Curtis, 52, is one of the world’s leading filmmakers. He was born in New Zealand to English parents and moved to the UK when he was eight years old. He studied English at Oxford where he first met his friend and frequent creative collaborator, Rowan Atkinson.
After graduating, Curtis was a regular writer for the hit BBC comedy series, Not The Nine O’clock News that starred Atkinson with Pamela Anderson, Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones. Curtis then created and wrote one of the best-loved comedy series on British television – Blackadder with Atkinson in the starring role. He went on to write another hugely popular show – The Vicar of Dibley with Dawn French in the leading role.
His first screenwriting project for film was The Tall Guy in 1989 and, a few years later, he wrote the much loved Four Weddings and A Funeral, which starred Hugh Grant and Andie MacDowell. He also wrote Notting Hill – a huge international success -, which starred Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts.
Love Actually, which Curtis wrote, marked his debut as film director. It featured an ensemble cast of international stars including Emma Thompson, Liam Neeson and Hugh Grant and was a massive box office success.
His new movie ‘The Boat That Rocked’ is set on board the fictitious Radio Rock where an eccentric bunch of music pioneers are crammed together in a rusty old ship – just like it was back in the day.
Q: Did you listen to the pirate radio stations when you were young?
A: I absolutely did listen to them. And the opening image of the movie is of a little boy going upstairs and putting his hand under his pillow and switching the radio on. I remember it clearly. I was obsessed with pop music from about the age of 6 and by the time I was 9 I used to sneak out of Chapel and hide in the music rehearsal room and listen to the radio. The BBC was playing something like two hours of pop music a week at that time. And steadfastly refusing to change and cater for this vast audience who were hungry to hear all those wonderful bands and singers, like the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, music from Tamla Motown, Stax and Atlantic. It just wasn’t being played and then along came the pirate radio stations to fill that void.
Q: Did you then begin to research the way that they lived on the pirate radio ships before you started writing your film?
A: Well, strangely enough I very specifically didn’t. Because I got sued for Notting Hill by someone who thought I’d taken the idea from him and because I got sued for Love Actually by someone who thought I’d taken the idea from him, I thought ‘I’ll write my dream of what life on a pirate radio station would be like. And I’ll finish the film and I’ll date it and I’ll say “that’s my film” which is what I did.
Q: But did you check on some of the facts later?
A: Yes, exactly. In order to be able to make the film you have to research it. But the script came first. But you don’t want it to be historically wrong because it becomes impossible for the design team if you say ‘they were on a luxury yacht..’ and it turns out there weren’t luxury yachts like that around in 1967. And actually, it’s surprising how much you kind of already know – so much information is already in your head. When we did Blackadder we did no historical research and strangely enough it turns out you know more than you think you do. At the end of Blackadder 2 Ben (Elton, co-writer) gave me the Ladybird Book of Elizabethan England and we’d covered 12 out of the 15 chapters – we’d done potatoes, the Armada, executions, circumnavigation and all of that stuff. And with pirate radio you sort of knew that there were American DJs and that there were girls on board, you knew that the government was against them and finally closed them down.
Q: Radio Caroline was one of the most famous pirate radio stations. Did you base your boat, Radio Rock, on Caroline?
A: No. The real story of pirate radio is absolutely gripping. It was shut down by the government after everything had been going well and the newspapers had supported them and then there were a couple of high profile stories, including the murder of the owner of one station, and allegations of payola and suddenly ‘pirates’ took on a deeper meaning. But this isn’t the story of Radio Caroline or one of the other pirates, as fascinating as that might be, this is the story of a group of guys who are thrown together on a pirate ship. But of course the pirates from back inspire it then.
Q: Living conditions must have been pretty basic…
A: (laughs) Well, they were all lied to. They were all told that it was the Hilton on the sea but it was actually pretty rough. Johnnie Walker (former Radio Caroline DJ who now has a show on BBC Radio 2) has been a fantastic help to us. He told me that it was pretty rough on board. It was small and pokey but exciting.
Q: And some big egos in a confined space which makes for an interesting dynamic for a film.
A: Yes, and that was the other inspiration. I work in a little office where we’ve got eight doors along this little corridor and eight people doing separate jobs in their offices – a director, an actor, a journalist all work there. I said to Emma (Freud) one day ‘what would it be like if we were in the same space but in one office was Jonathan Ross and in the next was Chris Evans and the next Chris Moyles (all current BBC radio DJs) and the next was Russell Brand and there were no girls and they couldn’t go out..’ It would be havoc! (laughs) And that’s what the film is meant to be about – it’s about six megalomaniacs on a boat with nowhere to go.
Q: What about the music? Did you give your actors any play-lists to prepare for the film?
A: Yes, I gave them all an i-pod, which had 30 tracks per DJ – songs that I think that DJ would have played. Like the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) would have played American pop like The Mamas and Papas, The Four Tops, The Box Tops, stuff like that. And then Dave (Nick Frost) he plays The Spencer Davis Group, The Yardbirds, The Kinks. And then Gavin (Rhys Ifans), who is the bad boy of the boat, he plays a lot of The Rolling Stones and then Angus (Rhys Darby) who is the ghastly one; he plays a lot of The Seekers. I know this music really well. I had older sisters and I started listening to pop obsessively when I was 6. I used to sneak out of chapel and hide in the music rehearsal room and listen to pick of the pops when I was little, so it’s all in there.
Q: Did you use original equipment for your Radio Rock sound studios?
A: Yes we did actually. We tried to find a lot of old stuff and there are a lot of people who are obsessed by that stuff and so we did track it down. The actors who play our DJs also had hours of training – they went to see Chris Evans and Chris Moyles (BBC radio broadcasters). And Johnnie Walker (former Radio Caroline now a BBC DJ) was a fantastic resource. They all learnt how to do the job properly and we tried to keep all of that authentic. I wrote the script that I fancied and then the people who had to make it real and accurate came in and did so.
Q: You must have had great fun doing the soundtrack for the film?
A: Yes but it can be agonising when you are picking music for films because so much is about the timing – when the chorus starts or a particular part of the song you want to use. And you get songs that you profoundly want to have in the film but actually they just don’t work – they don’t work with the timing, the pitch and they don’t work with the mood. So it is fun, but it’s frustrating too. Having said that, we’ve got the most fantastic soundtrack and it’s been such a pleasure listening to all of that wonderful music and really, that’s what it’s all about – a deep love for the music.
The Boat That Rocked hits Irish cinemas on April 1st 2009