The Big Chat: Richard Curtis is Top of the Pirate Pops!
'The Boat That Rocked' is more than just a movie about 60s’ music – for its writer and director Richard Curtis, it’s a love letter to his childhood and also his early 20s. Kim Francis sets sail to find out why.
Reading Evening Post, 9 April 2009
‘Where are Richard Curtis’s glasses?” I’m thinking as the British comedy-writing deity sits himself down opposite me in London’s Dorchester Hotel. “Doesn’t he always wear them?”
Usually a mildly geeky-looking Penfold-esque character, his decision to ditch the familiar silver-framed specs is quite possibly an attempt to align himself with the über-cool cast of his latest film and its rock ‘n’roll subject matter. With his otherwise clean-cut appearance, Mr Curtis looks less rock ‘n’ roll, more socks ‘n’ sandals, to be honest. Particularly when juxtaposed with The Sun’s Caner of the Year Rhys Ifans and the impossibly cool Bill Nighy both sitting to his right, while coiffed young star Tom Sturridge lounges to his left.
'The Boat That Rocked' is Richard Curtis’s ode to his childhood; of nights spent listening to pirate radio station Radio Caroline under the bedcovers after his parents had turned out the lights. But it’s also a celebration of early adulthood and in that sense it’s a very personal film.
“There’s the scene in the movie where Philip Seymour Hoffman [says]: ‘These are the best days of our lives’ and I think that in some ways the film is about a time that a lot of people have between [the ages of about] 20 and 26,” Richard explains. “I don’t know but I think that a lot of people when they move home move into a horrible flat with six people, two of whom they hate, two of them they like, one of them never washes, one of them always has sex with everyone, one of them never has sex with anyone and you listen to a lot of the music of your period.
“I lived in that sort of house and we listened to Madness and The Specials and The Police and stuff like that. I think in a way the film is autobiographical more about that sense of what it’s like hanging out with your friends and playing and listening to music than it is about my youth where all I was the little boy listening to music under my pillow.”
Music was a key part of Richard’s youth and so it was important for him and the film’s subject matter, which deals with the 1960s’ phenomenon of pirate radio. Broadcast from ships stationed in international shipping waters, thus avoiding broadcasting restrictions, they existed to bring rock ‘n’ roll and pop music to 25 million listeners 24 hours a day. Much of this now much-loved output is included in the film’s soundtrack. Securing the rights to many of the songs was no mean feat. Some had to fall by the wayside, not least because they were too expensive.
Richard says: “There are one or two songs we tried to get [but] we could never get to the bottom of why we couldn’t get to the bottom of them,” he continues. “We couldn’t get Paradise Is Half As Nice by Amen Corner for some reason or other and we wanted For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield but I think they just decided it’s been used too many times in too many ads. And there was a Doors song we wanted which was way over a million dollars so we couldn’t have that. “On the whole, there was some bargaining, but we got most of what we wanted.”
To his relief he did manage to secure a song by The Kinks for the film’s opening. “I had about 200 tracks on my computer that I had lined up before I wrote the film and early on I must have just played The Kinks thinking that that would be a good one,” he says. “It did seem like a good one because it did say they were going to play music all day and all of the night so it was a good intro and a cracking start. There were lots of [occasions] where we tried endless songs all the way through the process but that was quite an easy early one.
“I remember on 'Love Actually' I was trying to pick what the last song was going to be and I went through my record collection and started at A. On B, I listened to God Only Knows by the Beach Boys and just stopped. “It was lucky that it wasn’t She’s Not There by The Zombies because otherwise it would have been a really long day! But sometimes you get lucky with a song and you stick to it.”
Personal project that it was, Richard deliberately avoided researching pirate radio and its origins to any great extent. Instead he relied on some famous real-life DJing names to prepare the cast and check for authenticity after the script was written.
Richard explains: “Sometimes research stops you writing the film you want to write and you end up writing somebody else’s film so I didn’t do much research but it was great once I’d written it to be able to check that it wasn’t, you know, horribly wrong. “And Emma [Freud], my girlfriend, worked with Johnnie Walker at GLR [a BBC local radio station for London] for years so she gave him the script and spoke to him about it. We wanted everyone who played a DJ to learn how to be a DJ so [the] guys did a bit of visiting.”
Oh, that cast. The stellar acting talent popping up in this movie includes – on top of those already mentioned – Simon Pegg’s ‘bessie mate’ Nick Frost, American Oscar-winner Philip Seymour Hoffman and British thesps Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson as well as a host of other established and emerging British talent.
Curtis’s casts seem to be growing as his film career progresses and I wonder if this is a pattern that is set to continue. The ensemble cast was one of the keys to the success of 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and also 'Notting Hill'. But Richard says: “No, I don’t think so. I mean, I write so few things … I think it’s just a coincidence.
“I mean, 'Love Actually' was an idea of lots of stories so that happened to have a big cast and this – unfortunately, the moment I thought of writing something on a boat I had to fill out the whole DJ roster so it did just turn into a lot of people. But of course the fringe benefit is it is brilliant casting movies in the UK because there are so many extraordinary actors and I do so few films.”
And one of those extraordinary actors is former Reading-boy Kenneth Branagh, a man Richard Curtis never dreamed would appear in one of his films. “I think I thought Ken was too grand to be in any work of mine, having no rhyming couplets in it and no Nazis,” he jokes. “He just came along to do the read-through as a favour one day in London and then I think he enjoyed it and realised that [the shoot] was going to be quite a small amount of time and he could grow one of the many moustaches that he hopes to grow during the course of his long career.” It’s a moustache that Nick Frost refers to as the ‘Mugabe’ ‘tache.
Kenneth Branagh notwithstanding (all of his scenes are on land), the rest of the cast were able to bond during boat camp.
“Boat camp?” you ask. Mr Curtis explains: “Basically, we did think that we should all practise living on the boat so we went and lived for three days on the boat which we were eventually going to film on.
“We rehearsed during the day and I seem to remember that on the first evening discipline was good and we watched some interesting documentaries about pirate radio and on the second evening discipline was less good and we did less research. [It was] a very productive time. “I think it gave everyone a sense of what we wanted to do which was the feeling that in every scene of the movie everybody’s acting all the time because it’s, like, 12 people in most of the scenes. We didn’t want the feeling that today this is the scene where Nick talks a lot and today this is the scene where Rhys talks a lot. “Every scene was about everybody in the room and I think everybody got used to that idea; that they had to be busy busy all the time.”
Richard speaks with such enthusiasm about the process of making 'The Boat That Rocked', I wonder whether he spends much time thinking about commerciality. His response is predictable.
“The honest answer is no, I don’t. The problem is that making a film is such a long process with so many things involved in it – you know, ages to write it, ages to cast it, ages to shoot it – that the idea that of whether or not at some point in the distant future it’s going to do well in a weekend is not something that hangs heavy over you. “By the time you’ve finished the film, you’re interested in the finished film more than the figures. I mean I hope it does well but I’m just so delighted to have finished the film I wanted to finish.” With Richard vowing to direct all of the films he writes in future, it’s a sure bet that we can look forward to many more comedy hits to come, that finish in exactly the way he wants them to finish.