Commentary: 'Frost/Nixon' strong in early awards polling

Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Eric Fellner discuss play-into-film

"Frost/Nixon" focus: With awards season moving full speed ahead, "Frost/Nixon" is emerging as one of the films attracting the right kind of nominations.

Having greatly enjoyed my early look at the Ron Howard film, I was happy to see the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn. nominate it for five Golden Globes on Thursday, including best picture (produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner), director (Ron Howard), screenplay (Peter Morgan's adaptation of his hit stage play), actor (Frank Langella) and score (Hans Zimmer).

Earlier this week, the Broadcast Film Critics Assn. also nominated "Frost/Nixon" for best picture, director, screenplay and actor. When Academy members make their Oscar nominations next month, there's good reason to anticipate they'll also recognize the film's strength in those same key categories.
 
"Frost/Nixon," a Universal, Imagine Entertainment and Working Title Films presentation in association with StudioCanal and Relativity Media, opened Dec. 5 to an outstanding $60,236 per-theater average at three exclusive runs in New York, Los Angeles and Toronto. It expands Friday to 29 markets and goes wider Christmas Day. The critically acclaimed picture has an enviable 91% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com's Tomatometer.

How "Frost/Nixon" went from the stage to the screen was the focus of my recent conversations with Howard, Grazer and Fellner, whose insights are the subject of today and next Wednesday's columns. Asked how he decided this was a movie he wanted to make, Howard told me: "It felt so fresh and original and surprising to me. I certainly remembered the interviews -- they'd meant a great deal to me -- but I had no idea how suspenseful and funny and engrossing the behind-the-scenes machinations were.

"I find virtually everyone who sees the film says the same thing: They didn't know what to expect, and they're surprised to almost a profound degree, really. And I think (it's) entertaining to see these characters clash -- to see David Frost jet-setting around trying to tackle (President Richard Nixon), this powerful figure in decline. It's much more like a courtroom thriller than a piece of history."

Howard flew to London to see Morgan's play when it opened at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in August 2006, and Grazer saw it soon thereafter. "That was after Ron said, 'I saw the play, and I want to make it as a movie -- and I want to make it my next movie,'" Grazer said. "He just said how moved he was and that he saw how he could turn it into a film where the style would not interrupt the nature of the characters, and he had ideas about how to give it scope, but in a way that was not interruptive to the play. I said: 'OK, great. Let me read it.' I read it and fell in love with the piece. I just thought it was elevated writing on a level that I hadn't really read before."

Getting the rights to Morgan's play was more difficult than anyone anticipated. "We saw the play on the opening night here in the U.K.," said Fellner, who co-chairs London-based Working Title Films with Bevan. My colleague, Debra Hayward, who's (an executive producer of the picture and) the head of development here, (attended the opening), and I went a couple of days later. We absolutely adored it and immediately saw the potential for it to be a movie and were very excited about that prospect."

Fellner has known Morgan socially, he said, "for maybe 15 or 20 years. We spoke to him. We spoke to his people, and it was not going to be as simple as we'd hoped it would be. There were many suitors for this attractive material. One of the suitors was Imagine. So we suddenly found ourselves competing not only with George Clooney and Scott Rudin and Stacey Snider at DreamWorks, and Sam Mendes and a whole list of (other) fantastic filmmakers, but we were competing with Imagine as well."

Added Grazer: "We unified with Working Title, with Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan, and we said, 'OK, we'll go after it for Universal and for Ron to direct it.' But then there were other people that were directors or artists from other studios that wanted to turn the play into a movie. Ultimately, I think, because Ron flew to London so early and Peter liked so many of Ron's films, he chose Ron."

"It was Marc Shmuger's idea," Fellner added, applauding Shmuger, who co-chairs Universal with David Linde, "to put us together (with Imagine, saying), 'It's crazy, you guys bidding against each other. It's (an) Anglo-American production -- why don't (all) of you work together on it?' So I met with Ron after he saw the play and spoke with Brian. From our side, it was an easy decision because we loved the idea of Ron being the director, and the opportunity to work with someone like Brian was too exciting to pass up. And that's how it came about."


It was a partnership that worked well by all accounts. "I have to say that we've made nearly a hundred films at Working Title, and we've had many great partners, but this has been an absolute joy working with Ron and Brian and the whole team at Imagine," Fellner said. "I think they have a similar take on moviemaking to us, maybe different in terms of scale or material sometimes. But they're professional filmmakers, all of them, and that's what they do and that's what they love doing. We've just seen eye to eye and enjoyed the relationship enormously."

Added Howard: "It's great to be involved with companies -- my own, Imagine, and Working Title, who were fantastic partners on this, and Universal. Their taste, their production savvy, their understanding of this material was valuable. All (were) demonstrating a real appetite to take a very unusual story and not try to push it or force it into something that it's not, but instead to try to help me fully realize the potential of this thinking person's entertainment. I have so much respect for all my collaborators on this one. And I include the studio when I say that because it has only ever been about fulfilling the possibilities of this very particular kind of story."

"Ron made the movie much more entertaining than I could have imagined," Grazer said. "I just knew it was a great play. I didn't have the same exact absolute conviction that it could be a film, but Ron did. And that's the difference between words (on a page) and what's in a director's mind and their ability (to make it visual). That's why, sometimes, the passion and skill of a director can be quite surprising."

Howard recalled his first exposure to the stage play: "I read it, and actually, in a conversation in London months before that, I had talked to Peter Morgan. He told me about (his screenplays for) 'The Queen' and 'Last King of Scotland.' Those ideas sounded great to me, but when he mentioned that he was doing a play about the Frost/Nixon interviews, I couldn't really get my head around it. I remember thinking: 'Really? A whole play? Maybe a one-act.' I kept imagining these dramatic readings of the transcripts. So when I read it, I was surprised and immediately wanted to go see it. I (read) the reviews as the play opened in London, and they were almost across the board excellent reviews. My wife, Cheryl, and I just decided to go. I knew that other people were interested in it."

Morgan, though, hadn't conceived his story as a movie, Howard said, "and was surprised, I think, that filmmakers were already beginning to line up and express interest. I went and saw it and not only wanted to work on it and gain the rights to it, but I was willing to commit to making it as a movie. I was able to do that because I knew Peter Morgan's a screenwriter. Between my instincts about how the adaptation could work and his deep understanding of the material, I just knew we'd get a strong adaptation.

"I felt Michael Sheen and Frank Langella would be remarkable in the film version. And I also knew that I could make it modestly enough so that it would make sense for Universal. I've got to say hats off to them for being so supportive of a project which is showing good signs of life now, but in a vacuum you look at it, and it's hardly a high-concept movie."

I asked Fellner how Working Title and Imagine worked together making the film. "Well, we work very different to Imagine," he replied. "Our company is kind of autonomous in the way in which it operates in purchasing material and running productions. What we did in the first place was aggressively pursue and purchase the rights; we did that here, out of the U.K. My legal team, headed by Angela Morrison, (was) working in conjunction with Imagine and Universal, but ultimately we negotiated it all here. The people we were negotiating with are bizarrely in the same building as us, so there was a geographical benefit to doing it here, and I think that was part of the advantage that we had.

"Ultimately, Ron is a very seasoned filmmaker, and he knows exactly who he's going to use, how he's going to use them (and) how the team's going to operate. The production kind of was cherry-picked by whoever the best people were in either company. Like our production people have got enormous experience at making films at this (modest) budget level, whereas at Imagine they haven't done so many films at this budget level. So our people were very, very useful in that area. Ron is incredibly collaborative on a creative level and would constantly refer back to myself and my team and, I imagine, also to Brian and his team. So there was a lot of creative input from the two."

Added Grazer: "It was like making a student film compared to (what we usually work with). I liked doing it, (but) it's easier for me to like doing it than Ron. I mean, he normally shoots movies in 75 to 80 days, and he shot this in 38 days. Ron was willing to reinvent his entire work style, so it was more challenging for him. But I think, once he ultimately got into it, he really liked it because he was able to shoot two sets at the same time. He shot a lot of film because there's so much dialogue and there's so much going on, but he did it all very inexpensively."

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