IT’S GOOD TO BE THE QUEEN
AN INTERVIEW WITH SCRIBE PETER MORGAN
The Queen has already won many awards and received much international acclaim. The film has been nominated for six Oscars including Best Film of the Year. Peter Morgan, The Queen’s screenwriter, has been nominated for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). Seemingly coming out of nowhere, you may remember having seen Morgan’s name elsewhere this year, as he also penned the script for another Oscar contender, The Last King of Scotland, as well as the script for HBO’s Longford, which had Sundance abuzz this year. As though that were not nearly enough, his The Other Boleyn Girl, dealing with the wives of Henry VIII (a subject upon which he has written before), is coming out later this year and stars Natalie Portman, Eric Bana, Scarlett Johansson, and Kristin Scott Thomas. Currently, Morgan is at works on an adaptation of his own stage play for Ron Howard.
I recently spoke with Morgan over the phone about his work and his Oscar nomination.
“Initially, it’s wonderful, and then there comes a point where survival is the goal,” Morgan laughs as he talks about the Awards Season. “Of course, it’s exciting. The Golden Globe win, and I would say the New York Film Critics Circle, and the Venice Film Festival go down as three of the most wonderful nights of my professional life.”
Finding the overall purpose of the Awards Season was very informative for Morgan, who noted that, “Writers are not built on the most solid foundations generally.” He then confessed, “And I certainly include myself on that. A lot of attention, and a lot of scrutiny, and a lot of exposure. If you look at the life [writers] have chosen for ourselves—a life of insularity and withdrawal—it’s quite antithetical. Awards Season is designed with actors in mind, and the Golden Globes was certainly designed that way.”
As the Awards Season draws to a close, Morgan has begun to appreciate the meaning of it all. And it has a lot to do with money.
“That, funny enough, was the most reassuring thing about it. I heard that The Queen, as a result of the Golden Globe win, the following morning, went up by 10 percent. And the Oscar nomination, that day, the film went up, I think, 40 percent. So, it does make sense, and in a funny way, it was a most gratifying thing. I’m not gonna profit from that, but it made sense finally. Sometimes it’s hard to make sense of this whole process otherwise.”
When talking about the insular nature of writers, Morgan was talking about the process as well as the emotional side of it too.
“I spend eight hours a day in a room on my own,” he discloses. “I get up early, and the reason I get up early is because I have young children. I have four young children.” His children are all under eight-years-old. “And over the course of the last eight years, my wife and I, our nights have been broken, so I’ve learned, and I no longer know what it’s like to have unbroken sleep. Getting up early, and going to work, and being awake at that time is now completely normal to me, so by lunch time or early afternoon, I’m pretty much done.”
On Morgan’s sharing of his writing credits for The Last King of Scotland: “I never met the other writer,” he says, referring to writer Jeremy Brock. “The other writer came on board only when I was on set with The Queen and Scotland still needed some work at the end. I mean, the film was greenlit and in rehearsals, but they needed someone else to come on. And then they, rather scandalously, didn’t pay him. And so the only remuneration that he sought was credit, which I was obviously a little distressed about, but there we are. He’s a very nice man, and you know…”
Previously, Morgan worked with The Queen director Stephen Frears on the 2003 television film The Deal. And in that film, Michael Sheen also played Prime Minister Tony Blair as he had in The Queen. But, did the process of working on a television film differ from working on a theatrical one?
“Not at all, I have found that the process of making a feature television film and feature theatrical film are indistinguishable from one another, particularly since I was working with exactly the same producers and the same director. So, it was a seamless and happy transition.”
And Morgan’s collaborative efforts with Stephen Frears proved to be close. “In the case of Stephen, the first thing to be said is that Stephen is an unusually collaborative director. I would also say that I’m an unusually collaborative writer. So, the process with Stephen is how I wish it would be on every project. But obviously on set, I don’t give notes to actors, that’s left to him. But it is very two-headed Hydra like.”
I went on to question the truth of a particular scene in The Queen that I found so powerful, it was one of the few I mentioned in a recent review of the film. The scene finds the Queen alone in the middle of the gray wilderness that is the sprawling backyard of her vast estate. Her jeep has broken down, and she’s left pondering her situation with Princess Diana, when she suddenly finds a beautiful doe who is subsequently shot in the distance. She is startled, and we have a marvelous glimpse of the inner-humanity that may have seemed before lacking by her veneer of harsh posterity.
“Straightaway, yes, [the Queen] drives her own Land Rover,” Morgan quickly responds. “That is well documented, absolutely categorically true. Second, the Land Rover that she drives is a particularly old one, and she is resistant, as women of that generation are, resistant to flamboyance, and hates profligacy. She, you know, walks around the house turning out lights.”
“But when you did take liberties with the facts,” I asked, “how were you able to reconcile them with reality?”
“This scene [at the river] is a good one to use in microcosm, because the facts we all know, and the place we filmed is on the neighboring estate and in terms of the look, virtually identical. We don’t know [for certain] that the Queen’s Land Rover got stuck in [the water]. Would she drive out? Yes, of course. We know that they went stalking… Well, we know that they went shooting on the day after Diana’s death. The truth is, I know that they went grouse shooting, not for deer. However, the deer season had started—it starts in August—so, technically speaking, they could have gone deer stalking.”
“[Certain scenes]—the actual mechanics of the scenes—were out of my imagination. I guess that is the sort of thing I need to do to stay interested, quite frankly. I mean, otherwise, it would become a documentary or something.”
“It is, in a way; it feels so authentic,” I insisted.
“But, no it isn’t. Every single scene is a work of imagination, and documentaries aren’t the work of imagination; they are works of fact. And this is an important difference; United 93, for example, was put together entirely from transcripts, which is, effectively, a reconstruction.”
Onto the Queen herself: “Helen Mirren, did you always have her in mind?”
“Yes, she was the producer’s idea, and what an inspired idea it was.” Morgan’s tone reflected that he was beaming on the other end of the line. “And I met with her before I started writing, and told her what I had in mind and she was committed to it, of course, to the script not being gibberish.”
“Did you find that her personality and abilities worked into your melding of the character?”
“I think it helped to know that she was doing it, because she has a certain privacy, and a hardness, and a coldness about her, and I’m sure she wouldn’t care that I refer to, that helped,” Morgan says carefully. “And I tried to write about someone who struggled with her emotional landscape and I have no idea whether Helen does or doesn’t. But I thought Helen being quite tough would make her being lost more touching.”