“We’re entering the unknown,” said Richard Curtis at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair on April 30, at a Montclair Film Festival screening of his 2003 movie, “Love Actually.” He and his partner Emma Freud, who worked on “Love Actually” as a script editor, were doing something they had never done before, talking to an audience about the movie as it was shown at low volume — kind of a live version of the director’s commentary you sometimes get as an a deluxe-DVD extra.
It was only the second time they had seen it since the original premiere, they said, the first time being when they went to a midnight screening of it in New York last year. Later in the day, Curtis was interviewed by Stephen Colbert at another MFF venue, with “Love Actually” co-stars Chiwetel Ejiofor and Laura Linney in attendance; both events were part of the Montclair Film Festival’s first “Filmmaker Tribute,” and raised money for Curtis’ Red Nose Day charity.
In case you’ve never seen it … “Love Actually” is a kind of epic romantic comedy, with 10 interlocking stories featuring actors such as Emma Thompson, Hugh Grant, Colin Firth, Keira Knightley, Liam Neeson and Alan Rickman, in addition to Ejiofor and Linney. It’s set in the holiday season, and most (but not all) of the stories end happily.
The genial Curtis — whose other films include “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” “Notting Hill” and “Mr. Bean” — reserved one of his few negative comments for Garry Marshall, the director whose “Valentine’s Day,” “New Year’s Eve” and “Mother’s Day” movies have followed the same formula, with diminishing results. Curtis and Freud were hard on themselves and on each other as well, though, pointing out continuity errors — Grant’s character wears two different ties in the same scene, for instance — places where they had to make compromises, and scenes they don’t like.
When, in one fantasy-like storyline, you saw characters enthusiastically taking off their clothing in silhouette, through a window shade, Freud gasped at how corny it was. She also groaned when one character told another, “All I want for Christmas is you,” but Curtis defended it because it foreshadowed another character singing the Mariah Carey hit “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” later.
Curtis and Freud also talked about some things that got cut out. For instance, a poster of two African women was in one character’s office because the women were supposed to be shown, at one point, talking about love, to underscore the point that people in all cultures go through the same thing. That scene was cut, but you still see the poster.
The weirdest part of the discussion had to do with Billy Bob Thornton, who plays an American president meeting with the British prime minister (played by Grant). Thornton, Curtis claimed, has a fear of 19th century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s facial hair, and that threatened to cause problems, since there’s a photo of Disraeli on the wall in one scene. I thought maybe Curtis made this up as a goof, but Googled it, and found out Thornton’s phobia has actually been well documented.
There were lots of other good bits in the conversation, too, about Curtis’ reluctance to cast Bill Nighy as an aging rocker, for instance, and Grant’s discomfort at doing a dancing scene where he’s supposed to look silly (see below). Curtis and Freud also pointed out their children, and Freud’s mother, and Freud herself, in bit parts; and provided a running commentary on the many turtlenecks that various characters wear.
Curtis said the movie was originally envisioned as a series of stories that would be shown, one after the other. He eventually realized, though, that it was better to have them all unfold simultaneously.
Lots of filmmakers submit to interviews. It’s rare, though, to get them talking, in real time, about their works, as they are shown. It was a good idea for the festival to add a “Filmmaker Tribute,” and a better one to offer this unique program. One hopes it becomes an annual festival feature.
The Montclair Film Festival runs through May 8; visit montclairfilmfest.org for more information.