About Time Director Richard Curtis: 'It's Exhausting Doing A Time Travel Movie'
Time travel and romantic comedy are genres that really ought to come together more often. If you have the power to travel back into your past and change what happened to you, why wouldnít you do it to arrange a meet-cute with the perfect girl, or avoid that fight you regret, or even tweak your wedding day toasts until theyíre just right? Handed the power of time travel in About Time, the new film from Love Actually writer-director Richard Curtis, Domhnall Gleesonís character Tim fixates on just one thing: girls. How to woo them, how to stay with them, and eventually how to create a perfect life with one of them (Rachel McAdamsí Mary) when itís clear sheís the one.
The surprise in About Time, though, is that itís not really a romantic comedy at all but a story about family, specifically Timís father played by Bill Nighy, who also has the power of time travel and who helps guide his son through this fantastical new skill. How Dad has used his own powers, and to what ends, is a reveal thatís part of the emotional wallop in About Time, in which Curtis steps back to remind Tim and the audience of what he calls "the extraordinary nature of our ordinary lives." When I spoke to Curtis in New York a few weeks ago and asked him about hammering out time travel rules or which time travel films he was inspired be, he demurred; the idea that inspired About Time was a big one about life, not sci-fi, and he told it through romantic relationships because, as the writer of Notting Hill and Four Weddings And A Funeral, thatís what he knows well.
Curtisís humanism and insistence on telling stories about good people makes him a rarity in Hollywood, and one weíll be missing soon-- Curtis says heís retiring to focus on "more stuff like learning how to actually cook." Whether or not he actually sticks with it remains to be seen, but I was glad to snag some time with him while heís still in the limelight, asking about those pesky time-travel rules, the movieís surprising evolution into a family drama, his experience working with Steven Spielberg on War Horse and an anecdote about Steven Soderbergh that proves why both he and Curtis are really too valuable to be retiring on us like that. Check out our conversation below, and see About Time in theaters this weekend.
Thereís a million different rules for time travel in movies. It does seem like kind of a basic wish fulfillment in this one, where you get to go back. Itís kind of like what you imagine for yourself, like oh if I could time travel, this is exactly what I would do. Is there where it came from for you, kind of the idea of the fantasy version of time travel?
Well, I donít know. I think itís a simple one. I think itís a simple one and sort of the least sci-fi one you could imagine and you know, everything I did was trying not to get any fancier than that, in that I think if I said to you now, travel back to last week, youíd probably close your eyes and go. Itís probably the best you could do and think of it, and I didnít take it much further than that. This is sort of an anti-time travel movie, as you can see, and the time travel was not my first thought in the movie. My first thought was the idea of how do you make a film about the extraordinary nature of our ordinary lives and that seemed a simple but complicated thing to write a whole film about. Then I thought, oh, I know, the way that I can do it is by giving somebody a choice, that they can choose any day, choose any kind of life, go back and change everything and they might well decide that it wasnít worth doing.
Thatís a really broad idea to start with. Do you always start your films from big ideas like that?
In this case I did. I mean, in Four Weddings, I started by thinking Iíd been to 70 weddings. Notting Hill was very much, was a dream fulfillment thing driving as a bachelor to my friendís house, as I did every Friday, thinking wouldnít it be great if I arrived with Madonna or Lady Diana and then I tried to guess how my friends would react. This one did start from a more philosophical place. I remember, I had this lunch with a friend and we talked about out lives. We both said, we didnít want to, if we could have one day, we didnít want to go to Las Vegas and win a million pounds or get a phone call saying weíd won an Oscar. All of those things would be tense and nerve-wracking. Youíd be with strangers and be excited. Really, the day we were having was the best day possible, but both of us realized we werenít very happy, so I thought, that really is an interesting subject, a big interesting subject, and so I came up with this odd film to write about.
When you settled on the time travel, how much time did you spend kind of hammering out the details? Did you hammer that out for yourself and figure out what to include in it?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, I knew that I wanted it to be within his own life and I knew that I wanted it to be to do with love and then I thought well I was going to look at those issues. The line in the film Iím most proud of is the line when Bill Nighy says, "Iíve never met a genuinely happy rich person," because I did spend about a month thinking, would he put money on horses, would he win, would he get lots of money. Then I thought, Iíll just leave the whole money thing out and just do the love thing.
How does aging work with this time travel? Because if Bill Nighy is living every single day twice, it doesnít seem like heís aging double for that. Does that not count against the aging?
I didnít think about the aging part.
Thatís fine. Thereís only so many things you can actually account for.
And you do, wow, itís exhausting doing a time travel movie, because when you get to production, you know, whoís in what room when at what stage, what have they said, what is playing. All of that is complicated and all of the people youíre working with take it very seriously.
Did you use any other films from the genre as references for time travel?
Not really, no.
Are you a fan of it in general?
I turn out to be a fan of quite a lot of, thatís the thing. I really didnít think about it. In the same way as, I remember when Julia read Notting Hill, her agent saying, you must have watched Roman Holiday a bunch of times, and Iíd never seen Roman Holiday, and when I was doing Love Actually, I didnít go back and watch the Robert Altman movies I had thought of. So, it didnít really occur to me, but now Iíve finished, the one Iím interested in, oddly enough, is Itís a Wonderful Life, which I suddenly realized is a sort of time travel movie about the quality of the every day and thatís always been one of my favorite films. But I didnít think about Looper which I loved, or Groundhog Day or Christmas Carol, which is a sort of time travel movie.
Have you seen Primer? Thatís the kind of the ultimate complicated one.
I did, yeah. Itís really hard to watch.
Itís really hard to watch and itís also not the everyday, not the genre.
Although, I think what was interesting Primer about how mundane it was.
Itís true, because they made it for like ten thousand dollars.
And they made it in a garage and stuff like that. I mean, I did look at Primer because I canít remember, maybe because I did a Doctor Who episode, which is about time travel, but I remember being interested in the mundanity of it. It felt real.
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