Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Peter Morgan, NFT, 19 Oct

The Script Factory and the National Film and Television School presented a masterclass with Peter Morgan (The Deal, The Queen, Longford, Frost/Nixon) on Sunday. I'm sure more perceptive and insightful bloggers than me will provide reports, but here are a few things I noted from the event, which was very capably hosted by the prolific writer Jonathan Myerson.

Morgan's most celebrated work has got two very distinctive themes: it tends to be based on real events (or, at least, real people), and it often focuses on a vital one-to-one relationship between the main characters. He immediately addressed the big question that arises from fact-based drama: how much can you tinker about with events and characters while staying 'true' to what happened?

He drew a distinction between what he defined as 'truth' and 'accuracy', which he illustrated with a scene from The Deal. In the clip, set the night before former Labour leader John Smith died, Smith (Frank Kelly) and Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) stop for a hot dog on Waterloo Bridge after an unsatisfying meal at some official 'do.

As they discuss the party's future and likely return to power, Brown – who clearly assumes that he is next in line for the leadership – is alarmed to hear Smith talk up the prospects of the up-and-coming Tony Blair.

After watching the scene, Morgan admitted that it had no proven basis in fact; Brown and Smith had been to a function that evening, but the interlude on Waterloo Bridge was entirely his own creation. However, he justified the scene by saying that the viewpoints expressed during the fictional conversation were an accurate depiction of the characters' positions at that moment.

He went on to describe the high level of trust that he feels exists between the makers of fact-based films and their audiences. He believes that the audience expects the dramatist to bring a voice to the piece that moves it beyond a mere 'accurate' reconstruction into something more stimulating and provocative. A bald depiction of verifiable events would leave little room for subsequent debate.

Here are a few of the other points he made:
  • He also credits audiences with a high level of sophistication, saying how difficult it is to manipulate and mislead them narratively. He also refuses to oversimplify his stories or 'chew them up' for the audience, who he assumes have a high level of knowledge. When deciding how to present events (such as the Frost/Nixon interviews), he always assumes that experts on the subject will be coming to watch the film.

  • While he often writes about politicians, he doesn't see himself as a political writer. He's more interested in the characters as individuals rather than their official status. For example, his inspiration for The Deal was founded in Gordon Brown's realisation - which left him 'vibrating with unarticulated agony' – that others in the higher ranks of the Labour party were more likeable than him.

  • He attempts to 'detox', or strip away the baggage of his own – and popular – preconceptions when he starts writing about real people, but it seems to come back once the actors start to create the role; for instance, anything Michael Sheen says while he's playing Tony Blair makes the former PM sound like a bit of a tit.

  • His original draft of The Queen didn't include Tony Blair. His protagonist was going to be Robin Janvrin, the Queen's deputy private secretary played in the film by Roger Allam. The film was mostly going to be set at Balmoral, with Janvrin acting as the interface between the royal family and the weird public reaction to the death of Diana. However, Morgan found this approach dull and the introduction of Blair brought the piece to life by raising the issue of the UK constitution and the nature of a head of state. As is reinforced in Frost/Nixon, nations seem to lose a sense of themselves when their head of state fucks up.

  • He prefers to let themes grow organically out of the story, rather than trying to address them consciously or present them on-the-nose. He likes to let the audience do the necessary inference.

  • Longford is his favourite piece, although he doesn't know why he became so passionate about that particular story. He enjoys examining 'the compassion of judgement', and is often surprised by how positively audiences react to flawed characters such as Longford and the Queen. He suggested that viewers sympathise with such characters because they sense their pain – as if we've seen them get a knife in their side but attempt to carry on with their life.

  • Speaking after a clip from The Last King of Scotland, he said that he finds adaptations have more constraints than original screenplays, due to the need to balance the source material with a viable cinematic structure (eg, in Giles Foden's novel, the Scottish doctor and Idi Amin don't meet for around 200 pages). It's necessary to keep the tone and 'DNA' of the source material, even if you have to fillet it quite brutally.

  • He essentially writes everything 'on spec', to avoid interference and notes along the way. He admitted that when he works with Stephen Frears he goes along for a 2-3 hour meeting with the director's dramaturg, but only to get it out of the way.

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