A Chat with Screenwriter Peter Morgan
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News, I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand. Peter Morgan is having what British reserve might call a very good year. His play "Frost/Nixon," about the interview between David Frost and former President Richard Nixon, opens next month on Broadway, and two movies he wrote are nominated for multiple Oscars.
CHADWICK: The one that he's got to be pulling for is "The Queen." Helen Mirren plays Queen Elizabeth right after the death of Princess Diana. That's the one that has earned Peter Morgan a nomination for best original screenplay. When he spoke with DAY TO DAY, we began with his interest in stories about such public figures, and how he makes them human.
In "The Queen" there's a moment where, if you have wondered about the royal family at all, I think you hear resolved question that has occurred to all of us. Why doesn't she get out of the way? Why doesn't she abdicate and say, all right, I've had my time; Charles, you be king now. She's speaking with the Queen Mother and the Queen Mother reminds her in a kind of a moment where she says, oh gosh, maybe I shouldn't do this anymore, the Queen Mother says, no, you do this, you took an oath; all your days you will do this.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Queen")
Ms. HELEN MIRREN (As Queen Elizabeth II) When you no longer understand your people mummy, maybe it is time to hand it over to the next generation.
Ms. SYLVIA SYMS (Actor): (As Queen Mother) Oh, don't be ridiculous. Remember the vow you took?
Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) I declare that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.
Ms. SYMS: (As Queen Mother) Your whole life. That is a commitment to God as well as your people.
Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) Well, what if my actions are damaging the crown?
Ms. SYMS: (As Queen Mother) Damaging it?
CHADWICK: Do you know if that's true?
Mr. PETER MORGAN (Screenwriter): Oh, it's absolutely true. The Queen would only step down if she were clearly unable to fulfill her office in any shape or form, if she were either physically or mentally just too frail. The idea that the Queen believes it's God's that she is who she is took me as much by surprise as presumably it would have done you watching the film. I got the information, since that's clearly what you're asking in a very polite way, I got that information through people who are very close to her, biographers. I mean, you know, again and again and again it was backed up, you know, and reinforced by people. You know, they would say very politely, you know, she really does believe that, you know.
CHADWICK: We ask the palace if the Queen has seen the film and what her reaction to it is. They said, well, we never comment on what the Queen reads or sees or hears or - so there's no answer to that. I wonder if you have heard.
Mr. MORGAN: I haven't heard. There was an approach made, I believe, by her private secretary, in fact the character that's portrayed in the film - you know, Robin Janvrin, the chap who goes around clutching the basket, breaking bad news. And he had invited us for lunch. I believe just because of this whole award season and us being stuck in America for a lot of the time, you know, we haven't been able to find a date, but I'm told that that is code for she will come by for coffee. But they can't, and I think it's correct, I think they can't tell us whether she has or hasn't seen it or what she has or hasn't thought of it. I think that's appropriate, because then suddenly the whole story would become about whether she does or doesn't approve or what she does or doesn't think, and to be honest, that's not important to me. You know, it's more important to me what you think. It's important to me what the viewers think. And it would immediately become a story about what did or didn't she like about herself and what was or wasn't right, and actually I have six Corgis, not four, and you know, I would imagine she would focus on the differences, not the similarities.
CHADWICK: As a viewer, I see this as a film about an individual in a moment of crisis, a very isolated individual who is both powerful and powerless, a person who I don't like very much at the beginning of the film but who I come to understand in its conclusion.
Mr. MORGAN: I mean she's two people at once. She's both the crown and she's Elizabeth Windsor. And in the course of this week, that dividing line becomes blurred or removed, and she gets to confront a lot of painful things, both about herself as the sovereign, as the institution, as the crown, and as a mother, a wife, a sister, a grandmother. It's more painful and difficult and challenging to be a woman.
(Soundbite of movie, "The Queen")
Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) Nowadays people want glamour and tears, the grand performance. I'm not very good at that, I never have been. I prefer to keep my feelings to myself. And foolishly, I believed that was what the people wanted from their queen, not to make a fuss nor wear one's heart on one's sleeve. Duty first, self second.
Mr. MORGAN: And the whole thing collides in a - in a sort of emotional tsunami for her, with her people taking to the streets and hating her and protesting her really for the first time in her life, you know.
CHADWICK: And on behalf of another woman who just represents everything that she's not and everything that she rejects and perhaps detests about the world today.
Mr. MORGAN: Yet all - struggles to understand. I think struggling to understand is more accurate than rejects and detests. I think she tried very hard to get to know Diana and I think Tony Blair represented part of Diana's world, and that's why he was quite as threatening as he was when he came in, you know, a man who then formalized everything.
And Blair at 43 was the youngest prime minister that we'd had for over a century, and I thought wouldn't it be great to have this guy galloping into office, roll up his sleeves and want to pull the country apart, and only for him in the space of the first sort of five days of the first big crisis that he faces, to come right up against this oak tree of unbending tradition.
(Soundbite of film, "The Queen")
Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) I doubt there is anyone who knows the British people more than I do, Mr. Blair, nor who has greater faith in their wisdom and judgment, and it is my belief that they will any moment reject this, this mood, which is being stirred up by the press, in favor of a period of restrained grief and sober, private mourning. That's the way we do things in this country - quietly, with dignity. That's what the rest of the world has always admired us for.
Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN (Actor): (As Tony Blair) If that's your decision then, of course the government will support it. Let's keep in touch.
Ms. MIRREN: (As Elizabeth II) Yes, let's.
Mr. MORGAN: For him to have really laid into the queen would have felt like matricide. His own mother was exactly the same age, as is my mother, and you come in, you think, right, I'm going to change this country. Boy, am I going to shake things up.
And Blair by the end of the film has become probably rather shocked himself, maybe even depressed himself, for quite how un-radical he feels and how conservative he feels. And he's almost left pregnant with this secret, which is that, you know, 60 million people in the country are expecting him to shake the place up, but he now knows he's a conservative, and as we've grown to realize with his affiliation with the furthest right-wing administration that America has possibly ever had, he's ended up being wildly more conservative than probably he or his colleagues would ever have dared imagine, you know?
CHADWICK: Are you thinking about writing something about today, about Tony Blair, about George Bush?
Mr. MORGAN: "The Queen" was part two. I mean this is something that everyone in England will understand, but people here perhaps don't. The first film that I wrote, which Stephen Frears also directed, was called "The Deal," and it was a film for British television. And it was really, you know, about Blair becoming Labour leader. "The Queen" has become about, you know, Blair becoming prime minister.
And I think all of us feel it would irresponsible to leave it where it is at the moment. I think we all want to have a look at the relationship that Britain has with America, and given that it's completely defined our recent history. And so yes, I would like - I can't announce that we're going to do it because I haven't really had a proper grown-up conversation with Stephen Frears about it, but I think it would be a great mistake not to look at the special relationship and to pick the story up not long after where we are at the moment and to have Blair come out to America and let's experience Washington through his eyes.
CHADWICK: Peter Morgan, thank you for speaking with us, and good luck with the Oscars.
Mr. MORGAN: Thanks very much.