In a career now spanning over 20 years Peter Morgan has become one of the film industry’s most prolific writers, best known for crafting screenplays based on real life people and events. He won an Oscar nomination for adapting Frost/Nixon (2008) based on his own play. In 2006 his original screenplay for The Queen was also Oscar nominated, winning numerous other awards including a Golden Globe. The same year he won a BAFTA award for The Last King Of Scotland about the notorious dictator Idi Amin. (Both Helen Mirren and Forest Whitaker won Oscars for their work in those two films.) His other credits include the sports biography The Damned United, and The Deal, and a lot of television work including his Emmy nominated effort this year on HBO’s The Special Relationship. He is both writer and executive producer of his latest film Hereafter with director Clint Eastwood. It opened well in limited release last weekend in LA and NY and goes wide Friday in 2,181 locations. A complete departure from his previous scripts, it’s a multi-character piece telling three distinct stories about people affected by death or near death in one way or another. It’s also the most personal of all Morgan’s work and he wrote it on spec not knowing if it would ever be made. How it wound up in the hands of some of the film industry’s most powerful figures is a story in itself, a turn of events even Morgan couldn’t quite believe as he explained to me when he was in LA for screenings and interviews recently:
Deadline’s Pete Hammond: What was your reaction when you saw the movie?
Peter Morgan: I spent most of the time when I watched for the first time loathing my work, wishing I had done more here or there. And then the second time, at the New York Film Festival, I really enjoyed it — not my work but the pace, of being allowed in. There’s extremely honest things about it. I can assure you this is the most honest piece of writing I have ever done. I wrote it in a hut on a mountain for nobody because I wanted to. I don’t know, it just came to me.
PH: What drew you to this material?
Morgan: The stuff that I have perhaps become known for that’s based on fact, and English statesmen shouting at each other all the time, doesn’t entirely represent who I am. I am not a politics wonk. I like the idea of my writing reflecting more about who I am or other people. I wrote this not thinking for a minute that it would get made. I mean, the tsunami sequence — anyone in England would know if you write something like that it is just going to get taken out. You can’t afford anything like that. I wrote the first draft on my own in between assignments where I was being paid. I wasn’t paid to write this. I wrote it for myself and wrote it quite quickly and left it in a drawer. I needed to work out which of the three segments it was going to be about, and it was almost certainly going to be about the twin boys because that’s the only one I was going to be able to get the money to make anyway. But six months later, tragically, a very close friend of my wife and myself had died in an accident. And at his funeral I thought I really want to look at this again.
PH: How did Clint Eastwood become involved?
Morgan: I sent it to my agent and he then sent it to [producer] Kathleen Kennedy and she sent it to Steven Spielberg. He rang me up. Having a phone call from Steven Spielberg was just a fantastic rite of passage. I loved it, and he was very focused, very likable, strictly business, and really sharp. The phone call lasted about three hours and I loved his ideas. I then changed it based on the notes he’d given me and was thrilled with it. I then got a phone call saying, “Would you please come out to California as soon as possible.” So I jumped on a plane and went to the Universal lot for a meeting at 1 o’clock, and I went into the boardroom, and then an assistant came in and drew the curtains and said Mr. Spielberg is taken to have his meetings in the dark and she turned all the lights off. And then she left and I thought then, “Well, he’s really not here. It must be an imposter. But soon there he was, and we had a really long lovely meeting in which he said the notes he had given me had harmed the script and I said, “No, it was good,” and he said, “No, no, it isn’t good, and I damaged your work, and I don’t want to touch it again, and I want to go back to the original script that you sent me, and I want to give it to my friend Clint Eastwood.” This was just getting surreal. So I thought, “Sure, let’s give it Clint. What the hell. You’re clearly no good.” [Laughs]. Then I got this phone call saying Clint Eastwood wants to do it, and I said, “Wow, I can’t wait to start working.” But I not only didn’t have to do any rewrites, I wasn’t allowed to. I wondered why not since it was my material and I want to change it. But Clint said, “Don’t touch it. Don’t change it. I like it as it is. I want to make it as it is.”
PH: Was that reaction a surprise to you?
Morgan: I’m not accustomed to that at all, I am accustomed to pain and self-destruction and draft after draft. On the one hand, you might think for a writer this was a dream come true. But I’ve been thinking about it and the best answer I can come up with is, it is like you were being told you have to do a nude scene in a film and you have to act in it and you have to prepare for it by eating doughnuts for six months. It feels like “You can’t film that script. You have to go to the gym. You have to lie on a beach. I mean you aren’t going to put that to camera.” And I was very very nervous. But at the same time it is precisely that exposure and that intimacy that you respond to in the film — that honesty. We finally came to this rather profound difference in our approaches. He likes the mess, the imperfection, the instinct. And it is full of bumpiness: it’s full of things that don’t quite add up or work that could be honed a bit more. But his view is the looseness and the imperfection allows an audience in. And it’s sort of the antithesis of overworked controlled freakery that so much of the entertainment process is. And there was something about the rawness of the first impulse that he wanted to preserve and protect. It’s a very different way of working than I’ve come across before.
PH: What kind of tone were you trying to hit?
Morgan: Writing this was in part an effort to help medicate the ever-present fear of death that you sort of live with. But it isn’t all about that. It feels to me like it’s a real correlation between grief and romance, and that your longing for someone that’s gone is not dissimilar to longing for someone to complete you romantically. And so somehow there’s the blur between loneliness and grief in the story. The story needs to be harsh but it can be quite sweet or a sweet melancholy, and I think that was the tone I was after. I love how simple it is, and it’s not that emotionally manipulative.
PH: Do you feel the film was faithful to your script and were there any scenes that weren’t shot?
Morgan: No. I’ve never known anything like this before. For example, Clint told me the scenes with the Matt Damon character were shot in San Francisco. I originally wrote them for Chicago. And Clint rang me up to say, “I hope you don’t mind, but we are going to actually change the heading of the scene to say ‘San Francisco’ on the script.” I said, “I think that’s very appropriate.” [Laughs].
PH: What is your motivation to write?
Morgan: Sometimes you are lucky enough to get offered things and there is no rhyme or reason. I am very lucky because I come from England and you have a whole range of things offered to you from television plays and shows and theatre so much more to explore, so it’s never really money. But it’s always what it is that interests you, although I’m not interested in Tony Blair so I don’t know why I keep writing about him. I use him to peek back through the world we live in and the way that world is made up. I use him as a way to look at life. I would never guess that I’d end up doing that, but something speaks to you and it is kind of a muse. I couldn’t conceivably tell you what sort of schematic response there is to what I like. I am drawn to characters so full of internal contradictions. Idi Amin was one. I loved writing him.
PH: Do you want to direct?
Morgan: The real beauty in my professional experience has been friendships and collaborations with filmmakers. I don’t want to direct. I have no directing ambition whatsoever. And as long as I meet filmmakers like Tom Hooper, Stephen Frears, and others who allow that collaboration, I can’t see why I would ever want to direct.