Morgan had doubts that Frost/Nixon would translate to the screen. So did Howard, when Morgan first described the play to him. “I didn’t think of it as a film at all, but a little one-act play,” recalls Howard, who, after seeing Frost/Nixon at the Donmar in 2006, phoned his agent to say he was ready to commit to the film. “I found the play surprisingly engrossing,” says Howard, “and I loved what Peter did with the characters: He humanized them without being sentimental. And I liked the way he made his point—without taking sides or being preachy.”
Morgan concedes that the stage-to-screen transfer allowed him to delve more deeply into Frost’s and Nixon’s backstories. Before writing both the play and the screenplay, he conducted scores of interviews with those who knew both men well—including the famously arrogant Henry Kissinger. Morgan found him inhospitable when the two met in New York. “He probably thought, Ugh, not another prick coming to talk to me about Vietnam. Neither of us enjoyed it,” says Morgan, whose script sweeps the viewer back into angry, post-Watergate America, which in the film is replete with muttonchop sideburns, disco balls and airplane cabins thick with cigarette smoke. “If anything, I feel I got to know both Frost and Nixon much better in the film,” he adds, noting that it makes ample use of close-ups. “And just the fact that we can see what Nixon’s house [La Casa Pacifica, in San Clemente, California] looked like, how it was decorated and the way in which he was working, I think you get a much stronger sense of his isolation. Nixon could have achieved greatness, but he was undone by his humanity.” He also believes that the film gives a fuller sense of Frost, a man, Morgan says, “who was constantly on a plane,” as he regularly jetted between Los Angeles, New York and London for work.
Michael Sheen, who plays Frost in the film, as he did onstage, says working with Morgan is a highly organic process. “He always has a laptop in front of him during rehearsals and changes stuff all the time in response to what we’re doing,” says Sheen, who has collaborated with Morgan frequently since starring as Tony Blair in his highly acclaimed 2003 TV film The Deal. “I’ve never worked with a writer who was that responsive or involved.”
Morgan, 45, who lives in South London with his wife and their four children, started out as an actor but turned to writing after a bad bout of stage fright. He made his name with fact-based scripts for TV and film that imagined one-on-one encounters between powerful people: Tony Blair and Queen Elizabeth II in The Queen; Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, in The Deal; and Lord Longford and convicted murderer Myra Hindley in HBO’s Longford. What fascinates him, he says, is the pas de deux between complex characters and “finding intimacy at the heart of a global event.”