Political conflict makes great fodder for film. In a look back into Script's archives, we found this gem from Ray Morton, interviewing the screenwriter of Frost/Nixon, Peter Morgan, an adaptation based on his own play.
Originally published in January/February, 2009.
On June 17, 1972, as the race for the United States presidency between the incumbent Richard M. Nixon and his Democratic challenger George McGovern was starting to heat up, five men were arrested after they broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Party, located in the Watergate hotel and office complex in Washington, D.C. When a connection between the burglars and Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign was discovered, a series of investigations was launched that eventually uncovered a broad spectrum of illicit activity conducted by and on behalf of the Nixon administration.
Evidence suggested that the president himself had initiated or directed much of this activity and then attempted to illegally use the power of his office to cover up his involvement. Nixon’s aggressive attempts to stonewall these investigations dragged the country through two years of bitter controversy until the certainty of impeachment by the U.S. Senate finally prompted him to resign his office on August 8, 1974—the first and only time in American history that the chief executive has left office in this manner. A pardon by his successor, Gerald R. Ford, kept Nixon from having to face prosecution for his crimes, a turn of events that many felt robbed the country of a necessary trial and a cathartic reckoning.
But then, in 1977, the disgraced former president accepted $600,000 (and a generous percentage of the profits) from British chat show host David Frost to submit to a series of extensive interviews covering his life and presidency, including Watergate. Frost’s background as a stand-up comedian, sketch performer, and celebrity interviewer did not suggest that he was capable of conducting a serious journalistic interrogation, and Nixon apparently accepted Frost’s proposition assuming that he would be asked only softball questions. To the surprise of everyone, Frost—after a stumbling start—offered Nixon a series of hard-hitting questions, breaking through the former president’s expert obfuscations and eliciting the closest thing to an admission of guilt that Nixon ever produced.
This duel of wits between these unlikeliest of opponents is the focus of Frost/Nixon, the film written by the Academy Award®-nominated (for 2006’s The Queen) screenwriter Peter Morgan, based on his own play.
Morgan’s original dream was to become an actor, but as he explained in a recent conversation with Script, that plan was scuttled in his college years by “a combination of stage fright and no talent.” Still drawn to the theatre, Morgan decided to do the next best thing and began writing plays in order to direct them. After one of his first plays won a prize at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Morgan was approached by a commercial producer with an off er to write training films. “So, while I was at university, I was already writing screenplays—they were commercial ones, but nevertheless, I was writing for films and going to film sets and seeing stuff being made. I was probably 19 or 20 when I started and I’ve never done anything else since.”
Morgan went on to write for British television, including the mini-series Metropolis (2000) and The Jury (2002), and for films such as The Silent Touch (1992) and Martha, Meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence (1998). In 2003, he wrote The Deal, a television movie about Tony Blair’s rise to power directed by Stephen Frears. The Deal was a tremendous success and vaulted Morgan to the front ranks of British screenwriters. In the years that followed, he wrote or co-wrote the scripts for Colditz (2005), The Last King of Scotland (2006), and The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).
Back to the Boards
Despite all of this success, Morgan took a break from screenwriting in 2003. Frustrated by Stephen Frears’ decision to delay production on The Queen for 18 months (so that he could make Mrs. Henderson Presents), “I wanted to go somewhere where the writer apparently had more power and it wasn’t all about fitting in with a director’s agenda.” That somewhere was the theatre.
In search of a suitable subject, Morgan returned to an idea he had first conceived 10 years earlier. “In 1993, I was watching TV, and they were doing a look back at David Frost’s career and they briefly mentioned these interviews. Because I had been young at the time—I was 13 when they went out in 1977—I hadn’t noticed them, I had no memory of them, but even just from the clip that I saw, I remember thinking ‘Wow!’ I got a sense there was a great deal at stake and that it could play out like some sort of gladiatorial contest where in the end there were two men of very different character and background thrown into a ring where only one could win. I thought how novel it would be to try and tell a gladiatorial contest just with words rather than with fists.”
As intrigued as Morgan was with the notion, however, he didn’t do anything with it at the time. “There was a combination of not being able to afford to take the time off, because I wasn’t really earning that much in 1993, and because I didn’t have the personal confidence in myself as a writer and a dramatist to do it.”
A decade later, however, things had changed. Thanks to the terrific reception that The Deal had received in England, “I got so much more confidence both as a person and as an artist, I sort of felt then able to try.” World events may have also played a part in his decision to proceed: “I think also the fact that there were echoes between some of Nixon’s foreign-policy operations and what was going on in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003 [influenced me to go ahead]. I don’t think it was conscious, but I think there must have been something in the cocktail of what was going on in 2003 that made this idea seem more timely.”
To research the project, Morgan “flew out to Washington, D.C. and met with as many of the participants as were still alive and would agree to meet with me, which was pretty much everyone apart from Nixon.” Morgan also conducted a number of interviews with Frost. “He was extremely cooperative,” Morgan recalls. “Normally, I like to avoid meeting people I write about because it’s a sensitive business and I don’t want them to be hurt by what I do, but equally I want my editorial independence. It was difficult because I knew that some of the things I’d be writing might be hurtful to him, and I take the responsibility of that kind of thing pretty seriously given that he still has a career, he’s still working. But I think we’ve both come through it okay. It’s not as adoring as he would have liked, but I think that people who are close to him tell him that it’s respectful. Some of the portrayal of him in the early part of the movie is still distressing to him, but that’s the way it was.”
Directed by Michael Grandage and starring Frank Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost (both men reprise their roles in the film), Frost/Nixon premiered at London’s Donmar Warehouse in 2006 and went on to successful runs in both the West End and on Broadway, winning a Tony® nomination for Best Play and winning a Best Actor award for Langella in the process.
An American Trauma
Even before the play opened, Morgan began getting calls from film producers looking to buy the screen rights. He ultimately accepted an offer from Imagine Entertainment on behalf of director Ron Howard.
When asked why he decided to go with Howard, Morgan replied: “It was a combination of things. First of all, I wanted the fi lm to be made by an American, because I felt that I’d pretty much covered the British side of things and I felt I could write about Frost with authority. But I felt that if we were going to make a film in any shape or form about Richard Nixon, that it needed an American to somehow validate the fact that we were dealing with a very American trauma. I would just have felt presumptuous if it had been done by an English person. I also felt that [Howard] would have the dignity and the emotional maturity not to take sides. Because, when you look at characters like Frost and Nixon, it’s very easy to show your contempt for either of them; and if you show your contempt for Frost, that means you’re with Nixon, and if you show your contempt for Nixon, that means you’re with Frost. And both of those positions were just uninteresting in my view. I think it’s much more interesting to let an audience [make up their mind]. I felt that Ron would do that.
“Thirdly, he has no history in the theatre, Ron Howard—none, zero. I thought ‘Well, in order to compensate for something which is theatrical in its conception, it would be terrific to have somebody who is a pure filmmaker—who wouldn’t be remotely interested in preserving theatricality.’ He also committed to making it his next movie based on just seeing the play without a word being written as a screenplay, so it was sort of an easy decision in the end.”
With the decision made, Morgan began the six-month-long task of turning his play script into a film script. Traditionally, one of the main challenges in bringing a play to the screen is to open it up—take a piece designed to be played in a single set and make it more cinematic by setting the action in a variety of visually appealing locales. However, because David Frost in that era traveled constantly between Sydney, London, and New York, and because the interviews themselves took place in California, Morgan knew this step wouldn’t be a problem. “Just based on the locations that you would literally have to visit in order to tell the story, you’ve already got more ammo than a Bond movie. Just to set the locations where they actually were would be very global and that would feel wildly untheatrical. So, in that sense I thought we were in good shape.”
Making the Transition
A far bigger challenge was the fact that much of the story in the play was told through a binary narration, with two characters—James Reston Jr. (a key member of Frost’s research team, played in the film by Sam Rockwell) and Col. Jack Brennan (Nixon’s intensely loyal chief of staff, played in the film by Kevin Bacon)—taking turns talking directly to the audience. “So I spent the first three months of the adaptation writing a version of the movie without any of that. I showed Ron the first 40 pages and he was very polite and he said, ‘This is just terrific and you’ve done some really interesting things here, but I really miss the narration.’ So then we just worked for a while in trying to find a way that you could have the narration without it being as obviously yin and yang—y’know, the guy from the left and the guy from the right—and without it being too expositional.” Off of Howard’s suggestion that they use all of the characters instead of just two, Morgan came up with the idea to have them speak directly to the camera in clips from a fictional retrospective documentary film about the interviews. “In the end, quite a lot of the better stuff of the narration was preserved this way.”
During the adaptation process, a number of elements were inserted into the script that had not been in the original play. The film shows Frost becoming inspired while watching Nixon’s resignation on television. Howard was also very keen to show Gerald Ford’s pardon of Nixon. “He felt that in order to understand the degree to which the Nixon thing had traumatized Americans, you needed to understand the pardon—you needed to understand that Nixon was going to get off scot-free if it wasn’t for some kind of conviction in these interviews.
Then the biggest change, even though it’s a tiny scene, was the scene where Nixon is playing the piano. It’s absolutely for me the defining scene of the movie. Pat Nixon comes in and says, ‘How’s it all going?’ and Brennan says, ‘We’re sitting on an eleventh-hour shutout,’ and Nixon realizes that he’s won. So there are directions for the camera to go in on his face, and we suddenly see that instead of being elated, he’s deeply conflicted and that somehow the self-destructiveness of Nixon then propels him to making this telephone call [to Frost] in which he sort of galvanizes Frost to destroy him.”
That call—made by a drunken Nixon to a bemused Frost late one night just prior to the final Watergate interview—is the dramatic highlight of both the play and the film. It is also completely fictional. The question of when it is and when it is not permissible to include fictional elements in stories about real people and real events is one that dramatists wrestle with constantly, and Morgan is no exception. “It’s a very interesting question and it goes to the heart of everything I do. Despite having had plenty of time in conversations with [journalists], or friends, or fellow writers, I’m no closer to understanding [the answer].
In the end, [you have to have] a sort of internal-navigation system—an instinct—where [you] know that at some point there is a sort of final reckoning. It’s the same thing that we go through whenever we decide whether we shoplift or not, whether we lie or not, whether we cheat on our taxes or not. You know there are things you could possibly get away with, but you also know that you’ve done them. What are you prepared to live with and what is responsible and what isn’t? “The phone call felt completely responsible to me. The reason was because [we know that] Richard Nixon was on a cocktail of Dilantin® and alcohol at the time. The memoirs of James Schlesinger, his secretary of state, show clearly that everyone close to Nixon was very concerned in the later months of his presidency that he was up all night in blackout and that he was ringing people all around the world at four or five in the morning and that his mood was dark and erratic and volatile. Here’s a man clearly emotionally in a state of deep distress and profoundly depressed and conflicted and drinking to blackout and having no recollection of his conversations and I thought, ‘Well, in that case—we know that it’s true, so to actually paint him in that light is not an irresponsible act.’”
For Morgan, the phone-call scene was dramatically essential because it gave him the opportunity to “have that moment before the storm where they sort of meet in no man’s land. Two soldiers before they return to kicking the living daylights out of one another just briefly meet and suddenly they realize, ‘Hang on, we’re both just flesh and blood and I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do and you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.’ I knew that something must be okay about that scene because I wrote it quicker than I wrote any other scene. That scene took me 15, 20 minutes to write. It came out pretty much almost at the speed it was said. That was unlike anything else in the writing of this [script]. The scene came from somewhere quite deep inside and just flew out of me. I did it in two takes, as it were. I did one version and then I did a table reading. I just said, ‘You can go further.’ I went back and had another pass and that’s it—I’ve never revised it.”
Though Morgan felt some revision to the scene would be necessary, “When we came to shooting it in the movie, we shot it as it was. I said to Ron, ‘Well, we’ll get at this in the cutting room.’ Yet, every attempt we made to cut it diminished it terribly. It’s very interesting—a modified version of that was not half, it was nothing. We were both rather shocked. We thought, ‘Let’s try it on a couple of preview audiences and see if they reject it for its apparent theatricality.’ [The reality] turned out to be quite the opposite—it’s what people liked the most. So we left it.”
A Human Connection
After spending so much time writing about David Frost and Richard Nixon, how does Morgan feel about the men? “Well, they’re strange characters, these two. Neither of them, in my view, are particularly likeable. Although Frost is deeply charming, something about his conspicuous success makes him—I don’t know ... But he’s gutsy and he was much bullied and disparaged by all his contemporaries— Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore and Jonathan Miller and Alan Bennett. That’s his gang and they famously didn’t like him and abused him in public, and that made the connection for me with Richard Nixon and how he was bullied and patronized by the Washington political establishment. So I could find a connection with both of them that way.
“I feel compassion for wildly ambitious people because it is like being possessed by an unwelcome spirit. Ambition is such a curse and it’s so relentless, and here are these two men possessed of almost demonic ambition. That made me feel some compassion toward them because show me an ambitious man, and I’ll show you a damaged piece of goods. It’s almost always some form of compensation for low self-esteem or terrible abuse or something. So that was my way into them.”
Now that Frost/Nixon is complete, Morgan has turned his attention to other projects. He recently sold a spec script called Hereafter to DreamWorks that Clint Eastwood will direct and is currently at work on Th e Special Relationship, the final installment of what—with The Deal and The Queen—has now become a trilogy of films about Tony Blair. After having written so many scripts about people in positions of power, why does the subject continue to fascinate Morgan?
“Well, when you have a head of state, you’ve got two things going on. In the case of the Queen, you’ve got someone who is both Elizabeth Windsor and someone who is the Crown, and that duality is interesting. Where are you as a person stuck within that? It’s a disaster waiting to happen being, on the one hand, a human being and on the other hand, having power because what is required to execute the highest level of office is almost an inhumanity, and your humanity—the condition of being human and all the failings and weaknesses that it comes with—is just bound to either humble you or humiliate you in the end. Th e two things are so fundamentally at odds—being human and executing high office—that somewhere in between the two seems to me like a really interesting place to be.”
Copyright © 2019 by Ray Morton
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