Yesterday is the story of a struggling singer/songwriter named Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) who’s tired of grinding it out in local bars in the English county of Suffolk and ready to throw his dreams of musical stardom away. That is, until one night when he hits his head in an accident at the exact moment that a mysterious blackout flickers across the face of the Earth.
When Jack wakes up, he seems to be the only person on the planet who can remember the Beatles and knows their songs — which he promptly passes off as his own and becomes a star. But how long can he maintain the façade and, by pursuing his goals under false pretenses, does he risk throwing away the one true relationship in his life, with the woman (Lily James) who has supported and secretly loved him all along?
Yesterday is directed by legendary British filmmaker Danny Boyle (Trainspotting) and written by Richard Curtis, whose romantic comedies — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually — are among the most beloved of the past 30 years. In Yesterday, he sets up a classic conflict between love and ambition, all against a speculative alternate history backdrop in which the greatest pop music phenomenon of the latter 20th century never existed.
We spoke with Curtis about how the script came together, collaborating with Boyle, getting Ed Sheeran to play himself and whether the Fab Four could make it on the modern music scene.
Warning: the following interview contains spoilers for certain scenes in Yesterday.
Den of Geek: This idea was presented to you, and then you took that germ of an idea and ran with it yourself. Is that correct?
Richard Curtis: That’s right, I had the one sentence then said I don’t want any more information because I sometimes found when I worked with original material that it doesn’t come from the heart. So I tried to write a whole film that meant something to me, rather than having too much extra information.
Once you started to explore it, did you play with it in terms of genre or were you pretty clear from the start in how you wanted to do it?
Well I think what happened is — I have this very sort of double life. I run a charity (Comic Relief), I worked with the UN half the time so I didn’t do anything for six months. But it rumbles around in your head, and I think I was looking for the best story I could, but also what are the bits of it that I’m most interested in.
I did think a lot about imposter syndrome, about how you set yourself up in positions in life as an expert. And then I also started to think to the benefit of the story about love and work. Which I think about all the time now, how do you spend your days, what really matters. So this was a great version of that story. Where do you belong? At the top of the charts or in the arms of someone who loves you? That’s the first thing for me, and finding more things about love and trying to think about what it might mean to you. So that’s the thing I tried to focus on.
In terms of the ramifications of a world without the Beatles, is it possible that a single musical entity could have that kind of impact on the world?
Well I actually think we haven’t dealt with that in full. There was a very interesting article in the Guardian about how pop music might have been sidelined, it might have just been a trite little thing that happened on the edge of life, but the Beatles brought it into the mainstream. In a way they changed British society from focusing on respect and World War II and age and industry, and said, “Well wait a minute, joy, love, music.” Liverpool rather than London, all of these things would have changed. So I feel as though we’ve just started thinking about the subject.
So perhaps the sequel could get into that.
I’ve been laughing a lot about sequels, because obviously the sequel has to be called Today. And the third one would have to be called Tomorrow. But there is a film called The Day After Tomorrow so I think we’d have to then do an origin story, so The Day Before Yesterday would have to be the next one…I suspect there won’t be a sequel.
You and Danny are both considered quintessential British filmmakers, but yet you have very different styles, and you’ve had very different topics in your films. What was the common link between the two of you when you actually worked on this?
Well it starts with the Beatles. We were born within two weeks of each other, in fact. We’re both obsessed by music, which is pretty clear from our films, so it was a massively big bonding subject. And then I would say, Danny is actually a really joyful, energetic, and emotional person. I think to some extent it was him putting his character into this movie, rather than me thinking I’ve got to write a movie to please Danny Boyle.
I think he was very emotional the day we shot the scene at Liverpool Station (see photo below of Boyle, Curtis, Patel and James on set), and saying “Wow this is such a pleasure to have an emotional scene between two people where they actually say the right words,” because we all go through all our life mucking up the big moments in our life. We really got on very well. All his natural exuberance came out in this one, so I feel very lucky to be able to tap a bit of Danny that perhaps hadn’t been tapped in the same way.
I understand that you were on the set quite a bit when you had a chance.
Yeah, I only missed about three days on this one, so I was always there.
Is that important to you to be there, and is that something where you find you have to navigate with the director a little bit?
No, you definitely do. It’s that thing knowing that I’ve got something to say, but wondering which take to comment on. Or the director is moving on when you thought, oh he’s definitely going to do that thing we talked about, and then in the heat of the day he forgets it. In a funny way I’m there as a backstop, to try and make sure that something isn’t forgotten. I’m there just to check if anything is being missed or forgotten rather than telling the director how to do it.
You are friends with Ed Sheeran, but his part was originally written for Coldplay’s Chris Martin.
That’s right, I did a sketch, which you should watch by the way, because it’s actually very cute, for (Comic Relief telethon) Red Nose Day, where Chris pretended to have written the musical of Game of Thrones. He was very funny in it, slightly over-optimistic and slightly grumpy. I thought, “Well, I’ll go for Chris because I know him.” But then Chris couldn’t do it or didn’t want to do it, and I really know Ed.
In a strange way the movie is about Ed because it’s set in Suffolk where Ed came from. Ed was a struggling singer/songwriter, then became so huge, but he’s just married a girl he was in school with, so it was very natural to approach Ed, and I saw Ed and Danny together at dinner, they got on, and I said to Danny, “Do you think he could do it?” And he said, “Oh definitely, as long as he turns up to rehearsals, he’ll be wonderful.” And he turned up to rehearsals.
Was Kate McKinnon‘s music business agent, without naming names, based on any real music business people? Any specific publicists or managers?
She says it’s based on her agent, which I think is very cruel, because I know her agent and I like her a great deal. Originally that was going to be two agents, both of whom disagreed about every single thing. So I was always looking for a joke that I could keep having throughout it. So no, that’s a total work of fantasy.
I’m going to ask you a couple of questions that might be kind of spoilers. Was there any draft where we learned a bit more about the global blackout itself, or how those other two people that Jack eventually meets managed to keep their memories of the Beatles?
No. I have it in my head. My weak science, as it were, is that Jack was totally unconscious for the six seconds when the Beatles were being erased, because he had the accident. As for the other two, I just thought, one of them would have been in a coma, and the other one would have had a stroke, or something like that. That was my thought, that just by chance both of them would have the same six second reprieve, but I never did bother to explain it.
And then there’s the scene near the end where he meets up with an elderly but very much alive John Lennon. Was there any thought of actually either Paul or Ringo being in there at some point?
Well in an early draft I had all four of them. He actually met George and Ringo in a pub in Liverpool. They were just two nice blokes sharing a beer, and then Paul appeared right at the end. But I did realize that it was sort of diminishing returns instead of it being one strong moment — it seemed to be just covering the bases. But the John scene is always the idea I had. Most movies need a catalytic moment to take you from building the dynamic of it to the end, and I knew at some point he’d have to decide that Lily should be his priority, and so discussing that with John was always the key scene in the film.
Did you play around with the songs a lot in terms of what songs to include and what songs to leave off? Any personal favorites that you left off?
Oh I mean about 40. I’m a great fan of “This Boy,” but then most people watching it wouldn’t know that one. I did get pleasantly limited to the most famous things in the canon really. I always knew “Help” would be in there, quite near the end. The idea of what song he sings when he sits down in the songwriting competition, that was a delight, because I just thought, “This has to be a masterpiece in the first five seconds.” So the picking of the songs was tethered to what was going to be funniest in a way, or what’s going to be most striking in this moment. It was just so lovely typing and thinking, “Oh, I’ve got my whole Beatles catalog, and whenever I run out of steam, I can plop in a masterpiece.”
Could the Beatles make it today?
We became increasingly convinced that they could. I’m noticing the way Taylor Swift’s got a new album, and she’s releasing a new single every two weeks, and I just think the Beatles would have been able to do that for five years. The more we strip the songs away, and just listen to them in their bare bones, the more you realize, not only how great they are, but also the variety. I think that’s such a wonder. We who lived through the Beatles saw it happening, but you didn’t perhaps notice it as much, but when you look back, from the stories told, to the rock and roll songs, to the love songs, all of that, to the songs about England. I’m pretty convinced they would still be a great source of wonder to the world. I feel they would be just as successful the second time around.
Yesterday is 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