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 wouldn’t 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 they’re just right? Handed the power of time travel in About Time, the new film from Love Actually writer-director Richard Curtis, Domhnall Gleeson’s 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 McAdams’ Mary) when it’s clear she’s the one.
The surprise in About Time, though, is that it’s not really a romantic comedy at all but a story about family, specifically Tim’s 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 that’s 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, that’s what he knows well.
Curtis’s humanism and insistence on telling stories about good people makes him a rarity in Hollywood, and one we’ll be missing soon-- Curtis says he’s 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 he’s still in the limelight, asking about those pesky time-travel rules, the movie’s 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.
There’s 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. It’s 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 don’t know. I think it’s a simple one. I think it’s 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, you’d probably close your eyes and go. It’s probably the best you could do and think of it, and I didn’t 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 wasn’t worth doing.
That’s 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 I’d been to 70 weddings. Notting Hill was very much, was a dream fulfillment thing driving as a bachelor to my friend’s house, as I did every Friday, thinking wouldn’t 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 didn’t want to, if we could have one day, we didn’t want to go to Las Vegas and win a million pounds or get a phone call saying we’d won an Oscar. All of those things would be tense and nerve-wracking. You’d be with strangers and be excited. Really, the day we were having was the best day possible, but both of us realized we weren’t 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 I’m most proud of is the line when Bill Nighy says, "I’ve 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, I’ll 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 doesn’t seem like he’s aging double for that. Does that not count against the aging?
I didn’t think about the aging part.
That’s fine. There’s only so many things you can actually account for.
And you do, wow, it’s exhausting doing a time travel movie, because when you get to production, you know, who’s in what room when at what stage, what have they said, what is playing. All of that is complicated and all of the people you’re 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, that’s the thing. I really didn’t 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 I’d never seen Roman Holiday, and when I was doing Love Actually, I didn’t go back and watch the Robert Altman movies I had thought of. So, it didn’t really occur to me, but now I’ve finished, the one I’m interested in, oddly enough, is It’s a Wonderful Life, which I suddenly realized is a sort of time travel movie about the quality of the every day and that’s always been one of my favorite films. But I didn’t think about Looper which I loved, or Groundhog Day or Christmas Carol, which is a sort of time travel movie.
Have you seen Primer? That’s the kind of the ultimate complicated one.
I did, yeah. It’s really hard to watch.
It’s really hard to watch and it’s also not the everyday, not the genre.
Although, I think what was interesting Primer about how mundane it was.
It’s 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 can’t 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.