Delight, Actually: How I came to ask Richard Curtis a question that’s been bugging me for ages

There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask Richard Curtis, BFF of Rowan Atkinson and one of the most successful writer-director-producers in modern cinema. So when he swung by the New York Film Festival this month for an HBO Films Director’s Dialogues session, I thought it might be my chance.

Curtis is unabashedly into romance and comedy. Not every film has to be a searingly realistic bummer-fest (more on Michael Haneke below!). He peddles in delight, which I like to peddle in, too, but I have a love-hate relationship with his work:

  • Blackadder – obviously love, actually.
  • The Boat That Rocked – love Bill Nighy and Emma Thompson.
  • Notting Hill – love Rhys Ifans and Hugh Bonneville and Emma Chambers.
  • Four Weddings And a Funeral – love [sobs, tears, snotty crying, poetry!and hate [“Is it still raining? I hadn’t noticed” – barf]. And, as an asthmatic, devastated over the untimely death of Charlotte Coleman, who played Hugh Grant’s character’s flatmate.
  • Love Actually – love to hate, because it’s always rankled that the leading men get their subordinates ladies – the Parliamentary housekeeper, the Portuguese housekeeper, the supermodel (note the occupations), the quartet of sexpot Americans including Betty Draper. Bill Nighy gets his “chubby employee”; even Egg from This Life gets a kiss from the woman he loves but can’t have. Meanwhile the leading ladies, so devastatingly well-played by Laura Linney and Emma Thompson, get… fucked over. The mentally-ill brother who apparently drives hot Spanish men away (I just don’t believe that plot), and cheaty Alan Rickman. Ordinarily I’d be happy with Alan Rickman, but not when he’s a cheating cheater (his mistress? A secretary. Hmmm.).
"You've also made a fool out of me."

“Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse, or would you cut and run?”

Waaaaghhhhh. Why life so hard for ladies, whyyyyyy?

Why do the men get to be Prime Ministers and Managing Directors and Writers and Rock Stars? Why is the most egalitarian and affecting partnership the one between the porn film body-doubles? I know, I know, creative irony, blah blah. Not all stories can end happily, but the gender lines in this one feel particularly sharply drawn.

Statistically speaking it’s still highly likely in this world that men with more-important jobs will fall in love with women in less-important jobs (even though cleaning is as important a job as being a rock star), but I doubt that Richard Curtis was using Love, Actually to make a point about the glass ceiling via the romantic dalliances of a bunch of straight, mostly-whites in DisneyLondon.

It’s always bugged me. No matter how addictive Love, Actually is, and it is distractingly addictive around Christmastime, I’m inevitably left with a sour taste come Boxing Day.

Loads of other writers have sounded off about the film’s shallowness, its misogyny. Salon staff writer Mary Elizabeth Williams, calling it “the worst Christmas movie ever“, even noticed a weird pattern where the men in the film seem incapable of boiling their own jugs: “They call crap like this a ‘chick flick’. I’ve seen less depressing Michael Haneke movies.”

I won’t even start on the madonna/whore stuff embedded in the female characters who manage to come off well, nor the veneer of stupidity painted across most of the male characters, disguised as English cuteness.

I would never have imagined that I’d, actually, get to ask Mr Curtis about why the older women get such a rough ride in the film, but the intimacy of the HBO Films Directors Dialogue made it possible, so I did.

Stay tuned for the answer. 

But first… Richard Curtis kindly revealed some of his writing and producing tips which, given his successes, are worth studying. So here goes:

On Keeping Control

Curtis considers himself “the luckiest person in the history of the movies”, because he has had absolute control over what he makes ever since an early mishap involving an American studio and a story he only half-believed-in, after which he swore to “only write about my street” and maintain overlord status on his projects.

For Four Weddings and a Funeral, he was there on “every day” of the casting, the shoot and the edit.

His reasoning is that if you don’t oversee every part, it’s possible that something in one department could be 5% off, then the same in another department, and another. “If you go 5% off [in every department] you very soon are making the wrong film… The whole point of my career has been about keeping control, no matter how difficult it is.”

(That’s not to say that he is always right. Hugh Grant was not Curtis’ first pick for Four Weddings and a Funeral, “because he was too good looking, too posh… everyone would hate him.” Luckily for Hugh, fellow perfectionist Mike Newell was also on the job.) 

On Inspiration

Music seems to be Curtis’ main muse (though “regret” was a theme discussed at length during this talk, too – the writing-out of things not done, or not said, in real life). “I’ve always thought of my films as quite close to pop music,” steeped in “all those extraordinary British pop songs… pop songs that say ‘I love you’ a lot”.

His main inspiration was, “still is”, television and cinema. His inspirations for Four Weddings and a Funeral? Other movies: Diner, Breaking Away, Gregory’s Girl, Annie Hall and Manhattan. 

Favourite books? “I’m not very good on books,” he said. “I don’t like Shakespeare’s comedies”. There is one that always gets the Curtis love, however: “Monty Python’s Big Red Book is the funniest book ever written.”

On Writing

  • Curtis writes 30 pages per day. He keeps about a quarter of a page of usable stuff and considers this “a triumph” (rather than seeing the other 29-and-three-quarters-full pages as a failure).
  • He never leaves an empty page at the end of the day, trying always to leave a kernel to start on the next day.
  • He listens to a lot of music while he writes. He based the whole feel of Notting Hill around one song: Everything But The Girl’s version of Tom Waits’ Downtown Train. 
  • If he’s stuck, he’ll crack into a writing exercise. For example, he’ll number a page from 1 to 5, and have “five goes at five different things”, imagining different scenarios for his characters, or within a scene.
  • His real-life partner Emma Freud is also his script partner. They work closely and constantly. She reads everything he writes and rewrites, making suggestions and mysterious notes (“NQR” is the kindest short-hand she has – it means “not quite right”).
  • “I write fast. I write at it.” He will write pages and pages of dialogue between two characters, writing everything they might say over dinner, knowing that “none of it’s gonna be in the movie”, but that it helps him to find out who they are.
  • “I would never write a treatment, and I don’t think anyone ever should.”

In Which I Ask The Question

One of Curtis and Freud’s daughters is obsessed with “delight” on television and in the cinema: “She loves things that make you feel happy and fulfilled. I see my whole career as an effort to put on screen something as delightful as when it’s 10.30 at night and you’re with your five best friends, you’ve had two glasses of wine and you’re laughing at and with each other.”

I’m with his daughter. Delight is a great creative motivation. (It’s why I play in a ukulele orchestra!). With Love, Actually, he “wanted to do a film that was ecstatic”, where you’d only have the very best scenes from ten possible different films, mashed together into a giddy snog-fest wrapped around a bastardised version of a Wet Wet Wet song.

So why, I asked, given his preoccupation with such themes as Delight and Romantic Satisfaction and Love’s Omnipresence, did he give all of his leading men happy endings, sometimes improbably so  – the Prime Minister and the POTUS fighting over the same woman?!! – but his two over-30 female leads are doomed to loneliness or sticking-together-for-the-children?

(Emma Thompson’s single word, “home”, in that final scene… just, gah. Cut and run, Emma!)

Tonally, there are things we come to expect from romantic comedy. It’s a contract with the audience. Obviously the general theme is “love in all its guises”, which means some unhappy endings, but I wanted to know if it was intentional, if there was a reason for giving the leading, older, less, um, perky women the tougher fates? On a performance level, Emma Thompson’s wordless scene while the Joni Mitchell CD plays is wrist-slashingly wonderful, but is it worth the price women pay in the rest of the film?

[My own brain is butting in here to remind me that this is something I spend probably two minutes a year thinking about – it’s just a movie, after all. And yet, as another December approaches, I’m also thinking about what goes on high-rotate on the telly for the month, and the subtle and the overt messages we’re fed during the silly season – and year-round – and, because it’s currently news in New Zealand, men in powerful positions and the bad behaviour of a few of them towards the women who work for/near/around them.]

So! The good news: I asked, and, as A.O. Scott predicted, it was unintentional.

Curtis frowned and let out a sweetly pained “awwwww” and both he and Emma Freud (who was in the room) vigorously shook their heads. He seemed momentarily confused, and genuinely surprised, growing wide-eyed as I went down the list of characters. At first, he responded with something along the lines of why don’t you look at it from the point of view of the Portuguese housekeeper getting Colin Firth, or Claudia Schiffer getting Liam Neeson? – but quickly recognised that the question is about the leading characters, those whom we have come to identify with and see the world through.

At which point, he simply, and in very Hugh Grant bemused style, offered this: “I’ll just apologise unreservedly!” adding that his daughter is currently furious with him about his latest film, About Time, because only the men in it get to time travel. Ah yes, that old sexist metaphysical bug-bear.

I appreciated his candour, and I was somewhat relieved to learn that it was an accident, even if it’s not a happy accident.

The not-so-good news: Why wasn’t it something they noticed in the multiple script drafts, and then in the casting, and the costuming, and the shoot and the edit?

First of all, privilege and all that, I guess. What you don’t notice, you don’t notice. “Is it something I should notice?” Curtis mused, rhetorically.

Secondly, thinking about the audience is a marketer’s job, not a creative’s. (Witness: Man Booker Prizewinner Eleanor Catton’s awesome props to her publishers for keeping questions of value and worth wide-apart.) If a scriptwriter has to stop and think “what would the over-30 female demographic think about this?” every five minutes, it would be a better film incredibly distracting and anti-creative. I can see that.

Often, too, it’s not until something’s released from its creative bubble (the writer’s room, the edit suite, the studio, wherever) and seen through other eyes that some things become completely obvious to pesky critics and audience members who read more into things than were there to start with. We artists have probably all experienced that to varying degrees.

Credit where credit’s due, though: Curtis admitted to Love, Actually being “tonally uneven”, singling out Colin “and he’s got a biiiiiig knob” Frissell’s preposterous subplot – “I don’t see how it fits!”. Neither do I. (The subplot, not the knob.)

So why did that story make the cut, while the incredibly touching tale of the headmistress and her Geraldine didn’t?

(A pause, while you watch and sob.)

Mind you, had that lovely story remained, it would have been yet one more heartbreaking ending for (older) women, albeit without a bloke involved.

Ah well. At least I got my question answered. As Grimes from The Walking Dead says at the end of his stalky Keira Knightley subplot:

“Enough. Enough.”

Richard Curtis, NYC, October 2013

Richard Curtis, NYC, October 2013

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3 Responses to “Delight, Actually: How I came to ask Richard Curtis a question that’s been bugging me for ages”

  1. Shaula Evans

    Great article, toomuchpersonality, and thank you for asking Richard Curtis the question.

    I will disagree with you, respectfully, on one small point. You wrote:

    > If a scriptwriter has to stop and think “what would the over-30 female demographic think about this?” every five minutes, it would be a better film incredibly distracting and anti-creative. I can see that.

    The edited version of the comment seems to be underpinned by some funny assumptions: either that “scriptwriter” and “the over-30 female demographic” are mutually exclusive categories (I assure you they’re not!); or that an incredibly large, important (whether it’s valued by the film industry or not), and discretionary-income spending demographic isn’t worth the bother to think about (at a rational business level, it is); or that screenwriters can’t be both creative, aware of the world around them (I find that an awareness that women are humans gets labelled “feminist” but I’d rather term it “non-myopic”), and business-savvy (when some, at least, most assuredly can).

    With all due respect to Mr. Curtis: yes, it’s something you should notice.

    If it is so incredibly difficult for some people to write women, or people of colour, or Muslims as three dimensional human beings (to pick three examples out of a potential many), perhaps screenwriting is an occupation they’re not well-suited to; or, at the very least, perhaps they should engage the services of a script editor who can see beyond the privilege bubble that’s causing their myopia.

    Go back to the version without the strikeout. I’d like to see “a better film”, too.

    And thank you again.

    Reply

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