Q&A: Peter Morgan


Public figures must shiver when Peter Morgan shows up at a cocktail party. The self-deprecating British writer has carved out a niche as the pre-eminent dramatist of postwar historical figures. "The Last King of Scotland," "Longford," "The Queen" and his latest, "Frost/Nixon," have cemented his reputation. And more are still to come including "The Special Relationship," the third in his Tony Blair trilogy. Morgan also has plenty brewing on the fictional front with the forthcoming "State of Play," "The Jury" and "Hereafter," an original thriller that Clint Eastwood will direct.

The Hollywood Reporter tracked Morgan down in Vienna, where he spoke via cell phone from his family's holiday retreat about the worst side effect of success and confronting the famous folks he writes about.

The Hollywood Reporter: You've been on a hell of a run these last few years. What's been the most noticeable difference in your professional life between pre-"Queen" and now?

Peter Morgan: The best thing that's happened is the same as the worst thing that's happened, which is that people take you more seriously. It's a privileged thing, because people give you the benefit of the doubt. On the one hand, it removes some of the checks and balances. On the other hand, it removes the checks and balances.

THR: You have four kids. How do you manage to keep distractions at bay and stay so prolific?

Morgan: I've been really lucky in that just about everything I've written has been made. I don't think I'm writing any more than any other writers. That means that I appear more conspicuous or visible. But actually there isn't another body of work that none of you have seen.

THR: That's amazing. Do you have a sense of entitlement now that whatever falls out of your pen should get the green light?

Morgan: No, because I think it's partly earned. And I don't mean through the quality of the writing. It's earned through the decisions you make. Most of the things I write, I write on spec. And because I write them on spec, there's less interference. Because there's less interference, they tend to be better. The development process is so counterintuitive, and it so dismantles your confidence and often the confidence of other people--everyone gets tired of the idea. There's almost no situation that is improved by having more voices.

THR: You wrote "Frost/Nixon" before "The Queen" and borrowed money to make the research trip to Washington. What were you thinking?

Morgan: Some of my dissatisfactions with the lot of a screenwriter had got me to a place where I thought, 'I'm prepared to do anything now.' It was a to-hell-with-movies moment. Stephen Frears had decided not to do "The Queen." He decided to do "Mrs. Henderson Presents" first, although both scripts were sitting on his desk. I was going to have to wait 18 months for him to turn around to do it. And that pissed me off. It was about the powerlessness, it was about feeling like, 'Oh, right, so actually what happens in my life is down to him.' So I thought I had to do something pretty extreme, like go down the Amazon or bicycle across Russia.

THR: Did you do either of those?

Morgan: No--I wrote a play! Which was a far more risky thing to do.

THR: Were you surprised that you were able to turn "Frost/Nixon" into a film that seems to work?

Morgan: It never occurred to me. And this is, I suppose, my point. Unfortunately, there's no getting away from the agony that there's always a blank page. And there's no getting away from the fact, no matter how successful you become, that writing has to come as an imperative. And if it isn't something that you have to do, regardless of the rewards or the remuneration or the outcome, it's hard to know how it is that you can do it well.

THR: Does Michael Sheen call you once a week to make sure you're writing something for him?

Morgan: [laughs] No. I don't know quite how it's worked out like this, but I'm really happy that it has. It will in the end have been six [projects]. I've looked at his face either through monitors on set or in cutting rooms or on screens now for a large part of the last six years. "Relationship" is definitely, definitely, definitely the last one. And I don't just mean of the Tony Blair trilogy, I mean of these sort of fact-based two-handers that I've written.

THR: Have you had any surprising interactions with any of the real people that you've dramatized?

Morgan: No, because I don't hang out in royal circles or in New Labor circles. And actually it's my horror to meet people that I've written about. As I'm sure it's a horror for them! I met Gordon Brown recently at a drinks party given by David Frost, and I was as uncomfortable as I think I've ever been in my life. We met and he mumbled something about, "Why had I asked David Morrissey to be so overweight?" And David Frost was there, too. It was uncomfortable for all of us, and that serves me right for accepting the invitation to a David Frost party.

THR: Have you met Clinton or Bush?

Morgan: I briefly met Clinton at a fundraiser, and much as I would love to interview him--and probably much as he would be willing to be interviewed--I just don't think it's a good idea to meet. I really like to keep my distance. It is a fairly serious thing that you're doing, if you're writing about people who are still alive and who still have a role in public life. Sometimes you don't want to be reminded too much of the responsibility. And also, inevitably, people I suppose want to influence you, and I don't want to be influenced. I don't want to feel compromised or befriended.

THR: You split your time between London and your wife's hometown of Vienna. How do these different places feed your creative flow?

Morgan: Everything I write, I've written the first draft in Austria. I can't write a first draft anywhere else now, actually. We have a place in the mountains, and I can really withdraw. I can do research and I can do revisions everywhere else. But I can't actually do a first draft. For some reason, when I'm in Vienna, it unlocks me. As soon as I'm here I feel connected to something and I feel able to write, and it's actually the opposite when I'm in Los Angeles. I love fellow filmmakers, and I love kibitzing and talking the business, and all that kind of shit. But writing and thinking is best done somewhere else.

THR: If you could add one rider to your contracts for writing services, what would it be?

Morgan: "Don't give me a note until we've had a table reading." I think that actually there wouldn't be any need for notes, because what would be wrong with it would be so obvious. My experience is, I do a table reading and it's literally like, it's written in colossal neon lights what's wrong with the screenplay. I think it particularly suits my kind of writing, which is very dialogue-heavy, very character-driven. "Frost/Nixon" was done with three table readings--not a single note.

THR: What can you tell me about "Hereafter"?

Morgan: It's a significant departure stylistically for me. It's quite spiritual material, and quite romantic, too. It's the sort of piece that's not easy to describe and in the hands of different filmmakers could end up as wildly different films. Quite unlike some of my other material, which I think there were only certain ways that you could shoot it.

THR: Given your track record with landing great directors, have you developed any sense of entitlement about who should be lucky enough to gaze upon your deathless prose?

Morgan: No, and I can't believe there was even a grain of seriousness in your question. [laughs] Again, Clint Eastwood didn't develop "Hereafter," Ron Howard didn't develop "Frost/Nixon," Stephen Frears didn't develop "The Queen." These were people that we went to with a finished screenplay, and had they not said "yes" there would have been other outlets for it. In other words, to some degree you make your own luck. I went to writer-friendly directors. Ron and Stephen adore writers. They are the kind of directors that make being a screenwriter a privilege and a joy. And I'm aware of the fact that other experiences are out there.