Great news from Variety this morning: Peter Morgan, writer of The Deal, The Queen, Frost/Nixon and his own favourite Longford, is to make his debut as a director with his third Tony Blair story. This installment, again starring Michael Sheen, will be about Blair’s relationship with Bill Clinton. Morgan spoke a little about the project at the London Film Festival (more about that from the brilliant SP here), where he described Blair as his Everyman: a “navigator” through whom the audience can experience Balmoral or the White House. He also hinted at a fourth story, about Blair, the Iraq War and the Pope.
Morgan is perhaps the only British screenwriter whose name helps sell a movie (any other suggestions?). So what can we learn from his work?
First, he has a rigorous sense of structure: as he told the New Yorker, he has “an almost autistic ability to see a shape in a story … So The Queen, right from the get-go, was ‘Audience scene — Monday — Tuesday — Wednesday — Thursday — Friday — Audience scene’. Blair-Brown was: ‘starts at the end, goes back, tells the story for two-thirds, then goes back’. I lock onto a structure like an infant looking at colours and shapes. Once I’ve got that I’ll never deviate from it.”
Second, although he has written a lot about real people, often living ones, he has a clear mission to be, as he said at LFF, “truthful rather than accurate”. What matters is to create characters that feel plausible, in a world that feels convincing. He told The Times, “My aim is to illustrate the truth underlying a character,” sometimes through the way they speak but often through small details. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Morgan explained how he’d imagined Frost: “The image I had of him was Frost on Concorde, at 55,000ft, living eight days a week and Nixon in some sort of cave of exile. It was the defining thing. This image of the one guy circumnavigating the globe in a ludicrous soundtrack of success. He’d have a glass of Cristal in his hand, a cigar cos you could smoke and drink yourself senseless at the time”. And while every real life story involves a great deal of research — how does the Prime Minister telephone the Queen? — the emotional heart of the film may be entirely fictitious, like the almost mystical communion between the Queen and the stag, or the drunken midnight phone call that Nixon makes to Frost.
Third, he understands that everyone’s a hero to themselves — and that nobody is perfect. His heroes are flawed, his villains sympathetic, so the audience is continually engaged. As he wrote about The Queen, “My screenplay leaves you in no doubt that I think the Queen is a cold, bigoted, uncompromising, distant person you wouldn’t particularly want as a parent. However, the film is about her being hurt and because we are often hurt there’s a shared humanity.” You rarely know what Morgan thinks, but you always know what his characters feel.
Fourth, he’s brilliant at tackling big ideas through intimate stories. The Queen is a story about the British people’s complex relationship with the monarchy. Longford is about, in Morgan’s words, “the compassion of judgement”. The Clinton/Blair movie is about Britain’s relationship with America. These are big, bold, complex subjects, but Morgan keeps them at a human level, so the movies always feel like drama, never like debate. Every scene is rigorously argued, but feels emotionally alive.
Above all, he’s hugely entertaining. Morgan’s one of the funniest writers around, particularly in The Queen, but also in even more potentially perilous material, like his screenplay for The Last King of Scotland, written with Jeremy Brock. A lot of screenplays are emotionally monotonous, continually playing the same note. Morgan’s dart and sparkle, full of light and shade. And he treats every story as a thriller — you will always want to know what happens next.
Right now though, my big question is: who’s going to play Bill Clinton?