INTERVIEW: Global Goals give 'epic opportunity' to the world – Richard Curtis

Filmmaker and founder of Project Everyone, Richard Curtis, briefs journalists on the Global Goals Campaign at UN Headquarters in New York. UN Photo/Mark Garten

4 September 2015 – Richard Curtis is known around the world as the film-maker behind international hits such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Mr. Bean, Love Actually, and Bridget Jones’s Diary, as well as for his involvement with the charity Comic Relief.

However, over the past year, the British filmmaker and founder of Project Everyone has been working closely with the United Nations to help give prominence to something completely different – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), 17 targets aimed at achieving three main objectives in the next 15 years: end extreme poverty, fight inequality and injustice, and tackle climate change.

In three weeks, 193 world leaders will come to UN Headquarters in New York to formally commit to the SDGs. In the lead-up to their adoption, Mr. Curtis has been collaborating with international artists and celebrities to do everything he can for the SDGs to become as well-known as possible.

This led to the creation of the Global Goals campaign, launched at the UN this week, in which he calls on everyone to spread the word on the SDGS, with the hope of reaching seven billion people in seven days.

To find out how, the UN News Centre recently spoke with Mr. Curtis.


You can’t fight for your rights if you don’t know what they are

UN News Centre: Tell us about the partnership that's been forged between civil society and the UN to spread the word about fighting poverty, injustice and dealing with climate change – the Global Goals Campaign.

Richard Curtis: I’ve been worrying about poverty issues and trying to do something about it since the day I watched Band Aid and Live Aid, and then I’ve been doing fundraising and the more that you think about these things, the more you realize that your personal involvement, doing fundraising, trying to see if you can help one person, is hugely important. But also, trying to affect the politics is also terribly important ‘cause that’s where the biggest money, and the biggest power, is and the biggest change will happen. I remember Bob Geldof saying to me that he thinks he made more money in 20 minutes having a cup of tea with [former French] President Mitterrand than he did in the whole of Band Aid and Live Aid put together, ‘cause Mitterrand said we’ll up the aid budget by 0.01 and that was suddenly 100 times more than they’d raised. 

Making the SDGs famous. Filmmaker Richard Curtis, founder of Project Everyone, explains how the Global Goals campaign seeks to tell 7 billion people in 7 days about the UN Sustainable Development Goals that will be adopted in September. Credit: United Nations

So over the years I’ve become very interested in campaigning on these issues… the Jubilee Debt Campaign… and I did something called the Make Poverty History campaign in the UK about the G7 in Gleneagles honouring the MDGs, and I became very interested in the idea that when the MDGs ran out and the new things replaced them that we should try and make the new things as famous as possible. Because I hadn’t really known about the MDGs until about 2005, and as it were my kids still don’t. And I suddenly realized or found out that I was not the only person thinking these thoughts. Actually everyone you spoke to, who’s passionate about these issues, all the NGOs that I know, and all the politicians said this is a real opportunity in 2015 to announce the new agenda, and make that agenda as effective as we possibly can, and create an extraordinary document and try and get an extraordinary result 15 years later. The action/2015 group came together, and of course because the SDGs are complex and have to do with justice and development and climate, it’s the biggest group ever.

Our message to the leaders is that there’s an epic opportunity to achieve amazing things on a global scale

And myself and some friends and some colleagues thought what we’ll do is just try and give a year to working out ways to communicate these SDGs, to try and make people excited about them, interested in them, realize that they’re to do with all the things that they feel passionate about. We said to ourselves ‘let’s try and get 7 billion people in 7 days’ and so it’s been a question of more is more, working with all different parts of the UN, with UN DPI, with UNDP, with UNICEF, with Amina [Mohammed] and  the people who are negotiating the goals for a year, and then with a huge range of people in every area – online, digital, schools, faith, TV, radio – to work out many ways to talk about the SDGs in a way that normal folk would understand and be excited by.

UN News Centre: What is Project Everyone?

Richard Curtis: Project Everyone is this idea that we would try and get the Goals to everyone. So what we’ve done is we’ve analysed how you reach people. Facebook reached its first billion the other day; we gotta try and do fun things on Facebook. Ninety-two per cent of people still listen to radio during the course of the week; we gotta do something on radio. Cinema, huge thing; we spoke to the SAWA, who are the screen advertising association, and said to them ‘can we do an ad in cinemas in as many countries as we can reach?’ So what Project Everyone is, it’s a kind of self-made little organization that has tried to go out and find every way that you get to people and then create some resources. And the thing we’re launching today is a sort of first glimpse of a pack of resources – the films, the books, the posters, the online gimmicks… we just got a “dizzy goal” in from Usain Bolt this morning on my computer. You know we’re just trying to tell everyone about all the things that we’re trying to do, and then the message is to the whole world: listen to this and then tell other people.

UN News Centre: Why is radio such a crucial means to reach people?

Richard Curtis: A huge number of people listen to the radio. It’s still the most popular communication tool. But also, I think we felt that, you know radio has got quite a lot of time on its hands. I remember when I went to Kenya and started talking about this, I spoke to Capital Radio there and they said ‘well look, we got two hours of phone-ins every day. We’ll phone in about these goals for 17 days in a row if you just give us some stuff.’ What we’ve done is we’ve created shows and then what happens is that radio stations can steal any of our stuff. And we hope that it will be a trigger just to start the dialogue. What we’re trying to do is to make people know that they’re there. We’re not really saying you’ve gotta buy this product, just there it is. And then the next 15 years of course, that’s actually trying to make it happen. But what we’re talking about is a big opening weekend. So as if you were opening a movie, there would be ads on the radio. If you were opening a movie, there’d be stuff on Facebook. If you were opening a movie, there’d be posters as you went along the street. We’re trying to do that for these.

UN News Centre: You also mentioned an ad that you’re hoping will go viral, featuring animals. Can you give us a sneak peek into this?

Richard Curtis: Well that was a funny one. I went to John Hegarty who is the sort of most famous advertising person in the UK, runs an agency called BBH, and I explained the whole project in all its complexity – the 17 Goals, the negotiations, the many, many messages. And he called me back two weeks later and said ‘I’ve got an idea. I think we should simply show it being gavelled at the UN – we should just show the moment, say we’ve got a plan, it will deal with climate change, inequality, poverty… ladies and gentlemen, we have a plan.’ And I said, ‘well, sounds great, nice simple message.’ And he said ‘the only twist is that the United Nations is going to be full of animals.’ Each world leader will be represented by the animal of their country, and I thought that is true. America is the eagle, Britain is the bulldog; every country in fact is represented by an animal. And so Aardman, who are the most brilliant animators, have made this gorgeous epic one minute advert voiced in English by Michelle Rodriguez and Liam Neeson, and that’s being shown I think in pretty well every cinema in the top 35 markets in the world on the Friday that they’re launched. In fact, in some countries I think they’re giving tickets away for free so that people will actually come and see the movie and see the ad.

UN News Centre: How can we ensure the success of Project Everyone? How can an ordinary citizen help out?

Richard Curtis: Well that’s such a good question, and the answer is it’s to do with finding something you think is fun, and passing it on. I mean if you’re young, make sure that it’s talked about in your school. We’ve actually got 100 countries in which teachers are going to be teaching a lesson about it, and we’ve made a little animation for that. We’ve done a book in the UK – published by Penguin – which is lots of stickers. Stick those stickers. If you’re online, so many people are, find something, pass it on. If you’re at home, on a couch, watch the TV show of our concert, switch on the radio. It’s just part of being a global citizen. It’s saying actually, I’m interested in these issues, and I’m going to talk to people about it, pass things on, recommend them… The big sort of motto behind this is that you can’t fight for your rights if you don’t know what they are. This is a sort of statement of planetary rights. And we want people to know what they are so they can them demand them of their leaders.

UN News Centre: You also mentioned wanting a huge ‘Star Wars, Titanic’ opening for the Sustainable Development Goals. Can you tell us about the event scheduled in New York City’s Central Park?

Richard Curtis: Well the ‘Titanic’ opening is meant to be like everything put together. There’s been a concert called the ‘Global Citizen’s Festival’ every year. I think this is the fourth year. And what’s happened this year is that we’re joining it with the launch of the Goals. I hope it’s going to be an amazing concert. The headliners are Coldplay, Ed Sheeran, Pearl Jam, Beyoncé –there are going to be some great musical moments. And it’s actually an amazing day because lots of people and countries come on and make pledges of things that they’re doing to work towards ending extreme poverty. But what we’re doing this year is we’re crushing that to a one-hour TV show. The TV show will have the best musical moments but also some, I hope, really powerful films explaining the heroes who’ve fought for these things before, what the Millennium Development Goals achieved, showing what the [Sustainable Development] Goals are, and then that’s being sold by BBC Worldwide in a huge number of countries around the world. I hope it’ll be a good show. Then the promise is in terms of implementation, that we’ll do a concert like this every year in a different city around the world for the next 15 years – ‘til Chris Martin is in his early 80s.

UN News Centre: How much of this is being done pro bono? And if you had a message to leaders of major world economies, what would that be?

Richard Curtis: Well, a huge amount is done pro bono. Obviously all the artists who will be appearing in the concert won’t be paid. I haven’t been paid. A huge number of people have been paid a ridiculously small amount to do all the work, all the filmmakers, all the musicians, all the designers, all the writers.

And our message to the leaders is that there’s an epic opportunity to achieve amazing things on a global scale. And it’s to lift their eyes to the things that can be achieved globally, as well as the exhausting amount of work that you always have to do in your own country. Because when you look back into the last 15 years, a huge number of people would say, not great years – you know, nationalism, extremism, terrorism, financial issues. If you ask Bill Gates, he would say – 15 of the greatest years in the history of mankind because since 1990, the number of children who die before the age of 5 every year has gone down from 12 million to 6 million. That’s an extraordinary curve, the fastest curve in history in terms of stopping unnecessary deaths. So it’s still finding the time and the money and the passion to actually focus on big changes that can happen in the world, particularly with the view to climate change and that urgency, and then to do with justice and extreme poverty, which can be wiped out by 2030.

So what we’re trying to say is that the people in your country want these big things to happen. They don’t only want to look at their pay packet and look at their taxes and look at their roads… I saw this amazing cartoon which summed it all up for me which was sort of like a giant naval boat in the middle of the Mediterranean and there’s a man at the top, and there’s a little migrant boat, and the man at the top is shouting ‘where are you from,’ and the people below reply: ‘Earth.’ And that idea that Earth is our home, and that you should fight for your home locally, but also fight for your ‘big home.’

UN News Centre: What was the defining moment when you decided to become an advocate for equality and justice?

Richard Curtis: It’s very hard to say the things that affect your life but I think that it was the Band Aid and Live Aid concerts after the famine in Ethiopia which really, in a way, convinced me that there was a responsibility of people who were popular entertainers to actually take on these complex political things. There’s a line in a song from a guy called Gilbert O’Sullivan which says ‘when I'm drinking my Bonaparte Shandy, eating more than enough apple pies, will I glance at my screen and see real human beings starve to death right in front of my eyes’ … I think it is a good job and a responsibility for people who do things to look at the world in a kind of simple humanist way to use those powers to talk about big complicated political issues.

UN News Centre: Can we expect you to be working on any new movies while you continue working with the United Nations?

Richard Curtis: I haven’t done any movies this year, but actually on September 27th, even though I’m going to care a lot about the implementation [of the Sustainable Development Goals], I do have to sit at a typewriter and start writing jokes again.


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