Since its release, in 2003, the British romantic comedy Love Actually has nestled itself comfortably among the immortals It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story, and, dare we say it, Bad Santa. Today, this Advent calendar of a Christmas movie with multitudes of story lines and stars—Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, Bill Nighy, Alan Rickman, Emma Thompson—is a holiday classic beloved by audiences around the world. I spoke with the man behind it all, the writer and director Richard Curtis, about the making of Love Actually, on a recent afternoon in Los Angeles.
Curtis, a puckish fellow in his early 60s, has had a film career to envy, mostly writing and/or directing romantic comedies such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Bridget Jones’s Diary.
In less than a decade, starting in the mid-90s, “I’d written three romantic comedies,” Curtis says, “and when I thought of doing a fourth one, I had two ideas—one of which turned into the Hugh Grant story, and one which turned into the Colin Firth story. Then I just suddenly thought, Why don’t I try and be really greedy and write 10 [story lines] at the same time?” (Nine ended up making it into Love Actually, which Curtis says is modeled off of Robert Altman’s Nashville; Short Cuts, based on several Raymond Carver short stories; and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. A 10th, which would have revolved around Rowan Atkinson, didn’t pan out.)
Curtis reads out loud from a journal he kept as he developed the various plots of Love Actually:
The idea being to create a movie that is more deliberately a group of stories - so that we tell 7 romances - or 14 romances at their key and peak moments - rather than concentrating on one - but go for the moments of maximum emotion… the definitive sketch writer’s movie - but stretched in order to allow emotion - and death - and depression - and fame and infidelity - and the whole caboodle. Lots of movies at once.
The inspiration came while Curtis was recuperating from a back operation and couldn’t easily sit at a keyboard and type. On his daily walks he hit upon the perfect thing—“What would happen if you only wrote the five best scenes in a movie instead of having to bother with introducing the characters and seeing what happens to them the day after?” he recalls. “If you want the kind of drug of romantic comedy, you could just have nine people running across an airport at the end, rather than just the one. In almost all cases, I wrote them as 15-minute mini-films, and I then started to interweave them, and that took forever.”
From there, “it was like an unbelievably difficult game of three-dimensional chess,” Curtis says, “because normally in movies someone robs a bank. The next thing is they have to get in the getaway car. The next thing is the getaway car has to drive away. But in this movie, if someone had done something, you had other places it could go at any point.”
Curtis eventually settled on his nine story lines, with Atkinson popping up in two of them. The first is Bill Nighy’s inspired role as Billy Mack, an over-the-hill, brain-addled rock star, and his tireless, unappreciated manager Joe (Gregor Fisher). At the time, Curtis wrote:
The thought that it might start with some legendary pop person making a Christmas record he hates: ‘This is shit.’ It may be shit – but it’s also solid gold. It can’t be solid gold if it’s shit – it’s got to be gold plated. Shit is shit and you mix gold with it. And then we follow a disc jockey giving it zero marks. But then maybe our old star does a fabulous appearance on telly and it gets to number one anyway!
The Hugh Grant story stars Grant as David, a newly elected prime minister who falls for his secretary, Natalie (or “plumpy,” depending on whom you ask), played by Martine McCutcheon.
Again, reading from his journal:
New idea is that there should be a PM and should be a once, if not twice divorced guy – falls in love with this girl – can’t make a move towards her – is SO deep in love – and then, a major summit with the Americans has been planned – and we see the spark occur, this time between the President and the girl… and she is discovered either snogging – or sleeping with him and the PM is wild with jealousy… And then perhaps it all turns out all right with her sending him a Christmas card and him charging across town because he loves her – and arriving at her house and he’s the prime minister and he loves her and kisses her over the turkey…
The Christmas turkey—a British holiday classic—didn’t make it in, but the rest basically did.
Other story lines follow Thompson and the late, much-missed Rickman as a couple troubled by Rickman’s character’s affair; Firth as a successful crime writer who finds love with a Portuguese maid (Lúcia Moniz) after he is jilted by his live-in girlfriend; and newlywed couple Juliet and Peter, played by Knightley and Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a My Best Friend’s Wedding–esque plotline in which Peter’s best friend, Mark (Andrew Lincoln, who later starred on The Walking Dead), falls for Juliet.
This last one features one of the film’s most famous scenes, set in a charming London mews, in which Mark shows up at Juliet and Peter’s door on Christmas Eve, declaring his love through a series of placards. Mark then walks away, having made his love known but not wanting to destroy his best friend’s marriage, and Juliet follows him, planting a kiss on him before he leaves.
Curtis wasn’t sure how to approach that scene. He wanted Mark to “do some gesture right at the end of the film, to show how he feels about Juliet,” he says, “and I wrote five of them. I went down to my office where there were three 20-year-old women sitting around, and I said, ‘O.K., here’s your choice. Which of these would you welcome, and which of these would you think was horrible?’ And they chose the cards rather than cover[ing] the street with roses or something like that. It’s interesting, and stolen from Bob Dylan [in Don’t Look Back].”
Since then, it has apparently become known by some as the “stalking scene.” “Emma Thompson was talking to [a journalist] from a women’s magazine,” Curtis recalls, “and she said, ‘We just have to talk about the stalking scene.’ Emma said, ‘Which is the stalking scene?’”
“I feel slightly let off the hook when, in fact, it was three women of Keira’s age who picked that [option],” Curtis adds.
Then there is the naked-couple story, which Universal suggested cutting. Without it, the studio could change the rating of the movie from R to PG-13 and make $20 million more. Curtis: “I said, ‘Rather not.’ They said, ‘Fair enough.’”
The naked couple are John (Martin Freeman, before his Lord of the Rings and Sherlock fame) and Judy (Joanna Page, after her harrowing role in From Hell), body doubles in adult movies who hit it off while filming graphic sex scenes. “I think we got unbelievably lucky” with casting, Curtis says. “She’s from Wales and very chatty and very informal, and Martin’s really down-to-earth. They were very unselfconscious about doing it, and, therefore, everybody was very unselfconscious about filming it.”
“We didn’t audition anyone except Martin [for the role of John], because I think I was obsessed by The Office,” Curtis says. “Quite a lot of [girls] wouldn’t audition for [the role of Judy]. I remember Joanna Page told [a] brilliant story about the time her maid of honor lost a lot of weight, and she thought she had got more attractive than her, so she fired her and instead used her dog. We got very lucky there.”
One of the purely comic bits involves a goofball named Colin (Kris Marshall), who can’t seem to get anywhere with English women and decides to try his luck across the pond, where he thinks American women will fall for his “cute British accent.”
On his first night in a Milwaukee bar during a snowstorm, Colin meets three rowdy and randy beauties—Stacey (Ivana Milicevic), Carol-Anne (Elisha Cuthbert), and Jeannie (a pre–Mad Men January Jones). Smitten by his accent, they invite him home for a four-way. Actually, a five-way, promising that their friend Harriet (Shannon Elizabeth), “the sexy one,” will join them.
Curtis recalls that Jones’s scene in the bar is “the only scene in the movie that’s actually improvised.”
Jones “was cast in the movie without auditioning,” she tells me. Used to improvising in comedies, Jones jumped right in. She was concerned that “those wacky girls were written on the page with very proper British lingo,” she says. “I’m from South Dakota, and this isn’t how we would talk in a bar. I just sort of made it my own on the first take or two, and then someone pulled me aside and said, ‘Listen, we noticed that you’re improvising, and Richard doesn’t do that, so let’s try to keep it how it is on the page.’”
She was sent to her trailer, worried that she was going to get fired, but Curtis came in, “sat me down, and he goes, ‘I would like to know what you would say, because I don’t know how to talk like an American girl,’” Jones says. “We got back to set, and he gave us a little free rein…. He even kept in my line ‘And he’s a Christian!’” Curtis later told Jones that it was the first time he had let anyone improvise his work.
Laura Linney’s story, in which she plays a single woman who is in love with her co-worker Karl but also responsible for her mentally ill brother, is autobiographical. “My sister was very ill, so I’m aware of that strange sense that no matter how long something lasts, it always might be the one time you have to take the call,” Curtis says.
“One of the luxuries of Love Actually was that I was allowed to stop thinking that love consisted of a 23-year-old man falling in love with a 21-year-old girl,” Curtis says. “It was a great relief to be able to say, Oh, we’re allowed to love brothers and sisters and fathers and sons and friends and colleagues and everything like that.”
As he recorded in his journal:
The idea of the nervous breakdown / depression is still interesting to me - and the comic collision is that our hero might have a sister who is depressed and needs to ring him in the evening to stop herself from killing herself. And he has been trying throughout the movie to sleep with a beautiful girl - and then when finally he gets her to bed, it’s the night that the sister keeps ringing - and so on the one hand, he is actually in the middle of coitus - and on the other is trying to talk a suicide down.
Samuel Beckett had Jack McGowan and Billie Whitelaw. Richard Curtis has Rowan Atkinson, best known perhaps for Mr. Bean and Blackadder, both co-written by Curtis. Their friendship and collaborations began in their Oxford days, and his is a small part in Love Actually, in which he appears in two story lines as Rufus.
“Rowan’s character was supposed to be an angel,” Curtis explained, “because he helps Sam [a 13-year-old Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who recently had parts in Game of Thrones and The Queen’s Gambit] get through the barrier [to bid his crush good-bye], and he tries to stop Alan [Rickman] from buying the necklace [for a woman who isn’t his wife].”
Curtis says, “We had a shot where [Atkinson] walked across Heathrow and got into a conversation with another slightly strange person, played by an actor called J. J. Feild. They both walk away and they both disappear.” It worked in that other Christmas chestnut, It’s a Wonderful Life, but it didn’t make it to the final Love Actually cut.
“In the end, all the slightly madder ideas did disappear,” Curtis says. “I think it was hard enough focusing on a film with multiple stories without thinking, Oh my God, it’s not even a realistic movie.”
Then Curtis realized how he would bring all of the story lines together. He wrote in his journal:
THIS IS THE BEST THOUGHT I’VE HAD SO FAR ON THIS – how about ending the film at Christmas? - and it would be the thing that links all these stories - and be about Christmas and love - and even include the Christmas story itself… The idea that everyone heads for some kind of emotional resolution at Christmas…. It might make it a much less serious film, the Christmas thing - because I was hoping to do depression and anorexia - but maybe I could do that anyway…
But it was actually the TV presenter and script editor Emma Freud, Curtis’s partner in all things and now an AIR MAIL contributor, who came up with the idea of starting and ending the movie at Heathrow, filming real people greeting each other for an ever multiplying montage to accompany the credits. She also edited those scenes.
“It was a joy and a very tearful experience,” Freud says. “We had an amazing cameraman who just went to Heathrow and stood there with his camera hidden in a black box and got all that real footage. There were hours and hours and hours of it, and … the more you watched it, the more you fell in love with the people, the more you appreciated the minutiae of the differences in the way that they greeted each other, and the more they told you. I felt like I knew every single one of those people, as well as the cast of the film, by the end of it.”
Asked if he would have done anything differently today, Curtis says, “I think if I’d made it now, I would have tried much harder to make the casting more diverse. I would definitely have had a gay love story.”
Curtis admits that of all his films, “Love Actually was the one that I was most convinced was a catastrophic failure, and then finally we wrangled it into shape.”
What makes it a classic of the season? Curtis has a theory about that, too: “When you’re watching the film, you don’t know what’s coming”—like opening presents on Christmas morning.
Sam Kashner, a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL, is a co-author of Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends