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‘Yesterday,’ ‘Love Actually’ screenwriter Richard Curtis breaks down his most iconic rom-coms

From ‘Love Actually’ to his latest film, ‘Yesterday,’ Richard Curtis has penned some of the most iconic romantic comedies of our time. Here, his secrets to success.

‘Yesterday,’ ‘Love Actually’ screenwriter Richard Curtis breaks down his most iconic rom-coms
(Left to right) Lily James as Ellie, Himesh Patel as Jack Malik, and Alexander Arnold as Gavin (back to camera) in Yesterday. [Photo: Jonathan Prime/Universal Pictures]

Over the course of his 40-year career, Richard Curtis has become a romantic comedy king, penning scripts for classics including Love Actually, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral. His secret to dominating a genre? Don’t constrain it as a genre.

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“My history in romantic comedies is slightly a puzzle to me as well. I started off in British television writing satire and historic comedy, but I think the truth of the matter is that I’ve always been obsessed by love,” Curtis says. “When I was starting to love films, the ones I particularly loved were not rom-coms, but semi-autobiographical movies with love at the center.”

In Curtis’s latest film Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire), Himesh Patel stars as Jack, a struggling musician who, after an accident, is the only person who remembers The Beatles and then takes credit for their most iconic songs. As he’s being whisked toward stardom, he risks drifting away from the one woman whose been by his side all along, Ellie (Lily James).

“The [rom-coms] I really love are the ones that are written from the heart by people who are obsessed by this particular subject in the same way as obsessive filmmakers make wonderful sci-fi movies or Marvel movies,” Curtis says.

That obsession has led to a canon of films that have heavily impacted the romantic comedy genre. Google “best rom-coms of all time” and at the very least, one of Curtis’s films will be on the list. Here, Curtis offers insight into his life’s obsession, including how he incorporates sci-fi into rom-coms, how Madonna inspired Notting Hill, and why Love Actually was, at one point, one of the “worst films of all time.”

Madonna as a muse

“The movie was inspired by Madonna. Every Thursday, I used to go and have dinner with my friends, Piers and Paula. And I remember, just to keep me occupied in the car, just vaguely dreaming about the scenario [of the movie], and Madonna was my favorite pop star at that point and the most famous woman in the world. And I just thought, “If I turn up to Piers and Paula’s, how would they react if Madonna was my date?’–neither Piers nor Paula would have any idea who she was. And that exact scene actually happens in Notting Hill.”

The trouble with Bridget Jones

“We had trouble editing the film. [Bridget Jones’s Diary author] Helen [Fielding] and I used to watch it together, and Helen was [like], ‘It’s not quite like Bridget–this isn’t quite right.’ And then you realize the big revelation of making movies, that there comes a point where you’ve got to stop thinking about your sources or stop thinking about the script you’ve written or, as it were, the book that the script you’ve written is based on, and say, ‘Oh, Bridget is Renée [Zellweger].’ We accepted that and all the wonderful qualities that she brought to the film, some of which might not be the exact representation of the book, but it was a fully fledged, fabulous human. In some ways, it’s better for that because you’ve got an embodiment of a special cinematic Bridget rather than attempt to just reproduce what was in the book.”

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A Pain, Actually

“I was trying to push the romantic comedy genre as far as it could possibly go, just take the three best scenes of 10 different films and shove them all together. The big inspiration was Nashville, a Robert Altman movie, and Short Cuts. And of course, Pulp Fiction. So, I had high standards. These movies with a lot of plots are quite tough to do. It’s just a question of really being over-demanding on yourself. What you’ve got to do is make each plot as intense and full as you possibly can. Love Actually, in its first edit, was the third worst film of all time. It was really the worst example I can remember of something which had worked brilliantly in a read-through and not working well once we’d shot it. I had to learn so much.”

Searching for (Sur)real love

“No one is more surprised than me that I’ve ended up writing two sort of high-concept movies because I assumed that every movie I ever wrote would be set in a living room and a café. I think that what we’ve done in both [2013’s About Time and Yesterday] is actually used the high concept to make a lo-fi film. My trick on that would be if you’re going to do something with a high concept, make sure that it’s set in an ultra-real environment. My favorite example of that would be E.T., which couldn’t be a better portrait of a suburban American household. I’ve learned a lot from that, that if you want to do a high-concept story, don’t take that as a reason to say, ‘Well, then I can have lots of amusing vicars and posh people.’ Actually, on those movies, I’ve gotten more and more local to ground them.”

Work the line

“I’m quite embarrassed by [the line], ‘I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy…’ in [Notting Hill.] I clearly thought it was a good line because in the next scene, one of the characters says to Hugh Grant, ‘What did she say?’ And he says, ‘Oh, she said, ‘I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy.’ So I obviously thought I better repeat it like they were going back to the chorus or the hook in the song. On the whole, good lines don’t occur casually. In [Yesterday], there was a line where Lily [James] is talking at a key moment and says to Himesh, ‘I’ve been waiting half my life for you to love me.’ And I remember looking at that line and thinking, ‘It’s not quite there.’ And then I changed it to, ‘I’ve been waiting half of my life for you to wake up and love me.’ I did know then that if that line didn’t work, you wouldn’t get the full whack of love and the dangers of ignoring it.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America" where he was the social media producer.

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