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Unraveling the romantic spacetime continuum of Richard Curtis

The Yesterday and Love Actually writer was close friends with Douglas Adams, and it shows

a white woman and an Indian man outside at night looking upward
Ellie (Lily James) and Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) in Yesterday.
Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

Richard Curtis is the leading expert in pulling heartstrings, delivering warm and fuzzy laughs, and converting sap into a truly sweet substance. The 62-year-old screenwriter is best known for rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Love Actually. His new film, Yesterday, which finds Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) achieving his musical dreams at the sacrifice of a relationship with Ellie (Lily James), fits squarely alongside them.

The twist is that Jack’s skyrocketing career is the result of an galactic anomaly with global EMP effects. The event also wipes out random inventions of Earth’s cultural history, including the entire Beatles discography, granting Jack the chance to swoop in and play “Let It Be,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” and “Yesterday” as if they were his own.

Scrutinize Curtis’ long career, and the sci-fi premise doesn’t seem that out of whack with his whimsical sensibility. He also wrote the time travel romance About Time and the era-jumping reincarnation comedy Blackadder, and is known for temporal playfulness (looking at you, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). As Yesterday arrives in theaters, Polygon asked Curtis to reflect on his sci-fi curiosities, which just so happen to tie back to one of the genre’s greatest authors.

Polygon: How are you, Richard Curtis?

Richard Curtis: All right, thank you. I’ve got a cup of tea. I’ve got four squares of chocolate. I’m sitting in Liverpool.

So how did you become enamored by the spacetime continuum?

I certainly am a great enthusiast! [Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy author] Douglas Adams was one of my closest friends. I’ve always thought that there was enormous range being funny in that area, and I’m a huge fan of certain sci-fi stuff as well, which I always find meaningful. I’m just realizing I did an episode of Doctor Who a few years ago, and a time travel movie, and then this, and I think I’ve just realized that it’s a great way of making a big, bold move and then pulling back from that to be realistic and quite small because that concept is so big. I think that’s what I love in this movie: that we’ve got a whopping great idea in the middle of it, which means that you can then tell quite a delicate, little love story and the context of it, instead of saying, “Oh, I need to make this love story bigger in order to make it a big film.” It’s quite a surprise to me that the last two movies have had a sci-fi element.

Did you struggle with making tinier love stories bigger for the sake of the movie business?

If you look at the journey from Four Weddings [and a Funeral] to Julia Roberts in Notting Hill and then, “Oh, come on, let’s just tell 10 stories in Love Actually,” you can see a kind of impatience and desire to make things bigger. I think you’re always aiming in your work — or I was — for a measure of joy and ecstasy. How can we give people a really rich experience? That’s what I wanted to do. And I think that’s connected back to the Beatles in my whole life. My first introduction to music, really, were these people who made this music that actually made you feel happy and made you feel as though the world is a wonderful place. And I’ve got a feeling somewhere in my bones that that’s what I’ve always tried to do.

an Indian man holding a guitar adjusts his microphone on stage with a big screen of himself behind him
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in Yesterday.
Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

To jump back: How did you befriend Douglas Adams?

It’s strange, and everything that has to do with Douglas makes me a bit sad now. He was at Cambridge with a lot of the people I knew, and I was at Oxford, but we’d never met. And then about five years after I left university, I was asked to write a film in America, and I went out there and I was having a terrible, terrible time. It was very lonely. So someone said to me, “Ring Douglas, because he’s living out there.” So I rang Douglas and I said, “You don’t know me, but it’d be lovely to have lunch.” And I had lunch with Douglas, then moved into his house. The first time I met him, I stayed with him for two months because he was such a sweet boy. He could see how unhappy I was and he just said, “Look, just come and stay with us, and Jane [Belson, Adams’ wife,] and I will take care of you.” And so we were very close friends after that.

What film were you writing at the time? You basically had your own Jack Malik moment.

I was writing a movie called Four Eyes and Fat Thighs, which never got made. And he was writing the film of Hitchhiker’s, and his version never got made.

Did you ever think of adapting Douglas’ work?

No [...] he would have criticized it. [laughs] It’s a really tough format. In a way, I’m going for that, but not with anything like that energy. Douglas would have loved Guardians of the Galaxy. He would have been very interested in how that movie succeeds in being really proper sci-fi and action, but really funny.

As you were writing, how far did you lean into the thought experiment of, “What if the Beatles didn’t exist?” The paranormal event that zaps them out of existence also removes Coke and cigarettes from history, but we only see a few instances how the lack of the Beatles’ influence impacts culture.

There’s a limit to how much you can deal with in a film. There is a version of this film where the world is much more drab. The Beatles really did revolutionize social structure. Before the Beatles, everything was about respect. The prime minister was always a 60-year-old man. We were obsessed with the First and Second World War. It was a place where you knew your place and you respected age and culture. The Beatles said that, actually, young people are more interesting, and we’ve all got a right to really enjoy our lives. We don’t have to go on in a world of rations and worry. I think it’s the same sort of galvanizing effect that Elvis had on the U.S.

Also, that it’s possible to be funny as well. Musicians can be funny! Which was really quite an unusual thought. Musicians normally had to pretend that they were deep. So I could have done a very complicated piece of sci-fi where you notice that one of the streets was more crowded because there was no cancer, but everybody was still more boringly dressed, but we didn’t do that. What we just did was leave that one fact and everything else was unchanged because it wasn’t that kind of film. Because it was this huge idea, the thing I most wanted to do was keep everything ultra-realistic.

Danny Boyle, screenwriter Richard Curtis, Himesh Patel and Lily James (front, seated) on the set of Yesterday
Danny Boyle, screenwriter Richard Curtis, Himesh Patel, and Lily James (front, seated) on the set of Yesterday.
Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures

We’re in a moment where creators like J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele dangle clues and answerable mysteries in front of the audience, but Yesterday stands in contrast because we’re not sure what the hell happened the night the Beatles disappeared. But do you have the answers?

It’s funny you say that. I’ve always felt that you don’t have to explain much. In Four Weddings and a Funeral, there was a scene in that, because people complained a bit in that movie that nobody had jobs, as it were, and we didn’t know how they’d all met. I had written a scene, which was in the back of the car, in which Hugh Grant explained everything to Andie MacDowell. “I was at university with this person.” “She came to a party at my house.” “She never moved out.” I just decided it was unnecessary. Life doesn’t come at you with an explanation! When you meet someone, you don’t turn to them and ask, “How old are you? How many children do you have? Where were you born?” We’re just having a conversation. So I think that sometimes it’s more fun to just charge on and not spend time explaining. So I sort of know what happened. I’m unclear about how the records actually disappeared, the physical objects. That does seem strange.

I could explain it more than I do in the movie. I’m sort of thinking the reason why he wasn’t affected by it was because he was unconscious at that moment. Whatever happened in outer space, everyone else with brains was awake and they got removed, whereas his brain was asleep and therefore you couldn’t delete something from it.

You had a hand in the story for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which weaves through the spacetime continuum in its own way. How did that happen, and can we expect a third movie?

It’s such a sweet story. I’ll await the call, but I don’t know that anyone is thinking about a third part. And I think it might be getting a bit lean on songs, even though I know that Benny [Andersson] and Björn [Ulvaeus] have written a couple of new ABBA songs, which would be exciting.

So [Mamma Mia 2]: I was asked to write Mamma Mia! the stage show 25 years ago, but I was probably doing Notting Hill at the time, so thank God I didn’t do it, because the stage show was brilliant, and it’s such a sort of utterly lateral story. Who would’ve thought of that story? Then the movie came out and I had nothing to do with it.

Literally nine years later, Judy [Craymer, the producer,] rang me up and said, “I know you love ABBA, and we’ve just been having trouble developing a story for the second one, will you think about it for a day? Will you have two baths and a shower? Just as a personal favor.” And I was in town with my daughter, and I got back in the car and said to her, “Mamma Mia 2, what do you think?” She said, “It’s obvious.” I said, “It can’t be that obvious. It’s been nine years.” And she said, “It’s Godfather II. You go back to the summer, you cast young pretty people. Then in the end she gets pregnant and Amanda Seyfried gets pregnant, so you have the circularity of females running the world.” That literally was her reply to my question in the car, so I rang Universal that night and said, “I’ve had a great idea!” I didn’t mention my daughter. [Screenwriter] Ol Parker is my daughter’s closest adult friend, and then Ol and I gathered together for a weekend and worked out the cards. But it was from an idea by Scarlett Curtis, age 21.

Hear Richard Curtis’ thoughts on the more spoilery parts of Yesterday later this week.