'Frost/Nixon': Interviews With A President Director Ron Howard's new film documents David Frost's historic interviews with former president Richard Nixon — during which Nixon disclosed his involvement in the Watergate scandal. The film is based on the Tony Award winning play by Peter Morgan.

'Frost/Nixon': Interviews With A President

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In 1977, former President Richard Nixon agreed to a series of TV interviews - his first since he resigned in disgrace. Few expected much from the conversations with breezy British television talk show host David Frost. What viewers saw though was gripping. The former president acknowledged that he let the American people down, admitted to a role in the Watergate cover up and conceded that he abused the power of the presidency.

The drama and the story behind the story were captured in a Tony Award-winning play written by Peter Morgan called "Frost/Nixon." And now, it's a movie directed by Ron Howard with a screenplay by Morgan. Both Ron Howard and Peter Morgan join us to talk about the film and a story that continues to resonate to this day. Later in the hour, in the aftermath of the Mumbai shootings, we'll talk about India's 150 million Muslims.

But first, Ron Howard, Peter Morgan, David Frost and Richard Nixon, why after all these years, does he still command our attention. You tell us. 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Writer Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard join us today in Studio 3-A. They both won Oscar's for their work in movies, of course. And, nice to have you both on Talk of the Nation today.

Mr. PETER MORGAN (Writer, "Frost/Nixon"): Thank you. Can I just point out? I didn't win an Oscar.

Mr. RON HOWARD (Director, "Frost/Nixon"): Well you did for your short film, didn't you?

Mr. MORGAN: No. Didn't win one for that either.

CONAN: Well, I apologize.

Mr. MORGAN: But, thank you. You and my mother have the same view.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, there you go. Well, I apologize for prematurely awarding you an Oscar that I am sure has just got lost in the mail.

Mr. HOWARD: You know, multi-nominee.

CONAN: Yes, right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: Multi-failure. Let's see.

CONAN: Well, Ron Howard, let me ask you. What fascinates you about Richard Nixon?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, of course, this story fascinates me not only because of Nixon, but because of this fantastic conflict and this unexpected amount of drama and emotion and insight that's generated by all the behind the scenes' macanashians(ph) and the behavior. So, I became - I was at least as fascinated by David Frost as I was about - through delving more deeply into Richard Nixon. But Frank Langella's portrayal on what Peter has written and what I learned to the research indicates that there is so much complexity to the man. He really is this kind of paradox.

Those who worked with him, who knew him well, maintain a deep abiding respect for him, for his intellect, for his - particularly his geopolitical vision, his work ethic. And at the same time, they acknowledge and feel a tremendous, you know, sadness, and to a degree, even a sense of betrayal relating to that within him that, you know, allowed him to ultimately abuse the power of the presidency in the way that he did so. I think it's that complexity that makes him such an ideal subject for examination.

CONAN: Peter, let me ask you. Follow up the same question. Of all of our contemporary presidents, those that we've seen in our lives, Richard Nixon is portrayed more than any other president. John Kennedy is almost the - as cast as a corpse in a lot of moves. But nevertheless, Richard Nixon, Dan Hadiah(ph). We've seen, of course, Anthony Hopkins and Philip Baker Hall play Nixon. What fascinated you, particularly people (unintelligible) say you're not from here?

Mr. MORGAN: You know, I'm not from here and thankfully, David Frost is from where I come from, and that's how I could see away into the story. I would never presumed to write about Richard Nixon, particularly given the sensitivity of the, you know, the way in which, you know, people of his generation feel betrayed. I come from a generation where - I mean, I didn't vote for Richard Nixon and you know, I'm not an American citizen. I wasn't invested in him in the same way and therefore, I don't share the same sense of betrayal and you know, there was no open wound. But writing this I sensed wow!

You know, my journey of writing it was very similar in some ways to Frost's journey in that I became aware of the responsibility of taking in shape or form or play about Richard Nixon. And particularly when we first heard it was going to be transferred from England to Broadway, I mean all the excitement of that achievement was sort of - for me, was put into context by the fact that I thought oh, God, that's going to be seen by Americans. What are they going to make on what I've done, you know?

CONAN: You saw it in London for the first time, Ron?

Mr. HOWARD: I saw it shortly after it began. It's run at the Donmar Warehouse in London, and it was a fantastic production, but it was also - it's a very intimate venue and I'm very glad that I saw it there. You know, it played wonderfully on - as the stages got bigger. But for me, a filmmaker who was looking at it as a prospective piece of material to adapt and turn in to a film, you know, it was actually great to see Michael Sheen and Frank Langella perform in this small, intimate setting because they really were for intents and purposes we're giving very nuanced filmic kind of performances.

CONAN: People haven't seen the play. It is presented sort of a semi-documentary. There are people who come out of character and talk in retrospect as if they are being interviewed after the fact in the play. It's a structure you kept in the movie.

Mr. MORGAN: Yes and no. I mean, we - the first thing when Ron - you know, when I sold the rights to Ron and when we were embarking on the screenplay adaptation, the first thing I wanted to do is strip that out, and I told Ron that I wanted to do it with any narration whatsoever. And Ron, you know, cautiously and gently, nudged me into, you know...

CONAN: The scars have healed, have they?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: Yes. No. I mean, he was - he said look, you know, a lot of your voices is in that narration and a lot of what attracted me to the play was in that narration, and let's see if we could find - so after I tried writing the screenplay without it - fairly unsuccessful, it must be said. You know, we found - and it was Ron's idea to take this to broaden the sort of the flashback structure where - it's where people were looking back on the interviews. And that was very much Ron's idea, which I was very grateful for.

CONAN: Ron?

Mr. HOWARD: It did preserve what I thought was interesting because while there's the intensity of the conflict that Peter identified, and there's so much drama and kind of - you know, and sort of emotional fireworks and intellectual fireworks going off as a result, that I thought broadening the supporting characters in general was a good idea to sort of understand what they were feeling and thinking as they were watching, you know, their man get into in the sort of mano-y-mano combat.

But I also thought that it was helpful to step away and do what the narration had done in the play and give the audience a sense of perspective. And, he accomplished so much with that narration. Some of it was very funny. I didn't want to lose that. I loved how funny the play was, and I wanted to inject as much humor as possible into it. But also, you know, really insight into what was going on on both sides of this conflict.

CONAN: There is a conversation with Nixon at one point. You talked about the conflict - the duel, as he saw it. And, Nixon in a sort of drunken evening calls David Frost in his hotel room. And, well, here's a part of their exchange.

(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")

Unidentified Man #1: (unintelligible) right?

Unidentified Man #2: You are. Except only one of us can win.

Unidentified Man #1: Yes. And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got, because the limelight can only shine one of us.

CONAN: And again, you hear the - this sort of - we're going back to the phone that's why that little piece of technology sound at the end sounded like a phone conversation. But, the story as you cast it Peter was very much - David Frost tells us at the beginning how important it is for him to remake it in America as opposed to success in Australia and in London, that this was something very different of course. Richard Nixon playing, from his point of view, even at higher stakes.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, I mean, Richard Nixon playing for rehabilitation, respectability, his legacy. And David Frost playing, you know, for a seat back at Sody's(ph).

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some caller in on the conversation. Why do you think Richard Nixon continues to fascinate us all these years later. Lee joins us from Oakland, California.

LEE (Caller): Hi, guys. Thanks for having me on. I'm really pleased to talk to all you guys. Ron, I'm a big fan of "Cocoon", and I'm really interested in Nixon, so I'm really excited to see your film. And, I see our national obsession with President Nixon as similar to the historical dramas of William Shakespeare which is why it's interesting that it's a film based on a play by a British man, specifically the ones with (unintelligible) tyrants like "Richard III". I think the fact that we still put on productions of "Richard III" and "Richard II," reflect the reason why we still continue to make films and books about Richard Nixon.

CONAN: It inspires more study of English kings and their history than anything else, those Shakespearean plays. But Ron Howard, do you agree?

Mr. HOWARD: Well you know, figures in positions of great power are fascinating to look at and of course at the end of the day, their strengths are interesting, but their weaknesses are even more so. And I think, you know, Shakespeare got at the psychology of some of those characters in very provocative way. And, I think Nixon does present that kind of possibility, or even as I said earlier, those who, you know, really loved him and admired him still acknowledge that either very dramatic and sad aspect.

CONAN: Peter Morgan.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, the condition of being human is fundamentally incompatible with the execution - responsible execution of ultimate power, because our humanity will always - you know, it's only a matter of time before our humanity humbles us or humiliates us. And, that's why I think writing about figures in positions of extreme responsibility if they are the flawed craven and venal creatures that we all are as human beings. It's only a matter of time, the clock is already ticking before their humanity undoes that.

CONAN: Well, flawed venal certainly would never describe a talk show host.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Lee, thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate the contribution. If you'd like to get in on the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. We're talking with director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan about the play, "Frost/Nixon" and its film incarnation which opens in theaters around the country at the end of this week. We'd like to know from you, why is Richard Nixon still such a compelling character? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Again, the email address, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. We're talking today with director Ron Howard. You know him from his many movies, including "Apollo 13, "The Da Vinci Code" and "A Beautiful Mind" for which he won the Oscar, writer Peter Morgan also with us. He wrote the screenplay for the movies, "The Queen," and "The Last King of Scotland." Their new project is a movie that opens this week, "Frost/Nixon" based on the play by Peter Morgan about the series of televised interviews between British talk show host, David Frost and former President Nixon.

If you'd like to see some of the original Frost/Nixon interviews, you can head over to our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. If you'd like to get in on the conversation call and tell us why you thought Richard Nixon remains compelling to our national conversation today, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And let's go to Jacob, Jacob with us on the line from Detroit.

JACOB (Caller): Hey guys, I'm a huge fan Mr. Howard.

CONAN: Hi.

JACOB: And, I enjoy listening to the show.

CONAN: Thank you.

JACOB: And, I just wanted to tell you that, you know - and the play, I suppose, because I've been hearing about that for years, and I wanted to tell you that after I watched the - I think it was maybe the first trailer for the United States. I was just absolutely fascinated by the movie. It presented itself with tremendous energy and tremendous kineticism, and it immediately inspired me. I'm 22 years old. I know about Watergate, but I had never really known anything about the interviews. It inspired me to jump on YouTube and watch as much as I could of the interviews. So I kind of wanted to hear what you are going for with the service of, I guess, the promotion and the marketing of the film to reach out to audiences that maybe you hadn't necessarily - or that weren't necessarily considered to be the main focus.

CONAN: Ron?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, I'm not the world's greatest marketer. You know, even though I've had successful films, and I've had some experience. But I was - when I initially undertook the movie, you know, this is made on a smaller budget. It was a labor of love. People didn't get their normal salaries and that sort of thing. It really was an exciting, creative opportunity that a lot of people wanted to get involved in. And I think because we were able to make it for a modest price, we sort of assumed, you know, this is essentially for people who know something about this are interested in it, and have maybe lived through it. But I started screening the movie out of interest and curiosity to various college groups, not just cinema students, but journalism majors, political science majors.

And I found that they were equally fascinated by the story. They're caught up in the drama of it because it's well-written, it's well-acted and you know, and it doesn't depend on history. It illuminates, but the drama is really about - is about, you know, these characters and what they're going through. And, that in and of itself is entertaining the way, you know, a great courtroom thriller can be entertaining. But, I was really excited to see, I think how surprised and really entertained, you know, younger audiences were by the movie. But I still feel like it's a word-of-mouth movie. I mean, they can market it, and I like the trailer too. I think it's great. And, you know, - but it is the kind of movie that people are frankly going to have to see and talk about in order for it to gain a wider audience.

CONAN: Jacob, what did you think of the interviews?

JACOB: The interviews, I thought, were very interesting. I was sort of surprised at just that - you know, I think they're like - I've gotten a little desensitized to news these days because of everything I during the election. So to see just a frank, candid conversation between two interesting people was refreshing for sure. And to see that dramatized is something I'm really looking forward to. And then, obviously, the performances I'm looking forward to seeing as well.

CONAN: Peter Morgan?

Mr. MORGAN: In the process of researching "Frost/Nixon," I had to watch a lot of archives, you know, stock news footage and other interviews. And, it is absolutely wonderful to watch people - the way they spoke to interviews in the mid-70s is so different. Things have become so defensive and...

CONAN: What do you mean by that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MORGAN: Well, no, the people - either the people come on with their PR lines and they have lots of publicists and they can answer any questions which aren't preapproved. And even in the run-up, the one particular (unintelligible) I'm thinking of is that, you know, 60 minutes, Mike Wallace did sort of, you know, his blood was up about this whole "Frost/Nixon" interview, because he sensed the inappropriateness of somebody paying for a news interview in this way. And, so 60 minutes stalked this like, you know, like a pack of wolves. And, they went and saw - even their own network chief, and so Mike Wallace then said to his own network chief did you offer any money for this?

And the network chief clearly thrown and rattled and compromised when that - well, yes, as a matter of fact we did. And he said well, how much? Well, it's not something I wish to disclose, but yes, $300,000. And people answered a question. You know, they seemed - there was a culture of where people clearly in discomfort. They were less evasive and there was less of this PR, this sort of complete - in England we called it "playing with a straight bat" or "dead bat", you know where you just kill the question and then it's made for pretty dull media interviews now.

Mr. HOWARD: One of the things that was interesting to me in doing the research and talking to members of Nixon's research team, is that one person confided to me that he never would really prep the Watergate section. The president, you know, dutifully really wanted to excel, and he was in the middle of working on the autobiography anyway, and in the other areas, Vietnam and domestic issues and his political history. He was willing to review and really work on it. But he just would never really broach the Watergate section. He did not want to face it. And, so when it came to that crucial portion of the interviews, I think he might have been a little more off guard.

CONAN: Jacob, thanks very much for the phone call.

Mr. JACOB: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I wanted to ask you specifically about that part because this is the moment where it seems to me - we're talking about the powers of the presidency and what the president is allowed to do in moments of crisis, an issue that has come up, well considerably over the last eight years. Here is the crux of the interview or at least one of the crux of the interview where president - former President Nixon virtually admits to an abusive power.

Former President RICHARD NIXON: And I have always maintained what they were doing, what we were all doing was not criminal. Look, when you're in office, you got to do a lot of things sometimes that are not always in the stricter sense of the law, legal, but you'll do them because they're in the greater interest of the nation.

Unidentified Man: Wait. Just want to understand correctly. Are you really saying that in certain situations, the president can decide whether it's in the best interest of the nation and then do something illegal?

Former President NIXON: I'm saying that when the president does it that means it's not illegal.

CONAN: And Peter Morgan, when you saw that line - when was that?

Mr. Morgan: Well, if I'm not mistaken, that line and - forgive because it's been five years but that line is out of context. I don't think that line came in the context in which it's shown in the film. It was certainly something that Richard Nixon said. I believe in another interview...

Mr. HOWARD: In the Frost interviews?

Mr. MORGAN: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

CONAN: Yes. Yeah.

Mr. MORGAN: And I just - I moved into that section, you know - forgive me for my transgressions but, you know, it was 21 hours of interview and in our film...

CONAN: You wanted to use the best pitch.

Mr. MORGAN: Well, in our film we also condensed it to about 18 minutes. So there was, you know, a lot of you know in concession.

CONAN: Yeah. I'm just asking when you heard that line did you not think of contemporary history over the last eight years.

Mr. MORGAN: I did, and you know - although when I was writing it, all the abuses of power, you know, that were being done by the recent administration hadn't fully come to light. I was more preoccupied in 2003 with (unintelligible) intelligence with incursions into moderate countries, radicalizing them, and actually...

CONAN: Cambodia is what you're talking about.

Mr. MORGAN: I am. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But, you know, right in front of my, you know, in front of my nose was Iraq and the way in which that Tony Blair and George Bush went in to Iraq. So, under the - you know, pretenses which they sold us. So that, - if I were writing it now I would have probably, you know, done a lot research in Nixon's economic record. And quite, you know, the degree to which there would have been parallels between the two administrations there.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the line. This is Evelyn, Evelyn with us from Westminster in Colorado.

EVELYN (Caller): Hi there. I think your guests have picked on a really interesting topic, and I think they're probably already said much of what I think is the reason that Nixon is still fascinating. But, to me it's because he's, you know, our American tragic hero, like a Greek tragic hero. And, he - he gave us the first opportunity to really look at our presidents as flawed humans and seeing that his case was so perhaps egregious for the time and so open to us.

It was the first time we could really stare at our leader this way, and I'm not sure that it's the best thing for us because it seems to me that the rest of us humans who aren't president, don't give the president any kind of leeway for being a human being and allowing any sort of mistakes. It seems that we look for perfection. I'm not sure that it's for the best for us. I know, you know, people who do not enter politics, because they just don't want to undergo this sort of scrutiny that anyone that aspires to any kind of office has to over - go through now a days.

CONAN: Ron Howard?

Mr. HOWARD: Well, it's a really interesting point because, you know, certainly who could bear up under that. And it is a real question, you know, if we're going to insist on some sort of, you know, immaculate record in order for somebody to be eligible to take high office, well then, you know, how many individuals we're going to find? How many people are we going to throw away? And, when I was watching the play, "Frost/Nixon," at the Donmar Warehouse, I realized that I was kind of reliving the experience - some of the emotions that I felt watching the interviews back in 77, and I was one of those who was really riveted to the TV at that time. And, I remember going through a feeling of wanting - of saying, hey look, I think the media has been too hard on him. Maybe they should cut the old guy a break, you know?

Being the president of the United States, that's complicated. Of course, there are gray areas that - moral ambiguities that you know, that we can't possibly understand and yet, at the climax of the play or that point in the interviews where it became all too clear that Nixon had abused power and known about it - criminally. That was unforgivable and that's a very slippery slope in a democracy to begin saying, well, you got to forgive a certain amount of dirty tricks and shenanigans, because come one, it's a tough job.

And in fact, you know, we do at the end of the day have to hold our leadership to a very high standard and by the way, we need the media to get those close ups, to shine that light, to get the soundbite, whatever it is that gives, you know, us the voters, the citizenry some, you know, deeper insight into who's calling the shots and making those decisions is - you know, is crucial. It's - you know, it's awkward at best, but you know, we've got to find that equilibrium.

CONAN: Thanks very much, Evelyn.

EVELYN: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Warren. Warren with us from Bartlesville in Oklahoma.

WARREN (Caller): Hey. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

WARREN: Glad to be on. I think the movie is relevant certainly, because we see Nixon's politics very, very active and present with us to this very day. In the recent election, we had Joe the Plumber as an icon. We had us versus them, the ordinary people against the elites and the snobs and that is Nixonian politics. I think Carl Rove polished that to a very, very find edge.

CONAN: What do you think, Peter Morgan?

Mr. MORGAN: Well, yes. I understand about the us and them and the anti-elitism and so forth. But equally, I think Nixon would have turned in his grave at the philistinism of the Republican campaign this particular time. I mean, the contempt for elitism in - not in a social way but in an intellectual way, it seems to me that a period in as what we in England call 'opposition' would do the Republican party in America a great deal of good where they could just regroup and find their - find a redirection because there is a great tradition of well, you know, of Republican politicians of for education and sophistication, and there's no harm in a leader possessing some of those qualities. I don't think.

CONAN: Warren, thanks very much for the call.

WARREN: OK.

CONAN: We're talking with Ron Howard and Peter Morgan about their new film, "Frost/Nixon" which opens this week. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Ron Howard, I wanted to ask you, in part this film is about television and the nature of the medium. There's few people who know more about television that you do. You grew up on television.

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah. Not news, not public information, but absolutely. In it's time that the "Frost/Nixon" interviews aired. It was a remarkable event, and I'd already begun directing, and I was even producing some television movies at that time. I was still acting on "Happy Days", but I'd begun to branch out. And, I had a sense that what David Frost had done, not as so much as an interviewer but as a television entrepreneur was pretty astounding. The idea that he had actually created a fourth network.

It's not just a syndicated program that played at 8 o'clock here and 7 o'clock there and 11 o'clock at night in Kansas. He actually proved that in prime time that people in mass would turn away from ABC, CBS or NBC and watch a program on a local station. And, I think he paved the way for the possibility for other fourth network, you know, eventually Frost and eventually, you know, how many networks do we...

CONAN: I can't keep count, yeah.

Mr. HOWARD: So, it was really something. Also, in the play, they had this fantastic theatrical device that I thought was ingenious which was a bank of television monitors above the interview...

CONAN: Set, yeah.

Mr. HOWARD: Set, and it never allowed you to forget the fact that they were putting on a TV show.

Mr. MORGAN: And when we were having conversations initially about the movie, you know, I remember us having conversations I don't know whether it was born out in the actual film, I've have got to check it, but pretty much in every frame of the movie, they would at somewhere in the background or in the foreground, be a television frame.

Mr. HOWARD: There's a television frame.

Mr. MORGAN: Yeah, yeah.

CONAN: And showing some PSAs of the time that the great - the Indian crying for the pollution, those things like...

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, Iron Eyes Cody

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. HOWARD: But yes, it's not every frame, but it was dictatorially, there were so many great devices in the play that I needed to find a sort of a cinematic...

CONAN: Equivalent.

Mr. HOWARD: Equivalent and so I tried to make the cameras, the environment, the monitors very much, you know, a character in the movie. Even an adversarial character for Nixon, you know, it's kind of interesting to me that he had struggled so much with television throughout his career. The 1960 debates had really done him in, and he makes a point - I'm not sure it's in the play, but it's in the film version where he says, you know, those who listen to those debates on radio thought I'd won them. But, the television audience, you know, they felt differently.

And that he thought he could rehabilitate himself through a series of lengthy interviews again is you know, again, sort of reflects the complexity of the guy, maybe he's hubris or something, but I think that Nixon was not unnecessarily a very good liar. I think that he was uncomfortable, and I think he - his face reflected whatever he was feeling, and you can see when he's uncomfortable, and you can see when he is forcing a laugh or when he's angry and I think those around him were always kind of on egg shells knowing exactly how he felt without - whatever he was saying because you know, he probably was not a great poker player.

CONAN: Probably not. But on the other hand, if you were on his enemy list, you probably knew it.

Mr. HOWARD: Yeah, I think everyone knew it and for some, it was a badge of honor.

CONAN: Ron Howard, thank you very much. We appreciate your time today.

Mr. HOWARD: Nice to be here.

CONAN: Ron Howard with us. Peter Morgan, appreciate your time as well.

Mr. MORGAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Their new film, "Frost/Nixon" opens at the end of this week. They joined us here in Studio 3A. Coming up after the attacks in Mumbai last week, Asra Nomani wonders if Muslims are India's new untouchables. We will hear why she thinks that coming up next. So stay with us. I'm Neal Conan, it's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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