The famed writer and director shares the creative philosophy that has helped raised more than $1 billion for charity with his organization Comic Relief.
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Richard Curtis, the writer and director of films including Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, is also the co-founder and vice chair of Comic Relief. He started the organization after visiting Ethiopia for a month during the 1985 famine and felt compelled to raise awareness about it.
Today, Comic Relief and its various campaigns, including annual television special Red Nose Day have raised more than $1 billion for projects in Africa and the United Kingdom aimed toward fighting poverty and providing access to physical and mental health services. While the goals of the organization are lofty and potentially daunting, Curtis said that as he’s gotten older, he has learned to appreciate the fact that grand projects aren’t tackled all at once, and that there is value in the process
“I’ve realized that in life, you dream you’re going to go up the whole staircase, but you end up climbing a stair,” he said. “With Red Nose Day, our aim is to end child poverty. You have to contrast the size of the task with the extraordinary amount that you can achieve with small things.”
He said the impact of those small things, whether it’s an individual donation that leads to life-saving vaccinations or a school working together to raise money for meals for families in need, keep him focused on his big goals.
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Since 2015, a Red Nose Day special began airing on American television on NBC, 27 years after the first one premiered in the U.K. Today, Red Nose Day in the U.S. has raised over $150 million. Curtis said that when he started Comic Relief, he knew he wanted to help, but wasn’t sure how to go about it. So he started with what he knew.
“When you see how tough life can be, it does change your life. I just came back and tried to do something in my area of strength, which I suppose is my big recommendation on charitable things,” he said. “Go to where you’ve got a bit of power. I have a bit of power in that I knew most comedians in the U.K. We did a stage show and we did a TV telethon. The first year we raised 15 million pounds. After that it was very hard to say no, because that’s more money than I’ll earn in my whole life doing my own job. It was really just noticing what is going on and believing you can make a difference.”
As the organization has grown, Curtis said the biggest lesson he’s learned is that when you’re working to accomplish big things, you can’t limit your imagination. For Red Nose Day, the plan has always been to add something different to the organization’s roster of fundraising methods, whether it was selling red noses or releasing books, hit singles and documentaries or simply fundraising in communities or online.
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“I have this motto, which is to make things happen, you have to make things,” he explained. “So it’s important to treat it like a proper imaginative enterprise rather than a sort of solid and serious charity thing.”
Curtis said that the common thread between Red Nose Day and his work telling stories is that both involve that step-by-step approach. He said that he finds there is a rhythm to his creative work. He describes his process as having a day of ideas, dreaming and putting post-it notes on the wall and then a second execution phase of battling through the practicality of making it all work.
“A proper writer writes for a day and sees that 2 percent of what they’ve done is good, and they are absolutely triumphant,” Curtis said. “An inexperienced writer writes 98 percent rubbish and thinks they’ve done badly. Whereas actually, it’s a success. I think the thing to do is to be exhilarated by what works rather than be demoralized by what doesn’t.”
The Red Nose Day Special airs on NBC Thursday, May 23, at 8 p.m. EST.