Philip Seymour Hoffman believes his new film, Pirate Radio, is subversive in its message — that rock ‘n’ roll is an inalienable right.
Pirate Radio takes place in 1966, when British radios played less than one hour of rock a day as decreed to the government-backed BBC. The film’s “Radio Rock,” a fictionalized amalgamation of Radio Caroline, has an ensemble cast of DJs (including Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, and Nick Frost) — and one lesbian cook who adorably finds love in what Curtis called his “favorite shot of the film.” They broadcast live “all day and all of the night” from the middle of the North Sea (just outside of U.K. territorial waters) and half of Britain’s population listens.
Richard Curtis, who’s responsible for practically every successful British romcom from the past 20 years (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, and the Bridget Jones movies), wrote and directed this lightweight comedy, inspired by his love for the music of the period and how it affected his own childhood. “Right at the beginning [of the film] the prime minister says, ‘They’re not strictly illegal.'” Curtis explained at the press junket. “But what they were achieving was something that was against the intentions of the British government, because there was meant to be a monopoly. And I think in the 1960s they thought that broadcasting was something that was too important to be left to independent entities.”
Later the government would pass the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act of 1967 making the broadcasts illegal. In the film this is done primarily through the efforts of Minister Dormandy, as played with perfect humorlessness by Kenneth Branagh.
Tom Sturridge plays an older teenage boy who is sent by his mother (Emma Thompson) to live on the boat with his godfather Quentin (Nighy) and maybe learn a little bit about his past, including his mysteriously disappeared father. Once there, he is pressured to lose his virginity, and is attracted to his godfather’s niece (Talulah Riley). Sturridge expressed how most people today feel about that era. “The idea that music wasn’t universally accessible was totally alien to me,” he said. “The idea that people my age had to secretly find a way to listen to the most important music of their times is strange.”
Along with the importance of the music and the DJs, who Curtis said “were sort of rock stars in their own world,” and who are treated as such by the adoring women who visit them twice a month, the film is also about those universal themes of friendship and love. “I think as far as comedy is concerned, friendship probably is my central inspiration,” Curtis explained. “Very little that I’ve written has ever been as funny as what happens round a table with any of us with our six best friends at 10:30 at night, slightly drunk, when you’re cracking jokes both about each other and about the world. So that’s in a way what I’m always aiming for in dialogue — that sense of sort of freedom and looseness and jokes.”
Sturridge loved Curtis’ created “atmosphere of family and love and safety on the set,” and enjoyed working on the boat, even though he hilariously described the boat as “a kind of old hospital ship” with “the only sort of extracurricular area [being] a morgue.” He said, “It took the kind of work atmosphere out of the work. In the sense that every morning we’d all of us pile together on the pier and get on the boat … Richard would be playing the greatest music of all time over the PA system, Nick Frost would be fishing for mackerel. It was literally like a holiday with the coolest people in the world.”
One of those people is Hoffman (fine and funny in an albeit unchallenging role), whose character is The Count, the sole American DJ in a sea of Brits. In creating the character, Curtis explained, “I remembered a very strong American voice,” and that was the real-life DJ Emperor Rosko on whom The Count is based.
In playing The Count, Hoffman’s competitive edge took over, Sturridge said. The loose way in which the movie was filmed, with cameras on shoulders, “bred this environment of all these kind of massive comic egos trying to compete to seduce the camera operator and it generated this amazing energy. Unfortunately my job was just to be the voyeur and sit back and enjoy.”
When Hoffman read the script, he said he thought, “It was really funny … it was also oddly moving.” He believes these DJs took on something greater than themselves in bringing music to millions every day. “These guys were the conduit to bring the art to the people, to bring that message, and the people needed it, and they were gonna be there, and they were gonna stay up late,” he said. “And that’s a cool thing.”
Pirate Radio opens in theaters today. View the trailer below.