Richard Curtis, the Typhoid Mary of incurable romantics, is not surprised that even though it is 9 a.m. on a weekday, Strawberry Fields, the memorial to John Lennon in New York City’s Central Park, is crowded. And he’s not bothered that the obligatory rumpled guitar-playing guy is doggedly torturing the Beatles’ oeuvre for tips. It would be hypocritical of the writer of the romantic-comedy classics Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones’s Diary to deny tourists–or guitarists–whatever emotional fantasy sustains them.
Curtis has never been to Strawberry Fields before, even though he’s a Beatles superfan. In 1963, when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” came out, he was a 7-year-old New Zealand–born Brit living in Sweden. His parents had the same records every grownup in those days had–one copy of My Fair Lady and two of The Sound of Music. But he had older sisters. And he had teenage babysitters. So when the Fab Four exploded, he was on the front line and his hungry ears took the full force of the blow. The day The White Album was released, he got up three hours early to sit on the radiator to simulate a fever so he could stay in bed and listen to its songs on the radio. He has even met two real Beatles: George and Paul.
Having stepped away from full-blown feature movies for a few years–he endured some box-office underperformers (Pirate Radio) and criticism for an out-of-date portrayal of Britain–Curtis, 62, is back with a movie that doubles down on the nostalgia. Yesterday, out June 28, is an uncomplicated work of wish fulfillment about Jack (Himesh Patel), a down-on-his-luck singer, and his best friend and manager, Ellie (Lily James), who he can’t tell is in love with him. It’s all amusingly shambolic until, after a momentary global blackout, everybody except Jack forgets every Beatles song. He gets to introduce some of the world’s most pure and polished pop confections as if he had written them.
“I’ve always felt that what I was trying to do as a writer was to feel like the Beatles in trying to bring people joy,” Curtis says. “Even when you’re dealing with serious things, try and do it in a way which had a joyful context. I wanted to write films that had the same effect on people as listening to a moderately good Beatles song.”
Even a moderately good Beatles song is an immodest target, but Curtis has shot close. The slew of hit films he wrote in the ’90s and early 2000s, some of which he also directed, have that Lennon-McCartney-ish effortlessness that only comes from a miniaturist’s attention to detail and a perfect pitch for the notes people want their love stories to hit.
Yesterday also has a charming premise, and Curtis is up front about the fact that the idea wasn’t his. One of his former collaborators called him and asked if he wanted to read a screenplay along those lines, and Curtis told him, no, he’d rather write it. (The idea’s originator, Jack Barth, gets a story credit.)
But as with a Beatles song, what appears on the surface to be a glib rendition of some well-worn themes actually touches on quite profound insights. How much of the creative process is simply a remixing of past influences and current collaborators? Should one person get the credit for any work of art? Are all artists to some extent impostors?
Curtis, for one, says he’s haunted “every day” by impostor syndrome, the belief that you are going to be uncovered as a fraud despite your apparent success. He feels it less when making a film–although he tussled a little in the editing room with Yesterday’s director, Danny Boyle, over what would make people laugh–and more when wearing his other hat, or maybe Red Nose, as a philanthropist. “I was speaking at Google’s Zeitgeist about the Sustainable Development Goals yesterday,” he says. “And I was thinking, Wait a minute …” Not many people go from movie publicity interviews to meetings about how to achieve the U.N.’s antipoverty targets; Curtis is possibly the only human who can discuss the meet-cute as knowledgeably as he can malaria.
Comic Relief, the philanthropic organization he co-founded in 1985, has raised more than a billion dollars, largely by getting famous people to do silly things regularly and regular people to wear clown noses one day a year. Its techniques have come in for some celebrity-white-savior-complex-style criticism recently, but Curtis remains upbeat. “I’m a great believer that if you open the door, if you create another opportunity for people to be kind and generous, astonishing things happen,” he says.
He wants to extend his fundraising beyond the U.K. and the U.S. and is knee-deep in schemes to create some noise around the year 2020, because it will be a third of the way into the U.N.’s 15-year plan to bring more peace and prosperity to the planet by 2030. “We’re going to do a big concert,” he says. “We’re going to do a big sort of moving work of art across Europe.” People who think it’s optimistic to believe folks will care about impoverished countries in these turbulent times should recall that Curtis got audiences to believe Julia Roberts would marry the owner of a travel bookstore.
Interestingly, the instigator of so many iconic movie weddings is not technically married, although he and his girlfriend of 28 years, Emma Freud, have four children together. She’s also his story editor. He gave her the screenplay for Yesterday just before Christmas 2017. She told him it was perfect, right up until Jan. 3, 2018, when she said it needed to be rewritten. Apparently, one benefit of having a partner who is Sigmund Freud’s great-granddaughter is that you get to have an anxiety-free New Year’s Eve.
Curtis’ other main collaborator, Hugh Grant–whose portrayals of whip-smart but slightly useless dreamers who seemed a lot like Curtis were a mainstay of some golden years in romantic comedy–has finally moved on. (He will still show up, however, for Comic Relief initiatives, notes Curtis. “There’s quite a lot of swearing in his texts. But it always ends with ‘yes.'”)
It sometimes seems Grant took the rom out of the com when he left, but Curtis is adamant that there will be great funny movies about love as long as funny people keep failing at love. “The only way you can write a good romantic comedy is being somebody who’s obsessed by love, which I have been,” he says, pointing to the TV show Fleabag as a carrier of the torch. “I don’t think we should worry that love is going to go out of fashion.” Almost as if on cue, a Four Weddings and a Funeral miniseries arrives on Hulu in July, executive-produced by Curtis and re-envisioned by Mindy Kaling.
As Curtis has aged, the role of the guy who’s quite a lot like Curtis has changed too. He’s no longer the leading man but the mentor. In Yesterday, that is British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran, who, playing himself, discovers and promotes Jack. In one scene, he and Jack have a public showdown to see who can write the best song in 10 minutes. Sheeran’s is perfectly fine, but Jack sings “The Long and Winding Road,” and the star admits defeat.
It’s one of Curtis’ favorite moments. “We’ve got to realize–or maybe the Beatles don’t do this–there will always be someone better and someone worse than you,” he says. “You’re somewhere in a queue.” His place in the queue may have shifted and his point of view become less popular, but Curtis is ever the optimist, still hoping to give everyone that fairy-tale ending.
This appears in the July 01, 2019 issue of TIME.
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