'Pirate Radio' Director Was A Fan First In 1964, a music agent bought a ship, anchored it offshore in the North Sea, and turned it into a radio station for the rock-starved British. Director Richard Curtis' new movie, Pirate Radio tells the story of the motley crew of DJs at sea. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Curtis, whose work includes Love Actually, Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral.
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'Pirate Radio' Director Was A Fan First

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'Pirate Radio' Director Was A Fan First

'Pirate Radio' Director Was A Fan First

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In the 1960s, American teenagers were listening to rock and roll music on Top 40s radio. British teenagers, however, could not hear it on the BBC. One of the main reasons is the way radio was financed. In the United States, radio was a commercial enterprise, driven by advertisers. In England, radio was financed by the public through license fees and regulated by the state.

But in 1964, a music agent bought a ship, anchored it offshore in the North Sea and turned it into a rock and roll radio station. This weekend, a new movie opened that tells the story of a motley crew of DJs at sea. It's called "Pirate Radio."

(Soundbite of movie, "Pirate Radio")

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN (Actor): (as the Count) I'm the Count. You are listening to radio robbers. We countdown to ecstasy. Rock on.

HANSEN: The director of "Pirate Radio" is Richard Curtis, known for his movies "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Knotting Hill," and "Love Actually." And Mr. Curtis is in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD CURTIS (Director, "Pirate Radio"): Hello. It's a great pleasure to be here.

HANSEN: Are you old enough to have listened to pirate radio in the '60s?

Mr. CURTIS: Yes. No, well, I was eight. My parents were living in Sweden, and I was sent to a vicious boarding school in England. So, there was 13 weeks without talking to my mom or dad. And my only friends were the friends I found on 208 FM when I tuned in at nine o'clock at night. And I used to hide the tiny transistor under my pillow.

And I suddenly felt this world of friendship and freedom and anarchy and rock and roll. And it's the memory of that that brought this movie into being.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pirate Radio")

Unidentified Man #1: Now, take me to the microphone. I need to broadcast. Let's go.

Mr. CURTIS: We shot this film on a very dodgy old boat. And every day, 150 of us got on the boat and sailed out to the sea playing loud rock and roll music. And the actors didn't have trailers, you know, all they had was horrible rooms in the bowel of the ship. So, everybody stayed on deck and watched other people performing. So, I think that the communal high spirits that you see is pretty real.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pirate Radio")

Mr. HOFFMAN: (as the Count) Here it comes, especially for you, the F word. First, though, this very fine piece of music.

Unidentified Man #2: You can't do this.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (as the Count) Why not? It's just a word.

Unidentified Man #2: Charming thought, but here's a simple situation. The authorities already dislike us. If you do this, they will hate us. And by hook or by crook, they'll find a way to close us.

HANSEN: Why was the government so eager to shut it down?

Mr. CURTIS: You know, I think they had some very, you know, paternalistic attitude to the fact that radio was something that should be overseen by the state. And if they thought that it was, you know, illegal - and I think fundamentally it was a control issue.

(Soundbite of movie, "Pirate Radio")

Unidentified Man #3: Pirate radio station is good, good, good, good, good. Now, I have told the prime minister that we will shut them down within 12 months.

Mr. BOHDAN PORAJ (Actor): (as Fredericks) As you will see, sir, they're not in fact outside of the law at the moment, sir.

Unidentified Man #3: But they soon will be, won't they, Mr.

Mr. PORAJ: (as Fredericks) Fred Fredericks.

Unidentified Man #3: You see, that's the whole point of being the government. If you don't like something, you simply make up a new law that makes it illegal.

HANSEN: The main character is a DJ called The Count, and he's played by the American actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Is he based on a real pirate DJ?

Mr. CURTIS: Somewhere in there, there's the memory of a guy. I mean, nobody's based on anybody else. I always find characters come from all sorts of, you know, sources. He's partly based on a friend of mine called Richard Warren, you know. But there was a guy - I remember very clearly - called Emperor Roscoe. And he was on Radio Luxembourg and he talked in rhyme. This is the station across the nation with a sound sensation, all that stuff. And so, there was a bit of that there. You know, he wasn't a real emperor no more than Phil is playing a real count.

HANSEN: Yeah. You know, once you finished the script, did it suddenly dawn on you that you had to get a boat?

Mr. CURTIS: Yup. We cast the boat. We sent out a boat scout and he found, you know, one good boat in Weymouth and one good boat in Brighton, then finally we found our boat in a dockyard in Scotland. But, you know, peopled by rather grumpy Estonians with beards and an obsession with watching skiing programs. Every time you went into their quarters, there'd be some downhill slalom on.

HANSEN: Don't you know there's a saying in show business: Don't work with children, animals or on water?

Mr. CURTIS: Yeah. And, you know, I think that should be on water with small boats. Because actually, our boat was the most gorgeous set to shoot on. You know, 360 degrees convincing metalwork, sun and sea and sky. The tricky thing was when the girls came over and attend the boats. There are few scenes with girls arriving because there weren't any women allowed on the boat. And suddenly, January Jones fell over a lot in her wedding dress and Emma Thompson threw up a lot, so I'm told.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CURTIS: So, I think it's small boats that are the problem - small boats and sharks.

HANSEN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Richard Curtis, director of the new film "Pirate Radio." It opened this weekend. Did you play music while you were filming or rehearsing?

Mr. CURTIS: Yeah, we played a lot. I mean, not while we were actually filming the scenes themselves, although sometimes we even did that. But on the boat, we had two huge speakers, you know, placed on the chimney stack. And we would play from this iPod Id done of my 300 favorite songs from the '60s. We'd play for an hour on the way out, an hour at lunchtime and an hour on the way back.

HANSEN: How did you pick the songs out of the 300? You're listening

Mr. CURTIS: It was just a cumulative, it was a cumulative. But partly also it was to soothe the DJs. So, the character that Nick Frost plays, he's a really sort of tough, slightly merciless English guy. And so, his was all Spencer Davis groups, Small Faces, Kinks, Troggs, Who. You know, whereas the character Rhys Darby, who's that wonderful comedy actor from "Flight of the Conchords," he was playing an awful DJ called Nutty Nuts. So, he had, you know, Herman Hermits and the Seekers and sounds that most of us wouldn't listen to that often.

HANSEN: I'll just remind people that he actually plays the agent Murray in

Mr. CURTIS: That's right.

HANSEN: "Flight of the Conchords."

Mr. CURTIS: He was very proud of the fact that one year he was voted New Zealander of the year, not as himself but in fact as his fictional character.

HANSEN: Since this is a chapter in British pop history, what do you want an American audience to take away?

Mr. CURTIS: Well, you know, I'm a great believer that we're all the same, you know? When I saw a piece of paper when "Four Weddings" was released, which had their guesses of how much money the movie would make in different countries around the world, and by the United States it said $0. So, I've always just made films I want to make, and then hope that people in other countries like them.

And I think that the point about this movie is it's about loving rock and roll. And it's about friendship. And it's about being young. And that, I think, is, I hope, true of people here as much as it is of people in Iceland or England.

HANSEN: You want to play DJ for a second?

Mr. CURTIS: I'll do whatever you want.

HANSEN: What music would you like us to go out on?

Mr. CURTIS: Wow, from the film?


Mr. CURTIS: Well, since - let me just see. Look, in the compilation bit where you see all the DJs at work, there's a fantastic song called "Friday on My Mind" by the Australian group, The Easybeats. And I think that's one of my favorite pop songs, so why not do that?

HANSEN: Richard Curtis directed the movie "Pirate Radio," which opened this weekend and he joined us from our New York bureau. Thanks so much.

Mr. CURTIS: Thank you very much indeed. What a pleasure.

(Soundbite of song, "Friday on My Mind")

THE EASYBEATS: (Singing) Tonight, I'm gonna lose my head, tonight. I got to get tonight. Monday, I have Friday on my mind. Gonna have fun in the city. I'll be with my girl, she's so pretty. I'm gonna have fun in the city. I'll be with my girl, she's so pretty. I'm gonna have fun in the city

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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