Blair's inclusion vital to Morgan's 'Queen' script

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Royal report: If you take a second look at Oscar's best picture nominees you typically notice things you didn't at first.

In the case of Miramax Films' "The Queen," which reigned in first place on my Top 10 List last December, when I looked at it again recently on DVD the strength of Peter Morgan's screenplay stood out much more than when I saw it for the first time at an early screening last August. Originally, it was Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen bringing Elizabeth II and Tony Blair to life on the screen and Stephen Frears' direction that made an immediate impact.

In taking a second look at "The Queen," however, Morgan's screenplay stood out as the first class skeleton it is for this film about England's Royal Family in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death in August 1997. Happily, "The Queen" has brought Morgan a well-deserved best original screenplay Oscar nomination. He's already won best screenplay honors from the Golden Globes, Broadcast Film Critics Assn., Los Angeles Film Critics Assn., New York Film Critics Circle, National Society of Film Critics, Toronto Film Critics Assn., the British Independent Film Awards and the Chicago Film Critics Assn.

Morgan's also, by the way, an Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for "The Last King of Scotland," which he co-wrote with Jeremy Brock. Adding to Morgan's outstanding year is the fact that his stage play, "Frost/Nixon" is beginning previews on Broadway March 31 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre following its critically acclaimed sold-out engagements in London last year, first at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre and later in the West End.

Michael Sheen, who should have received a best supporting actor nod from the Academy for portraying Tony Blair in "The Queen," stars as television interviewer David Frost opposite Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, reprising the roles they originated in London. The play, directed by Michael Grandage, who directed it in London, revolves around the dramatic face off in a series of globally syndicated television conversations between Frost and Nixon after the former president was forced to resign in August 1974 to avoid being impeached.

An indication of Morgan's prominence thanks in large part to the success of "The Queen" is evident from the ad that announced "Frost/Nixon" in last Sunday's New York Times. It was headlined: "A new play by the Academy Award-nominated and Golden Globe-winning writer of 'The Queen' and 'The Last King of Scotland.'"

When Morgan called from London on Monday morning I was delighted to be able to focus with him on went what into writing "The Queen" and also to talk about how he worked with Frears. "The Queen" marks their second successful collaboration, following their outstanding 2003 British television drama "The Deal," in which Sheen starred as a younger Tony Blair prior to his becoming Britain's prime minister. The film was honored with a BAFTA award for the best single drama on television in 2003. After seeing "The Deal" on DVD last fall I couldn't help but think that it should be required viewing for everyone seeing "The Queen" because it provides such a wealth of helpful background information about Blair and how he got where he is that American audiences, in particular, are generally not aware of.

"'The Deal' was much loved in England and people wanted us to continue it," Morgan told me. "It was felt that it was a new way of tackling recent history without it being a reconstruction and without it being a satire, which seemed to be the two conventional ways that people have dealt with contemporary history and politics. And so the producers that I look at the events surrounding Diana's death as a sort of iconic British moment. I looked into that and pretty quickly rejected that because it just didn't interest me. But I did find the days after Diana's death interesting."

Blair, who is critically important to "The Queen" working as well as it does, almost wasn't part of the story at all: "Everybody urged me not to include Tony Blair because I immediately said, 'Oh, I think it's a fantastic story. I think it could be a story about Blair and the Queen.' And everybody said, 'Oh, please don't write Tony Blair.'" That stemmed from the feeling that "to make a film with (Frears) was not as cheap as making a film with a television director and, therefore, it would have to be a feature film and that Tony Blair would limit its international appeal because while the Queen is an iconic international figure, Blair even as a prime minister that is instantly recognizable and probably has a very high name check value is not a character that people necessarily go to the movies for.

"And so I indulged them for a month or so. I tried writing it without Tony Blair and it just didn't interest me at all. I said to people, 'Look, this doesn't work.' I think at that moment (Frears) decided to take 'Mrs. Henderson' (the 2005 drama he directed starring Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins). And then I wrote it with Tony Blair in it and it just flew out. I wrote it terribly quickly. I handed it in and everybody loved it."

Morgan, understandably, had Sheen in mind to play Blair from the start. When I mentioned to Morgan that I'd done a column here with Sheen last year while he was appearing in "Frost/Nixon" at the Donmar and that I was disappointed he didn't get a supporting actor Oscar nomination, he replied, "Not as disappointed as me or him, I think. I was very disappointed. And I felt pretty guilty because, I think, had he had an opportunity to perhaps gain some better visibility and perhaps a bit more exposure in the United States perhaps he would have gotten one. I never know quite whether campaigning makes the slightest bit of difference, but if he'd got out there and met a few people, people might have thought about him more readily. Because he was onstage doing 'Frost/Nixon' I felt personally responsible for his plight. But, you know -- next year!"

How long did it take him to write "The Queen?" "Oh, once I knew I was writing it with Tony Blair I wrote it incredibly quickly," Morgan said. "I wrote a draft very quickly and then once everyone loved it and said yes and committed and Helen was included I went away and then spent nine months rewriting it in a way that didn't change it at all structurally. But I went away and interviewed thousands of people -- well, it wasn't thousands really, it was about 60 or 70 people -- to fact check and to sort of go, 'Tell me how did the room look?' It wasn't just me that went to do these interviews. It would be production people (and) it would be producers. Where things came out that involved changing the script, I would immediately change it. Otherwise, the scene would play the same and the production people would just listen and make notes and change things."

There are, of course, so many moments that we see in "The Queen" when Blair and the Queen are together in meetings that leave us asking, "Well, how would you actually know how they interacted?" "You don't know," Morgan emphasized. "In fact, I tried to make a rule of thumb that one would use archive footage for the things that we knew happened and that the rest would be set in bedrooms, kitchens, audience rooms in private meetings where there simply is no record, never has been and never will be. And my job was a job of the imagination."

Was the interaction that we see between the Queen and her deputy private secretary Sir Robin Janvrin -- who's played very capably by Roger Allam -- anything that Morgan knew about for certain? "When I discovered (the) code name given to the Queen Mother's Funeral and that they'd have to use the (planning for the) Queen Mother's Funeral for Diana at least in principle I just thought, 'Well, you have to play that scene in front of the Queen Mother.' That's where you have him talking about it having already been rehearsed. It's like discovering that your obituary's already been written.

"Also, the interesting thing about the Robin Janvrin character is that he was only the deputy private secretary. You know, this happened at the end of August when absolutely everybody was on holiday. So the guy that would have been in charge, Sir Robert Fellowes, was away on holiday in Greece. It hadn't reached major crisis proportions until the Wednesday or Thursday (after her death), by which time he was involved in trying to marshal the family down (to London from Balmoral Castle in Scotland), but I didn't want to introduce him as a character because he really didn't get involved until much later and he immediately got involved in spinning the fact that the Palace was capable of looking after itself after they got into this terrible mess. So actually the junior (private secretary to the Queen) was left running the shop, as it were."

Asked if when he wrote the screenplay he had Sylvia Syms in mind to play the Queen Mother, a role that I felt fit her like a glove, Morgan observed, "Well, we thought it would be Joan Plowright. Stephen is friends with Joan Plowright and he told her right away that this is what we had in mind. I went and met her and thought she was terrific. And so he said, 'Well, you'd better make that part of it bigger and give her some more fun stuff.' But then she developed a really bad problem with her eyes and it meant that she was uninsurable. So due to her poor health we had to look elsewhere. Up until that moment, Joan Plowright was absolutely the only person who was going to play that part."

While he was writing, Morgan knew he was writing a feature rather than a television film, but, he pointed out, "I don't think there's a difference at all and that was precisely the point I was making to them. I was saying, 'Well, wait a minute. So what are you saying? You're saying you want me to make it less specific and less intelligent for an international audience? Why? I don't get that. I don't see any difference between film and television. If it's good enough to be put in a movie theater where usually people will spend $10 to go out into the rain and brave the elements, if it's good enough they'll come. I don't know why people disparage television this way. Often television's far better than cinema in any case. With television you have less opportunity to escape into production values. You have the close-up and the close-up forces you to write more penetrating and psychological stuff, generally speaking."

Was Mirren always meant to be the Queen? "Oh yeah," he replied. "There was no conversation about anybody else. She loved 'The Deal' and had never worked with Stephen and was very keen to. We had a meeting at the point where I had decided I was going to write it with Tony Blair and that was the way it was going to be. I was pretty intransigent (about having Blair as a character in the film). She was very warmly disposed to us before hearing what we had to say and I think once she heard what we had to say I think it was just the anesthesia of shock -- rather like someone being presented with a sort of high wire that they're told they have to walk and then half-way across they're told there's no safety net.

"I think that was how she felt. I think that's how we all felt going into it -- that it risked extraordinary failure and humiliation. That it's very much high-wire stuff without a net. And had we got it wrong, we would all have looked like such fools, I think. And I think it's a testimony to Stephen Frears more than anybody that we don't look like fools."

As for how he works while writing, Morgan told me he's "an early morning man (and writes on) a computer. I use Final Draft. In this instance, I did a bit of research and then I worked only from my imagination. I wrote the film how I wanted it to be and then I did the research to fact check my imagining. I didn't really do all the research to find out which way to go because I find that way I can lose the wood for the trees, as it were. I actually need to have a view beforehand. I write what I'm hoping it is or how I'm imagining it is and then I go and fact check that. And if it's wrong, then I'll change it. If it's right and in sequence, great. But it allows me to keep the broad sweep of my own imagining."

Does he structure his screenplays using note cards on a board? "No, I don't do that at all," he said. "But I do work from an outline and I just constantly revise the outline. The reason I work from an outline is that it's somehow less heartbreaking to tear an outline up than it is to throw a screenplay away. I can cope with any amount of structural failures on an outline. They don't dent me or prick my confidence whereas if I was to hand in a screenplay that had profound structural problems that would become exposed and that would become clear. That would be devastating and it would be hard to go back whereas I have no creative pride invested in an outline."

Working with Frears on "The Queen" was the second time they collaborated and, Morgan said, "we're about to embark on the third. I haven't started writing it yet, but the third is an adaptation of a novel by David Peace about a soccer coach in England in the 1970s. The book is called 'The Damned United' and the film won't be called that. United being (the soccer team) Leeds United not Manchester United. It was a very, very famous English coach who hubristically took on the team of his arch nemesis when his nemesis moved on. He only survived 44 days and it was a sort of marriage of utter hatred. The players tried to destroy him and he tried to destroy the players. It's a fantastic piece. It's an extremely tough adaptation, but I'm going to give it a shot. Stephen is beyond excited about the project."

Recalling how they worked together on "The Queen," Morgan explained, "He doesn't get involved prior to a draft being ready. I mean, he obviously knew what I was planning to write and was looking forward to it. And I think in the back of his mind he'd already committed himself to it, but he kept his options open in case I -- well, if it hadn't of worked I would have rung him up and said, 'Look, this isn't working.' And then he got involved in that process which included the research, that nine-month period. He's very precise, Stephen. If there are things that he doesn't understand, he would ask me to make them clearer in the script. That's normally what it's about. He rings up and says, 'What do you think this scene's about?' And I'd say, 'Why it's obvious. It's about this, that and this.' And he goes, 'Well, you haven't written that. Go way and write that.'

"And then I would look at it and I'd think, 'But I have, haven't I?' And then I'd realize I probably have to make it a little bit clearer and then he's happy. I mean, not in a moronic way because he's very subtle. It would just be a relentless process of him ringing me up and going, 'What does this mean?' And I would go, 'Well, I think I means that.' And he goes, 'Well, go away and write it properly then.' And I'd go away and do that. One of the reasons there's a co-writer on 'The Last King of Scotland' is because when you work with Stephen there's no room for anything else. You go on a scout, you go to rehearsals, you're on the set every single day. It completely consumes your life. The net result is that you have a profound investment emotionally in the film. You know, sometimes it can be maddening because you'll be thinking, 'I need to be getting on with the rest of my life,' but then actually afterwards you're just so involved in every part of the DNA (of the movie)."

As an example of how that works, he explained that in one scene in the movie "the Queen's Land Rover comes to a halt in the river because I was there on the scout that day and I found the river. We were being infested by mosquitoes in Scotland and the scene was written to take place in a wood. I went down just to escape these awful (mosquitoes) and I found this river. So I called the whole unit down and said, 'Why don't we shoot it here? Her car could just break down in the river.' Stephen was resistant at first -- 'Why would it break down?' And then he said, 'Well, actually she was a mechanic (during World War II).' And that was something I didn't even know. That was one line in the film which Stephen gave me (when the Queen points out in passing that she'd been a mechanic during the War). He said, 'Well, you know, she can say she was a mechanic.' I loved that.

"Those sort of things were quite common. You know, he's very, very, very, very collaborative and that's just joyful. You absolutely feel like you're a filmmaker on a journey with him. You don't feel like you're the writer whose journey has stopped. It's the same in the cutting room. You're not there on a day to day basis while they're shaping the cuts, but I must have seen about 50 cuts of 'The Queen.'"

Were there times during shooting when Frears might say to Morgan, "We need to change something" or "We need another line here?" or when Morgan would volunteer some thoughts about altering dialogue? "Oh, all the time," Morgan said. "Oh, God, every take! Pretty much every take I'd whisper in his ear, 'Tell her to drop the 'is' or whatever.' I mean, when you listen to dialogue (you find little things to fine tune). If you could turn up every day on set, if one could afford that time, it makes such a difference." And that, he added, is how he worked "with Stephen always. I think it's bewildering for the actors at first, but I don't call out or shout on set or anything like that, but the actors definitely know (what we're doing). I mean, Stephen is a formidable presence on set, but I'll often be in a neighboring room and I'll come in and whisper into his ear and then disappear out again. That's pretty much how it works. He'll be on set and I'll be watching on a monitor and we'll talk pretty much after every take."

At this point, we'd covered everything I had in mind so I asked, as I typically do, "What haven't I asked you that's important?" "This is the last question, I'm going to answer on 'The Queen,'" Morgan replied good naturedly. "I've told my publicist I have nothing more to say. So it's an interesting question to be asked. This is my last interview about 'The Queen.' I mean, working with Stephen has changed forever the way I want to work. One of the studios approach me the other day and said they would be happy to make a deal with me as a director. I have absolutely no directing ambition whatsoever and certainly couldn't see why I would want to direct while Stephen was still around. So as long as there's Stephen, I couldn't imagine why I would do it because I would constantly be thinking that he'd do it better.

"At this precise moment in my life I could probably earn quite a lot of money and instead my agents are pulling their hair out because at the moment when we could really be capitalizing we're, in fact, going back to make a low-budget British film about a soccer coach in the 1970s, which will interest a very small (audience) of British males. It will because it's Stephen take up a great deal of my time and make me unavailable for a great deal of time. But I wouldn't trade this sort of filmmaking for anything in the world. I've never had any experience with making a film in any other way that is comparable."

Thinking about my question of what else was left for us to focus on, he noted, "So I suppose what I would have to add is that having made 'The Queen' and 'The Deal' I wish that would be the only way that I would ever work. It isn't like that, but I will certainly always look for directors with whom I can have a comparable relationship as with Stephen. And the indication so far with Ron Howard (who's going to direct Morgan's screen adaptation of 'Frost/Nixon') is that that's happening. It's every bit as collaborative with him. And with Tom Hooper, who I made (the 2006 British television drama) 'Longford' with, it was exactly the same.

"What's great about this now is I sort of know what I want and, therefore, when I go into a job I can say, 'This is what I want.' If it's an assignment and that sort of relationship or that sort of procedure isn't possible, then I'd sooner not do it."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 2, 1989's column: "Much is written about first-time directors, but often that's a misnomer because they've really spent years directing episodic television, music videos or commercials. In the case of Chris Walas, however, 'first-time' is precisely the right description.

"Walas, who directed 20th Century Fox's 'The Fly II,' which opens Feb. 10, had never directed anything else. His career had been spent creating makeup and animatronics effects. In 1987 he won the Best Makeup Oscar for his work on Fox's hit remake of the classic 1958 sci-fi film 'The Fly.' Earlier he did effects for such pictures as 'Raiders of the Lost Ark,' 'Return of the Jedi' and 'Gremlins.'

"How did Walas become a director? 'It was almost entirely due to Stuart Cornfeld, the producer on the first 'Fly,' he told me. 'He gave me a lot of leeway in dealing with the effects and trusted my judgment on a lot of things in terms of lighting and some set considerations and things that were peripheral to the actual effects work. He said to me, 'You should be directing, you know.'

"'And I said, 'It's what I've always wanted to do.' A year and a half ago he called me one day and said, 'Would you consider directing 'Fly II?' I said, 'Why do you ask?' He said, 'Because I think I just put your name in.'

"Cornfeld executive produced 'Fly II' for Mel Brooks' Brooksfilms ... 'I met with Mel Brooks and Mel seemed to somehow get convinced through my nervous presentation and said, 'Let's go talk to the studio,' Walas recalls. 'We had a meeting with (Fox president and chief operating officer) Leonard Goldberg. I had no idea what was happening, actually. He just said, 'Why do you want to work with actors?' and 'Why would you be crazy enough (to want) to be a director?' I gave him what I thought were actable reasons, which I don't even remember at this point.

"'He said, 'Fine. Nice meeting you.' I wasn't sure whether that was 'Nice meeting you, goodbye,' or 'Nice meeting you, welcome to the team.' The next thing I knew it was 'Welcome to the team.' From then on it just went crazy. Obviously, it was an incredible leap of faith on Mel Brooks' part and the studio's part.'"

Update: "The Fly II" opened Feb. 10,1989 to $6.8 million at 1,524 theaters ($4,430 per theater) and ended up grossing $20 million domestically. Walas went on to direct an episode of HBO's "Tales From the Crypt" in 1990 and the 1992 horror movie "The Vagrant" starring Bill Paxton. He subsequently returned to doing special effects, visual effects and special makeup effects, particularly for thrillers and horror genre films.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com.
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