Making Radio Waves
Interview with Richard Curtis and Bill Nighy, Sunday Business Post, 19th April 2009
If there’s one line of dialogue that defines the message of The Boat That Rocked, Richard Curtis’s new film about pirate radio on the waves, it comes from the disc-jockey character played by Philip Seymour Hoffman:
‘‘These are the best days of our lives.” Writer and director Curtis may have made his name with hit romantic comedies Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Notting Hill, but for his latest film he has turned to the subject he describes as his ‘‘first love” – pop music.
‘‘I wanted people to stop for a second and think how gorgeous it is to have music to provide soundtracks to times of your life,” Curtis says, relaxing into an armchair in his Dublin hotel suite.
‘‘I can tie down the years of my life [to music] – the Dylan years, the Cohen years, the Joni Mitchell years, the David Bowie years, the Madness years. Pop music has never let me go.”
Curtis and The Boat that Rocked star Bill Nighy have come to Dublin as part of a busy media tour to publicise the film, which travels back through time to 1967 and an era when more than half of Britain would tune in to pirate radio stations – some of which were based on boats – to listen to tunes which the BBC considered too subversive to play.
As many as 25 million daily listeners – including a youthful Curtis – were influenced by those DJs. ‘‘Pirate radio was like a sweet shop,” Curtis says. ‘‘You’d switch it on and hear songs you’d never heard before. It was very exciting.
‘‘Think what it would it be like if there were only two films showing in every cinema across the country, and then you heard that somewhere else there were 50 more films you could watch – that’s what it was like discovering pirate radio.”
To realise those DJs, and the stuffy politicians of the era, Curtis has assembled a fine ensemble of rich acting and comic talent, including Nighy, Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Rhys Darby and Chris O’Dowd.
‘‘The intention of the movie was somewhere between M*A*S*H and Animal House,” he says. ‘‘I wanted to make a funny film about a group of men with very big characters. If you could have the likes of Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross, Chris Moyles and Terry Wogan, and they not only had to work in the same corridor but live there as well, it struck me as a funny situation.
‘‘Then, the idea that I could write a film where I could have music all the way through made it an irresistible combination.”
The first actor Curtis cast in the film was Nighy, as the boat’s eccentric captain, Quentin, because ‘‘he’s a perfect mixture of very respectable and very anarchic”.
When I meet the remarkably animated and dapper Nighy, he says he accepted the role before even reading the script, having worked so successfully with Curtis on Love Actually.
‘‘I knew it was about music and I’m almost as obsessive about music as Richard is, so I said I’d do it,” says the 59-year-old actor.
The subject matter of the film was already in his blood. ‘‘Everybody listened to pirate radio, you had to – you wouldn’t get a girlfriend if you didn’t. And at the time, I was reading NME, Melody Maker, Sounds, every single word ever written about music in England, if I could afford it. I was obsessed.”
But he was just as fascinated by his character Quentin’s back-story. ‘‘If you were my age in 1967, it would’ve meant that you fought in World War II. So, Quentin would have gone from being in uniform, to somehow listening to R&B records and then ending up in paisley shirts, running a rock ‘n’ roll radio station. It’s quite an interesting little crossover of history.”
Nighy enthuses about his rock ‘n’ roll credentials, not least for his work with Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, on Pirates of the Caribbean. ‘‘Someone said tome, ‘I understand you’re a very good friend of Keith Richards’. I said, ‘no, I just look like I’ma very good friend of Keith Richards’.”
Nighy did have a hit record of his own, albeit while in the character of Billy Mack from Love Actually, Curtis’s 2003 directorial debut. ‘‘It got to number 26, so I am a Top 30 artist,” Nighy says proudly. ‘‘I do feel guilty, they wanted me to go on all the chat shows as Billy Mack, but I was just too shy.
‘‘Had I done it, I think we could have made number one. But I’ve always wanted to make an EP – they were always very desirable objects, everybody did them in the 1960s. I just don’t think I’ve got an album in me.”
The Boat that Rocked looks certain to be another hit for both Nighy and Curtis – but, as with other Curtis films, there are already plenty of self-appointed advocates of ‘cool’ (largely film critics and stand-up comedians) emerging to sneer at the unashamedly cheerful storyline that has become Curtis’s calling card.
Nighy shrugs off the naysayers, however, saying he entirely understands the appeal of Curtis’s films. ‘‘Jerry Bruckheimer says Curtis makes the kind of films that he wants to go and see,” Nighy says. ‘‘Everybody knows what he means.
‘‘When you were a kid, you wanted to feel good when you came out of the cinema, and you’d swordfight or shoot people all the way home – it would be inspiring in some way. The Boat That Rocked is that kind of film – a big, summer, fun movie to make you laugh.”
Although Curtis himself admits that he still worries about how his films will be received (‘‘It’s like sending a child to school and finding out if they’ve made any friends”), he’s also entirely unabashed about his approach.
‘‘My experience of life is generally cheerful and, therefore, it comes naturally tome to write cheerful things,” he says. ‘‘I’d rather write a film that lots of people watched, rather than one that very few critics loved.
‘‘I’m slightly distrustful of people who say that the worst things in life, when depicted, are more realistic than the things I write about. I don’t understand how a film about a serial killer can be more realistic than a film about someone falling in love. About a million people a day fall in love. We only get one serial killer a year.”
There’s a key scene in The Boat that Rocked which depicts Seymour Hoffman’s character trying to get an expletive on air, pointing out: ‘‘If you shoot a bullet, someone dies. When you drop a bomb, many die. But . . . if you say the ‘f’ word, nothing actually happens.”
On the subject of violence, Curtis still finds it hard to understand how those serial killer films tend to skip past the censors with greater ease than any use of bad language.
‘‘Violence is so legitimate, and nudity and bad language aren’t.” To prove his point, he opened the dialogue of Four Weddings with several rapid-fire repetitions of the ‘f’ word.
‘‘I just can’t understand how it’s fine to have films in which people will have their heads blown off, and yet it’s considered offensive to have a word and a naked body.”
Asked about what may come to be seen as his legacy, Curtis chuckles. ‘‘I’ll tell you something I was quite delighted to hear.
James Corden said that some of the things I’ve written are in the background of Gavin & Stacey.
‘‘It’s got the production values of slightly tougher things like The Office and The Thick of It, but it actually has quite a soft heart. So I’d like to think that people who want to write about things turning out well would be given a bit of confidence by my films, in which things do turn out well, on the whole.”
By the sounds of it, life has turned out pretty well for Curtis. Apart from his extensive film and television CV, he says his humanitarian work with Comic Relief will keep him occupied for the rest of his days. ‘‘One of the things I love about Comic Relief is that the returns are so sensational.
Peter Kay did two days’ work on Amarillo and it made stg£1.5million; Elbow sang that song of theirs this year and it made stg£5 million in 100 seconds. So, for the time I give to Comic Relief, the rewards are so massive. Financially, it’s impossible to say no.”
I’m left in no doubt that this work comes from the heart; when Curtis describes what drives him, he gets noticeably emotional. ‘‘The older you get, you realise you can’t avoid the sorrow that happens to yourself and your friends. You can’t help the fact that a friend gets hit by a car and dies. So, if you do want to help, you’ve got to help strangers.
‘‘I also think that some group of politicians must, at some point, realise that extreme poverty is their top priority. I’ll go on pushing away at that until it happens.”