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Stick to your guns and learn to compromise: Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis' tips for success

Screenwriter Richard Curtis
Monica Schipper | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Richard Curtis has been the creative force behind a string of iconic movies, including 'Love Actually,' 'Four Weddings and a Funeral,' and 'Notting Hill.'

As well as achieving Hollywood success, Curtis has used his platform to establish Comic Relief, a charity initiative that has raised millions of dollars.

Speaking to CNBC, Curtis shared his tips for career success, overcoming creative blocks, and forming strong working relationships.

Do what you believe in

One of the core elements of Curtis' success has been standing by his ideas – even when he wasn't convinced others would like them.

"In comedy the key is to write jokes that make you laugh, not what you think other people will laugh at," he said. "You'll be better at your job if you're doing the thing you actually believe in."

Curtis added that in his work with comedy actor Rowan Atkinson, the duo produced a unique brand of "peculiar comedy" – but he said they were successful because "we stuck to our guns."

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Overcoming self-doubt and imposter syndrome is a core message of his next movie, "Yesterday," Curtis noted.

"To some extent, some of us always feel like imposters," he told CNBC. "When I'm working on something, I keep saying to myself: 'if I do that, the audience will definitely laugh.' (But) when I sit down (to watch the final product) I feel that I am an imposter – 40 years into my career, I still self-doubt."

Draw from personal experience

When working on creative projects, Curtis advised budding artists to use their own personal experiences.

"Write about what you know," Curtis told CNBC. "I have a tendency to set films where I live – I have a real sense of place."

He wrote Notting Hill while he was living in that part of London, and his next movie, "Yesterday," is set in Suffolk, England, where Curtis has a house.

"As far as charity is concerned, if you're going to do it, look to your area of strength," he added.

"I used comedians because (it's what I know). If you're working for a company, ask whether they're doing anything about fundraising and charity – don't just go to the public and hope they'll pay attention to you."

The U.K.-based Comic Relief charity has also gone global in recent years with a sister organization in the U.S. The fifth annual 'Red Nose Day USA' TV special aired at the end of May, raising almost $40 million to combat childhood poverty. It pushed the total raised to date over the $190 million mark, with funds spent in every U.S. state as well as overseas.

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Keep your options open

"There's an enormous amount of challenges in (creative writing)," Curtis said. "You have to keep things fresh."

Before starting a new project, Curtis often begins working on a few movie ideas and then develops the one that matters to him the most. When he initially came up with the concept of the movie "About Time," he chose not to complete it straight away and came back to it when the time was right.

It's also critical not to obsess over coming up with one perfect idea, Curtis told CNBC.

"When I get writer's block, I write '1,2,3,4,5,' down on my computer, and then I think of five ideas rather than one," he said. "If you're trying to think of one solution, you will stay stuck, so try not to get too fixated on one solution. If you think of a few it makes things a bit less frightening."

Learn to compromise

For people who dream of a career in filmmaking, it's essential to have a strong work ethic, Curtis emphasized.

"The truth of the matter is you have to be a perfectionist," he told CNBC, adding that to succeed in a creative industry, you need to be both tenacious and compromising.

"Every working relationship is always very complicated – two people's visions are never going to be the same," Curtis said. "Learn the art of determination and stubbornness, but you also have to be able to step back and say: 'he feels more passionately about this than I do.' Pick your battles, and never get angry."

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Don't force inspiration

Curtis has revisited some of his classic movies in recent years, shooting short sequels to 'Love Actually' and 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' for Red Nose Day in the U.K. Although the motivation was to get people to watch the show and pledge money to charity, Curtis said it had been "very sweet revisiting" the stories.

"I enjoyed going back to 'Love Actually' and exploring how those relationships might look now – but it was a tiny little glimpse, not a full sequel," he said.

He explained that he hadn't been tempted to write a feature-length follow-up because "the inspiration for the original wouldn't be there."

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Screenwriter Richard Curtis
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