How’s this for an ascension? Forty-three-year-old writer Peter Morgan, who worked for years in relative obscurity on English TV dramas (his first, in 1989, was called Shalom Joan Collins), has just had two high-profile movies made from his screenplays open the same week in America. And what a pair: The Queen, starring Helen Mirren as Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth (read a profile of Mirren here), has generated major Oscar buzz, as has The Last King of Scotland, starring Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin (see a Whitaker profile here). Just before that double debut, news broke that Ron Howard will mount a movie version of Morgan’s very first play — a London smash called Frost/Nixon, for which Morgan will adapt his own text into a screenplay (read about the movie version here). Shooting has begun in London as well on The Other Boleyn Girl, starring Scarlett Johannson and Natalie Portman as sisters (Anne and Mary) vying for the affections of Henry VIII (played by Eric Bana). We caught up with the busy scribe at a hip New York hangout, 60 Thompson in Soho, for a chat about fact versus fiction, the merits of Ron Howard’s track record, and the perils of schadenfreude.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You seem insanely prolific. What’s the secret?
PETER MORGAN: The work that’s come to fruition all at once is work done over a two-and-a-half-year period. Seen that way, it’s considerably less remarkable.
How does the London TV community, in which you’ve toiled for years, take to all this movie and stage success?
With every project of mine that’s come out, I’ve been shedding friends. I may end up with a mother that still talks to me, and that’s about it. And I would imagine my Christmas-card list could go down to about two.
But you’ve had consolations. For instance, reaction to The Queen has been ecstatic, including Oscar-nomination talk for Helen Mirren.
It seems to be getting a universal reaction rather than a geographically particular one. By and large, audiences have reacted the same way in Venice as they have in New York and in London.
That stuff with the queen seeing a stag out on the Balmoral Castle grounds in Scotland as she’s coping with public reaction to Diana’s death — was that pure invention?
That has no basis in reality, no. [The royal family] did go shooting the day after Diana’s death. But actually I think it was grouse they hunted. I chose to make it stalking [a deer] because that echoed the themes I was more interested in for this piece. People [like Princess Diana and the queen herself] being pursued, hunted, stalked. Cameras with telephoto lenses and guns with telescopic sights feel very similar.
In the film, the queen gets upset over the stag being hunted. It almost seems like she cares more about the stag than about her dead daughter-in-law.
There was a lot going on that week, and there were a lot of people having emotions coming out sideways. The queen probably felt overwhelmed, and, inappropriately, [her emotions] came out over a dead animal. To be honest with you, it was intentionally metaphoric, the stag. An animal like that doesn’t get to be 14 points [with large antlers] unless it evades capture over a period of years. That’s sort of how I feel about our monarchy. I’m not quite sure how they’re still there. For me, the stag was the queen. When she sheds a tear over it, it’s an expression of self-sympathy and self-recognition, of a fellow animal in jeopardy.
Did you worry the queen might be an unsympathetic character if you didn’t give her these invented humanizing touches?
If you actually examine what the queen is, she’s a dysfunctional mother, and a dysfunctional wife. She gets it entirely wrong. She patronizes [Prime Minister] Tony Blair, she’s cold, she’s withdrawn, she’s aloof. She’s riddled with flaws. And yet people come out [of the film] saying, ”I just love that woman.” It shows we don’t need filmmakers to hide flaws in order to see the interesting sides of people.
And speaking of flawed people, there’s General Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. How did you get interested in the subject of Africa’s most notorious genocidal maniac?
In a way, he was a parentless child, brought up by the British army. I think he’s a socio-economic creation that can be directly linked to British foreign policy abroad. You’re not born a psychopathic dictator. It’s in a way a touching story, and I try to get under the skin of misunderstood and maligned characters, to work out how they got there.
You’ve sized up another bogeyman, Richard M. Nixon, in Frost/Nixon (a look at David Frost’s 1977 TV interviews with the disgraced ex-president). How’d you hit on that as subject matter?
At the time I was writing The Queen, I had implied to Stephen Frears, who directed it, that I was not enjoying [the writing process], and struggling to find the way through it. Stephen took that as an indication I probably wasn’t going to be able to deliver. So he jumped onto Mrs. Henderson Presents. I was so furious with him for having done that — because I still delivered it prior to the date that we’d agreed — that I thought, Well, the only way that I’m not going to eternally resent a man who’s a good friend is if I now do something I would never have done. So I could say to myself, Had it not been for Stephen messing me around, I would never have done X. I had to try and do positive karma. So I borrowed some money I don’t have, and flew to Washington, D.C., to start meeting all the [still-living] protagonists. I don’t mean this disingenously, or with false modesty. But I wrote Frost/Nixon fully expecting it to be horrible. I mean, just a disaster.
Why a play, not a movie or a TV film?
I thought to myself, I’d sooner it were a play than one of those respectable adult political HBO film dramas. I didn’t want it to be too earnest. I wanted to do a human story, almost like a love story. It’s that wonderful gladiatorial thing where only one man can be left standing at the end. But on the way, two men kind of become obsessed by one another. It struck me that Frost’s lightness and charm — his likability and his sociability — were things Nixon craved but didn’t have. So these two characters would each have things of which the other could be profoundly envious.
And yet your Nixon is very funny.
I hadn’t written him to be funny until we did a reading. I suddenly realized, we’ve got something wittier than I thought we had. I went away and worked more on that tone.
So what happened with the film rights going to Ron Howard?
I have to be careful what I say here, so I’m going to think carefully. I had meetings with a number of directors, and phone conversations with a number of directors. It was Martin Scorsese, Bennett Miller [Capote], Mike Nichols, George Clooney, Sam Mendes [Jarhead, American Beauty], and Ron Howard.
But it was Howard who closed the deal.
I picked possibly not the first choice other people would have made. All I can tell you is, I’ve slept really well since. I certainly think I’ve picked the most collaborative [candidate]. I’m not going to have a traumatic experience with him. I think he’s a big enough man, and a confident enough man, to let me in. I think if one’s worried that it’ll be too soft, and possibly too sentimental, I’m expecting to be involved in those decisions. I’ll bring plenty of teeth and darkness to it.
The other directors who were interested basically have more art-house, highbrow pedigrees. Why not go for that instead of a mainstream commercial filmmaker?
To me the Holy Grail is not art-house. It’s intelligent, adult mainstream cinema. That’s why I was excited about Ron doing it. He’s got very mainstream taste, and that’s music to my ears. To me, that’s more exciting than playing to the ballet and goatee-beard crowd.
But Howard hasn’t tackled overtly political material before. And his Oscar-winning biopic, A Beautiful Mind, had to face a lot of accusations of airbrushing about the real-life character it portrayed.
I’ll tell you the pro-Ron things, which are why I went with him in the end: First, he agreed to do it as a coproduction between Working Title in the United Kingdom and Imagine [Howard’s production company] and Universal in the States. I liked that I’m English, Ron’s American. One producer, Eric Fellner, is English, and the other’s American, Brian Grazer. For me that [mix] was important. That was one thing that counted ahead of Sam Mendes, for example. The second thing is, Ron Howard committed to making Frost/Nixon his next movie — contractually. Also, I got a sense that despite having just made one of the most successful films of all time in The Da Vinci Code, he wanted to take on a different kind of material. He wanted to do a smaller film that might address a different demographic, and challenge him in a different way as a filmmaker. In my view, Ron Howard has nothing to prove. But I was incredibly charmed and persuaded by a man clearly feeling he did have something to prove.
What do you think he feels he needs to prove?
It’s almost ludicrous to describe somebody that’s just made The Da Vinci Code, which has grossed a billion dollars worldwide, as licking their wounds. But I loved the intensity of his passion and commitment. I was very, very persuaded by that. And I really like him. He’s a really great guy.
What went into casting Frank Langella as Nixon in the London stage show, and now the Broadway version due next spring? He’s very tall, which makes him an unusual choice.
My first thought for Nixon was Dan Aykroyd. But I had a conversation with his agent, and he told me in no uncertain terms that Dan didn’t do stage work.
Langella has gotten great notices, and he was terrific as CBS chief William Paley in Good Night, and Good Luck. Would Ron Howard hire Langella for the movie version of Frost/Nixon?
I don’t know. Those conversations are just starting, really.
What will the film look like? The stage show uses the device of a bank of TV monitors against the far wall through the whole show, but you can’t do that in a movie.
To be honest with you, I think a whole new visual language needs to be uncovered for doing it. One or two of the people I spoke to [about a film version] felt it was largely all there [already in the stage script]. And that if one were merely to chop out a couple of bits of narration, one could pretty much shoot it. I don’t feel that. I think opening it up is going to offer all sorts of challenges.