Danny Boyle on Yesterday: 'Himesh was a gift to us making the film, and all I had to do was make sure we didn't ruin it'

Danny Boyle on Yesterday: 'Himesh was a gift to us making the film, and all I had to do was make sure we didn't ruin it'

Oscar-winning director discusses his latest film, in which the world forgets about the Beatles

It's an early public screening of Yesterday, Danny Boyle's rom-com fantasy in which one man pretends to have written the Beatles' back catalogue. Some large, bald men in rugby shirts talk noisily through the opening scenes. They're abruptly silenced when Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) performs the song 'Yesterday', then they begin singing along with the rest of the songs and applaud at the end.

'What age were they?' asks Boyle the next day. 'Forties? Fifties? It's interesting for me to know how different people respond. Obviously, if you've got knowledge of the songs, then the film has got an extra cache … someone asked me, what does a black guy in his 20s care about the Beatles? But there's something about these songs that you just have to admire, it doesn't matter what your cultural background is.'

One of the surprising things about Yesterday is Boyle's involvement; unlike writer, Richard Curtis, he wasn't really a fan of the Fab Four.

'Richard is a (Beatles) nut. He remembers being outside a hotel they were staying in in Sweden when he was eight years old, waiting for them to come out on a balcony. He can tell you where he was when each record came out. I can't. David Bowie, or The Clash, perhaps, but not the Beatles. I don't have that kind of personal connection, just an appreciation for their music. People ask, could you do a film like this about The Rolling Stones, or other bands? But it wouldn't have the resonance. There's something about the personality of the group, and there's a melancholy, even in their most upbeat songs.'

Even 'Yesterday', the song chosen for the title promises a wistful look backwards, and the film's protagonist, Jack Malik has cause for regret when he appropriates the canon of the Beatles to gain fame and fortune. But the idea of the film was a borrowed one too.

'I met Richard working on the Olympics ceremony, and as a kind of politeness, I asked him if he had anything for me. I didn't know what it was about until I read it. And when I got to the bit where the Beatles were erased … I wrote back to him that the script had something Coleridge described Wordsworth as having; un-borrowed genius. And Richard wrote back and said, "well, actually it is borrowed. A guy called Jack Barth had the original idea and I borrowed it."'

Once Curtis completed the script, a deal was struck with Apple Records to use songs from the Beatles back catalogue. 'We didn't have to nominate them, that was the genius thing, so we could be flexible about what we used.' The deal was at a considerable cost. 'I think £10 million sounds right for what we paid. It was pretty expensive. But then again, it's a pretty special back catalogue,' says Boyle.

The big question was, who could perform the songs? Finding Himesh Patel was the key piece of the jigsaw for Boyle.

'If we couldn't have found the right person, there'd have been no point in making the movie. It's not like horse-riding, where an actor can learn it if they get the part. We needed a singer,' says Boyle. 'But when Himesh sang 'Yesterday' at his audition, it felt like it really was his song. I think he has a melancholy within him, something which is a pitch-perfect match for the music. Himesh was a gift to us making the film, and all I had to do was make sure we didn't ruin it.'

Yesterday is on general release in the UK from Fri 28 Jun.

Yesterday

  • 3 stars
  • 2019
  • UK
  • 1h 52min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Danny Boyle
  • Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon

Singer-songwriter Jack (Patel) is knocked unconscious when a bus hits his bike, and he wakes up in a world where the Beatles are unknown. There’s some fine comedy (including from Sheeran, playing himself) but it gets less surefooted; Patel can’t stop Jack from being rather morose and it’s neither a classic Curtis rom-com…

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