Peter Morgan on 'Frost/Nixon'
Peter Morgan – whose writing credits include 'The Queen', 'The Last King of Scotland' and 'Frost/Nixon' – is a master of bringing to life the drama of high office. Dave Calhoun quizzes him about the art of weaving convincing fiction from historical fact
You could call it either literary bravado or biographer’s suicide: Morgan dares to speculate what may have been whispered across our monarch’s pillows in the days after Diana’s death, or what phone conversations may have taken place between Richard Nixon and David Frost on the eve of the last of their famed TV interviews. But the outcome is never wild or hysterical: it’s usually stately and far from the spoof or satire that might spill from the pen of a lesser writer.
Yet it’s an approach that ruffles feathers, not least Morgan’s own. I met him and the director Stephen Frears shortly before the release of ‘The Queen’ in 2006; both were grumbling that the journalist Mark Lawson had taken them to task for including events that couldn’t be verified in court. Humbug, says Morgan, to this sort of dry, literal reading of his work. Audiences are smart enough to know they are watching drama not journalism.
‘I agree it’s a risky path to tread,’ he concedes. ‘There are people who are bound journalistically to a code of ethics that means they can’t quote something that isn’t sourced, whereas what I do is entirely unsourced. I effectively fictionalise history and yet somehow aim at a greater truth. It’s a wonderful paradox.’
There are memorable scenes in Morgan’s work that say, loudly and clearly, ‘There are no direct sources for this, I’m inventing it because I believe in the core of it.’ In ‘The Queen’, that moment was Helen Mirren enjoying a teary moment of reflection in the Scottish wilderness with a proud stag whose life is threatened by a group of arriviste bankers installed at a royal hunting lodge. W. can safely assume that Morgan didn’t hear that particular anecdote from the horse’s mouth. In ‘Frost/Nixon’, the signature moment is Nixon drunkenly telephoning Frost late at night and declaring that their final encounter before the television cameras will make one of their careers – and break the other.
In conversation, Morgan displays what’s required for his line of work: charm and a thick skin. This is evident in an anecdote he tells me about dealing with David Frost – the character and the man – when researching ‘Frost/Nixon’. Morgan believes he gives Frost (played by Michael Sheen) a comparatively easy ride, that both play and film may give more of a victory to Frost in those televised interviews – for which Frost personally paid the ex-president $1 million – than he deserves. Indeed, Morgan says the W.shington Post journalist Bob W.odward ‘rang me up and said, “W.at the fuck are you doing? Frost never got anything out of those interviews.” ’ W.odward was exaggerating: Frost elicited an admission of guilt and an apology from Nixon over W.tergate. But what Morgan does is concentrate on the initial failure and ultimate success of the interviews, which gives a dramatic arc similar to a sports movie: Frost comes roaring back from disaster with a last-minute goal. Morgan believes that giving Frost’s risky, and in some ways courageous, endeavour the benefit of the doubt still offers a subjective but essentially truthful portrait of the relationship between the two men – neither of whom comes across as wholly sympathetic.
‘Before writing the play I met Frost and told him I was independently painting a portrait of him. I said I needed his help in speaking to some of the people involved and that when it was finished he’d need to show it to his friends and ask what they thought. I said to him, “I doubt you’ll ever like what I’m going to do. But maybe loved ones will persuade you to like it.” I took liberties that I think probably offend him. But I think overall I couldn’t have written it without that level of directness.’
I tell Morgan that I find it a little odd that, as we speak, Frost is next door conducting his own interviews, organised, like ours, with the studio that’s releasing ‘Frost/Nixon’. Is he fully paid up? ‘He’s not paid up in a physical or literal sense,’ Morgan answers. In the film, Frost comes across as a playboy who pulls off a coup by turning serious at the last minute. It’s an affectionate sketch that won’t do his legacy any harm. ‘W.ll, you can’t imagine Nixon being here,’ Morgan jokes. ‘Frost loves all this. But I’ve tried to keep my distance from him.’
W.at it comes down to is morality: you either care about the repercussions of your writing or you don’t. You don’t have to like your subjects – this is a man who’s written about Myra Hindley and Idi Amin – but you have to respect them. There’s a difference between facts and truth: ‘You’re either a person with a conscience or you’re not. I think I’ve got quite a fine conscience. There were a couple of things I lost sleep over with the play “Frost/Nixon”, so I went back and addressed them a bit more in the film.’
It’s his conscience that defines Morgan’s work against the many inferior dramas that take hysterical liberties with real lives without offering anything intelligent in return. W. talk about Oliver Stone’s ‘W.’, which Morgan hasn’t seen, but which is equally responsible with the facts. But one thing that differentiates that film and ‘Frost/Nixon’ is the unique dramatic perspective that Morgan lends to the disgraced ex-president. W.ile Stone rattles through Bush’s life entertainingly enough, Morgan studies Nixon, played with lugubrious charm by Frank Langella, through the prism of four interviews with a maverick British TV entrepreneur. ‘It means you’re coming at it from a relatively oblique angle,’ says Morgan. ‘Sometimes if biography is too head-on it can feel too obvious.’
Also, Stone rushed to finish his film while Bush was still in the W.ite House, while 29 years separate the Frost/Nixon interviews from Morgan’s play. By then, Nixon had been dead 12 years. ‘Stephen Frears and I have thought a lot about this; we feel you need hindsight.’ He and Frears plan to return to the territory of ‘The Deal’, their 2003 TV drama about the rivalry between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which they revisited in ‘The Queen’. He’s written a third film, too, which Frears will direct and in which Sheen will star again (‘he’s made it his part now, hasn’t he?’), about the relationship between Blair and Bill Clinton. ‘Then I want to write one more after that about Blair.’ He clearly can’t stand the man. ‘I want to say: "Okay, Tony Blair, you’ve been fun as a narrator figure, now it’s time for your reckoning, my friend." ’ He mimics a camera getting up close to Blair. ‘It’s an unusual thing to do, four films about one prime minister using him as a way of looking at the world we live in. And in the last one I want to turn the camera right back at him.’
Some critics have assumed that Morgan’s portrait of Nixon is also a stab at current affairs: it’s a metaphor for the current US administration. Morgan bats this away as nonsense, although he admits it’s easy to draw parallels between Iraq and Nixon’s talk of US intervention in Vietnam and Cambodia. Still, he thinks there’s something much more pertinent to be gained from reconsidering Nixon. ‘W.y has the Republican Party become the party of proud philistinism? Obama’s sophistication and his intellect are insults which the Republicans taunt him with. It’s like: that guy’s fucking clever. Nixon would be spinning in his grave. He prided himself on discipline and thought. W.atever his foreign policy or his personal failings, he was a man for whom office was a heavy responsibility. It was a leader’s duty to be as great a man as he could. And that included reading history and the writings of leaders and philosophers round the clock. After this Sarah Palin nightmare, this appealing to the lowest possible denominator, hopefully the Republican Party will expel these people and expel this from their mission statement. There is no inherent contradiction between being right wing and being intelligent.’
Does Morgan find producers now try to second-guess what may interest him? ‘I think so. An American film company recently asked me to write about Hugh Hefner. Ostensibly, one might say, “Ah, yes, that’s a good fit.” But I met Hefner briefly, and I couldn’t connect with him. Anyway, I don’t want to do much more of this sort of thing. I’ve been writing more fiction.’
He’s certainly prolific: he’s one of several writers on ‘State of Play’, a film (out in April) that transplants the murky BBC series about political conspiracy to W.shington. Then there’s an adaptation of ‘The Damned Utd’, David Peace’s novel about Brian Clough’s disastrous tenure as Leeds United manager in 1974, with Sheen as Clough. It’s not, Morgan warns, a slick affair like ‘Frost/Nixon’. ‘It’s imperfect; so was Clough. He was eccentric and contradictory. I think of it as a spunky little mongrel that you like but you wouldn’t enter into any competitions. But I think it’s got “Trainspotting” energy. “Trainspotting” is an imperfect little mongrel, but there’s still something rather wonderful about it.’
‘Frost/Nixon’ opens in cinemas on January 23.
Author: Photography Annie Collinge
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