“I make a point of not reading reviews because of the old adage, if you read the good ones then you have to read the bad ones, and if you read the bad ones, you have to, you know… And also because it’s a very, very bewildering and exposing thing,” Morgan admits.
An Oscar and Emmy nominee for projects like The Queen, Frost/Nixon and The Special Relationship, Morgan has received ample raves over the years, but he’s also just extremely busy. He wrote all 10 episodes of the first season of The Crown, which premiered on Netflix on Nov. 4, and he also wrote the entirety of the second season, which he’s currently immersed in.
The Crown begins with Elizabeth Windsor (Claire Foy) on the brink of marriage to Philip (Matt Smith) and unaware of her royal father’s (Jared Harris) illness. But — historical spoiler — she soon finds herself ascending to the throne and coming to recognize that the Elizabeth she once was is no longer compatible with the Queen Elizabeth II she must become against the backdrop of waning confidence in the monarchy and instability of the British Empire post-World War II.
Morgan spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about finding the tone of his series, the challenges of Queen Elizabeth’s interiority and how her clash of identities makes her like Clark Kent and why Foy’s performance marks the arrival of “this generation’s Judy Dench or Maggie Smith.” A more spoiler-y second part of the interview will run on Monday.
I was surprised early on by how emotional the series made me. I was tearing up very frequently in the first couple episodes.
That’s one of the amazing things. We have all these different directors, we have four different directors on, and trying to navigate between the natural tonal differences that they bring to it, because I, as a showrunner, I give them a lot of independence, and, therefore, once the assemblies to the episodes start coming in, they are so different tonally, and then I have to really get to work to try to make some of them more sentimental, some of them less, or more emotional, or with less movement, more movement. It’s very, very interesting, the process.
What surprised you most in the differences between what you wrote and then what came out as a first cut from a director?
For a start, you don’t know what it is. You really don’t know what it is until it starts appearing, being shot. You work on the episodes but they’re nothing more than a conceptual drawing, really, and then once the footage starts coming in, you start cutting it together, you think, “Oh, I think the show is this,” and so you’re pretty confident that it’s this. And then another director comes along and you’re, “Oh my goodness, it’s that.”
In all truth and honesty, I still think you just instinctively know, “That is our show” or “That is not our show.” I was looking at some dailies today of stuff that’s being shot in the second, loose assemblies because we’ve starting filming the second season, and I found it quite easy to say, “Yes, that’s our show” or “Ooh. I don’t know what they were doing there, that’s definitely not our show.” And I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, but I can put my finger on what it isn’t, if that makes any sense.
Could you give me any kind of definition of what it isn’t? Of what the show has sort of become not being about?
I think when it trespasses into certain areas. I think sometimes when it delights too much in its extravagance, I think, “Oh no, that’s not our show at all. I don’t know why we’re doing that.” There were some times when a scene can feel like it’s the set direction talking rather than the characters, or when it’s the extras in the back, when you feel a shot has been composed by the location manager, you sort of go, “Oh no, no, we don’t need to do that at all.” I think, equally, when it becomes too gentle. There needs to be a toughness, and a surprising cruelty sometimes.
Some people always, they use shows, they say “It’s this and this” or “This show and that show,” but most than once, David Lean’s name has come up and Robert Bolt’s writing, the person who wrote mostly for Lean, who, to me, is sort of the preeminent master of taking intimate and emotional stories, and playing them out against epic backdrops — they are one North Star.
But then also sometimes the cruelty of Rosemary’s Baby or some things like that, where you suddenly have something, “Oh my goodness, I wasn’t expecting to see that.” Sometimes it’s a harshness just because these characters are, themselves, there’s a chill to the institution, to the buildings, to the families that they come from.
I’ve got to keep a close eye on the tone and I’m not quite sure what the rules are. I just want to make sure that we’re never too comfortable, we’re never too uncomfortable. It’s never too cruel and never too kind. I am really interested in provoking an emotional response from people because that’s how I feel about it. I feel the show sits at its best when it’s unexpectedly sad. Because I think that the condition of being royal is unfortunate. It is a very powerful family that struggles with having no power at all. We the people, we the subjects, we can’t make up our mind what to do with them and that in itself is a kind of torture.
Did you have eureka moments as you were thinking your way through, say for example, how Margaret would feel not being able to grieve with her sister or the episode of the Queen Mum in Scotland sort of enjoying this one little moment of not being recognized, where you understood these characters yourself for the first time?
Yes, and of course was blessed by actors who teach me back. The amazing thing is once you’ve done a show, once you’ve written a season like this and made a show like this where it’s not until you really begin to understand how to work with them, you sort of wonder how do people ever make films, because until you get the feedback about what the show is not just from the characters, until you’ve shot the film and cut it together, you don’t really know what’s missing.
I’ll give you an example. When you do additional material and do reshoots, that’s the first and only time where you feel absolutely certain that you’re doing the right thing. Because by then you’ve come together and you’ve filmed something which is missing and it’s just such a beautiful feeling to slot that piece into the jigsaw and I did that a great deal of the time. There was a lot of reshooting going on based on once you’ve seen it cut together.
That is the process of understanding it. And that is coming now. There’s a huge process at the moment where I’m hearing what people are thinking and feeling as they respond to it. That helps me understand the show too because until this moment you have no idea what you’ve provoked in people or around them and more how indeed they’re reading it and responding to it.
I love how unformed Elizabeth is at the start. Nobody exactly knows who she is. She probably doesn’t know who she is. She’s certainly not ready for this thing that’s about to be thrust on her. So what are the pleasures and challenges of starting with a character who’s this unformed and this unknowable initially?
And I think, by the way, In some ways she retreats more and more and more from herself. If you are Elizabeth Windsor and you have certain thoughts and feelings about certain issues like: you want to support your sister in her marriage or your actual belief about certain political situations is x, y, or zed, the office, the act of being Queen, the act of wearing the crown means that as sovereign, you’re not allowed that. You have to have an opinion about certain things with regard to the Church or morality or whatever and you’re allowed to express no opinion whatsoever around politics. When does the crown start to bleed into your natural character? When do you forget? When do you even lose sight of who Elizabeth Windsor is?
So at the beginning of the season, I think she knows who Elizabeth Windsor is, but she has no idea what the crown means or what it is to be sovereign. As the story goes on, she learns more and more about what it is to be sovereign, but forgets more and more about who she is as occasion after occasion after occasion she is obliged to suppress her own individuality and take on the values and the attitude that necessarily are part of wearing the crown and abide by that rule system. So there’s and incredibly interesting push and pull.
When I first came to writing this show I thought to myself, “If you were a showrunner, creating a television show you wouldn’t … As a man in my early 50s, I don’t naturally gravitate … As a natural vehicle, you wouldn’t choose a shy, responsible quite inward-looking 25-year-old girl. You would choose Tony Soprano for heaven’s sake. You choose someone who would reach for a gun or you’d choose an alter ego. You’d choose something through which you could project something of yourself.” I have to almost throw away everything of myself when writing her.
If you had said to me at the beginning, “I’m going to put a gun to your head and tell you to create a long-running television series, who would you pick as your character to take you through that?” If you had said to me, “I’m going to force you to write this character,” I would’ve said, “There’s nothing to write about this woman.” But actually the deeper you dig, it’s that particular push and pull between her being two women.
In a craft way, it’s what all superhero movies are doing. When somebody pulls on a costume. When somebody adopts a second identity. When a mutant unleashes the other part of themselves. In a very formal, historical, political way that is what’s happening to this woman. She is two people. She’s this very simple woman and then she’s this goddess with superpowers, as it were. Being stuck between the two must be very paralyzing in the same way as it is, I guess. I cannot believe I’m even saying this. I’m saying this for the first time, in the same way it must be for Clark Kent. It’s confusing.
The idea of a TV series built around a main character whose goal is the subversion of their individuality, that is so very counterintuitive. How do you find the heroism in that as an act? Because it does, as you say, seem counter-heroic.
It is. In episode four, Queen Mary says to her, “To do nothing is the hardest thing of all.” It’s the greatest achievement of all to do nothing. It’s the suppression. It’s the less you do, the better. The less you are, the less you breathe, the less you think, the less you do. The less noise you make. What a lesson for our politicians today that is.
That’s seems to me like something that would be very difficult to find an actor who could personify. Interiority is something that is hard to act. How hard was it to know that Claire Foy was the right person for doing this?
That well-worn cliché or adage of, “The minute you heard her you knew.” She has to somehow be electric in passivity. By doing nothing she also has to be powerful in her inaction. By nature of the job, most actors are striking, remarkable and alpha. Claire has, I can honestly say, I know it’s customary for a writer and a creator or a director to dig up their actor but I can honestly say, that right up there with Helen Mirren and Michael Sheen, she’s the most technically gifted actor I’ve ever worked with. Take after take after take is perfect. You and I are familiar with the idea that many, many performances have been created in the cutting room. Blotches have been spared by taking one half of one sentence and sewing it to together with the other half of take 15 when they finally get it right.
I’m telling you from the privilege of having been in the cutting room, every single take of hers is usable. Everyday that she shows up, she makes no mistakes. She’s the dream actor to build a show on. The other day I almost thought, “Well, she’s one of those people who’s simply more remarkable onscreen than she is, possibly, off-screen.” Then I spent the day doing interviews with her and I think she’s every bit as remarkable off-screen. I think what we’re witnessing here is the arrival of this generation’s Judy Dench or Maggie Smith. This is a woman who is going to have a spectacular career.
The Crown’s entire first season is now streaming on Netflix.