By Iain Blair
Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only a struggling singer-songwriter in a tiny English seaside town remembers their songs. That’s the brilliant-yet-simple setup for Yesterday, the new rock ’n’ roll comedy from Academy Award-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting) and Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually, Notting Hill).
Jack Malik (Himesh Patel of BBC’s EastEnders) is the struggling singer-songwriter whose dreams of fame are rapidly fading, despite the fierce devotion and support of his childhood best friend/manager, Ellie (Lily James, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again). But after a freak bus accident during a mysterious global blackout, Jack wakes up to discover that only he remembers The Beatles and their music, and his career goes supercharged when he ditches his own mediocre songs and instead starts performing hit after hit by the Fab Four — as if he’d written them.
Yesterday co-stars Ed Sheeran and James Corden (playing themselves) and Emmy Award-winner Kate McKinnon as Jack’s Hollywood agent. Along with new versions of The Beatles’ most beloved hits, Yesterday features a seasoned group of collaborators, including DP Christopher Ross (Terminal, the upcoming Cats), editor Jon Harris (Kingsman: The Secret Service, 127 Hours), music producer Adem Ilhan (The Ones Below, In the Loop) and composer Daniel Pemberton (Steve Jobs, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse).
I recently spoke with Boyle, whose eclectic credits include Shallow Grave, The Beach, A Life Less Ordinary, Trance, Steve Jobs, Sunshine and 127 Hours, about making the film and the workflow.
What was your first reaction when you read this script?
I was a big fan of Richard’s work, and we’d worked together on the opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics, when we did this Chariots of Fire spoof with Rowan Atkinson, and I casually said to him, “If you’ve ever got anything for me, send it over.” And he said, “Funnily enough, I do have a script that might suit you,” and he sent it over, and I was just overwhelmed when I read it. He’d managed to take these two fairly ordinary people and their love story, and then intertwine it, like a double helix, with this love letter to The Beatles, which is the whole texture and feeling of this film.
It comes across as this very uplifting and quite emotional film.
I’m glad you said that, as I thought this whole simple idea — and it’s not sci-fi, but it’s not really explained — of this global amnesia about The Beatles and all their songs was just so glorious and wonderful, and just like listening to one of their songs. It really moved me, and especially the scene at the end. That affected me in a very personal way. It’s about the wonder of cinema and its relationship to time, and film is the only art form that really looks at time in such detail because film is time. And that relates directly to editing, where you’re basically compressing time, stretching it, speeding it up, freezing it — and even stopping it. No other art form can do that.
The other amazing aspect of film is that going to the movies is also an expression of time. The audience says, “I’m yours for the next two hours,” and in return you give them time that’s manipulated and squeezed and stretched, and even stopped. That’s pretty amazing, I think. That’s what I tried to do with this film, do something that brings back The Beatles and all that sense of pure joy in their music, and how it changed people’s lives forever.
Is it true that Jack is partly based on Ed Sheeran’s own life story?
It is, absolutely, and he’s good friends with Richard Curtis. Ed played all the little pubs and small festivals where we shot, and very unsuccessfully when he started out. Then he was propelled into superstardom, and that also appeared to happen overnight. Where did all his great songs come from? Then, like in the film, Ed actually returned to his childhood sweetheart and they ended up getting married, and you go, “Wow! OK. That’s amazing.” So all that gave us the exo-skeleton of the film, and Ed’s also done some acting — he was in Game of Thrones and Bridget Jones’ Baby, and then he also wrote the song at the end, so it was really perfect he was also in it.
What did Himesh bring to the role of Jack?
The only trepidation I had was when I began auditioning people for the part, as it was basically, “Come in and sing a couple of Beatles songs.” And some were probably better technically than Himesh, but I soon realized it was going to be far harder than I thought to get the right guy. We had great actors who weren’t great singers, and vice versa, and we didn’t want just a karaoke version of 17 songs.
And making it more complicated was that, unlike in the film, we all do remember The Beatles. But then Himesh walked in, played “Yesterday” and “Back in the USSR,” and even though I was oversaturated by The Beatles music at this point, they just grabbed me. He made them his own, as if they were his songs. He was also very modest with it as well, in his demeanor and approach. He doesn’t rethink the wheel. He says, “This is the song you’ve missed, and I’m bringing it back to you.” And that’s the quality he brings to his performance. There’s a genuine simplicity, but he’s also very funny and subtle. He doesn’t try and hijack The Beatles and lay on extra notes that you don’t need. He’s a very gentle guy, and he lets you see the song for what it is, the beauty of them.
Obviously, the music and sound were crucial in this, and usually films have the actors lipsync, but Himesh sang live?
Totally. He played and sang live — no dubs or pre-records. Early on I sat down with Simon Hayes, who won the Oscar for mixing Les Mis, and told him that’s what I wanted. It’s very difficult to do live recording well, but once Simon heard Himesh sing, he got it.
The songs in this help tell the story, and they’re as important as all the dialogue, so every time you hear Himesh play and sing it live. Then for all the big concerts, like at Wembley, we added extra musicians, which we over-dubbed. So even if there were mistakes or problems with Himesh’s performances, we kept it, as you’ve got to believe it’s him and his songs. It had to be honest and true.
We screened the premiere in Dolby Vision Atmos in London, and it’s got such a fantastic range. The sound is so crisp and clean — and not just the effects, but all the dialogue, which is a big tribute to Simon. It’ll be so sad if we lose cinema to streaming on TV and watching films on tiny phones because we’ve now achieved a truly remarkable technical standard in sound.
Where did you do all the post?
We edited at a few places. We were based at Pinewood to start with, as I was involved with the Bond film, and then we moved to some offices in central London. Finally, we ended up at Working Title, where they have a great editing setup in the basement. Then as usual we did all the sound mixing at Pinewood with Glenn Freemantle and his team from Sound 24. They’ve done a lot of my films.
We did all the visual effects with my usual guy, VFX supervisor Adam Gascoyne over at Union Visual Effects in London. He’s done all my films for a very long time now, and they did a lot of stuff with crowd and audience work for the big shows. Plus, a lot of invisible stuff like extensions, corrections, cleanup and so on.
You also reteamed with editor Jon Harris, whose work on 127 Hours earned him an Oscar nom. What were the big editing challenges?
We had quite a few. There was this wonderful scene of Jack going on the James Corden show and playing “Something,” the George Harrison song, and we ultimately had to cut the whole thing. On its own, it was this perfect scene, but in the context of the film it came too late, and it was also too reminiscent of “Yesterday” and “The Long and Winding Road.”
The film just didn’t need it, and it was quite a long sequence, and it was really sad to cut it, but it just flowed better without it. Originally, we started the film with a much longer sequence showing Jack being unsuccessful, and once we tested that, it was immediately obvious that the audience understood it all very quickly. We just didn’t need all that, so we had to cut a lot of that. It’s always about finding the right rhythm and pace for the story you’re telling.
Where was the DI done?
At Goldcrest with colorist Adam Glasman, who has worked a lot with DP Chris Ross. It was a very joyous film to make and I wanted it to look joyful too, with a summer spirit, but also with a hint of melancholy. I think Himesh has that too, and it doesn’t affect the joy, but it’s a sub-note. It’s like the English countryside, where we tried to capture all its beauty but also that feeling it’s about to rain all the time. It’s that special bittersweet feeling.
I assume Paul and Ringo gave you their blessing on this project?
Yeah, you have to get their agreement as they monitor the use of the songs, and Working Title made a great deal with them. It was very expensive, but it gave us the freedom to be able to change the songs in the edit at the last minute if need be, which we did a few times. We got beautiful letters back, very touching, and Paul was very funny as he gave us permission to use “Yesterday,” which we also used as the film title. He told us that his original lyric title was “Scrambled Eggs,” and if the film turned out to be a mess, we could just call it Scrambled Eggs instead.
Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.