Getting 'Frost' bite

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: Ron Howard and Peter Morgan freeze a moment in time with 'Frost/Nixon'

Four years ago, before "Frost/Nixon" became a Broadway sensation, before such actors as Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were being wooed for the film, Peter Morgan mentioned to Ron Howard that he was working on his first play, about the interviews between former President Richard Nixon and talk show host David Frost.

Howard had been fascinated by the televised interviews in 1977, but Morgan elicited only a "blank stare" from Howard.

"I remember thinking, 'Yeah, I could sort of see (it) as a small play,'" the director recalls.

That changed two years later when Howard read a version of the screenplay by Morgan. Immediately, he e-mailed his partner in Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer, and told him to read it. The script was rushed to Grazer at a Florida airport and he read it on a flight to Brazil.

"In 28 years I'm not sure he had ever done that," Grazer says. "I thought the writing was exceptional."

So did other producers. The play had just opened at the Donmar Warehouse, a 250-seat theater in London's Covent Garden. Soon, it would become a Broadway hit with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen in the lead roles.

After flying to London to see the play, Howard went after the rights. He was coming off a global blockbuster, "The Da Vinci Code," but there was a line of suitors including Eric Fellner and Tim Bevan of Working Title. Among heavyweights who expressed interest were Martin Scorsese, Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and George Clooney.

Bidding against Imagine was an issue because it and Working Title both have ties to Universal. "It seemed crazy bidding against one of our colleagues, so (Universal Pictures chairman) Marc Shmuger suggested we team up early on," Fellner says.

For the playwright, being courted by Hollywood was a dream and a nightmare.

"It was actually a curiously painful experience," Morgan says. "Although on one hand it was a great compliment, on the other hand there were a number of directors I would walk across coals to work with who were in competition with each other.

I could tell I was going to end up with one friend and several enemies."

Howard had some advantages. Morgan wanted an American director, and Howard was the only one who came to see him in person. "Ron was able to tell me to my face that he would make it his next job," Morgan recalls.

Morgan had been waiting for years to bring the story to life. In 1992, he was a 29-year-old television writer whose short film "Dear Rosie" had been nominated for an Oscar, when he saw a TV documentary about Frost. "I thought, 'I must look into that more,'" he recalls. "I remember filing it away in my head as a wonderful play idea."

The only play Morgan had written was in college. The idea lay dormant for a decade. By then, he was established as a television screenwriter, most notably for "The Deal," directed by Stephen Frears, about British Prime Minister Tony Blair. While waiting for Frears to direct "The Queen," Morgan thought, "I'd better do something now."

At his own expense, he flew to Washington and New York for two intensive weeks of research. He met with writer-historian James Reston Jr., veteran journalist Bob Zelnick and former Nixon speechwriter Ray Price, seeking not the chronology of what happened but the details about the principals' behavior. Then back in London, he met with Frost.

"There was this extraordinary kaleidoscopic thing going on where all the participants had wildly diverging views," he says.

In London, Morgan began writing. Then he recruited actors to do free table readings, which led to more revisions. "I always assumed it would end up (playing) in some pub," he notes. "I had never written (a play) for the professional London scene, and people in the theater are contemptuous of screenwriters, so I fully expected to be met with a very cold reception."

Although Morgan says he was "appallingly nervous" about his first play, it was a smash hit.

With the play gaining momentum, the enthusiasm of two producing partners convinced Universal to finance the movie, even though it was going to be a challenge to market.

"(It) was kind of a crap shoot in that way," Grazer adds. "But Ron really wanted to do it."

The deal Imagine and Working Title hammered out was based on the tightest budget and shortest production schedule Howard had undertaken in 30 years. Everyone, from producers to actors, agreed to take reduced or deferred fees. Howard received no money up front.

Howard wanted Langella as Nixon but agreed to consider a bigger boxoffice name. Beatty was one name batted around.

"Yes the Warren Beatty idea was taken very seriously," Howard admits. "Frank called me at one point very graciously and said, 'Look, I'm a big boy. But I would like to be in the running. Should I make a tape?' "

He didn't need to, because in the end Howard went with both Langella and Sheen.

Rehearsals began in New York two weeks before the Broadway run ended, and production was under way four days after the play closed. But Howard purposely had the Nixon and Frost "teams" rehearse separately. Sheen and Langella only saw each other when the cameras were rolling.

Howard had 40 days to shoot and a budget of less than $30 million. He eventually would get it done in 38 days.

"Ron hadn't made a movie that worked within a time frame like this," Grazer says. "Even 'Splash' shot more days. We were shooting in Culver City. It was the least expensive soundstage we could get."

Howard says they lost half a day when the power in the building failed. "It was in the middle of summer and literally the actors' makeup was melting."

Howard and Grazer were granted permission to film in the San Clemente home Nixon lived in. When Nixon takes a helicopter after being forced out of office, Langella is riding in the real thing, preserved in the Nixon museum.

"It's fairly surreal just being in Richard Nixon's house," Sheen says. "To find yourself actually walking around the gardens is extraordinary."

While shooting the controversial late-night call from Nixon to Frost, Howard had two soundstages in Culver City set up side by side -- one for Nixon and team, the other for Frost. They shot simultaneously, Howard racing back and forth with Morgan not far behind.

The scene is controversial because it never happened. But perhaps that is part of the project's magic.

"What we're doing is conforming to a play, not real history," Grazer says.