My mother once said that she didn’t really understand why I saw so little of her – and why, when I did, I was so often in such a rush. I claimed it was because I had a lot of work to do – but she never bought that at all. “Situation comedies must take you half an hour to write, and the films are two hours long, so, presumably, you can get them done in, well, two hours.” Film-making is in fact slightly more complicated than that.
A new film I wrote and directed comes out this week – and I hope that anyone who sees it will have a good time and not give a moment’s thought to how it came to be as it is. It’s called About Time and is about someone called Tim, who finds out from his father as he turns 21 that all the men in the family can travel through time. He initially uses this interesting piece of information to try to get a girlfriend – with limited success – and then the rest of the film takes him through the next ten years of his life with quite a few bumps and revelations.
But even though I hope people will just sit back and enjoy the film, I thought it might be interesting to write about some of the bumps and revelations that go into making a film. Because what is up on the screen could have been completely different. By the time you reach the end of making a movie, it all seems inevitable, but it could easily have been a whole other film.
The key thing on any film is the casting. I learnt just how important casting is from Mike Newell, who directed Four Weddings and a Funeral. I remember one occasion when we were looking to cast a very small part called “Vicar 3”. An actor came in and Mike turned to me and said: “Richard, tell Donald about the part.” And I said: “Well, he’s the vicar at the lead character’s wedding, and five minutes before the service he comes in and finds the groom pacing around trying to decide if he actually...” Then Mike interrupted me. “No,” he said, “Explain why Vicar 3 decided to become a priest in the first place...” That was the lesson, that there is no part so small that it isn’t crucial to the film. Getting it wrong can spoil everything, but getting it right can make your film so much better than the script deserves.
But if the small parts are important, the main roles are make or break. Hugh Grant was, I think, the 72nd person we auditioned for the lead in Four Weddings, and was the first one to make it seem funny at all. In About Time (in cinemas today), we were searching for someone intelligent, funny, delightful and complicated, who could play Bill Nighy’s son between the ages of 21 and 30. The problem was that by far the best person who came in to audition sported a huge orange beard and looked like a lumberjack who was more likely to pull out a rifle and shoot a raccoon than star in one of my films. He had the beard because he was acting at that time in Anna Karenina as a Russian aristocrat, but without the costume he looked like Ed Sheeran’s tragic brother. Finally, we did take the gamble because he auditioned so well (and he shaved) and I think Domhnall Gleeson gives one of the best performances of anyone ever in a film of mine. But had I feared the beard too much, it would all have been totally different. For every film, there’s another one that could have been made with a totally different cast.
Location is another thing. About Time is completely coloured by the fact it is set on the coast of Cornwall – it’s infused by the special beauty, light and beaches there. But the strange thing is, it wasn’t meant to be set in Cornwall at all. The script says “Scotland” and the first thing we did when we decided to make the film was send a location manager up to find our house in Scotland. But it proved very hard to find the kind of house we wanted for all sorts of sociological and historical reasons. Not many people in Scotland chose to build houses right by the beach a hundred years ago – and those that are there tend to be very castle-like, to protect against the wind and rain. So the order went out: a house by the beach anywhere in the UK. We ended up at completely the opposite end of the nation – and now it’s a Cornwall film.
When the filming is done, there’s the editing – and this is the most mysterious and bumpy part of all. The original version of The Boat That Rocked was 5 hours 20 minutes long, so we literally could have made another film without using a single shot from the one we released. But Love Actually proved to be the most complicated. At the read-through, it seemed to go pretty well in the order it was written. But when we’d shot it, and watched the edit of the film, it didn’t work at all. So, for four months, we played a bizarre game of edit-chess until at last we ended up with something that worked better.
On About Time, we had to lose an hour of what we shot. There’s one scene where the hero is lying next to his very pregnant wife and she says the baby is due, and he says, for no reason whatsoever: “You can’t believe the detail with which I know the way to the hospital.” The reason he says this is because in the original cut of the movie there’s a ten-minute section where there is utter chaos when they drive off to have their first child and he doesn’t know the way to – or even the name of – the hospital where his wife is meant to be giving birth. It was one of my favourite sections of the film because Rachel McAdams was very good at being very pregnant and very cross – but every second of it disappeared in the final cut. That’s a big bump.
But bumps are part of the ride. The strange thing is that it’s the whole convoluted process, with all its twists and turns, that makes the film what it eventually is. And even if you could travel back in time, you would probably be wise not to change a thing.
THREE CURTIS WAYS TO GET THE GIRL
1. Love Actually (2003) Prime Minister Hugh Grant responds to tea lady Martine McCutcheon’s declaration of love in a Christmas card by turning up on her doorstep to sing Good King Wenceslas
2. Notting Hill (1999) Hugh Grant again, as a bookseller who crashes film star Julia Roberts’s press conference and asks if they might be “more than good friends”; she announces she’s staying in Britain “indefinitely”
3. Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) Bumbler supreme Hugh Grant (who else?) runs up to Andie MacDowell on London’s South Bank, apologises, then, er, um, in short, erm, stutteringly quotes the lyrics of the Partridge Family ditty I Think I Love You
About Time is in UK cinemas today