be delightful, I think it is a sweet idea to prove it. I both feel guilty and pleased that I've done the same thing twice.