''I'm worried that we don't have the word massacre in the title,'' says Richard Curtis of the commercial prospects of his directorial debut, ''Love Actually.'' Indeed, the latest romance from the screenwriter of ''Four Weddings and a Funeral,'' ''Notting Hill,'' and ''Bridget Jones's Diary'' is positively blood-free. But luckily, Love has a few things going for it, namely a jovial holiday spirit, a dream cast, and a potential cult single in the movie's hysterically crass ''Christmas Is All Around,'' a reworking of the Four Weddings theme ''Love Is All Around.''
After enjoying final cut on several of his screenwriting projects, Curtis, 47, felt directing was a logical next step. ''It got to the point where I didn't think it would be fair on another director to work in the knowledge that at some point I'd be able to say, 'Well, this is how I want it,''' he explains. ''So it's a way of avoiding being murdered by another director.''
Which isn't to say Curtis didn't have a death wish -- once shooting ended, he was faced with the task of melding some 20 characters and nine story lines into a 129-minute whole. Costar Alan Rickman recalls, ''When we were finishing the film, the last words I said to Richard were 'Good luck in the editing room.'''
It could have been even worse: Curtis reports that when planning the movie, he nixed a few plotlines wholesale. ''But I have enough left over that maybe I'll do a second film,'' he says. Until then, here's a cheat sheet on Love's many-splendored things.
1 KEIRA KNIGHTLEY Actually, She's... Juliet, a newlywed trying to figure out why her husband's best friend (Andrew Lincoln) is acting so distant. BACKSTORY ''Her role relies so much just on her being gorgeous,'' says Curtis.
2 LIAM NEESON Actually, He's... Daniel, a recent widower attempting to connect with his 11-year-old stepson (Thomas Sangster). WHAT GOT CUT ''It was a section where he went on to the Net to find some pictures of Claudia Schiffer,'' Curtis says. ''Thousands of pornographic sites start to come up. And then, just at the wrong moment, his father-in-law comes in.''
3 HUGH GRANT Actually, He's... the newly elected British prime minister who discovers he fancies his young secretary (Martine McCutcheon). HUGH KNEW? ''He really hated doing [dialogue recording],'' Curtis says. ''He'd finally got what he wanted [on set] -- and then the idea that he has to re-create it and it won't be quite as good...''
4 EMMA THOMPSON Actually, She's... Karen, a mother of two who comes to believe her husband (Alan Rickman) is cheating. HER TAKE ''A situation that might otherwise elicit the response 'Your dinner's in the dog and your bags are on the street' has to be dealt with in a completely different way because there are children there.'' WHOM SHE WISHES SHE HAD PLAYED ''I would like to have played Hugh Grant's role and made the tea boy a young, very foxy bloke. What's-his-face, the Irish boy, Colin Farrell.''