>Imagine a world in which after a cataclysmic event only one person remembers the Beatles?
That’s the premise of “Yesterday,” written by Richard Curtis and directed by Academy Award- winning director Danny Boyle (“Slumdog Millionaire”).
The charming star, newcomer Himesh Patel, plays a failed musician who, after a bike accident, finds he is the only person who remembers the Beatles and appropriates and performs their songs as his own and becomes a super star. (Lily James, Ed Sheerhan and Kate McKinnon, who steals every scene she’s in as a megalomaniac agent, also star.)
Patel, Curtis and Boyle participated in a Q&A after a screening of “Yesterday,” for patrons of Film at Lincoln Center Monday evening at the Walter Reade Theater.
Boyle told the audience, “What’s interesting is, it’s such a wonderful idea, that when Richard’s script arrived you don’t really think about the consequences a film based around someone singing 15 to 17 Beatles songs but not by the Beatles, by someone else. Which seems like a wonderful prospect, except when that when you start to get people in to audition you begin to think, ‘Oh my god, if this doesn’t work, if you don’t get the right person who can actually make you listen to the songs anew, you’re going to be dead, really. We saw lots and lots of people who were much better than Himesh,” he said, to laughter by the audience, “Honestly they were. But they weren’t as funny.”
Said Boyle, “Patel came in and sang ‘Yesterday,’ which we were sick of by then, because everybody chooses it, because it’s quite simple to master quickly and very touching, but he sang it and I had this reaction like it was his song and then the rational part of your brain is going, ’No, it’s not, it’s Paul McCartney’s song, so that duality is perfect for this role. And then he sang ‘Back in the USSR’ and I was bouncing around, which you’re not meant to do as a director in an audition. You’re meant to stay behind the desk or whatever, and I thought it had soul, really. We hadn’t seen that quality in anyone else so far.”
The screenwriter was asked: “So where did the ingenious concept for the story come from?”
“I was rung up by a friend of mine who said I’ve got this script, which has this, and he gave me the one sentence pitch: ‘There’s an unsuccessful musician who wakes up and finds he’s the only person who can remember The Beatles.”
Curtis told the audience he was so passionate about the Beatles that he told Jack Barth, the man who dreamed up the idea, to tell him no more. “Because I’d like to just write it from here.’ So slightly like Himesh’s character I feel I’m here on false pretenses. I was passionate about the Beatles when I was seven and I’m passionate about the Beatles now I’m 62,” he said. “So I developed the story from there, wrote the script and then by some kind of divine chance, the day I finished it Danny wrote to me about something completely different and then said, ‘If you’ve got anything in your bottom drawer do send it to me because I’m free for a week or two.’”
Ed Sheeran, who’s from Suffolk, has a sizable role playing himself in the film.
“The film is sort of about Ed, I mean he happens to be in it because Chris Martin wasn’t free,” said Curtis. “He was raised in the area shown in the film. Before he became famous he played on every corner. I remember him playing at the Ipswich Agricultural Fair but the lovely thing about Ed is he’s an adorable man, nicer than portrayed in the movie and he became very famous, gone all the way around the world, but he’s just married a girl he was a school with and he still lives in Framlingham.”
“Anyway, we did offer the part to Chris Martin first and he couldn’t do it because he said he was too busy,” said Boyle. But both he and Curtis told Sheeran, “Ed, you’re our first choice. Will you do it?’ And he said, “No I’m not, you’ve already offered it to Chris Martin.” He saw it on the pop star’s Facebook page.
Sheeran also said he’d heard the part had been offered to Harry Styles as well.
Boyle said, “And that was absolutely not true, we had not offered it to Harry Styles even though he was very good in the Chris Nolan movie…. Fortunately Ed did the part and it seems extraordinary now when we look back so much of it, of Himesh’s journey as Richard said, mirrors Ed’s journey in a way. It was bizarre that we should ever have thought of Chris Martin in the role.”
To get Sheeran onboard, Curtis said he arranged a meeting with the director.
“He hadn’t done his research so he knew Danny had made ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Slumdog’ and then halfway through the meal he googled him, I remember, on his phone. He looked at me and went, “The Beach? 28 days later?” I went, “Yes.” And he realized that he had seen all of Danny’s films and it would be worth learning to act in order to be in a movie.”
As for the Beatles’ songs, how difficult was it to get access?
Said Boyle, “The producers of the film were Working Title, the largest, certainly the most successful production company in Britain, our only studio really although they work very closely with Universal here. They’d done a deal whereby we could get access and use of 15-18 of the songs from the catalog but that was it, we didn’t have to nominate the songs, they could be the famous ones or the less known ones. Which gave us a wonderful freedom in the preparing the film, the shooting and even the editing. We changed some songs quite late on and it was wonderful to have that flexibility…But yes they have to, obviously, they monitor the use of their songs very carefully so that they’re not misused in you know… reelection presidential campaigns or anything like that.
And If the movie had been about a serial killer who was very fond of the Beatles they probably would have said no quite early in the process, but they kind of tracked it bit-by-bit. I think the only advice we were given was to keep the… it was this sort of thing, they would say, ‘Try to keep the balance between Paul and John songs.’ And things like that, just a bit of nudging from time to time.”
The stand out scene in the end of the film, where Himesh performs a punk version of ‘Help,” required the participation of extras in the town said the director.