Pirate Radio: About the Production
“It’s 10:00 at night.
The dull dudes on the planet are sitting in their slippers and sipping their sherries.
But the people who love to rock and to roll are ready
to ride the rocking roller coaster once more.
You are listening to Radio Rock, and I am The Count,
and I’m counting you in as we count down to ecstasy and rock
ALL THE DAY & ALL OF THE NIGHT.”
-- The Count
In 1966, the government-backed British Broadcasting Company (BBC) broadcast barely two hours of rock and pop music every week over the U.K. radio airwaves; by comparison, 571 American radio stations were showcasing such music 24 hours a day. So in the home country of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and The Who, at the height of British pop music’s greatest era, the only way 25 million people – over half the British population – could hear their music (and other favorites) at any time was to tune in to…a boat.
Bringing the music home were rogue rock-and-roll deejays broadcasting from ships and marine structures anchored just outside U.K. territorial waters. But the pirate radio stations were targeted by the government, which did its very best (or, worst) to suppress the (technically illegal) transmissions coming from the waters into the hearts and souls of millions of Brits.
From that jumping-off point, in Pirate Radio writer/director Richard Curtis continues his cinematic explorations of the most telling and/or hilarious moments of love and friendship. The new movie is the first of his screenplays to be set in the past.
“For the last ten years, I’ve been thinking about it as a subject to explore,” says the filmmaker. After completing work on his directorial debut, Love Actually, Curtis again found himself reflecting on childhood memories of nights spent staying up late and listening to The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Dusty Springfield, Janis Joplin, and Aretha Franklin – to name but a few – and the larger-than-life personalities providing patter and platters.
“Every person in my generation has the same memory,” recalls Curtis. “You would go to bed at night, put your transistor radio underneath your pillow, switch it on with its little glowing light -- and stay up late to hear this fantastic music and voices you could not hear elsewhere. Your parents would shout from downstairs, ‘Go to sleep! Turn off the light!’ It was one of the things that made me love pop music most, that slight sense of it being illicit and illegal.”
The soundtrack of his youth had earlier infused the soundtrack of Love Actually, where he carefully chose songs by Joni Mitchell, Darlene Love, Paul Anka and Lennon & McCartney, among others. To even more fully embrace his love of music from the 1960s, he would set his new movie in 1966 on a pirate radio ship and ensure that even more of his favorite songs made up the soundtrack.
Music supervisor Nick Angel was reunited with Curtis on the new film, as they sought to bring some of the best sounds from the 1960s back for a big-screen voyage. Angel comments, “Richard wore his heart on his sleeve for this film, and the music is an integral part of it. My job was to make sure that we got the songs he wanted in the film.”
That process had started a couple of years earlier, when Curtis first mentioned to Angel that he was writing a film based around the world of pirate radio. Angel had then begun to gather songs that he felt might be used for the new movie.
He recounts, “I made Richard some CDs featuring period tracks I liked and ones I thought were interesting, things that he could listen to while he was writing. Richard obviously had his own ideas. But with some of the tracks, I wanted to jog his memory.”
The two men ultimately compiled a catalogue of some 200 songs that were contenders for use in the film; as the start of principal photography approached, the song list was whittled down to around 70 finalists.
To help his cast members brush up on their Troggs and Turtles, Curtis gave the burgeoning deejays iPods crammed with his and Angel’s choice tracks.
“We wanted to give the actors a flavor of the music that their characters would have been into,” Angel says. “We couldn’t assume that a 23-year-old was going to be that familiar with songs from 1966 and 1967. Even if they were, everybody has gaps in their music knowledge. So we had a great blend, of tracks that are very well-known and loved, and others that are less well-known but loved.”
Curtis remarks, “I don’t buy the argument, ever, that music’s best days are done; there are lots of fantastic songs around now. But certainly there were a lot of great songs in the 1960s. It was exciting to put favorites of mine all the way through in a movie – not just at the moment when two lovers kiss.”
From a comedy standpoint, Curtis also found himself inspired by both Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H and John Landis’ National Lampoon’s Animal House – “two of my Top 10 favorite films,” he states. The former, with its informality and loose structure, and the latter, with its wild and raunchy jokes, charted a course for what Curtis envisioned as going on day and night aboard those offshore boats in the late 1960s. He grew quite taken with the concept of “ramshackle boats in the middle of the sea, manned by disc jockeys with massive egos – living and breathing their shows 24 hours a day.
“So I started to write down a few scenes. You immediately start to think; what can go wrong? What is the relationship of the crew? What happens if someone wants a girlfriend?”
Curtis muses that his newest project also harkened back to his 1980s sitcom Blackadder, noting that “the series was mainly about dysfunctional men arguing with each other.”
A few months later, Curtis took the screenplay to Working Title Films c0-chairs Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner, “having first mentioned the project to us a couple of years earlier,” notes Fellner. “The music, the period, the story -- everything about it was of interest to us immediately.
“Tim and I, and all of us at Working Title, have been lucky to have an ongoing relationship with Richard going back over 20 years now. He is a constant for us. It’s always exciting making a film with him, as he is so wonderfully creative.”
Producer Hilary Bevan Jones had previously teamed with Curtis on the Emmy Award-winning telefilm The Girl in the Café, and happily boarded the new project. “I read the script and totally fell in love with it,” states Bevan Jones. “It was an irresistible combination; funny, touching, and the music was going to be fantastic. Richard’s films have such a huge heart that you can’t help but feel warmth when you watch one of them.”
“He also captures the sheer exuberance that was pirate radio. Like Richard, I too had a radio under my pillow which I didn’t turn off when I was told to. I remember how I cried when Radio Caroline got closed down.”
Given the memorable and relatable characters that Curtis creates in each of his scripts, casting is even more critical than usual on one of his projects. He elaborates, “In the films I make, I try to make even exceptionally ridiculous situations feel true. So it’s in the casting process where you discover what you have written and what kind of film you are going to make.
“When casting, I look for a particular texture, an informality and willingness by an actor to stretch something to its comic limits – without it becoming unreal. For instance, in searching for the person to play Carl, we saw over 60 people. Of them, Tom Sturridge was the only one who had that slightly casual manner I was looking
for. This was crucial because he arrives on the boat, and we meet a lot of the other characters through him.”
As the youngest man on the boat, Sturridge found his experience making the movie comparable to his character’s voyage aboard Radio Rock. “When Carl arrives on the boat, he is in awe of the deejays,” offers Sturridge. “When I arrived on the set each day to work, I felt the same awe – and excitement, fear, and pleasure! – from being in the company of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Bill Nighy…”
Nighy says, “Tom more then held his own, and conducted himself impeccably. He’s a complete delight, aside from the fact that he’s an Arsenal [Football Club, i.e., soccer team] supporter.”
Curtis says, “Tom is so handsome and charming that I didn’t see him being made nervous by the other actors. He doesn’t take a director’s note as an insult, and I appreciated that he would come to a scene prepared to go into it 3-4 different ways.”
Another rising young U.K. talent, Talulah Riley, was cast opposite Sturridge as Marianne, the girl Carl falls for. The actress had made her screen debut, for Working Title, just four years prior as one of the five Bennet sisters in the hit Pride & Prejudice.
“Talulah is a delight and I think viewers will love her in this role,” says Curtis, adding, “She gets to wear – very well – the best fringe and dress of any of the actresses in the film.”
In conceiving the role of the lone American deejay on the boat, the brash and knowledgeable The Count, Curtis was referencing “probably the most famous DJ of the era – an American guy named Emperor Rosko.”
“I remember Emperor Rosko,” muses cast member Kenneth Branagh. “Part of your first independence was having a radio of your own, however small it might be, and tuning in to Radio Luxembourg or these other pirate radio stations at slightly dangerous hours – given that you had to be at school in the morning…
“What we had on the set, on a daily basis, was Richard as an affectionate encyclopedia. You would have a song going through your head, some one-hit wonder from 1969 that you couldn’t remember the next line from. Richard would then give you the entire verse and chorus and then say, ‘Do you know the B side [of the single]?’
“It was so helpful that Richard is a genuine connoisseur,” agrees Philip Seymour Hoffman. “I would recognize the music being played, though not recall who was singing it or know who wrote it – but he would know.”
The actor had gotten hold of the script, read it, and was drawn to The Count because “he is one of those guys whose home is where he can do what he wants, which is to be a DJ, to be a conduit of music for people to listen to; he believes that rock and roll is medicine, that it can get you through your day and maybe even change your life. This is a comedy, but there’s a serious undercurrent of how much music means to people and informs lives. What would we do without it?
“Richard and I talked about how The Count loves to be at the center of events; when he senses that one is in the making, he likes to show up right at that time and make sure that he has something do with it; other than that, he will keep to himself. But The Count also has a big heart and likes to have a good time.”
Actor Bill Nighy, who as Quentin captains the boat and the deejays, remarks, “Philip seems to flick a switch and metamorphosizes into his character. But he also made his fellow actors feel comfortable.”
Nighy himself felt comfortable even before he got to the set; since he had previously worked with Curtis on Love Actually and The Girl in the Café, he signed on to the new project before he even read the script. The actor states, “I admire Richard tremendously and I adore his writing. Richard can do that rare thing -- make hundreds of people all laugh at the same time in the dark of a movie theater.
“I was lucky to have been teenaged around the time that this music exploded. While the times were not always as swinging as one was led to believe, they marked a leap which I don’t think is repeatable; from your Mum and Dad’s big-band crooning music on the BBC to Jimi Hendrix.”
The actor reveals, “One of the perks of getting a little older is that you can come clean and say, ‘Look, I don’t do any research whatsoever.’ The character’s back story is not my concern either…
“…but I did think of Quentin as somebody who flew for the Royal Air Force during WWII. Then, at some point, he inhaled and was introduced to a funky tailor and an unsettling shirt maker.”
Curtis says, “On the whole, it’s surprising how separate you can keep the casting ideas from the writing process – but then it’s fun realizing you’ve written a part for someone you already love, like Bill or like Rhys, who in real life is to me the quintessence of rock and roll.”
Like Nighy, Rhys Ifans had memorably teamed with Curtis and Working Title prior (on Notting Hill). Bevan Jones notes, “To play Gavin, we needed somebody who would effectively rival whoever was playing The Count. Richard always had Rhys in mind, and in this role his magnetism comes out in spades.”
Ifans says, “Richard handed me something very special, what with his script’s description of Gavin as ‘the coolest man in the world,’ this setting of an amazing musical era, and the pioneering spirit of the deejays. Unlike in Notting Hill, I remain fully clothed this time – and in great clothes!”
“It’s Richard’s own character that shines through in this picture; he genuinely comes from a place of love.”
Rounding out the principal deejays, Nick Frost signed on to play the charismatic Dave. He laughs, “When you get a phone call saying Richard Curtis wants to offer you a part in his new film, you would be an idiot to turn it down. He makes films that are great yarns about friendship, and that are without cynicism.”
Curtis reveals, “I was particularly intrigued by Nick because he thought quite a lot about Dave’s background, which informed his performance with elements of darkness and doubt – while still being so funny.”
Referencing the government of the time and providing a conflict that percolates throughout the movie, Curtis conceived the role of minister Dormandy. Just as the picture’s Radio Rock is a fictionalized version of the actual pirate radio ships, so too is Dormandy a composite of the politicians who ultimately were successful in pushing legislation against pirate radio and its crews.
Associate producer and script editor Emma Freud – Curtis’ longtime partner – notes that “in real life, amazingly, the pirate radio stations were closed down through the efforts of the Labour [Party’s] politician Tony Benn. You’d think it would have been a Tory [Party member]…
“As Dormandy, Kenneth Branagh was able to create a three-dimensional smiling villain by playing against the dialogue.”
Even so, adds Bevan Jones, “I defy anyone to say the word ‘sewer’ the way he does.”
Branagh and Curtis had met several times, yet had never worked with one another. Branagh reveals, “I gratefully remember how Emma and Richard came to see Much Ado About Nothing and Peter’s Friends [both directed by Branagh] years ago and were immensely encouraging. So it was a joy and a pleasure to finally be doing something together.”
Of his character, Branagh assesses Dormandy as “advertising his sense that he is not happy that the world is changing rapidly. He stands up for old-fashioned values, but is not beyond ruthlessness. He’s a tightly coiled spring ready to release. While it’s very funny, he intends to do a lot of damage to the lives of ‘these irritating young people.’
“With this story, Richard has caught a spirit of delicious comic anarchy as well as subtle observations about a crucial moment of change in British society. Working with him is like being in a laboratory of comic possibilities. We had rehearsal and read-throughs, which I found immensely helpful for getting precise about what we will be doing. Then, on the set, he always has an interested energy about him – for both words and images – and he will do different takes to get at how funny and how truthful a scene can be.”
The rest of the large group was quickly set by casting director Fiona Weir, with one other American recruited, in the striking person of January Jones; the Mad Men actress had been cast by Weir for a small role in Love Actually, and would now have the opportunity to play out a quintessential – and more delicately scripted – Richard Curtis scene in Pirate Radio.
Curtis comments, “January is a wonderful actress, and my memory of working with her on Love Actually is that she made up all her lines! Playing the character of Elenore, and playing a scene which is a particular favorite of mine, I knew she would not disappoint.
“Chris O’Dowd [who plays deejay Simon] brought so much energy and comedy to Pirate Radio, but when he is playing opposite January he grounds the movie in emotion as well.”
Another Love Actually alumnus, veteran costume designer Joanna Johnston, was also brought back for the new film. “She is an absolute genius,” states Fellner. “She is also a producer’s nightmare because she constantly strives for perfection. It’s worth it, because the actors feel like they’re living and breathing the period.”
“Joanna has an eye for the smallest of details,” marvels Bevan Jones. “She worked very closely with [Oscar-winning chief make-up and hair designer] Christine Blundell to make sure their work complemented each other, fitting the characters and the piece – and not going over the top because it was ‘the 60s.’”
With that in mind, Blundell made a point of getting “family photos – whether my own, or friends’ – from the 1960s, to get the real picture, as opposed to what was prepared for photo shoots. Also, Richard pointed out that the guys and Felicity were living on a boat, and wouldn’t have access to certain things anyway; they might not have brushed their hair every day. Since what I was doing had to not be too noticeable, ‘the snaps’ were my reference – and I have to say, it is my favorite period to re-create.”
Blundell’s department also relied on the ‘snaps’ for some 60 different set-ups – directed by Freud and shot by the second unit crew, and seen in bursts throughout the film – showing ‘60s Britons savoring the music of Radio Rock.
Neither Curtis nor Working Title had worked with cinematographer Danny Cohen prior, but the filmmaker was seeking a different look for the new movie, given the period and boat settings. Bevan Jones reveals, “Richard was discussing how he wanted a certain look and use of the camera, and kept referring to a scene in [the award-winning telefilm] Longford. So we looked up Danny, who had shot that feature, and at work he’d done. Meeting with him, we realized that he wouldn’t be afraid of shooting handheld in a fast manner, so we offered him the job.”
As the start of filming approached, Curtis would sense the enormity of the task that he had set for himself. He remembers, “It was a fantastic moment when finishing the script to think, ‘Oh God. We’ve actually got to find a great hulking boat and film at sea, all the actors have to learn how to be disc jockeys, and something big and logistically challenging happens at the end of the story. ’
“That’s where you get an amusing disconnect between writer and director; the writer writes what he likes, unconstrained, and then the poor director takes receipt of it, breaking it down into manageable parts with the producers. But it was an extraordinarily fun film to make because we put a village, 140 people, onto a real boat; make-up, catering, costume, actors, and crew. It was also exciting for me to have to capture so many actors’ excellent performances.”
First, to get the actors into character as disc jockeys, Freud and radio & DJ technical advisor John Revell worked with the cast in a mock radio station in London. Everyone met with real-life pirate radio deejay Johnnie Walker (of Radio Caroline), as well as deejays Chris Evans and Chris Moyles, in a working studio where various styles of broadcasting were studied and tried out. At the end of their training, the actors each had to record an hourlong show – directed by Freud and shot by the second unit crew –for use in the movie.
Curtis explains, “This helped our cast understand who their characters were as a public person, and who they were in private. If they had not practiced a show, they would not realize how powerful it felt to be a disc jockey broadcasting entirely on your own to 25 million people for two hours at a time.”
“It’s hard learning how to be a DJ,” states Freud, who did so for years on BBC Radio. “You have to find a voice that is true and honest and real, but also interesting and funny and worth listening to. It was doubly hard for our actors because they weren’t deejaying as themselves, but as their characters. During these rehearsals, they began to find their characters’ voices. So we taught them the technical side first, lining up records and working the cart machines.”
Ifans remarks, “You’re juggling one disc here, spinning one disc there; it’s like driving, in a way…”
“…or it’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time; there’s a rhythm to it,” says Freud.
Frost remarks, “The pirate radio deejays did everything themselves; today, a lot of DJs just sit there and their producers do all the technical stuff. We had to look like we’d been around this clunky old equipment for years.”
During filming, some of the equipment the actors performed on and with had in fact been around for years; the last surviving Radio Caroline boat (of the original three), now marooned, still had original equipment on board and so the production was able to license it for the shoot.
Reaching back to the past in a more personal manner, Ralph Brown (of Withnail & I), who plays the wee-hours deejay Bob, sought to craft his portrayal as a tribute to the late John Peel, “who was on Radio London – ‘the Big L’ – back in 1966-67. His broadcast was named The Perfumed Garden, so my character’s named The Dawn Treader – which, indeed, we did have to get permission from the Chronicles of Narnia people to use.
“‘Peely’ was my inspiration, and I hope my performance has some of his spirit. For the hourlong broadcast, I reached out to an appreciation society he has; they sent me CDs of actual shows of his from the pirate station.”
Curtis assesses Brown as “the most Method of our actors. He just transformed into Bob. At first, I thought ‘Well, I don’t quite see how that can turn into this, although he’s such a good actor,’ but he grew his beard like barnacles at the bottom of the boat!”
To further prepare the actors for life on Radio Rock, Curtis shanghaied them to 4 days and 3 nights of “boat camp,” which involved living and rehearsing on the boat on which they would be filming. Cast and crew rehearsed throughout the day; practiced deejaying in the studio; surveyed song playlists and listened to iPods that Curtis had curated; watched documentaries that Curtis felt would inform their performances; and slept in small cabins on the boat.
Of the stint, Freud remarks, “It was just like being in student digs in the 1960s, including the smell of socks.”
Bevan Jones offers, “We did make it a little more comfortable with some rather nice white duvets.”
“Soft Egyptian cotton,” as Frost fondly recalls.
Bevan Jones notes, “‘Boat camp’ was invaluable in terms of giving the actors a chance to get to know each other better, as you are meant to believe that most of these guys have lived on this boat together for years.”
Curtis reports, “During rehearsals, all the actors realized that they had to re-interpret the film; when we would do a reading of a scene and they would only have one line in it, that didn’t mean it wasn’t a big scene for them. Everyone got used to the idea of being in these scenes together – and working out what their characters would do at any given time.”
“I think it was as much for Richard to see how our dynamic was,” says Frost. “While going through the lines and the scenes, we also got a sense of the geography of the scenes – where things were going to be taking place. Some things we uncovered during these rehearsals were written down and put into the shooting schedule.”
In the evenings, when not watching movies, everyone would eat, drink, and play darts or table football. “It really worked as a bonding exercise,” states Ifans. “We got very close.”
Nighy comments, “I was the old guy who stood around and tried to keep order, but these younger guys all worked together beautifully and everyone allowed each other moments to shine.”
Curtis had made sure to screen M*A*S*H for the troupe one night during “boat camp,” and Brown admits that “it stayed in my mind all the way through shooting. There’s a feeling of communality among the characters in M*A*S*H similar to what we were trying to achieve. Richard also wanted that added texture of overheard conversations and moments of interaction, a sense that the camera is watching something happening in front of it rather than it being staged.”
For the first time on one of his movies, Curtis welcomed and encouraged improvisation. Rhys Darby (of Flight of the Conchords), who plays deejay Angus “the Nut” Nutsford, confides, “Richard let us do different takes. This was like putting a band together; the members have all got to be individuals, and have their own looks. But when they play, there’s got to be synergy – and I think that’s what we had with our cast. I’ve never had friendships happen so fast. I did have to get over being nervous acting with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy, but my confidence built up and soon I was pushing them out of scenes…
“My character is colorful – not only on the radio, but also in his dress sense -- so I looked into some of the more wacky DJs of the day, like [pirate radio veteran] Kenny Everett. Also, we had a pirate radio station in New Zealand – where I’m from – named Radio Hauraki – and they’re still the most rocking station! -- so I like to think that I was representing them.”
Darby adds, “I wrote a big script for my hourlong show, with comedy and me playing different characters. I used to do the same thing when I was 12, at home with my cassette recorder – and now here I was doing it 20 years later, for real!”
Curtis muses, “It’s ironic; Rhys is playing the least popular person in the film, and he was the most popular person on the film.”
Because of scheduling commitments, Hoffman could not join the troupe until after filming had commenced, and had had to miss out on the rehearsals and radio training. So the production first filmed every single scene that didn’t have Hoffman in it, with the land-set sequences revolving around Kenneth Branagh’s character shot ahead of the more numerous boat ones.
Freud reports, “From when he arrived in the U.K., Philip would be filming all day every single day. So when he arrived on the set, he had one hour in which to learn how to be a deejay – and he looked like he had been doing it all his life. It was worked out that his character would stand up during a show, holding the mike in such a gorgeous way when he broadcasted. This set his character apart from our other deejays’ styles.”
Curtis praises what he calls the actor’s “extraordinarily naturalistic work, from the moment he stepped onto the set. Phil pointed us towards the M*A*S*H spirit, as I had hoped.”
Ifans says, “This is an ensemble piece, so it was crucial that Philip fit in – and he did, with flying colors. He grabbed the bull by the horns from day one.”
Hoffman admits, “When I showed up, I felt a little bit like a fish out of water. But soon I was having a great time hanging out, and felt like I belonged. I thought, ‘This is going to be a fun movie,’ and it was. We had such camaraderie.
“Richard had made himself available with me to talk about almost anything, and I had prepared by thinking less about the logistics of a DJ than about what would inspire everyone listening to The Count, and about that unbridled enthusiasm which was happening in 1966.”
Following 10 weeks of extensive pre-production planning, Pirate Radio commenced its 14-week shoot. 4 of those weeks were spent in Portland Harbour, Dorset, aboard a boat called the Timor Challenger.
Production designer Mark Tildesley remarks, “It was quite difficult to find a suitable boat to film on. Because of the pirate stations’ war with the government, there was quite a bit of news footage of the actual boats. As we weren’t quite doing a history piece, Richard envisioned ours as more inviting than the real things.
“We wanted a craft that had the right look for the period, would withstand a few walls being moved, could accommodate a certain number of crew, and was seaworthy; a lot of the boats we liked didn’t have working engines!”
The search ended in Scotland when the filmmakers found the Timor, which began life as a 1960s deep-sea fishing trawler, then became a hospital boat, and was further made over into a rescue boat for oil rigs. The now Dutch-owned Timor had been idling for 2 years; following what Tildesley calls “a lot of effort,” systems were tested and the boat’s seaworthiness was re-certified.
“It’s quite a character, this ship,” notes Tildesley. “The ‘Challenger’ name is correct. But my proudest moment was when it finally arrived in port.” When the Timor reported for the start of production, it came staffed by – a Polish captain and crew.
To make the Timor look as if it was a functioning pirate radio ship, two huge aerial masts were erected on the deck. Marine coordinator Ian Creed, a veteran of several Working Title productions, worked closely with naval architect/marine surveyor John Heath to carefully calculate how the new weight high up would be counterbalanced by ballast down below.
“Having masts did cause a few problems,” admits Tildesley. “We were certified to only go out and film in calm conditions because if it was really rough, we could not leave the harbor.”
Luckily, during the Portland Harbour shoot, the weather was kind; a mere couple of days were disrupted by bad weather. For those days, filming continued apace and ashore, on two “weather cover” sets that had been built in a warehouse next door to the dock. This meant that cast and crew occasionally had to arrive for work prepared for two different shooting scenarios, including dialogue and costumes/hair/make-up.
One day, conditions were favorable, and the actors duly followed the crew out to the Timor in a speedboat; but the trip was so choppy that they wound up boarding the Timor sopping wet and the start of the day’s filming had to be delayed.
“That’s filming at sea for you; there’s a saying in the film industry: ‘Don’t work with children or animals, or on water,’” admits Bevan Jones. “We had to make sure cast and crew were armed with seasickness pills, as it could be quite rough at times. Sunburn was also a concern.”
Hoffman reports, “We would take those tablets and remember to put on sunblock; I was worried about Richard getting skin cancer. Day in and day out, being out on this boat in the middle of the water created quite an atmosphere.”
Bevan Jones notes, “It would take us 45 minutes to get 6 miles out to sea – and even longer to return to the dock – so our days were really long. The current and the wind would constantly move the boat, and we had to have tugboats keeping the Timor in position so that land did not get in the shot. Ultimately, the Radio Rock boat itself becomes a character you care about; there are scenes with her late in the story that will surprise you…”
Visual effects supervisor Richard Briscoe and his department got to work well before filming ended, to make the Portland Harbour footage look even more like the middle of the North Sea, rendering the boat much further out than a 45-minute trip and eliminating nearby boats or landscapes that might have been visible in the distance of shots.
Curtis admits, “There was a time when we thought we’d film in Malta – as many films have – in the North Sea. But then we realized that the North Sea weather would be too risky.
“As it was, there was one day where we were filming and a rope snapped, and equipment was about to be pulled right towards the actors. Someone quickly got a knife and severed every wire so that people wouldn’t be knocked overboard.”
Sturridge did just that for a crucial sequence, impressing everyone by going without a stunt man and leaping from a 25-foot height. As scripted, his character Carl survives the plunge into the water – and so too did the actor, who did the scene multiple times.
“It’s easy,” Sturridge demurs. “All you have to do is get from point A to point B without dying. Whereas, when you have to act one-on-one, eye-to-eye with Phil Hoffman, that’s much more terrifying.”
The actor was able to meet both challenges in part because his first days on the set entailed filming – underwater. “The strange thing about it is that, because of the air pressure, you are advised to stay under,” reveals Sturridge. “We were there with oxygen tanks for 40-45 minutes at a time, sitting around between takes. Richard would give us direction through speakers that could be heard underwater.”
Some of the boat interiors were re-created on sets built at Shepperton and Pinewood Studios outside of London. “These were so close to the real ship,” marvels Frost. “I was amazed by the detail that went into the sets; you would open a cupboard and inside would be period food items!”
To re-create the movement of the sea, these sets had to be built on a hydraulic gimbal that – when activated by special effects supervisor Richard Conway and his team – would provide the requisite rocking motions.
Brown confirms, “That thing really makes you feel you’re on a boat. I tell you, after a few weeks of that, you walk into a pub and you still feel it before you’ve even had a drink.”
Frost states, “I had spent two years with the Venezuelan Navy, so I had my sea legs.”
Darby adds, “At least we knew the gimbal level before we did scenes. Level 2 was okay, but, when we would see level 7 written on the call sheet…”
Curtis, Tildesley, and Cohen were intent on shooting in close corridors and little rooms, so that comedy could come from big personalities coexisting in tiny spaces. “I’m keen on an atmosphere of consultation,” says the writer/director. “We talk, and together we realize what we want – and if we don’t know, then we work it out.”
For one sequence, Curtis recalls, “I said to Mark that it’s got to be a real cabin bathroom. So they made the tiniest room possible. Sure enough, when we shot the scene, it was difficult to fit three actors in, particularly since one of them was Nick Frost…Ultimately, we did end up taking away a little wall so we could put the cameraman and the sound man in there with the actors – and it was still fantastically crowded.
“When you’re making a movie, you prepare and prepare and talk about it and talk about it – and the interesting thing is, on the day when you go in there is still work to be done. It’s the practicalities of realism.”
Curtis knew that the traditional style of shooting, which he and Cohen had hewed closely to for the Dormandy scenes that were shot first, wouldn’t work overall on a boat with narrow passageways and low ceilings. Cohen agreed, and the writer/director decided that they should “have 2-3 guys with cameras on their shoulders wandering round, picking different positions so that from any angle the viewer sees how Radio Rock is very informal and chaotic. On this, there was no way
of ‘holding the line’ that actors are looking down, no wide shot or close shot; like the characters, the camera just moves around wherever it can and has a raucous style.”
Despite the tight spots, for the cast and crew out on the open seas there was the reality of natural beauty and fresh air on breaks, during which some people even made time for fishing.
Freud comments, “It was a happy shoot; music, laughter, and taking the p—s out of each other.”
At all times, cast and crew were surrounded by the ‘60s; Tildesley’s staffs had dressed the boat with everything from brightly colored barrels with herbs growing out of them to the garden gnomes that were seemingly ubiquitous to a generation of Britons. It was unclear just who festooned a gnome with one particular herb…
“At times, you hardly had to act,” notes Sturridge. “You would feel the wind in your face. You would have to maneuver around objects that were on the boat by necessity. When it rained, you would have to shout to be heard.”
Curtis ensured that rock and roll would be played on the boat, and sounds of the ’60s were played on the journeys to and from the port. He marvels, “There we were making our movie, 140 people bobbing around in the ocean on a rusty boat. At lunchtime, the sound crew would put these ‘60s songs on – really loud! – and the actors would sit around in the sunshine in their absurd sideburns and haircuts and shirts…and it seemed as though it actually was 1966 again, and we were actually there, riding and rocking on the ocean waves…”
Post-production found Curtis fondly reflecting on those days while being “brave with [film editor] Emma Hickox. You have to say, ‘Well, we don’t need that fantastic dance number.’ You have to say, ‘Tut-tut, the writer and director made a lot of mistakes and we’re going to do something new.’ Often ‘the best scenes’ in a film turn out to be the worst, and you’ve got to be unsentimental about them and cut them. I’m so used to cutting my own material every day when writing that I see editing as a chance to re-write.”
Hickox, who began work while filming was still ongoing, confirms, “Richard likes to be in the cutting room, and he seems to love the process, which not all directors do. I learned a lot from him about comedy – how many beats for a joke, and what happens if one line gets taken out. With so many characters and so much music, this was a very complicated movie to do – but it was so much fun.”
Freud reports, “There were scenes which made it all the way through the script drafts and then were filmed, but after the first screening – they were gone, on the cutting-room floor. You know, Richard takes criticism very well; I’m very rude to him.”
Aside from what did or didn’t end up on-screen, after going from the initial 200 songs to the 70 finalists, the final edit utilizes over 50 -- with many of these also heard on the soundtrack CD – as Curtis worked with both Hickox and music editor Steven Price to fit songs to specific scenes and moods.
The result is a feast of choice cuts, bringing together The Rolling Stones (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”), The Who (“I Can See For Miles”), Jimi Hendrix (“The Wind Cries Mary”), Otis Redding (“These Arms of Mine”), Smokey Robinson and The Miracles (“Ooo Baby Baby”), and many more.
Additionally, award-winning singer Duffy recorded a new version of “Stay With Me Baby” and Academy Award-winning composer Hans Zimmer contributed some original music for a key section of the film.
“We got just about every song we wanted,” Angel proudly states. “There were one or two exceptions, but we found alternates. We’re delighted with the result, and we think viewers will be too!”
Among those viewers, “Richard has the gift of attracting people who don’t regularly go to the movies,” muses producer Fellner. “The unique comedic and character elements to his movies persuade people to go out to the cinema; they know that they’re going to enjoy the two hours that they spend under his spell.”
Having made a film in which he was able to combine his love of music, comedy, and romance, Curtis offers, “I hope that watching this movie is like going for a very pleasant weekend with people you love when they are on good form.”
Sturridge remarks, “I can’t stress this enough; working on a Richard Curtis film is like being in a Richard Curtis film.”
Darby enthuses, “Pirate Radio has everything; friendship, rock and roll, love, and adventure scenes!
“But I do wish I could have kept the costumes.”