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He wrote Notting Hill and Love Actually. In his new film, everyone forgets the Beatles.

Why Yesterday screenwriter Richard Curtis tackled love, work-life balance, and the most famous band of all time.

Himesh Patel in Yesterday.
Himesh Patel as Jack Malik in Yesterday, who wakes up one day and discovers nobody remembers the Beatles except him.
Universal

Even if you don’t know Richard Curtis’s name, you probably know the movies he’s written, like Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Notting Hill, and Love Actually. For his whole career, the British screenwriter has been one of the leading romantic comedy scribes in the world, with a sense of whimsy and wistfulness that set the pace for a generation of films in the genre.

Now he’s written Yesterday, directed by Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and starring Himesh Patel, Lily James, and, in a goofy twist, Ed Sheeran as himself. Patel plays Jack, a down-on-his-luck songwriter; nobody believes in him except Ellie (James), his best friend from childhood best who’s now his manager. Then one day there’s a blackout all over the world, and Jack gets hit by a bus. When he wakes up, he discovers that he’s apparently the only person on the planet who remembers the Beatles. He quickly sets about “writing” their songs to claim them as his own and become an international superstar.

Yesterday’s plot doesn’t really make sense. But like Curtis’s 2013 time-travel romance About Time, his latest film is more of a fairy tale than anything else, and he manages to add just a bit of weight to its wacky premise: Ultimately, Yesterday is about balancing your career, love, and your aspirations for the future, and it features lots of Beatles covers. Basically, it’s a Richard Curtis movie.

I recently spoke to Curtis by phone — he told me the weather in Liverpool was good that day — and we talked about Yesterday’s Ed Sheeran jokes, the ways the Beatles connect people, and why time is such an important theme in his work.

Alissa Wilkinson

To begin with, what was so appealing about this idea for you?

Richard Curtis

It’s lovely to me. I’m a huge Beatles fan. Not a lunatic Beatles fan — I couldn’t tell you the days on which they recorded or which tapes of songs there are — but they have been a huge presence throughout my life. I was 7 when I was standing outside a hotel in Stockholm, where we lived, hoping the Beatles would come out on the balcony. I just celebrated my 62nd birthday by having a countdown with five friends of our combined favorite Beatles songs.

I just thought that the idea of spending a year in the company of that music was wonderful. And I love the plot; I thought it would raise all sorts of issues about impostor syndrome, which is something I think we’ve all felt throughout our lives. Also, I very quickly came up with the work-life balance issue, and fame and love. It very quickly became something that seemed to tap to stuff I really care about.

I wouldn’t have done it if the idea had been Hootie and the Blowfish.

Himesh Patel in Yesterday
Things get weird for Jack pretty quickly.
Universal

Alissa Wilkinson

Nothing against Hootie. Yesterday also feels like a movie about how the music industry has changed since the Beatles’ era.

Richard Curtis

Well, funnily enough — we’re a bit satirical about it, at times, but I thought about Ed Sheeran a lot during this film. He’s a friend of ours. He comes from where my family and I live, up from Suffolk. He plays football with my boys. And also, by the way, he’s just got engaged to a girl he knew at school!

I think he’s quite a good example of raw talent and good tunes really spreading like wildfire. I’m pretty confident that if the Beatles did what people have been doing recently — releasing one song every two weeks, maybe for five years — I think they might be even bigger, rather than smaller.

Alissa Wilkinson

Ah, that helps explain one of the film’s funniest running gags, which is that there’s a lot of jokes about Ed Sheeran and they’re made right to his face.

Richard Curtis

You mean it explains why we dare do it?

Alissa Wilkinson

Yes. He seems like a very good sport.

Richard Curtis

He’s a very sweet boy. Apparently, they just started selling Ed Sheeran wigs on his tours. People can buy them. He looks out at a sea of orange. He’s fun.

He was really keen to do the movie. I was so keen that he should do it. He really wanted to work with Danny [Boyle] and pick up more hints about acting, because I know he wants to do more of it. We feel he did really well.

Alissa Wilkinson

I confess, you’ve written some of my most beloved movies. They’re romantic comedies, but there’s always some unexpected twist. Rom-coms are already a form of fairy tale, but you often have an additional fantastical element — time travel, or just the idea that a movie star stumbles into an ordinary bookstore, or whatever. Is there something about the fantastical that appeals to you as a writer?

Richard Curtis

I think there must be. I haven’t done it on purpose. I like to write about very ordinary people doing a very ordinary thing, which is trying to work out how to fall in love.

I think maybe something in my brain says that to raise the stakes and heighten it all, you put it in some big thing like time travel, and it allows you to concentrate on the small things. It’s probably that. I’m certainly not attracted to writing movies that have spaceships all the way through. It’s just raising the stakes.

Also, I’m very interested in time. The older I get, the more I think, “What have I done with my time? How should I spend the next years?” So maybe messing around with time is in my mind.

Yesterday Special Screening In Gorleston
Richard Curtis at a special screening of Yesterday in Gorleston-on-Sea, England.
Jeff Spicer/Getty Images for Universal Pictures International

Alissa Wilkinson

Your screenplays often touch on the idea of missed connections, or of not having been in the right place at the right time.

Richard Curtis

How you should grab your chances while you can.

Alissa Wilkinson

Right. There’s a line in Yesterday where a character tells our hero that he needs to just go get the girl, and love her, and tell her he loves her. Tell the truth whenever possible. That felt like a pretty good encapsulation of a lot of what you’ve written over the years.

Richard Curtis

Well, that’s lovely you say that, because of course I have been so inspired by the Beatles. I think that’s not a bad encapsulation of what they would say. So maybe I just nicked that as well.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yesterday doesn’t have time travel, but it does have an element of an alternate universe, which is another kind of sci-fi element. Are there films you look to as inspiration for those elements?

Richard Curtis

There have been great ones. I remember really liking Back to the Future.

But oddly enough, I think that the reason I started to think about time travel so much is that I was losing people. My sister, my father, and my mum died within a three-year period. When that happens, you really start to think, “Did I do the right thing 20 years ago?” I wrote an episode of Doctor Who in which they travel back and meet Vincent van Gogh and bring him forward to the Musée d’Orsay to see who he’d become. That sense of mortality, I think, inspires this sort of thing for me.

Alissa Wilkinson

Did you see the most recent Avengers movie, Endgame?

Richard Curtis

I loved Endgame. It’s War and Peace for our generation. Endgame did good time travel too.

Alissa Wilkinson

Yeah. It’s also interested in what we’ve lost, and how we bring the past into the present and the future.

Himesh Patel and Lily James in Yesterday.
Himesh Patel and Lily James in Yesterday.
Universal

One other thing that struck me while watching Yesterday: I feel like there’s a lot in your films about someone trying to figure out what a good life would look like for them. That includes love, but also many other things, like their career. Throughout your life, how much has career and the pursuit of a good life been a preoccupation for you?

Richard Curtis

It’s funny. I don’t know whether I was aware I was doing this, but work-life balance has become a huge preoccupation for me, now I’m getting older. I wonder if I made the right choices for the last decade. I’ve been working very, very hard. Suddenly my children are leaving home. At this very moment, I’m thinking about that.

I think that in an odd way, that question is weighing on me more and more. Should I do another film? Or should I travel ’round Scotland, learn how to cook risotto, and read some Dickens books?

Alissa Wilkinson

Do you feel generally optimistic about the possibility of work and life balance for people? Or do you feel that it’s increasingly difficult?

Richard Curtis

I think it is difficult. I think it’s something we should pursue, but I think it needs planning. I’m talking so much to my kids about it now.

When I was younger, I used to be really good at saying, “I’m going to spend six months writing this sitcom, six months doing this stage show,” but I got less and less realistic about it.

Alissa Wilkinson

When you look back over all the things you have written in your career, do you see your own character developing over time? Or things that have interested you for a lifetime?

Richard Curtis

I used to be very puzzled about why Marc Chagall was always painting things like goats flying over people’s houses while playing a violin. Couldn’t he see that there were a million other things to paint? Why did he keep going back to the same thing?

I think that is what happens when you write. You write from the things you’re obsessed by.

I was always over-interested in love. Maybe that’s why the Beatles struck such a chord. Now I’m more obsessed with family, so you start to see family creeping in — in Love Actually, there’s a lot more relationships between family members.

I don’t think I’ve got a developing autobiography in my movies. But if you track it, you can see what bits of my life I’ve referred to. Yesterday is a massive reference to my love for the Beatles, but also exploring the question of not getting work versus fame versus love in the wrong order.

Alissa Wilkinson

The Beatles are, in their own way, the most timeless band. I’m 35 and I listen to the Beatles. I have students who are 18 who love the Beatles. My grandparents listen to the Beatles. The band feels fresh and new for every generation. They tie people together.

Richard Curtis

I know. It’s so amazing to see it happening.

One of the most amazing things that inspired this movie was going to my kids’ school play when they were 7. It was “the Battle of Hastings.” At the end, William the Conqueror came on, and held Harold the King’s hand — who he had just killed — and they sang “We Can Work It Out.”

I thought “Oh, that’s how it’s going to happen.” Generation to generation, people are going to hear their parents playing a song on a piano. They’ll say, “What’s that?” Their parents will say, “It’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’ — let’s go discover the record.”

Himesh Patel in Yesterday.
Himesh Patel in Yesterday.
Universal

Alissa Wilkinson

I want to close with a semi-cruel question, which is this: If all the Beatles songs were to disappear off the face of the earth tomorrow except one, which would you choose to keep?

Richard Curtis

Oh, dear. Can I have the whole second half of Abbey Road? Then you get, like, seven of them.

Otherwise, I think I’d keep “And I Love Her.” Every time I hear that song, it embodies the dream of what I hoped life would be like when I got older. I love that song so much.

I feel very funny about that song because I definitely know it better than Paul McCartney. I often say, “He wrote it one day, they recorded it two days later, and I don’t think they ever played it live.” I’ve heard him play it a couple of times since then, but I’ve listened to it 3,000 times. So who does “And I Love Her” belong to? Does it belong to Paul, who paid it no attention whatsoever, really? Or does it belong to me now, because I’ve been babysitting it for the last 40 years?

Alissa Wilkinson

I guess in a way it belongs to everybody.

Richard Curtis

Which is your favorite?

Alissa Wilkinson

I think I come back to “Let It Be” a lot.

Richard Curtis

That’s a very good choice, indeed.

Yesterday opens in theaters on June 28.