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The Boat That Rocked - Richard Curtis interview

Richard Curtis writes and directs The Boat That Rocked

Interview by Rob Carnevale

RICHARD Curtis, the British writer and director behind hits such as Four Weddings & A Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually, talks to us about his latest, The Boat That Rocked, assembling such a large cast, such a cool soundtrack and overcoming the logistical problems of filming at sea.

Q. This is apparently a very personal story to you. Is that why you chose to direct it as well?
Richard Curtis: It’s a strange thing about the personal story… I suddenly think it’s a personal story in a different way. I have been thinking about the fact that in the movie Philip Seymour Hoffman talks about these being the best days of our lives and I think that in some ways the film is about a time a lot of people have between 20 and 26. I think a lot of people when they leave home, move into a horrible flat with six people – they hate two of them, like two of them, one of them never washes, one of them always has sex with everyone, one has never had 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, The Specials and The Police and stuff like that. I think in a way the film is almost 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 I was the little boy who listened to music under my pillow. And I think I wanted to direct this one because I think I will direct the films I write from now on.

Q. What sort of research did you do on pirate radio stations?
Richard Curtis: I tried not to do much research because sometimes I think research can stop you writing the film you want to write and you end up writing somebody else’s film. But it was great once I had written it to check that it wasn’t horribly wrong. Emma, my girlfriend, worked with Johnnie Walker at GLR for years, so she gave him the script and spoke to him about it and then we wanted everyone playing a DJ to learn how to be a DJ, so they went visiting.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about boat camp?
Richard Curtis: The boys were all very good at that – they all suffered through it. Basically, we did think that we ought to practise living on the boat. So we went and lived for three days on the boat we were eventually going to film on before it had been industrially cleansed. So, we put a lot of very spicy candles in every room and soft linen, which didn’t hide the smell of goulash really. And then we rehearsed during the day and I seem to remember 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.

Q. Was it a very productive time?
Richard Curtis: I think it gave everyone a sense of what we wanted to do, which was the feeling that in every scene in the movie everyone is acting all the time because there are 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, or today 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.

Q. Can you talk about some of the logistical problems of shooting on water?
Richard Curtis: In fact, filming on the boat was fantastic because it’s such a fantastic set. It’s an actual three-dimensional set so everywhere you put the camera there’s some sky, sea, rust, funnel… all that kind of stuff. Also, the great thing about filming on a boat is it was quite close to what we were filming – here were 12 men of a certain age out in the middle of a boat with loud music smoking a lot so it made it quite easy.

The logistical problems, such as they were, would tend to be if you got in slightly stormy seas, the boat would drift dramatically back towards land. You would be in the middle of a take when a very loud alarm sound would go off and they’d say if we do one more take we’ll hit the rocks.

Then, of course, you have to stop and sail back out again 40 miles. So there were some problems with tide but all the Jaws/Waterworld stuff didn’t occur. I think the only problem was people arriving on the small boat did tend to get … I think January Jones in her scene – she may look like an angel but she felt like a dog. And I think Emma Thompson also found it a nauseating experience – but don’t use that quote.

Q. Do you feel the weight of commercial expectations riding on this new film?
Richard Curtis: The honest answer is 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 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 finish the film you’re more interested in the finished film more than the figures. I hope it does well but I’m just so delighted to have finished the film.

Q. The film boasts another great soundtrack. Did you get every song you wanted?
Richard Curtis: There are some anomalies, I would say. There are one or two songs we could never get and could never get to the bottom of why we couldn’t get to the bottom of them. We couldn’t get If 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 they decided it had been used too many times in too many ads or something. There was a Doors song we wanted which was way over a million dollars, so we couldn’t have that. There was some bargaining but we got most of what we wanted.

Q. How easy was it to select the songs for the film? And was The Kinks an obvious choice as an opening track?
Richard Curtis: I had about 200 tracks on my computer that I lined up before I wrote the film and early on I must have just played The Kinks [All Day And All Of The Night] and thought that would be a good thing, because it did say they were going to play music all day and all of the night, so it was a good introduction and a cracking start. I remember on Love Actually I was trying to pick what the last song of that movie was going to be. I went to my record collection and started at A and on B I listened to God Only Knows by the Beach Boys and just stopped. It was lucky it wasn’t She’s Not There by the Zombies otherwise it would have been a really long day.

Q. Does Philip Seymour Hoffman get pirate radio?
Richard Curtis: I think he absolutely loves the spirit of rock and roll. You know, he played Lester Bangs in Almost Famous, so I’ve got a feeling he understood the concept. I don’t know how much research he did but the film was pretty self-explanatory and he arrived knowing exactly who he wanted to be and how he wanted to play it.

Q. How easy was it to get Philip Seymour Hoffman?
Richard Curtis: The first time we asked for his availability he couldn’t do it. Then we shifted our film two weeks down and he got them to shift his film one week back and then he turned up 10 days into our film. What had seemed like a six-week impossibility meant he could actually be in the film.

Q. And Kenneth Branagh?
Richard Curtis: Ken was brilliant. I think I thought Ken was too grand to be in any work of mine, having no rhyming couplets in it or Nazis. So he just came along to do the read through as a favour one day and I think he enjoyed it and realised it would be quite a small amount of time and he could grow one of the many moustaches he hopes to grow during the course of his long career.

Q. In fact, this boasts another strong ensemble cast, like Love Actually. Is that how you write now, with big casts in mind?
Richard Curtis: I write so few things I think it’s just a coincidence. Love Actually was a lot of stories so that had to have a big cast and 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 it’s not necessarily a plan but a fringe benefit. It’s brilliant casting movies in the UK because there are so many extraordinary actors.

When we looked down the list of people who might play parts, suddenly we saw that Nick [Frost] was on the list, yet it had never occurred to me I would be allowed to make a film with Nick one day. Similarly, the idea that Rhys [Ifans] could be in another film… I didn’t think I should be so lucky again, but then I thought, yes he is the most rock and roll person in the United Kingdom, so why doesn’t he play that part?

Q. Can you comment on the length of the film? Have you been forced to leave a lot out?
Richard Curtis: Certainly, the first assembly of the film was much longer because we had a very fluid filming style on this. There were so many people in every scene that we just put the cameras on the shoulder of cameramen and wandered round so we could actually film a scene much faster than you used to when you used to have a wide shot, a two shot, then a reverse and a single and all of that. We dispensed with most of that so there were a lot of things, which made the actors more free at some points to say what they wanted to say. I tended to say: “Say what you want at the beginning of the scene and the end, and indeed if you can think of anything funny in the middle, do that!” So, the original cut of the film was longer.

Q. How long?
Richard Curtis: I think it would be impolitic to say. A lot longer. Double the length. The DVD is immense.

Read our review of The Boat That Rocked

Rhys Ifans interviewed