The Morgan formula: how to put famous lives on film

Screenwriter Peter Morgan developed a neat way of portraying personalities, from Tony Blair and David Frost to the queen: focus on one incident. Now everyone’s at it

International award-winning writer Peter Morgan, who received a Volta Award at this year's JDIFF, talks about bringing real people to life on the big screen. Video: Kathleen Harris

Mon, Feb 17, 2014, 16:05

I worry a little about Peter Morgan receiving the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival’s Volta Award.

It’s not that the man doesn’t deserve it. Over the past decade, he has earned his reputation as a screenwriter of the most distinguished order. Since attracting attention with his script for Stephen Frears’s The Deal – the story of Gordon Brown’s tense relationship with Tony Blair – he has further burnished his standing with such contemporary classics as The Queen , Frost/Nixon and The Damned United .

But, like this journalist, he’s a mere 50 years old: far too young for an award acknowledging career achievement. (He will also be hosting a screenwriting seminar this afternoon at the festival.)

“I will behave appropriately and die three days later,” he chortles.

Now he is being so elevated, can he identify which projects he sees as signature works? “I think I stumbled upon a voice people associate with me with The Deal ,” he says. “I wrote that in 2002. Although I’d been writing for 10 or 15 years, I have only been writing in that voice for about 10 years. Stephen Frears once said that the most interesting years of a career are between 40 and 60. So, I am halfway through. I find that encouraging.”

He touches on an interesting point. In scripts such as The Deal (structured around a famous dinner in Islington), Frost/Nixon (the interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon), The Damned United (Brian Clough briefly manages Leeds) and The Queen (Queen Elizabeth copes with Princess Diana’s death), he developed a hugely influential formula for addressing a personality: focus on one incident, rather than seek to summarise the entire life. Now everyone’s doing it.

“There has been a lot of that cropping up,” he says. “But that’s not entirely true. The Deal did stretch from 1983 to 1994. The Frost/Nixon story spanned six years. The Queen was closer to that. But it often appears there’s a pivotal event. I know what you mean. If I was doing my own life I would do the story of writing The Deal . That’s when it struck me you could write politicians as fully rounded, emotional beings.”

Uncertain about Rush
He has had the odd kickback from characters represented in his films. John Giles wasn’t happy to be shown as a conspirator in The Damned United . David Frost initially flinched at his portrayal in Frost/Nixon , but eventually came around. Morgan is, however, relaxed about most of the gentle liberties he has taken with the facts. He will, nonetheless, admit to a slight uncertainty about aspects of his script for Ron Howard’s recent Rush , the story of a famous rivalry between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda.

“Everything that happens in Rush is accurate,” he says. “The only thing I did overemphasise was their rivalry. Underpinning that there was always a friendship. Having said that, I don’t think Niki Lauda is capable of friendship in the way you or I understand it. He is an intensely lonely, natural assassin. His idea of friendship is rivalry.”

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