Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Yesterday. Proceed at your own risk.
Yesterday imagines a world in which everyone except protagonist Jack Malik (Hamish Patel) forgets that the Beatles ever existed. No lyrics, no melodies, nothing remains of what many have deemed the world’s greatest band — which works in Jack’s favor, as he strives to write down the tune and lyrics to every Beatles song he can remember in order to chase the fame he’s dreamed of as a singer-songwriter.
There are a lot of crazy things to imagine about a world without the Beatles — and the film does, suggesting it’s also a world without Oasis, Coca-Cola, cigarettes, and more — but one of the most emotional upshots of this alternate universe is that if the Beatles never catapulted to global fame in the 1960s, John Lennon might still be alive.
In the film’s third act, Jack is overwhelmed by the massive lie he has perpetrated and the possibility of losing the woman he loves (played by Lily James), so he takes a trip to an address given to him by the other two people who remember the Fab Four. And waiting behind the door is John Lennon, a gasp-inducing twist.
Director Danny Boyle tells EW he had a similar reaction when he first read the scene in Richard Curtis’ script. “When I read it, emotionally, I was overwhelmed by it,” he says. “When you work on a movie, you’re very conscious of time. And I don’t mean a producer shouting, ‘You’re running out of time.’ You can crush time or expand it. You stop it, you start it. You can do wondrous things in time in cinema. This premise is an alternate timeline, and it can show you something wondrous where violence can be defeated. Something horrible we imagine for a moment never to have happened.”
The scene itself presented a unique challenge for the director, in that the entire production team was eager to keep this scene a secret for audiences. Because of this, the actor playing the older version of Lennon isn’t credited, and Boyle won’t reveal who it is. (To our eyes, he bears a striking resemblance to frequent Boyle collaborator Robert Carlyle.)
To help keep the scene under wraps, they didn’t hold auditions for the role. “We just talked about this actor and I sent it to him. I knew him, and I knew he was a lifelong Lennon fan,” Boyle says. “For him, it was a special journey. He didn’t want to be credited in the cast, in the list, and he didn’t want it to be talked about or become a thing or anything like that. He just wanted to do it to honor someone that was very important in his imaginative life. He never met him or anything like that, but he played a huge part in his imaginative life.”
Then there was the prospect of actually filming the scene and imagining what Lennon in his 70s might look like. “I loved the idea of it, but I understood the danger is it could look cheap,” Boyle says. The moment itself is quite shocking, as fans are perhaps expecting Paul McCartney or Ringo Starr to turn up as a version of themselves in the scene.
To maintain the sense of wonder, the filmmakers organized the shooting day to make the moment more organic for Patel. “Hamish didn’t meet him until we opened the door,” Boyle reveals. “We set up the day so that the first time [Patel] met the actor playing the part was when he opened the door on camera and said, ‘Are you John?’”
Besides that carefully orchestrated first meeting, Boyle says the day was also quite magical because of a lucky accident with the natural light. “When we were filming on the little boat that sits outside the cottage, the sun began to travel around, and it was clear that when we were going to film key moments in the end of their conversation, he was going to be backlit so much that he was going to turn into a silhouette almost,” Boyle says. “That felt very magical. The movie will be over shortly and real life will creep back in again, and real life tells you something different to what the movie has given you for a short moment. But that’s what I love movies for: They give you those moments of absolute redemption that is beyond the grubby, or in this case horrific, details of modern life.”
Boyle notes that Curtis considered including scenes with older versions of all the Beatles, with McCartney and Starr potentially appearing as themselves. The idea largely came because they were eager to balance out the songwriting contributions of all four of the band members and thought maybe that balance should be literally reflected in the storytelling. But none of those scenes made the final draft.
“[Curtis] didn’t like it because he thought it would be too much,” Boyle says. “He thought it would have diminishing returns, and it wouldn’t feel organic in the way that the scene that he wrote came to him very organically.”
Given that the film’s score features many Beatles songs, Yesterday had to be made with the permission of all rights holders, including Apple Records. That meant the entire script, including this scene, was approved by all involved parties, which Boyle says was a relief because he understands how emotional that premise might be for those closest to Lennon.
However, he’s also willing to admit the scene might not work for everyone. “When we tested the film, it’s a Marmite scene for some people,” he says. “It produces very intense feelings, which is absolutely understandable… I think a lot of that is to do with people’s own lives and their own experiences with mortality.”
While it may not be everyone’s favorite part of the film, Boyle says it’s the scene he’s most proud of. “It’s a very affectionate and beautiful portrait of someone that we love. Wouldn’t things be wonderful if we hadn’t lost him?” he muses. “In this alternate world, he’s still there and he lived a very happy life without the fame, without the glory, without the pressure. He’s still done the most fundamental thing, which is find the girl that he loved and told her so, and actually got on with his life with her and lived a happy life with her. It’s very basic, but I was very, very moved by that within what is a very light romantic comedy. There’s a very profound idea within it.”
Yesterday is in theaters now.