Danny Boyle. Richard Curtis. The Beatles. Romantic comedy Yesterday is a high-concept music movie that brings together some of our favourite things to create a slightly weird, but rather wonderful British comedy. The movie imagines a world where, following a freak blackout, no one in the world remembers The Beatles ever existed. No one, that is, except aspiring musician Jack (Himesh Patel).
The movie mixes sci-fi and romance with a fresh new approach to The Beatles music, and, as Boyle points out when Den Of Geek sits down to chat with the director, it’s kind of amusing that the movie The Beatles themselves sanctioned to bring their songs to life, is one in which they don’t even exist. “That’s their sense of humour,” he laughs. “They were really funny and dry. I think The Beatles would like it. But who knows?”
We chat with Boyle about Yesterday, why there aren’t more British comedies and his favourite feel good film of all time.
This movie is wonderfully unashamedly feel good. Is that something you feel like we need right now? Some of the best movies this year have been really good-hearted.
Yes. I mean, obviously, you as a journalist, you have to try and make sense of that, in a way. As a pattern.
And maybe it’s not a pattern…
Maybe it’s not, but it looks like a pattern, doesn’t it? I mean, I can understand people feeling that. And also at a time of uncertainty, to reach back is understandable as well. What I find is extraordinary is that when I think back now I think isn’t it weird, that the movie The Beatles sanction is a film this about them disappearing. Not a biopic. But that’s their sense of humour.
When you’re working on it you realise how funny they were. They were really funny and dry. At a time when Bohemian Rhapsody and those kind of things are biopics and “will this show details of the sex lives, will do this, will do that” and they take a movie that says, “No, you’ve disappeared.”
That must have been pretty tough casting-wise to choose one person to represent them all and embody that sense of humour?
He’s funny, Himesh, but he’s very much modern. It’s very subtle his humour. He’s not a kind of big ‘bang, bang’ laugh guy. But there were moments where I was like, wow, it’s so wonderful what he’s doing there. It’s a very modern sensibility matched obviously, with Richard’s timeless comedy writing. I think it updated Richard’s comedy.
There’s a bit where Ed Sheeran says to him “I’ll have a cider with the man who wrote Yesterday,” and he turns away and Himesh’s face! He’s properly funny, I think.
Richard is known for very funny, very British, good hearted, but also quite upper class comedy, which is not your background. And this film is different from that. How did you two work together?
I think he’s got stuck with that particularly because of Four Weddings, which happened in a very particular milieu, the wedding milieu, that set, that society. But it was quite easy to see this script as being something more about ordinary people. It was important that they end up as school teachers at the end and good people. I’ve always loved his writing. When people say that, I always think of Blackadder. Blackadder is so subversive about that Britishness, I love that about Blackadder, it’s one of the pinnacles of comedy that I return to all the time.
They say about Blackadder that he has to be in the middle. So he can’t be at the top of the ladder, but he can’t be at the bottom either, so he has Baldrick beneath him and others above him…
He’s been squeezed in the middle there! It’s a wonderful series, really special. The other thing is that I’ve always had this suspicion that his scripts are about love over time. And this equation of love and time. This script was very interesting because it’s about time again, time passing.
He [Jack] hasn’t made it, he’s clearly not going to make, that’s the indication at the beginning. And then time is just fast forwarded so furiously in success. Everything’s achieved instantly. Meanwhile, this other life, Ellie’s life, continues. This path that is his real destination, this timeline, just continues very solidly, right the way through and causes great sadness to him, then he begins to realise and thinks he may have lost it, any opportunity to return to it. And then you get this other time intervention… I love that about the script. I thought that was really wonderful.
The film made me feel like I was listening to those songs for the first time. I was quite surprised I would feel like that…
Me too. We’ve been seeing all these guys. And they were good. They would play beautifully but I had no interest in the songs at all. And then Himesh walked in, and we hadn’t seen him. What they do these days is because you don’t want the script to get on the internet, you send out a fake script for auditions, which can be a completely fake script, or it can be an old script or something else, just to test the actors. So we asked them to play a Coldplay song.
Because at the beginning, Ed Sheeran part was actually meant for Chris Martin. So he sent a Coldplay song from New York. And it was okay. And his audition was okay. And I didn’t really think about him, and I kept seeing people.
It was the casting directors who had the flame for him. Eventually, we were getting nowhere, really, and they brought him in when he came back. He sat down and he played Yesterday. And it was exactly what you just said. It was like, “But I thought that was a Beatles song. Well, it is a Beatles song. But it was his song.” And then he got up and he played a kind of acoustic big tempo version of USSR and I was bouncing around the room. I lost all my self-consciousness about doing The Beatles. I felt like they were his songs. My intelligence knew that they were Paul McCartney’s songs, but I felt like they’re Himesh’s now.
Do you think that were Beatles songs to be released now they’d get the same reaction that they did at the time?
Somebody at my age is no judge of what the pop market is. So what the Arianne Grande fans would think of Yesterday or Let It Be being released I’ve no idea. All I can tell you working on them is that one of the worries was that they would feel dated and they didn’t. They felt timeless. They felt like classics.
The other thing that was extraordinary is the sheer variety of the work is astonishing. And that helps the film because you’re watching about 17 Beatles songs played by somebody who hasn’t written them, so they’re covers. 17 covers of the same band. You’d tire of that if there wasn’t the soulfulness he brings to them and the variety that allows you to weave them through the piece and stop you plateauing out one particular area of it.
The one song which might have been a difficult sell in the modern age is perhaps Let It Be so you undermine it by making a joke and having them cut in on it repeatedly…
That was Meera [Syal], I think she came up with the idea of, “I’ll call it ‘Leave Him Be’, because I’ll get it wrong” And and then Richard added to it.
And then, of course, there’s ‘Hey, Dude’…
That’s classic Richard gag writing. And Sheeran’s sense of humour is really intact. He’s got a proper sense of humour. I don’t know which comes first – the good person or the sense of humour, but they’re good for each other. He’s a decent man. We never saw anything else other than that from him.
What are your favourite feel-good movies?
Weirdly, I’m a big fan of Notting Hill.
Do you have to say that?
No, because I’ve got a story.
We did Shallow Grave and Trainspotting and they were both very successful. And so we were a bit cocky. You can’t help but be, you kind of just become it. I remember getting offered Alien four and I just went “No I’m not going to do Alien four.” So arrogant.
We decided we’d do a romantic comedy. So we went off to Utah. With Cameron Diaz and Ewan McGregor, amazing. It was like wow, here we are. We shot it and I came home for Christmas and then over Christmas I took the kids away to this cottage in Norfolk and it was snowing. It was so romantic, really nice. And I read the script of Notting Hill, they sent this copy of Notting Hill and I was horrified. Absolutely horrified.
Because I realised that whatever it is we just shot in Utah was not romantic comedy. That was a romantic comedy. Yeah, like in its absolute purest sense of escapism, of wish fulfilment of being able to lose yourself in ideal people. And I thought, “Oh, my fucking god, what have we just done?” And so I didn’t do it Notting Hill because I just felt like wow, I am just not qualified to do that.
And we went off to try and edit A Life Less Ordinary, which is a famous disaster. And when I saw Notting Hill, I thought “this is a proper romantic comedy.” When she stands in front of him in that bookshop, that’s the purest essence of escapism. I love When Harry Met Sally and the classic romances as well.
What advice would you give to any kind of up and coming creatives, perhaps people who don’t have contacts in the industry and might struggle to find a voice?
The advice is really – and I can understand why people would roll their eyes, because it just seems so ineffectual – but actually, you’ve got to find your peer group. It’s no good looking to grand old men like me to help, it doesn’t really do you any good. Because even if you do get the patronage, it probably won’t help in the end.
You work with your peer group and you don’t realise, especially in this business, that it’s the younger voices that are desperately needed all the time. It’s a vampiric industry that sucks young blood, always, and wants new ideas constantly. There is no door of patronage through which you can pass. Otherwise, they’d be a queue and the rich would be at the front, the poor would be at the back. There isn’t. It’s a weird world like that.
Yeah, just work with your peer group, really. Make stuff with your peer group. I’m surprised how there hasn’t been an explosion of comedy. Because it’s the cheapest thing to make. It’s the least stylistically demanding. In fact, style tends to negate comedy as a rule of the equation. So I’m surprised there hasn’t been more comedy written and recorded and distributed.
If you can do comedy, you can make it cheaply. Because you don’t need to do anything with the camera you just need to point it at actors. If you believe them, and if the material is funny, it’s funny. You don’t need to do anything with it. In fact, the more you do with it, the more you endanger its inherent comedy.
Yesterday is out now in UK cinemas