Richard Curtis & Tom Sturridge Broadcast ‘Pirate Radio’
by Matt Fagerholm
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Six years after his directorial debut Love Actually, celebrated filmmaker Richard Curtis now brings another jubilant, music-filled ensemble piece to the big screen. Pirate Radio is based on the true 60s-era story of rouge DJs who broadcast rock ‘n roll from a boat perched in the North Sea to a enthused British audience. It’s a classic tale of anti-conformity, as the government (which aimed to ban such music from the airwaves) becomes determined to shut them down. The all-star cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost and Kenneth Branagh. Also onboard is a young everyman protagonist played by Tom Sturridge, whose star is quickly rising both onscreen and onstage.
Film Monthly spoke separately with both Richard Curtis and Tom Sturridge. Curtis spoke about how his great passion for music influences his film work, his own experience growing up with rock music, and his response to critics who label his films: “too sentimental.” Sturridge discussed the freedom Curtis allowed actors on the set, his recent experience in theater, and how the Internet has changed the audition process.
QUESTION: How did you choose the music that would be in the film?
RICHARD CURTIS: Well, you know, it’s so interesting now because you write on computers which are also a jukebox. So the moment I started [writing] it, the first thing I did was download about sixty songs that I was tempted by, and that got up to about 300. I always use pop music to cheer me up during very long days of writing and about 15 of the songs were actually written in to the script. January Jones is called Eleanor so that we could play “Eleanor” [by The Turtles] and the guy was always going to say at the beginning, “We’re going to broadcast all day and all night.” And then I did an iPod with thirty songs per DJ to give them all a sense of it, and when we edited the movie, all of those were on a computer. We had a music editor, and he and I would meet at the end of each day and do a new section. I wanted music all the way through the film, apart from the Ken Branagh bits. We ended up being self-selecting. You think you want one song for a scene, and then you play it next to the scene and it doesn’t work. It’s a song that only becomes interesting after thirty seconds, and it’s only a twenty second cue. So you find your way, as if by magic, to the songs.
QUESTION: And how do you afford those songs? It must have the most music licenses of major artists in film history.
RICHARD CURTIS: Yes it does. Well, one, we paid for them. Two, it’s a weirdly free market. There’s no price, and one of the things is on inexpensive movies, sometimes they give them great songs for almost nothing. So in the end of the negotiation, you get to the point where you simply say to a person, “Either we give you 50,000 dollars, or we give you nothing and we pick another song.” That’s the moment where they decide whether or not they care enough about precedent issues. I think The Doors wanted 1.6 million for one song, so we didn’t get that. In the same way, when Hugh Grant danced in Love Actually, I wanted “Beat It,” the Jackson song.
QUESTION: And the Stones don’t let you put songs on soundtracks, do they?
RICHARD CURTIS: They allowed it in the film, but not on the soundtrack.
QUESTION: Considering the films you’ve directed, have you ever thought of doing a musical?
RICHARD CURTIS: It’s my never-to-be-achieved dream. When I was young I did a TV show called “Not the Nine O’Clock News,” which had a lot of songs in it, and I did all the words for those songs. But my life’s taken me down another route, and I don’t think I’ll do it now. I think this is my big musical marriage.
QUESTION: What attracts you to telling stories on big sprawling canvases in your directorial efforts?
RICHARD CURTIS: I think it’s coincidence in a weird way. Since I did Love Actually, I did a movie called “A Girl in the Cafe,” which is a tiny story, and I did “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency,” which is, in a way, about a small group. So it just so happened that the two movies are the big ones. But also there’s an element that I’m very interested in: friendship and group dynamics, and in this movie, [while] the historical passion idea was pirate radio and pop music, the comic idea was eight megalomaniacs in a small house. I sort of thought whatever the American equivalent would be, David Letterman and Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien not only working in the same space, but actually living with each other 365 days a year. So that was the comedy idea, therefore that required eight big characters.
QUESTION: You’ve cited Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H as an influence for this film. Has Altman influenced your directorial choices?
RICHARD CURTIS: It’s weird, because obviously both films are directly related to Altman films. For Love Actually, I watched Nashville, [which has] always been one of my favorite films, and Short Cuts as well. That’s sort of a benign coincidence. He’s clearly made many of the films I love the most.
QUESTION: Love Actually, “Girl in the Cafe,” and this film—”Blackadder” even—all have a political background or meaning to them. Why is that of interest?
RICHARD CURTIS: It does and it doesn’t. “The Girl in the Cafe” was clearly a political film. “Blackadder” is a series about how stupid older people are, so it’s a young man’s show. The political point here, in a way, is just that I always feel that governments are solving problems of the generation before. Young men of 28 join politics, and by the time they’re 45, they still seem to be dealing with old stuff. That’s why the environment issue still isn’t being taken seriously, because it’s a bunch of people who still think that oil is more important. I think it’s political by chance, but it’s a political story I’m quite interested in. I was one of the producers of “Live 8,” and there again it’s the same story of pop musicians trying to budge people in the direction of change. In England, it was hilarious in the sixties. I went to a boarding school, and it really was like 1949. All the hair was unbelievably short, you couldn’t run in the corridors, you couldn’t talk after lights out, you sung endless hymns with the wet pilgrim in them. That’s why it was so fantastic to listen to rock n roll undisciplined.
QUESTION: Do you remember the first time you did that?
RICHARD CURTIS: Yeah, very soon after I arrived in my horrible boarding school. I had a tiny little [radio]. You were like a safe-cracker, because the stations were hard to get. They had very small frequencies, and it was the thing about volume level. If it was too quiet you couldn’t hear it, but if it was too loud, the matron who stalked along the corridors could hear it, so you had to get that perfect level.
QUESTION: Did you have a first favorite song?
RICHARD CURTIS: This is late, but I have very passionate memories about “Reach Out I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops. It was the first single I bought, and I remember—you the way you can remember weird moments from your youth? I remember Chapel was on, which was compulsory, and a guy called Richard Griffiths and I were hiding in the music rehearsal room. I remember the DJ saying that “Reach Out I’ll Be There” had gone from number 16 to number 2. I was unbelievably excited, because these days all records enter in number one, but in those days they went from thirty, although the great thing about pirate radio is they made up the charts. They really were piratical. They didn’t pay PRS, they made up the charts. In the research I did after I had written the movie, there’s a story about a man in an expensive yacht that came onboard [a pirate radio ship]. One disc jockey showed the man all around the boat for a very long time, while two of the other disc jockeys were having sex with his girlfriend. It’s the detail of two that so disgusts me. Why did two of them have to do it?
QUESTION: You were pretty young at the time when the film is set. So was it kind of like looking forward to what the older kids were listening to?
RICHARD CURTIS: I think one, it’s that I was locked in a boarding school, and sensed this amazing world of freedom. Also, when I now think back to this film, I think it’s a film partly about being 24—for everybody. I think most people end up in a flat with too many people, one of whom has had sex with everybody, one of whom has never had sex, dreadful food, bad hygiene, and listening to music all the time. For me, that was Camden Town, 1979—The Specials, Madness, Blondie, The Pretenders. In a way, it’s a movie about the freedom of your twenties when money doesn’t matter. You do the job you want to do, you don’t have any children. The weird thing is you often end up living with people you don’t like, because it’s a bit random. It’s the one person who can afford it, or it’s the guy who owns the place, or some girl whose a friend of his mother’s who has to move in. I hated the four people I moved in with, and yet we were happy.
QUESTION: Why did you change the title to The Boat That Rocked to Pirate Radio for the American release?
RICHARD CURTIS: When they were releasing it, I said, “Do you like the title?” And they said, “We’ll have fun and come up with any other ones.” And the moment they suggested that, I thought we couldn’t have called it that in the UK. It would’ve been like calling it The Post Office or The Hotel. But, it’s a great name, it’s what it’s about, I love the word “Pirate” being in it, so I was happy. In France it was called Good Morning England, in English! I remember Notting Hill was called—which I always preferred because I never wanted Notting Hill to be called Notting Hill—it was called Coup de foudre a Notting Hill, which means, “A Mad Moment of Love in Notting Hill.” So I’m never that fussy about titles.
QUESTION: How much of the cast did you write for?
RICHARD CURTIS: Only Bill, actually. That is the magic of handing a script to a casting director, because on the whole, I don’t do that. When I wrote “Girl in the Cafe,” I also had Bill in mind, but definitely not Bill in Love Actually. And then, you get your list of the best American [actors], which had Phil at the top. I said, “Well, he’s not going to do it.” And they said, “Well, we got time on our hands, lets ask him.” And then miraculously, he did want to do it, which was great for us. Similarly, the list came with Nick Frost, who I’ve always loved but just assumed that he would never be in one of my films. He makes the films with Edgar and Simon, and then when I saw him on the list, I thought, “Fantastic, send it to him. That would be perfect.”
QUESTION: Why was Phil at the top?
RICHARD CURTIS: My brief to them was that The Count was meant to be both funny—which I hope everyone is, he tries to say “f—k” first on the radio—but he was meant to be the soul of the film. I loved the idea of having a really good actor deliver that speech about, “These are the best days of our lives.” The first thing I ever wrote in the film, oddly enough, was the speech he delivers as the boat sinks. I was listening to “Don’t Dream it’s Over” by the Crowded House, and he actually says, “I want to say to all you politicians, don’t dream it’s over.” My intention when I first made the film was that at the end of the movie, we were going to have a compilation of all the great rock songs from the moment the boat went down to now. But it was very confusing when we hoped to get the final cut. So I wanted the best actor to play that part, not necessarily a comedian.
QUESTION: Your earlier work, such as “Blackadder,” had a dark, cynical edge, and in you recent work, there’s an unrelenting optimism. Why is that?
RICHARD CURTIS: It’s odd, isn’t it? I was held back in “Blackadder,” we weren’t allowed to do anything emotional at all. We tried to once, but we didn’t until the very end.
QUESTION: But you wanted to do it before that?
RICHARD CURTIS: I used to argue that they should fall in love, and then for a decade I was really interested in love. I’ve got a real problem with that. I had ten unhappy years when it was the thing that obsessed me, and so I wrote films about that. But I think that the truth of the matter is now that I spend half of my life dealing with serious things—I run a charity—and so when I get back to my job, because I’m a happy person, I actually think it’s a great thing to try and make the happiest [picture possible]. And in a way, I am picking a fight with my critics. I was aware of that when I did Love Actually, because I thought, “Wow, it’s bad enough writing romantic comedies to write ten of them and write them all in the same film, and I feel the same way about this. I kept on saying I wanted to do an ecstatic film, there’s fifty songs in it. I think that people who make serious films find ways of making them more violent, more shocking, more traumatic, and I think as somebody who tries to make funny joyful films, I might as well try and go the whole hog. But also, in a way, it will be interesting to see what I do next, because I do have to sort of write about fatherhood and settling down and all that stuff.
QUESTION: This is also the first time in a long time that you’ve had a true villain in a film.
RICHARD CURTIS: I know, and I often get criticized for not having bad people in my movies, that’s why everyone is nice. But that was one of the fun things about it. I mean there are things in this movie I haven’t done before, like the whole last half hour having a real action-packed ending. And it’s great to do new things.
QUESTION: Was there a particular politician or a group of politicians that wanted to represent in the Branagh character?
RICHARD CURTIS: Not really. What was awkward was that the government who banned it were in fact a labour government. I tried to write that, but it didn’t make any sense, because they were northern guys and I couldn’t write the room. So I tried to make him neutral, obviously tipping towards conservative. It was actually banned by a guy called Tony Benn, who was this complicated figure because he was originally Lord Benn and he gave up his title. He claims he banned it because he thought that young people should be concentrating on serious social issues rather that frittering away their revolutionary instincts by listening to rock ‘n roll. It sounds like a lie to me.
QUESTION: Every few years there’s a rumor of a fifth “Blackadder.” Do you want to fuel the fire?
RICHARD CURTIS: No, I don’t think so. Oddly enough, I love the fact that The Police got back together again, and Cream got back together again while they’re still alive. And when we were young, we always said that we’ll do another “Blackadder” when we’re old and hate young people. Because it was young people pretending to be old people and show what idiots they were. But Tony Robinson is in his mid-90s now, so I’m not hopeful.
QUESTION: It seems like you let your actors breathe, allowing their natural quirks to come through onscreen. Was that a conscious effort?
RICHARD CURTIS: Much more so in this film actually. I had a few bad experiences on films where we’d be doing dinner table sequences, and there would be five takes of him, five takes of her, and I said I can’t have that with 12 people in the room. So we decided that we put the cameras on the shoulders, and just shoot the scenes whole without close ups, and make the guys cover it. It led to things going much faster, and me feeling much more relaxed about improvising, so in fact the actors got a lot more freedom. We did this sort of boat camp where we all gathered together for three days beforehand. A lot of the stuff I liked most in the film was made up by other people. There’s a little scene where Tom’s very depressed, and they come and give him tea and biscuits. That was just there and I said, “How would you behave? The camera’s rolling…action.” And there’s a great moment in the January Jones scene where Chris O’Dowd comes in and says, “You look like a unicorn in a dress.” I didn’t write that, and there’s another line later on where he says, “I want to have lots of children. You’ll be in bits by the time I’m finished with you.” I didn’t write that line, so it was part and parcel of the freedom of the shoot.
QUESTION: Have your parents [filmmaker Charles Sturridge and actress Phoebe Nicholls] given you any guidance about entering the industry?
TOM STURRIDGE: It was kind of the opposite. I was a very cliched, rebellious child, and I really didn’t want to have anything to do with what they did. I didn’t see my mom in a play until about a year and a half ago. There was no fracture in any other side of our relationships, but I wasn’t somebody who spent time on sets. And so it wasn’t until I was seventeen, when they were casting a film called Being Julia. I was quite a big cinephile when I was a kid, and I really wanted to meet [director] Istvan Szabo. And the casting director was my friend’s mother and she showed him all the professional seventeen year old actors, and he didn’t like any of them. So after that, she said the only other seventeen year old boys she knew were her family friends. And so she started getting them in, and I really wanted to meet Istvan. It was that experience meeting him and by chance getting the job and the experience of making the film that was what got me into acting more than anything.
QUESTION: So the child actor thing didn’t get you interested?
TOM STURRIDGE: I did a film when I was seven, Gulliver’s Travels [directed by Charles Sturridge], which was more due to the fact that my dad was out of the country and he wanted a way for his son to be with him. I wouldn’t really call that acting, I’d call it standing.
QUESTION: What does your generation think of the 60s?
TOM STURRIDGE: I think every contemporary band and musician has in some way been influenced or is referencing music that began in the 60s in the same way that the Stones were referencing the blues. So this music is not an alien idea, and also unlike any other period, it’s still abound in our culture: Beatles music, Rolling Stones music, The Who…especially in England. You can’t watch a film or a TV advo or a television program without listening to them. So I don’t think we are as naive to it as perhaps generations before may have been. What’s amazing about it, which is very different to being young now is how it was born of an energy created by this postwar conservatism, and young people not having a framework to express how they feel. Especially in England, the fifties were very repressed, people were recovering from what had happened. You didn’t tell your mother what you felt about love and sex and how to live, and so an energy built up that exploded with this music, and I think that’s something that any young person can empathize with.
QUESTION: So going in, what amount of the music or the period were you familiar with?
TOM STURRIDGE: My dad gave me his record collection when I was younger, so I was very familiar with the music. The story itself, the idea of pirate radio and what was happening on these boats, I was completely ignorant of, and learned about totally when I read the script. But in England, it’s so pervasive this music that you can’t not know it. Richard has an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music from 1956 to the present day so it was so educational because he would bring out weird B sides everyday that no one had ever heard of.
QUESTION: In a recent interview, you spoke of how the cast had taught you a lot about the business. Are there any particular instances that you can recall?
TOM STURRIDGE: It’s just about observing people’s behavior. There was no moment when Bill Nighy sat me down on his lap and said, “Let me tell you how to live, boy!” I think it’s very rare nowadays you can ascribe the word “dignified” to an actor, and this film was particularly littered with dignified men—Philip and Bill and Richard—and it was amazing to spend every day in a room with people you want to grow up to be like.
QUESTION: Did the rehearsal process break the ice?
TOM STURRIDGE: Yeah, completely. It was obviously intimidating, but we had a period of four days where we slept and lived on the boat. You can’t help but stop seeing people as movie stars and begin to see them as the broken, fragile human beings they really are when you have breakfast with them every day.
QUESTION: In this film you play the innocent outsider. Do you aspire to play the type of roles embodied by Philip and Rhys Ifans someday?
TOM STURRIDGE: Yeah, I think you always want to do different things. That’s the only way to sustain any kind of career. But I loved the fact that on this I was the voyeur. It was really satisfying to be able to go into work everyday and it’s your job to react as honestly as you could to the amazing things that these guys were doing, both scripted and unscripted. It was just my job to be the audience and relish it, fear it, laugh at it as it happened.
QUESTION: Did you shoot mostly on the boat or half and half?
TOM STURRIDGE: It was literally half and half.
QUESTION: What new challenges did this film present to you as an actor?
TOM STURRIDGE: What was very different was the fact that this was shot the majority of the time with two, sometimes three cameras, all of which were handheld. So basically the camera was an autonomous being because it could go anywhere and the operator would make a decision about what he felt was the most interesting thing going on in the room at the time. That made it was constantly alive, which it had to be when you have seven principle actors in a room. You can’t just do “close-up, wide, two shot” because it would take four years to get through a scene. So it was, in a weird way, kind of like theater because you never knew when you were on or off, and in the same way an audience watching a play can edit it in their mind by deciding to watch. It was exciting, and specifically because you had these great comic egos trying to out-compete each other in order to seduce the camera.
QUESTION: You sensed the competition between the performers?
TOM STURRIDGE: Yeah, in a totally playful way. But still it was amazing to watch.
QUESTION: And that looseness must give you a lot of freedom as an actor.
TOM STURRIDGE: Yeah, completely. Normally, you start with a wide [shot] and you get closer and closer until you’re close up and hope you do your best acting and all that crap. It was a much more liberating way of doing it.
QUESTION: I just read about a play you did called “Punk Rock,” which is apparently not a sequel to this.
TOM STURRIDGE: No [laughs], it’s about a school shooting. I just finished it last week.
QUESTION: How was that experience juxtaposed against your recent film work?
TOM STURRIDGE: It was amazing. I’ve never done a play before, I didn’t do acting at school, so it was a totally new experience, and deeply fulfilling. The play is totally opposite [of this film]—it’s about a boy suffering from schizophrenia who eventually decides to kill all his friends. But it’s a really weird thing. I was quite snobbish about theater and I didn’t really enjoy it. I always had felt really disconnected from it, and so I hadn’t gone up for a lot parts in theater. But then suddenly to do it and realize how wrong I was, and to realize that there’s another avenue or way you can live your life as an actor…it doesn’t have to be, “coming to America and trying to be in film.” You can actually live a more satisfying existence standing onstage [at the Lyric Hammersmith] in London. We also performed the play at an amazing theater in Manchester, and it might go somewhere else…
QUESTION: So you think you might do more theater or try to balance it?
TOM STURRIDGE: Definitely, I just had a shockingly revelatory experience doing it.
QUESTION: Do you have a grand plan for filmmaking in terms of conquering America or following in the footprints of anyone?
TOM STURRIDGE: Not remotely. The only thing I think you can usefully aspire to do is work with people who are cleverer than you are, which I think in my case is relatively easy. In any walk of life, the way to sustain a career or even your mind is to hang out with people who are thinking all the time and trying to make things that are good. That could be in London or Los Angeles or Uzbekistan, but I just want to work with clever people.
QUESTION: Are there particular filmmakers you’d like to work with?
TOM STURRIDGE: There are literally thousands. In England, there’s a young filmmaker Andrea Arnold who made Fish Tank, which was amazing. I really want to see the new Michael Haneke film [The White Ribbon]. There are millions. In America, Paul Thomas Anderson is pretty much the king.
QUESTION: What are the differences you sense between British and American filmmaking?
TOM STURRIDGE: I think its connected to geography and the size of the industry. When America makes a television program, it has to appeal to a much wider audience from very different social and economic backgrounds and therefore has to be popular because that’s how television survives. So unfortunately in order to appease the masses, sometimes you have to be slightly gentler with the way you present the material. Whereas in England, it’s just a smaller country, and the industry is so much smaller that you only need a certain amount of people to watch your program. We’re not as tied to mass culture. But there’s just as much s—t on British TV as there is on American TV, trust me. We sit at home watching “Mad Men” and “The Wire” and thinking that America is the god of culture. I think America definitely makes the best television in the world, like “Generation Kill”…Maybe not America, maybe HBO.
QUESTION: HBO often seems to cast young British actors in American roles, such as in “Band of Brothers,” “The Pacific,” “The Wire”…
TOM STURRIDGE: They do. I think a lot of that has to do with—it sounds really stupid, but in the old days, to be in American film or television, you had to come to America. Now simply because of things like the Internet, you can audition for American projects and email it to them. It means now that when someone’s casting an American film, they might as well call up an English casting director and say, “Send me who you think are the best English actors, just cause it’s so easy.” It’s not like they had to pay to fly anyone out, and I think people are getting more opportunities just because you go up for more parts that way.
Matt Fagerholm Matt Fagerholm is a freelance writer, film enthusiast and critic in Chicago.
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