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Interview with Richard Curtis

Mary and Martha

HBO

What drew you to the subject of MARY AND MARTHA?

RICHARD CURTIS

It was a long but logical journey. Ive been helping to run a charity I founded called Comic Relief [not affiliated with the U.S. organization of the same name] since 1986, and every two years, I produce the long seven-hour fundraising TV show we do. In that show, we have used a lot of stories about malaria in our fundraising mini-documentaries. And seeing every year that we can send a famous person to a random hospital in Africa and they will be there as children die of this entirely preventable disease began to weigh very heavily upon my mind, my conscience and my imagination.

Then there were other factors. Jeffrey Sachs, who wrote a book called The End of Poverty, that was very influential on my life, said to me often that malaria was the lowest-hanging fruit of extreme poverty, the thing that willpower and not that much money could knock out. Yet it was still killing a million children a year. I also watched one day, almost by chance, a documentary about malaria called Fever Road, which spent a long time in one village, where the sheer brutality of the statistics  the fact that they just knew every July, I think it was, a certain percentage of the children of the village would just die, inevitably  also stirred me to write. Eventually, I found in 2006 I couldnt not deal with the subject. Id probably written enough about weddings and Hugh Grant. Time to try something else.

HBO

Is the story fictional, or based on your experiences and work in Africa?

RICHARD CURTIS

It is both fictional and real. The central story of Mary is imagined, though there must be examples of such things happening, and I spoke to a couple of people whose children had been in great danger in similar circumstances. The story of Martha was inspired by the true story of Harry and Jo Yirrell. Harry died after volunteering in Ghana, and his mother, a wonderful, boisterous woman, has since campaigned with Malaria No More UK.

HBO

What other source material did you draw on?

RICHARD CURTIS

Some of the scenes in the film are very close to incidents that occurred in documentaries I worked on for the night of Red Nose Day. For instance, the moment when Mary and Martha are sitting outside after Pauls recovery, and see a little body in a blanket being put into a car, was taken almost shot-for-shot from one of our films. And we made an immensely sad short film about a boy called Paul, who died of malaria. It is in memory of him that the little boy from the orphanage who almost dies in the film is also called Paul.

"...the film is not really about the tragic death of an American and an English person. It is about how tragic every unnecessary death from malaria is, everywhere."

HBO

What were some of the challenges in telling this story?

RICHARD CURTIS

Every film has its own challenges. A big one on this film was the battle between my desire to educate and inform, and my desire to entertain. Various drafts had a lot more facts and figures about malaria, which we slowly whittled away. Phillip Noyce was especially keen that we should land the emotional truths, rather than trying to load people up with statistics they would never remember. It was also important to try to keep focus  to remember that the film is not really about the tragic death of an American and an English person. It is about how tragic every unnecessary death from malaria is, everywhere.

HBO

What was your favorite part of this project, and why?

RICHARD CURTIS

My favorite bit of the project has been having to adjust the statistic of how many children die a year of malaria every time I rewrote it, because the figures have gone down from a million in 2006 to 650,000 now. It is still a horrific number, but I feel the film is on the right side of history, and much of its purpose is to encourage continued vigor and commitment to a fight against malaria, which is actually working. It was also nice to work with the creative giant that is Phillip and two actresses I have admired a very long time. And my daughter is excited about Sam Claflin because hes in the next Hunger Games. Actually, Im pretty excited about that too!

HBO

How did you decide on the structure of the story?

RICHARD CURTIS

In my first draft, it was actually called Mary Morgan. It was a great day when I decided to add another story, so there was somewhere else to go, a second tale to cut in and out of. In some ways, though, the story is an autobiography. I began my interest in Africa and malaria just trying to raise money for nets, but now I am equally interested in supporting the fight to get governments and politicians to take up this brilliant challenge and knock out the disease in our lifetime. Marys journey from sorrow to politics is one that I hugely identify with and provided the key structure to the film.

HBO

How important was the casting of the title characters?

RICHARD CURTIS

The casting is always key, at every level of a movie. Thats what Mike Newell, who worked with me on Four Weddings and a Funeral, most taught me. Cast it right and the film is three-quarters made, he used to say. In getting the two correct women for Mary and Martha, both passionate in their own ways, immensely different, reacting to the problem in different ways, but both with a real emotional honesty and integrity, we got very lucky with Hilary and Brenda.

HBO

How important was it to shoot on location in Africa?

RICHARD CURTIS

It was of course absolutely key to shoot in Africa. One of Phillips great strengths was his knowledge of and passion for Africa  he made a film there I hugely admire called Catch a Fire  and he has spent a lot of time there. The whole team was well equipped and passionate about this. My producer from the UK, Hilary Bevan Jones, has spent long stretches of time filming in South Africa and her co-producer, Genevieve Hofmeyr, works and lives in South Africa.

HBO

Does this project carry special meaning for you because of your connection to the subject?

RICHARD CURTIS

Exactly half of my professional life has been dedicated to raising money for people living the toughest lives in Africa and the UK. Its a huge part of the makeup of my mind, certainly taking a lot longer than finding someone to marry, a subject Ive dealt with quite a few times in films! So yes, this film represents a subject I am hugely passionate about. It tested my writing skills to the limit and I hope will actually achieve more than any of my other films have done.

HBO

Who do you hope the film connects with, and what message do you hope it brings?

RICHARD CURTIS

I hope the film will be exciting and emotionally engaging for everyone who watches it. I hope some of the people who watch it really believe that they can make a difference in the fight against malaria, which I believe they can, and will work with Malaria No More in their determination to raise money, awareness and government commitment in the fight against malaria. My big dream is that this generation of world leaders will decide that malaria is a priority, a disease they can beat  and I just hope this film will be a little step on that journey. So that when malaria is mentioned, people know its not just some strange distant disease that doesnt affect us.

Mothers, fathers, children, people just as important as you or me, or Mary or Martha, or David Cameron or Barack Obama, are dying in massive numbers, in a huge emergency, unnecessarily, every day of our lives. I hope the film can alert some people with power  and all of us who have power in numbers  to end this terrible tragedy once and for all.

Mary and Martha

HBO Films