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Richard Curtis at the 'Pirate Radio' press day - Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York - November 11, 2009

Richard Curtis

The King of Romantic Comedy Embraces His First Love with  Pirate Radio

by Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 13, 2009.

Richard Curtis is mostly known in the US for his romantic comedies.  That is only natural; the man has penned some of the great romances of the last two decades – movies which were wonderfully British and at the same time completely universal. 

Curtis had been a well-respected TV writer in the UK for years before his breakthrough – writing for and/or creating classic BBC series like Blackadder, Not the Nine O’Clock News, Mr. Bean and The Vicar of Dibley

He had dipped his toe into movie-making with the acclaimed but little seen comedy The Tall Guy, starring Jeff Goldblum and a then-unknown Emma Thompson.  However, it was in 1994 that Curtis’ career exploded, thanks to a little romantic comedy called Four Weddings and A Funeral with Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. 

That surprise hit not only made a star of Curtis, but also his leading man Grant – and the two have worked together several times since, making such films as the smash Notting Hill (with Julia Roberts), Bridget Jones’s Diary (with Renee Zellweger) and the ensemble comedy Love Actually (which was also Curtis’ directing debut). 

In his second film as a director, Curtis is going a little out of his comfort zone, downplaying the romance and working without Grant.  Instead Curtis – a self-confessed music geek – decided to make his first rock film. 

Pirate Radio is a fictionalized version of a real life story.  In the 1960s, during the rock and roll revolution which spawned the Beatles, the Stones, the Who and the Kinks, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) only played one hour of rock music a week.  In England the vacuum was filled by pirate radio stations that popped up – often broadcasting from boats in international waters just outside of the English borders – which played the rock music that the UK craved. 

Curtis put together an extraordinarily deep cast of actors and comics like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy (Love Actually), Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead), Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge (Vanity Fair), Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords), Talulah Riley (Pride & Prejudice) and January Jones (Mad Men).

“Working with Richard is like being in a Richard film,” says Sturridge, who plays the lead role of Carl – a teen sent to live on the boat by his mother as a learning experience.  “He creates an atmosphere of family and love and safety.  His set’s always very relaxed.”

A couple of days before Pirate Radio was due to open in the US, Curtis sat down with us at The Waldorf-Astoria in New York to discuss his film and his career.

Richard Curtis making 'Pirate Radio.'Why this fascination for the pirate radio stations which were so long ago… and so British?

When I finish one film I always start about three others.  Just have a slight period where I’m allowed to pick and choose – like a guy who’s got divorced.  Not immediately heading on.  But there were a lot of things I liked about the story.  I love pop music.  And I’ve thought about doing a movie about pop music, but couldn’t come up with a story – because I’m not really interested in the setting up a band, taking drugs version of the pop thing.  I’ve always been a fan and I remembered the pirate radio stations.  I thought, oh, that’s my kind of pop music story.  Then, I basically got really interested in the idea of what I described to my girlfriend as “eight megalomaniacs in a corridor.”  I kind of loved this idea of taking huge broadcasting egos and forcing them to live together.  Like Leno and Letterman and Craig Ferguson and Conan O’Brien not only have to work in the same studio, but they have to live in the same dormitory.  I thought that was a funny idea.  Then I started thinking also that in a way it’s a film about life between 20 and 30 – which I increasingly romanticize because I think most people when they leave university, you are young, you end up in a grotty small apartment with six people you don’t particularly like.  One of whom has slept with everybody.  One of whom has slept with nobody, ever.  Very bad food.  And music.  In my case, I listened to the Specials and Madness and the Pretenders and all of that.  So it was about a lot of things I thought would be fun and interesting.

As Richard Curtis, the writer, you come up with this idea of making a film in a boat.  But as the director, how hard was that to pull off?

I think that the stories of the horribleness are probably based around smaller craft.  Because I do know that Emma Thompson and January Jones both had nasty days, because they were coming over on that little boat.  [A small boat that brought people to the Radio Rock boat.]  And they were certainly…

Threw up?

Threw up, yes.  But, it genuinely was a case of me the writer writing the film and then handing it over to the director – who happened to be me as well.  Me the writer didn’t, for instance, do much research.  I’m not very interested in research, because that can make you write something you don’t want to write.  Then when I handed it over to the director, the director had to find out what was true. 

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans and Richard Curtis making 'Pirate Radio.'We had a comment saying the stations were not illegal because they were outside British waters. 

That’s true.  Right at the beginning [of the film], in fact, the Prime Minister says they’re not strictly illegal.  But what they were achieving was something that against the intentions of the British government, because there was meant to be a monopoly.  I think in the 1960s they thought that broadcasting was something that was too important to be left to druggy, independent entities.  If you were going to be going straight into people’s homes, you better be the government.  So they were on the very edge of the law, let’s put it this way.  What the government did do was find a way of saying they were over the edge of the law.  So they came up with these specious reasons and came up with this specious act.  They passed the Marine Defenses Act in… I think… June of 1967.  One boat, Radio Caroline, did indeed just like ours broadcast through the midnight barrier.  But those guys then had to live in Holland.  Apparently at night there was a fifteen-hour journey back to Holland and they lived there for ten years. 

I spoke with one of the DJs at Radio Caroline and he said their boat actually did sink in the 80s.

Oh, yeah.  I think that may be right, yeah. 

It went to a 45 degree angle and the RAF (Royal Air Force) got them off just before it sank.  Did you know that when writing about the sinking of the Radio Rock boat?

I was very aware of photographs of a boat that was [sinking], but I thought it was on sand.  You know, that it was grounded. 

Richard Curtis, January Jones and Rhys Darby making 'Pirate Radio.'Talk a little bit about the casting, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the lone American here.

Well, because no one had done the job, there were on these boats Americans and Australians and New Zealanders, because really the English guys who auditioned had literally made tapes in their bedrooms.  I remembered a guy very clearly called Emperor Rosko who was on Radio Luxembourg.  He wasn’t a real Emperor… I don’t think.  (laughs)  I met him the other day and he’s like 60 and he wore the biggest belt I’ve ever seen – as though he’s won the world heavyweight championship.  So, I remembered a very strong American voice and I just wanted an Australian and a New Zealander.  Sure enough, when I went to the reunion of these things after I’d written the film, there were lots of Australians there, actually.  Casting Phil was just brilliant.  You write a film, you write your fictional character.  The casting lady comes to you with a list of people and says, “These are the people that might be in your film.”  And when I saw Phil’s name, I went, well that’s not going to happen.  They said, “Well, send it to him.  All he can do is say no.”  And he said yes. 

The movie has a lot more different songs than most movies.  As a music fan, was it like being a kid in a candy store finding songs you could use?

It was fantastic!  And fantastic during the edit.  It all started, in a way, when we were doing the end of Bridget Jones 2.  Renee was running to see Colin Firth in his chambers and I was called into the edit and they played me three songs and said, “Which one?”  I said, well, let’s just have all three.  Just go from Beyoncé to Barry White to Robbie Williams.  At that the moment I thought of this idea – wouldn’t it be great just to have music all the way through.  Except, of course, in the government scenes.  But it’s very interesting, when you’re editing, just like there is in casting, you think I wrote this film and twenty people will be able to act this part.  Then when you actually audition, like we did with Tom (Sturridge), who plays Carl, it turns out they can’t actually do it.  There’s only a very limited range.  When you get to a moment in the movie, you think, well, we can put any song there.  Then you try out some of your favorite songs and it just doesn’t work.  It’s a 25 second cue and it turns out your favorite song only gets good after 32 seconds.  Or, you think your song is very perky, but actually when you put it against something it turns out to have a melancholy undertow which is not right.  For instance, I really wanted “Waterloo Sunset” (by the Kinks) in this movie.  But when you put “Waterloo Sunset” by anything, it’s got too big a plot.  You suddenly stop thinking about the movie and start thinking; I wonder what happens to those guys walking across the bridge.  (chuckles)  But it was great.  Once in a while, we would be curtailed by price. 

Chris O'Dowd, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Nick Frost in 'Pirate Radio.'How do you figure out the royalty prices?

Well, it’s weirdly an open market, is the interesting thing.  Because they get stuck in a moment where you say to them, well either we’ll pay you this amount of money, or we won’t pay you any money at all.  Then they just make the choice.  There is no price on tracks.  They make up the price and there’s a price they’ve gotten used to asking.  I think the Doors wanted 1.6 million dollars or something like that.  It was only a 22 second cue.

So we gave that up…


Being Richard Curtis and having this string of hits and having this reputation – when you decide to do something, does living up to past projects factor into it?

Not really.  I think that way madness lies.  It’s always been the prime rule that you have to do what will make you and your friends and your girlfriend happy.  That’s always been my target audience – about eleven people.  Four Weddings, which was the first thing that made a lot of [money], it was my second film and was sooo not expected or intended to be an international success.  I saw a bit of paper which had expected earnings and by the United States it had zero dollars.  (laughs)  So, no, I think what I want to write and then you hope it is popular.

You started out working in television – and still you do TV work, for example (2005 BBC movie) The Girl in the Café and I believe I heard you were writing an episode of Doctor Who.


Do you keep doing TV between the hit films to keep yourself grounded?

I like working on TV because it’s fast and because you can achieve slightly different things.  I’m doing Dr. Who because my children asked me to.  (chuckles)  I did Girl in the Café because I thought if I made it as a film, it would get tiny distribution – whereas it was shown on BBC1 and five million people saw it on the same day.  So, I’ve never felt the slightest bit snobby about TV.  I absolutely love TV and I think much of the best work being done creatively is on TV.

Which Doctor are you working with?

I worked with the new Doctor, Matt Smith.  I think I’m episode ten of series one of Doctor nine. 

Rhys Ifans in 'Pirate Radio.'What can you say about how the character is being developed?

Well, they stubbornly say the character is the same.  Interestingly, they said, “don’t think about writing for him.  The Doctor is the Doctor.  He’s keen.  He’s enthusiastic.  He’s overconfident.  All of those kind of things.”  So, I haven’t really adapted it for him.  I’ve seen now the performance that he’s going to give.  We’ve had read throughs.  And it is interesting that strangely there are great consistencies between the performances, even though they are very, very different in color.  So I really tried to write for Doctor Who rather than… he’s actually not called Doctor Who, he’s called The Doctor.

This is the first movie that has Ken (Branagh) and Emma (Thompson) in it since their rather bitter divorce. 

Yes.  When I asked Emma to do it, I sent it to her.  She said yes.  Then I had to ring her up and say Ken is going to be in the movie. 

But you’re not in any scenes with him…

You know, when she came in to do her ADR (dubbing) she specifically asked to see Ken’s scenes and just roared with laughter all the way through.  So I think it’s okay now.  (Or) Maybe she was laughing at how old he now looked (laughs) with his mustache.  Maybe it was malicious laughter.  But, no, I didn’t have any problem there.

The film celebrated friendship.  It was about finding alternative families.  Was this sort of a step away from the tone of your romantic films you have been doing?

I love you saying “the alternative family,” because that is the story with Carl.  The friendship thing actually, when I look back, in fact has been… these aren’t inconsistent things.  In some ways, Four Weddings is more a film about Hugh and his friends.  Indeed, Notting Hill is sort of about it – and the ties in Love Actually.  I think as far as comedy is concerned, friendship probably is my central inspiration, because, when people say, “Is it tough writing comedy,” I think, well, very little that I’ve written has ever been as funny as what happens around the table with any of us.  With our six best friends, at 10:30 at night, slightly drunk when you’re cracking jokes – both about each other and about the world.  That’s, in a way, what I’m always aiming for in dialogue.  That sense of freedom and looseness and jokes.  I’m very interested in friendship.  Maybe I’m more interested in friendship now, as when I look at my life with four children and two jobs, the thing I’ve sacrificed is friendship.  I’m profoundly aware of the fact that that’s been the third that I’ve lost.  So maybe this is a nostalgic desire to have six months to make new friends.  Maybe starting now!  (laughs) 

January Jones and Rhys Darby in 'Pirate Radio.'Is it because you don’t have time for friends, or just because you don’t like other people so much?

Yeah.  I think genuinely because they’ve all got families, too.  They’ve all got different priorities.  They go places on the weekends.  When you’re in trouble, you go to your girlfriend or to your friend, “I’ve got to be home at six to put Spike to bed.” 

How old are your kids?

Fourteen, twelve.  They’re all just having birthdays.  Six and eight. 

Are they at the point where they want to be in dad’s films – at least in a cameo?

They’re all in this movie.  They’re all in it.  They’re just jumping up and down on a bed, playing air guitar at the beginning.  Not particularly.  Scarlett is more interested in whether or not I can introduce her to Taylor Swift.  That’s her main interest.  Jake is in a band now.  He’s just learned how to play “Ziggy Stardust.”  Spike wants to be Michael Jackson.  I’m taming his hopes there. 

Does he have a favorite Michael Jackson song?

Actually, his favorite two songs are “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer – he does a dance where he wears his pajamas very high and then he pulls down his pajamas almost to his willie.  And then he loves “Smack That” by Akon and Eminem.  And every time he says “smack that,” he smacks his bottom.  So there we go.  (laughs)  He’s going to have a troubled life.

In England, the movie was called The Boat That Rocked.  Why was the title changed for the US? 

I was flexible. 

Talulah Riley, Tom Sturridge, Tom Brooke, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Arterton, Ike Hamilton, Chris O'Dowd and Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Pirate Radio.'And it was thirty minutes longer.

Well, it was fifteen minutes longer, really.  I’ll talk about both of those things.  Because Focus (Features) took it over and was very enthusiastic, I just said to them look, if you want to look at any different titles, do, because I’m sort of used to that.  In France, it was called Good Morning, England.  Very weird.  (laughs)  Well, not what they called it in English, a different name, but an English name.  (Focus) came straight back with this – which is not a name we would have used in the UK, because it would have been like calling it The Post Office or A Supermarket.  It’s sort of generic there, but I thought it was a cool title.  I loved having the word “pirate” in it and that’s what it was about, so I was happy about that.  The cutting was… in the original, because we filmed the film in a very loose way, with cameras on shoulders.  Not with agreed close-ups or camera on tripods.  We over filmed massively, so the original film cut of the movie was like five hours long.  So, I was used to making this film shorter.  And a few reviews in England did say that it’s a bit long.  I realized that I hate that when they say it about movies.  I never saw Watchmen.  I never saw Dark Knight.  These were movies that I really wanted to see.  But that… it’s a seed of doubt.  I didn’t want that seed of doubt, so I just went in one day and took out the time in one day – and then I fixed it for a week.      

Talulah (Riley) said that she was a little bit mystified by her character acting like she did (sleeping with a DJ while on a date with another man on the boat.)  I heard that your response was, “It’s the sixties.”  Can you talk about the change of attitudes?

I know women who were very like that, so I think that may be particularly Talulah’s take on it.  Look, I wasn’t trying to make a message about…

Free love…

Free love, exactly.  I think I was more thinking of… I had a friend, a babysitter called Hermione, I remember in the 60s, who got a job in the Foresta Hotel in Sweden three months before the Beatles turned up, just so that she would eventually be able to have sex with one of the Beatles.  She didn’t mind which one. 

But they were rock stars, not DJs.

Well, I know, but these DJs were sort of rock stars in their own world. 

Did it happen for Hermione?

She might have had sex with a roadie.  I don’t recall.  She didn’t have sex with Brian Epstein. 

Tom Sturridge and Rhys Ifans in 'Pirate Radio.'The cook was the only woman living on the boat, but she was a lesbian.  What was your thought about developing her as a character?

Because I was very aware that I was writing a movie where there were only boys, I wanted a girl.  Originally, I wrote a long sort of audition process.  I said we are looking for a gay cook.  Lots of heterosexual girls applied.  They did all sorts of tests.  (laughs)  Then I found somebody who was genuinely gay.  So, by that time, I was so attached to the idea of having a girl on board.  Then what I liked about it was the very fact that we made no fuss about it, whatsoever.  She was just treated like one of them all, but she had a sort of sweet and delicate nature.  In fact, my favorite shot in the film was the shot of the girl she falls in love with – when they both look at each other at that moment.  It was one of those frustrating things where it was the prettiest shot we took, and every time we got to it (in editing) I said can we have a few more frames.  And every time we looked at it again and she blinked, so we couldn’t have any more. 

What did you eat on the boat?

Normal catering.  It was genuinely, I think that if you ask the actors, they will all say they don’t remember being in the studio, because the boat experience was so delightful.  We set up at 7 every day with music playing very loudly over speakers on board.  We had the catering in the kitchen area.  So, it was just like normal.  There were a lot of muffins and coffee. 

Do you know what you want to do next?

I’m in that choosing three area.  There are about three that I’m working on now – one of which is more like The Girl in the Café.  One of which is like the sort of last film I’ll ever make – my meaning of life film. 

Is it serious?

No, no, no.  The Girl in the Café type one is serious.  The other one is half-serious.  The meaning of life is a nice thing, it’s not deep.

But why would it be your last?

Well, no.  I think in a way, you should always make each film as though it’s going to be your last, you know what I mean?  Just so you think: well, if I were only allowed to make one more film, which one would it be?  

And it’s a crazy business, you never know with financing what could happen…

Yeah, I mean if my Doctor Who episode goes well, that could be a job for life.  (laughs)

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Photo Credits:
#1 © 2009 Jay S. Jacobs.  All rights reserved.
#2 © 2009. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#3 © 2009. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
#4 © 2009. Courtesy of Focus Features.  All rights reserved.
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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 13, 2009.

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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: November 13, 2009.