Writer-director Richard Curtis' new movie, ''About Time,'' is a tender look at family, love, and what's really important in life -- and he says it may be his last; here, the master of the literate romantic comedy talks about his favorite scenes from five of his films

By Clark Collis
November 01, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT
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Ask Richard Curtis to explain why he recently announced his retirement from directing movies and he will point you toward his third and seemingly last picture, About Time. “The answer is in the film,” he says on a recent afternoon in the lobby café of a New York City hotel.

About Time (rated R, in theaters Nov. 1; see review, page 48) stars up-and-comer Domhnall Gleeson as Tim, a British lad who, on his 21st birthday, learns that all the men in his family can travel through time. Naturally Tim tries to use this power to woo a charming American, played by Rachel McAdams. Like nearly all Curtis-scripted films (a list that includes Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, and the two co-penned Bridget Jones movies), About Time starts off deep in romantic-comedy territory before diving into slightly more serious waters as our hero discovers that while time is endless, life is very short. The moral? You should spend as much time as you can with the people you love — rather than, say, passing your days on a movie set shouting “Action!” “The film was inspired by realizing that I was not as happy from day to day as I should be,” says Curtis, 56, who has four children with his girlfriend and longtime script editor, Emma Freud. “Directing a movie is, in a way, a thousand days of pain.”

Fans of Curtis can rest assured: He isn’t retiring from writing movies. In a rare switching of genre gears, he penned the script for Stephen Daldry’s thriller Trash — “a sort of Bourne Supremacy, but for teenagers” — due next year. He’s also adapted Roald Dahl’s novel Esio Trot as a BBC TV movie, which will star Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench. And despite his ambivalence, he can still imagine retrieving the directorial megaphone and jodhpurs from the metaphorical closet: “Look, that may happen — I’m actually just seeing what happens with an emptier diary.” In the meantime, in anticipation of About Time, we asked Curtis to journey to the past and reminisce about favorite scenes from five of his movies.

Four Weddings and a Funeral 1994
Directed by Mike Newell
Scene The nuptials of Charles (Hugh Grant) and Henrietta (Anna Chancellor) are interrupted by Charles’ deaf brother, who, using sign language, says the groom loves someone else, referring to Andie MacDowell’s character, Carrie. After Charles repeats the message out loud, the vicar asks him if it’s true. Charles fesses up and Henrietta punches him in the face.

“I think it’s good that Hugh only says the words ‘I do’ once in the movie, and that’s in order to get him out of his marriage. The guy says, ‘Do you love someone else?’ And he says, ‘I do.’ The sign language in the movie is an autobiographical thing. My two sisters used to speak Swedish fluently because we lived in Sweden [when I was a child]. I could understand them, but not really speak it, because I went off to an English boarding school. [Years later, back in England] whenever we were at dinner with people who they didn’t like, I would hear this strange rumbling commentary where they would say in Swedish, ‘This is the most boring dinner that I’ve ever had in my life.’ Or ‘How am I looking?’ ‘Your lipstick is smudged.’ Nobody would ever pay any attention to it, but that’s how I got this idea of being able to secretly speak to your siblings.”

Notting Hill 1999
Directed by Roger Michell
Scene Hollywood superstar Anna (Julia Roberts) visits London bookseller William (Hugh Grant) to rekindle their relationship after a series of ups and downs. When William says that her fame is too great for their story to have a happy ending, Anna responds with one of the most famous speeches in rom-com history: “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.”

“I’ve found that when I get stuck, the answer is to say exactly what the whole movie is about. I remember getting stuck on that movie and thinking, I’d better get Hugh just to say, you’re too famous, and then for her to say, ‘I’m just a girl standing in front of a boy.’ I feel embarrassed a little bit. If you watch the movie, I obviously knew I’d written a good line because in the next scene he says to his friends, ‘Well, she said she was just a girl standing in front of a boy.’ [Laughs] So I obviously thought, I ought to repeat it — as if I’d come up with a good chorus!”

Bridget Jones’s Diary 2001
Directed by Sharon Maguire
Scene Toward the end of this adaptation of Helen Fielding’s best-selling novel, the heroine’s (Renée Zellweger) two paramours, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), engage in a bout of fisticuffs at a restaurant. The tony Brit pugilists take time to apologize to the clientele for disturbing their dining.

“I’m sentimental about the boys fighting. Helen and I were at university together. I read Bridget when it was 70 pages, 90 pages, 110. Helen asked me to [work on the screenplay]. On the initial phone call, I said, ‘I think the key thing is that they should have a fight.’ And then the two boys just did it so well. I love it for the fact that you’ve got two handsome movie stars willing to point out to their audience that they’re a pair of old luvvies who really don’t have any idea how to fight.

I don’t even know if Helen’s interested in adapting the new book [Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, in which we discover that Mark Darcy has died]. I don’t think I’ll do the third one. It might be someone else’s job…. I was a little hurt that I didn’t know [about Darcy’s death] and that my daughter knew. She’s Helen’s godchild and they’ve apparently had many long discussions about it. Whereas I only just found out!”

Love Actually 2003
Directed by Richard Curtis
Scene When Karen (Emma Thompson) unwraps a Christmas present from her husband (Alan Rickman), she finds not the necklace she knows he has purchased but a Joni Mitchell CD. Realizing he must have given the jewelry to someone else, Karen retreats to their bedroom and silently weeps while listening to Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” She then pulls herself together as if nothing had happened.

“I remember the brutality of the day. I said to Emma, ‘We’re just going to watch you do it. There’s no point in me moving the camera around or anything like that. You’ll just have to do this thing, feel this pain.’ It was a very sad afternoon, just watching a woman being destroyed time and time again. Who knows where it came from in her? But we knew while we were watching it that it was probably the best scene in the film.”

About Time 2013
Directed by Richard Curtis
Scene Mary’s parents visit Tim (Gleeson) and Mary (McAdams) in London. Just before their arrival, Mary warns Tim that while it is okay to tell her folks they are having sex, they shouldn’t admit to engaging in “oral.” When the ‘rents arrive at the door, Mary tells them that they are cohabiting, prompting a flustered Tim to say, “Yeah, but no oral sex.”

“Rachel epitomizes the emotion of a scene better than any other actor I’ve worked with. That scene, the whole day, she seemed to be like a young girl in love with a guy she’d been living with. That’s an extraordinary skill. I used to think, I don’t know why I took so much trouble over the script because actually she’s doing it so well, the audience will pick it all up. And of course I like the fact that it’s got a big, noisy, proper bad-language joke. I may have tried to write a deep movie about the meaning of happiness, but there’s still going to be an oral-sex joke.”

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