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Director Richard Curtis is no lover of life behind the camera

Richard Curtis is retiring from directing after just three films. The good news for fans is that he plans to continue writing, says James Mottram

 

IT'S EARLY AUGUST, a week after Richard Curtis has announced that About Time will be the last film he directs. After Love Actually and Pirate Radio, it's all got a bit much for the 56-year-old.

"That's my decision at the moment," he says, when we meet in London's Mandarin Oriental hotel. "I'm trying to pay attention to the message of About Time, which is try and enjoy your life. Directing movies is only mildly enjoyable, and I think if I could spend 1,000 days on something, I'd rather spend it with my family."

Curtis, who has three sons and one daughter with long-term partner Emma Freud, seems adamant about his decision to retire from directing. That's something which might have worried the British film industry, if he hadn't also said that he planned to continue writing.

Along with his three directorial efforts, Curtis has written popular films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, which won him an Oscar nomination, Notting Hill, two Bridget Jones films, and two movie outings for Rowan Atkinson's bumbling Mr Bean.

Time will tell if he sticks to his decision. For now, Curtis is immersed in the publicity for About Time, which just so happens to be a film about accessing the past. Domhnall Gleeson stars as Tim, an ordinary chap who discovers, on his 21st birthday, that the men in his family have the ability to travel back in time. This special skill only allows them to travel back through their own lives, not to significant moments in history.

But that's fine with Tim. He sets about using this power to get what he's always wanted: a girlfriend.

This he does, in the shape of Rachel McAdams' Mary, and he skips through the space-time continuum to iron out any mistakes he makes during their courtship. There's a marriage, but it arrives midway, making About Time different from Four Weddings and a Funeral et al. "In the old days, I was particularly interested in people meeting and finding the person they love. But now as a father, as a person who has experienced the death of his mum and dad, I wanted to try and do the whole range and texture of a life," says Curtis.

With the second half of the film spanning several years, as Tim and Mary become parents, the story focuses more on Tim's relationship with his father (played by Bill Nighy).

These scenes, which show Tim's father getting older, are among the most poignant Curtis has ever written. "I got locked into doing films about falling in love while I was raising a family, and I feel this is a film in which I've caught up with my own life, in a strange way, in terms of my life experience," he says.

Both of Curtis' parents died in recent years and this has had a profound effect on him, even when it comes to answering that old 'Where would you time-travel to?' conversational chestnut.

"I'd like to go back 10 years to Christmas Day, and film it," he says. "Young people are always filming their lives, but I never bothered to film my mum and dad, so I can't even remember how they talked. So I'd like to go back and film them."

Born in Wellington, New Zealand - his parents, Glyness and Anthony, an executive at Unilever, were Australian - Curtis was raised in various countries, including Sweden and the Philippines.

He talks fondly of a family holiday on the Italian island of Elba in 1964, when every restaurant jukebox played the Jimmy Fontana song Il Mondo. "We bought copies of it, and I always kept it and listened to it. And I always wanted to use it in a movie." About Time finally gave him the chance. "So that's the bit that's about my dad really," he says.

Other autobiographical elements came with the casting. "I always thought my heroes in my movies were going to be more like Domhnall," he says. "When I wrote Four Weddings, they suggested Hugh Grant play the lead. I said 'No, he's too handsome and too posh, and he'll find it too easy to get girlfriends!'" Curtis was overruled. But there's something about Gleeson that reminds Curtis of himself when he was younger. "I was very ordinary looking and not very special."

Now, with his white hair, soft blue eyes and penchant for comfy sweaters, Curtis has the look of an incurable romantic. He started young: when living in Sweden, he stole a ring from his mother and gave it to a girl he liked - who promptly threw it in the snow, never to be found again.

When it came to women, "I was completely unsuccessful," he says. "Then I got one girlfriend and my heart was so badly broken it took me a decade to get over it. I'm sure that's why I've been writing all these movies."

His films are generally known for their romantic edge, but Curtis himself doesn't see it that way. "I'm puzzled by the romantic comedy thing, because I didn't know when I was writing Four Weddings that I was writing a romantic comedy," he says. "I hope I've always been moving on."

Now, of course, he's hoping to be moving on in a different way, doing all those things he's been aching to do for years. Such as reading books. " The Times Literary Supplement did a thing of the 100 books you must read before you die, and my 18-year-old daughter [Scarlett] had read 64 of them. I'd read 32." He'd love to travel more, too, just like his parents did. "I haven't been able to, and it's a regret," he says.

Whatever happens, Curtis says he still wants to write. While he claims not to be involved in the third Bridget Jones film, he just adapted Andy Mulligan's 2010 novel Trash, which is being filmed in Rio de Janeiro. "I think of it as between The Bourne Ultimatum and Slumdog Millionaire," he says.

So does he regret announcing his retirement? "I don't know, we'll see what happens. Maybe I could travel back in time and not say it."

48hours@scmp.com

 

About Time opens on October 3

 

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