Peter Morgan Interview
Peter Morgan is having the time of his life. Just two years ago he was counted a successful and prolific TV writer, best known for The Deal, the Stephen Frears' film about Tony Blair's supposed pact with Gordon Brown. A second TV film with Frears has suddenly become a serious Oscar contender, and Morgan finds himself in the unusual position of having created not one, but two Oscar-worthy roles in two completely different films: The Queen and The Last King of Scotland.
I met him the day after he was nominated for his own Oscar, for The Queen, at the Sundance Film Festival, where a third recent project, Longford, was warmly received. Meanwhile his screenplay for The Other Boleyn Girl recently wrapped, starring Natalie Portman and Scarlett Johansson. His play Nixon/Frost has been optioned by director Ron Howard. And he tells me he's working on a new script for Stephen Frears, about a certain well-known English football manager. Read on…
LOVEFILM: Congratulations on the Oscar nominations!
Peter Morgan: I now think I know what it feels like to be on a political campaign. It's extraordinary. Coming from England you've never come across anything like this. I think it started with the New York Critics' Circle and worked its way through the critics from around the country, and by the time you reach Oscars, the film, the actors, the writer and the director have in one way or another accrued… Helen Mirren's won about 20-25 awards already. You're just not prepared for that sort of thing.
LF: Does it change things for you?
PM: It's easy to mock it until you equate it with the economic consequences. As a result of the Golden Globes and six Oscar nominations they've opened The Queen up to 1900 screens from 300 screens. So it will have an automatic economic impact. And I'm sure that's a reciprocal thing. Because there is more money there are more awards and vice versa. If you're just a writer living in a little room it's very unusual.
LF: But if you write a primetime BBC1 play isn't that seen by more people even than a hit movie?
PM: That's a different question. If you write something that gets great domestic ratings on TV you are always going to get more.
LF: Yet there is more cultural cachet attached to a film.
PM: Because it has a longer life. I've done it: it is very dispiriting when you do a TV show, you put as much time and effort into it as a film or even a play, and it has one night of glory in which it gets a huge audience, and if you're lucky it's repeated, but by and large that is it. It's gone. Whereas cinema… The Queen has played now 17 weeks in America because of very delicate and skillful handling by Miramax. That's four months and we haven't even hit the Oscars yet. That's lovely. It gives people a chance to catch up with it slowly, for word of mouth to spread.
LF: Longford is a TV movie in Britain…
PM: Longford showed on TV in Britain but because of HBO's foresight and ambition, they thought it could play in a festival like Sundance. It's sort of challenging and this is a place where a smart, discerning audience congregate. This is a place to celebrate ideas from leftfield. So it felt like a perfect match, and that was true of the screenings I've attended here.
LF: It isn't too British for them?
PM: To be honest I thought that would be the reaction to The Queen. I thought it would be too particular, too British. I wrote it for the most discerning, harshly critical community of interest groups. For Longford it was prison visitors and judges, for The Queen it was Tony Blair's aides and courtiers. I thought if those guys buy what I've written then you've got to trust that the shared humanity would carry it.
LF: I would think that would be stifling!
PM: To me if it doesn't persuade those guys I haven't done the job right. I've done it before, where I wrote something that worked for a popular audience but not the guys it was about and I was licking my wounds for a while. I don't want to make that mistake again.
LF: And British TV/Film is one place where you can control the material enough that it isn't diluted down for the mass audience, which may not be the case in Hollywood?
PM: I think so. If you do step into that world - and I'm not particularly interested in doing so - that is a negotiation you have to make with yourself. In participating with a film that's going to cost $120 million to make, and more again to distribute and market, the people who are paying for that are going to be frightened and anxious and nervous, as would I be. You can't expect the same level of authorship in the big stuff, and if authorship is what keeps you alive, as it does with me, then you have to accept that keeping it local is probably the best way to go.
LF: But there must be options on the table. And a lot of money?
PM: Well, if the dollar rate were different… the gap is still colossal, but it's not turning my brain to mush. I can tell you the next thing that I'm doing is another small thing with Stephen Frears, about the football manager Brian Clough. Michael Sheen is playing Cloughie. It's about the 44 days he was manager of Leeds Utd and it's going to be as vicious as The Departed. It's an adaptation of a great novel, called 'The Damned United'. So we will make that for as little money as we can, and I will be paid nothing at all, and we carry on.
Stephen sent me the novel. My eyeballs went out on stalks. It deals with themes that I love: alcoholism and self-destruction and psychotic male competitiveness and treachery. Exactly like politics.
I am doing one Hollywood project, an adaptation of a play that I wrote, Frost/Nixon, which I'm doing with Ron Howard. So I am going to be dip my toe in and see how it goes.
LF: And what about Last King of Scotland, did that feel different in terms of the process and your hold of the material?
PM: It was different in as far as it was an adaptation. It was a tough job. It wasn't such a well-connected family as the one that made The Queen, where we all knew each other terribly well. It was an extremely difficult film to make. It was difficult to raise the money, difficult to shoot it. They didn't complete shooting it. There were whole chunks of it that were written that they couldn't afford to shoot. But Kevin Macdonald is the real thing, and will become a great British filmmaker. And Forest Whitaker is blooding extraordinary.
LF: It seems there is a real possibility you are going to have Best Actor and Best Actress to your credit. Were you on set for the films, did you watch these performances take shape?
PM: I was on set for The Queen pretty much every day, and because of that I wasn't able to be in Uganda. Listen, they both won the Golden Globes, and that night was absolutely the proudest night of my professional life. Having created those two parts and seeing them get that recognition… My King and Queen! I like to think that the reason people have connected so strongly to these two characters is that we have such powerful received ideas about them, and you don't expect to have the feelings about them that the films bring out. You don't expect to feel compassion for Idi Amin, to be amused and charmed by him; or to be moved by Elizabeth Windsor. I think people expect The Queen to be a worthy film in a tradition of historical dramas, I don't think they expect her to be witty or a good mimic, all the things we discovered the Queen is.
LF: Both are kind of about being seduced by power, not necessarily in a bad way…
PM: Well, I would look at differently. I think they're both about the difficulties of power. Idi Amin losing control of his country, not understanding the betrayal by the colonial British and lashing out in that ridiculous way by expelling the Asians, which was the trigger to destroy his country. The Queen and Blair are two people looking out from behind the blinds as 2.2 million are on the streets. I think it's about the loneliness of leadership, the struggle to stay in power and the responsibilities of running a government. In Amin's case he self-destructs and takes the country down with him. In the case of Elizabeth Windsor, she shows that slippery adaptability that has always been the story of the British monarchy.
LF: At what point did you become sympathetic to her?
PM: Right from the beginning. Because she's exactly the same age as my mother. There is something about my mother no longer understanding the world that I occupy. And I am already beginning to feel that I no longer understand the world that my children occupy. That cycle of life was the heart of it.
LF: And were you surprised by Helen Mirren's performance?
PM: Both Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker's performances are absolutely the highest art. In neither case did I suspect they would have the qualities required for the job. I thought Helen would be far too sexy, far too earthy, far too direct and strong. And I thought Forest as an African-American would never be able to play an African politician. And he is such a shy, diffident, modest man - I never thought he would have the volcanic explosive qualities for Amin. And in the hands of two great film actors I just feel like a fool. Because they completely possessed the parts. It's transformative acting. Helen became the Queen. The first two days on the set she was Helen, cracking dirty jokes and all the rest of it. But by the end of the first week were were all standing to attention when she walked in.
The Queen is released on DVD in March.