Why Yesterday Could Only Be About the Beatles
Director Danny Boyle on why the story wouldn’t work without the music of the Fab Four.
It seems strange to imagine that two quintessentially British filmmakers such as director Danny Boyle (28 Days Later, Steve Jobs) and screenwriter/director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) had not yet teamed up on a project despite their different esthetics and thematic approaches. Even though Boyle asked Curtis to help him with the production of the 2012 Summer Olympics’ opening ceremonies, it wasn’t until recently that they clicked on a film.
That film is Yesterday, in which Himesh Patel stars as Jack Malik, a struggling singer/songwriter in the English town of Clacton-on-Sea who is about to give up his dreams of musical success despite the continued support of his manager — and would-be romantic partner — Ellie (Lily James).
One night during a mysterious global blackout, Jack hits his head and wakes up to discover that the Beatles (among a few other things) have been erased from existence. He is the only person in the world who can remember them — and more importantly, remember their songs, which he passes off as his own while he begins a climb to international fame that sadly leaves Ellie behind.
Yesterday defies easy categorization just as Boyle’s own career does. The maverick director’s second film and first major success was the caustic, grimly funny social satire Trainspotting, but he’s touched on drama (the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire), revisionist horror (28 Days Later), unblinking biography (Steve Jobs) and visionary sci-fi (the underrated Sunshine), among others.
He also recently walked away from directing the 25th James Bond film, a seemingly perfect match of acclaimed British director with revered British franchise that did not mesh as well as it might have on paper. We discussed that, the themes behind Yesterday, Boyle’s favorite Beatles album and more when we spoke with him earlier this week.
Den of Geek: You and Richard worked together on the Olympics briefly, but what made Yesterday the film that you finally got together on, and what about his script spoke to you initially?
Danny Boyle: Yeah. We had a funny interchange after the Olympics. We kept up an email exchange. Eventually, I signed off one of them saying, “If there’s ever anything you want to send me, please don’t be shy about sending it.” I thought it was a sort of politeness rather than anything else, but in fact, he sent the script. I was astonished. I read it, and it was very pleasant at the beginning, as you would expect from Richard. Very warm and friendly and comedic about a failing singer/songwriter in a fairly forgotten part of England. Then, of course, this accident happens and you get this extraordinary premise, the simplest premise in the world. You think, “Surely that’s been done before.”
Read More: The Beatles Got Back Together in Rooftop Swan Song
It’s kind of an inevitable pressing on you of its purpose and place in the world. It’s sort of meant to be. I thought that about our own relationship, it was meant to be. We’d done enough films separately. We should do one together because we both love music in different ways, but with the same passion that makes us build films around music. Felt like a wonderful opportunity to collaborate.
He writes a wonderful love story, Richard. He spent his career forging a fusion of romance and comedy really. It was a great privilege to do it, not just to be working on the Beatles’ music, which is not a bad thing to be working on at any point, but also to have this lovely love story and to get a cast like this guy and Lily James as a pair.
Did you play around with approaching this from another angle, almost as like a science fiction movie?
No. You could. In fact, if you tried to work out what would’ve changed in the world, it would almost take you a trilogy of films to detect the kind of changes that would’ve been in the world because of the influence of the Beatles. I think their mark has been pretty emphatic in many, many areas of our lives. Not just in the odd pop group, not like Oasis not being around anymore. I think if you go down that route, it’s a very different kind of film.
Our film, it’s like a double helix of a love story to their music and a love story about an unrequited love, about a love that he’s moving away from foolishly…the stardom that everybody inevitably dreams of at some point is moving him further and further away from his real destination in life, which is Ellie, Lily James.
Aside from the fact that the Beatles come from England, Richard suggested that the link between the band and the country is special because they changed the tenor of life in England at the time that they came out.
Very much so. Also, I think they have a connection almost with the English poets, like Wordsworth, and it’s something that we tried to show with Yesterday. There’s an elegy in their work. It’s a very slight sub-note of melancholy, even in the most joyous songs. Obviously, their sad songs have a joy in them as well, a surprising joy in them as well. It’s sort of like being in this landscape. It feels like the English are always moving away from something. They’re always leaving something behind.
Whether it’s the history of the country, I don’t know. Whether it’s the history of Liverpool, which is the city they emerged from, which has seen greater days. It’s one of those great industrial port towns that was probably decaying. They emerged out of that. That melting pot is probably what led to their work.
They were saying, “No, there are alternative ways of living, and there are more joyful ways of living,” and we have not turned back from that ever since. To me, it began pop culture. Obviously, Elvis began pop culture in a way, but Elvis didn’t write. These boys decided to write and, therefore, take control of the power in a way. I think that comes out of the sadness in England, at the changing of times, I guess. It was also what we were waiting for, and God help us if they hadn’t arrived.
Is there any other music artist that this story could be told about, with the same impact? Dylan perhaps?
No, I don’t think so. I think Dylan kicked in the door to a similar degree, but his songs aren’t as universally recognizable to such a degree, I don’t think.
You got support early on from the surviving Beatles and the estates of Lennon and Harrison.
Yeah. They obviously allowed the film to go ahead, whereas they’re normally very careful about what they license their songs in. Sometimes documentaries, but very little fiction do they allow it in, so we were very lucky that they approved. It’s typical of their sense of humor, actually, which was one of their marked features, this tremendous sense of humor they had. It’s typical of their sense of humor that they would, at a time when biopics and life stories are the way that back catalogs are exposed or exploited, give approval to a movie about their music that sees their music erased from history, that takes a particularly sardonic look at the world, really. I love that about them.
When we finished the film, we sent it to them as a courtesy. They don’t have any control over the film, nor are they actively recommending it to anybody. We keep a respectful distance from each other, but we got a lovely personal note back from Ringo and Barbara, and from Olivia, George’s widow, very special notes saying how much they enjoyed the film, so that was lovely.
Let’s finish on a couple of other subjects. A lot has been said about you walking away from the latest James Bond movie. You and the producers really just couldn’t make it work.
Yeah, it’s the old joke about creative differences, which is obviously we thought we were being creative and they thought different. It’s just what it is, really. With projects of that scale, you’re wise to part company if you disagree so fundamentally about what you’re doing, so we did. That was a shame, I agree, because it would’ve been great. Also, it would’ve been very special to me to go from a Beatles movie to a Bond movie. There would’ve been a very nice connection there. That would’ve made a good headline anyway.
You’ve also spoken about the possibility of a third film in the 28 Days Later saga, which would team you with (writer) Alex Garland again.
Well, Alex has written something which I thought was very, very good. I think the problem at the moment is Alex is involved in a huge television show that he’s editing at the moment, so his mind will be full of that. I don’t think we will see much progress soon, but it was a very good ideas and good ideas are rare to come by. It’s typical in Alex that he’s produced one. He may well want to direct it himself. He directs his own work at the moment, so we’ll see. But yes, he had a lovely idea, as Alex always does.
If the Beatles’ music actually did disappear from the world and you had the chance to save one album, which one would it be?
Oh, Abbey Road for me just because of that second side. You know the medley on the second side? That has infinite variety in it that is rare to find, and it’s almost prophetic. Because nowadays, we accept that you can have a playlist of that kind of variety. Back then, a playlist like that of such different things from the single group is almost impossible to imagine. You’d get concept albums that would have some kind of narrative variety in them, but to have a medley like that which is greater than the sum of its parts, and its parts are occasionally classic, occasionally disposable, it’s a wonderful use of all elements of musical sensibility. Yeah, that would be my one.
Yesterday is out in theaters now.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye