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How the director and writer of Yesterday pulled off the big ‘cameo’

Technically Paul McCartney, John Lennon, and the rest exist in this universe, so...

Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

After the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of Yesterday, the new musical rom-com that imagines a world where Beatlesmania never happened, director Danny Boyle took the stage to react to that moment.

[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Yesterday]

“This is what movies can do,” he said, explaining why he resurrected John Lennon as an 78-year-old man who speaks words of wisdom to the protagonist Jack Malick (Hamish Patel).

The premise was sitting on the table: after an intergalactic energy blast tweaks the history of culture and invention ever so slightly, Jack is suddenly one of the few people on the planet who remembers the Beatles discography. Songs like “Let It Be,” “Help!,” and “Hey Jude” never existed — but, in theory, the people who wrote them did. Yesterday clears up any confusion by introducing us to an aged Lennon, who never became one of the most famous voices on the planet, whose words of peace and love were never spread across every paper and TV set on the planet, and who was never assassinated by Mark Chapman at the Dakota Hotel in 1980.

Jack’s beachside conversation with Lennon sucks the air out of the room, a powerful use of special effects and makeup, but one on the edge of sacrilege. Boyle explained that his team appealed to Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono, who whole-heartedly approved of the scene. Though unlisted in the credits, Trainspotting actor Robert Carlyle was enlisted to bring the late musician back to life.

“Yesterday” Closing Night Gala Film - 2019 Tribeca Film Festival
Richard Curtis, Danny Boyle and Himesh Patel at the Tribeca premiere of Yesterday
Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Boyle knew the power of his only-possible-in-the-movies image. According to Patel, who spilled a few details at a BAFTA screening shortly before release, the director didn’t let his star see Carlyle in full makeup until he showed up to set. He knew that his character Jack was about to converse with John Lennon, but he didn’t know just how much it would feel like actually conversing with John Lennon.

Dressing Carlyle up like Lennon was only half the challenge. Yesterday’s alt-universe version had to live up the real-life icon. Eighty-year-old Lennon had to exude Lennon, and feel spiritually connected to the man’s history of interview quotes, lyrics, poetic thought. The stakes weren’t lost on writer Richard Curtis.

“Writing is very rarely magical or surprising,” Curtis told Polygon, “but we do all know John Lennon pretty well in our hearts and minds. So as I approached the scene, I just wrote, which I always do, a conversation.”

Curtis, known for rom-coms like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love, Actually, and more historical fare like War Horse, says his initial drafts of conversational scenes often run 30 pages long. Yesterday’s big moment was no different, and a knowledge and love for the Beatles helped the words pour out of him. Curtis admits it would have been a lot tougher for him to write for Napoleon than Lennon, who he knew unlike any other celebrity.

“I found it was quite easy to imagine what John would it have been like. I’m not saying it’s accurate, but we all read lots of interviews with him and his humor is very clear. What I did was just write and write. What have you done? What’s it going? How successful are you? Him teasing about Malick’s success and everything like that. It was hard to decide which bits to keep but, oddly enough, not that hard to imagine how John might talk.”

Yesterday celebrates the Beatles’ impact on culture. But while Boyle wanted to laud Lennon by bringing him back to life on screen, it’s the message he gives Jack that resonates most with the director. Lennon guides the fresh-faced mega-star back to what really matters: love, life, balance. Malick used the music of the Beatles to make his dreams come true, but in the end, his life made the most sense when connected to Ellie (Lily James) and teaching school kids music.

“The real guardians of a nation are its teachers,” Boyle said after the Tribeca premiere. “Teachers pass on the soul of a nation.”