Peter Morgan interview: Hereafter, working with Eastwood and Spielberg, writing James Bond
As Hereafter prepares to haunt UK cinemas, we met with its writer, Peter Morgan, to discuss his involvement in the film, and working with Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg…
Cast your mind back to Thursday December 2nd. The UK is gripped by two momentous events. It’s snowing, something which never happens, ever, around these parts, so everything grinds to a halt. But, more importantly, it’s the day of the World Cup bid announcement.
It’s 3:30 in the afternoon, and I’m sat in the Charlotte Street Hotel. It’s a nice place, but the staff don’t seem with it. When I say I’m here for Peter Morgan, they look at me with a blankness that wouldn’t look out of place on Steven Seagal if he worked in Woolworths. It’s then that the news comes trickling in. The dream is over. England’s bid has failed.
It’s a crushing blow, but I’m buoyed by a long chat with the Warner Bros. PRs and the reminder that I’m here to speak with Peter Morgan. He wrote The Last King Of Scotland, The Queen and Frost/Nixon, don’t you know?
Morgan is in town to promote Hereafter, a film he wrote, Clint Eastwood directed, and Steven Spielberg produced. If it never takes off as much as you might hope, it’s still fascinating, as is Morgan’s experience making it.
So, where do you start with someone like Morgan? What’s it like to work with Eastwood? Or Spielberg, for that matter? Is he still writing Bond? Well, first things first…
Have you been following the World Cup decision hoopla at all?
No. What’s happened? Did we get it?
Russia got it.
I was thinking on the way over, it’s been quite a story. We’ve had corruption, a slow-burning build up, a thrilling climax. Could you see yourself writing a film about it all?
Somebody rang me about it today. Probably not, because there are too many public faces in there and some conversations I can’t even imagine. The behind-the-scenes politicking, if there is any, it would have to come out. But I can’t see it myself, not at the moment. But then, you never know.
You mention too many real people involved, and in Hereafter you’ve gone the other way. It’s a more personal film than the kind you’ve written before.
Yes, and like a number of others since then. I’ve done a couple of other projects which are pure fiction. You do mix it up, you keep yourself fresh, keep yourself interested and you have to reserve the right to fail and get some right and get some wrong. Otherwise, if you keep repeating yourself, it’s just too awful.
And this film poses that big question: what happens when you die? But it also felt like a very close-knit drama about loneliness, about someone needing to be with someone.
That is definitely what I felt it was. I felt that, yes, it touched on afterlife issues, but to me it was always a love story and that there is a really strong correlation between grief and love. You know, that grief is effectively just loving someone who is just not there.
And that I thought, “Ooh, grief and romance feel like the same muscle.” And so I was really searching for something in that with the first draft. And then Clint Eastwood shot it! I kept thinking, “Well, we must go on and do some more work and der-de-der-de-der.” But he really wanted to shoot it as unrefined and as un-thought through as possible, because he felt it was instinctive and all its integrity came from that.
So, is he a screenwriter’s dream then? Because he has that no nonsense reputation: shoot it, get it done and move on.
Yeah. I asked a room full of writers at the Writers Guild in America, I was doing a Q&A on this film. I said, “I want a show of hands,” – there must have been 300 writers in the room – “is Clint Eastwood your idea of the perfect writer’s director or is he the ultimate non-writer’s director?”
Clint feels a lot of creative energy is neurotic and that is what he doesn’t like. He likes it uncomplicated and confident, even if it means that it’s clunky or misshapen in places. When it’s too refined and too honed, it’s too obviously a piece of art, you know? Contrived art.
And it was very interesting. In this room I got a pretty much 50/50 response. Some people felt that, wow, what a privilege to have a director come in and shoot everything, every apostrophe and every comma. And other people felt, no, actually for a writer to be involved right the way through to the end –
Because Clint, he never asked my opinion on anything. So, is that a great thing or a bad thing? So, I think if you were to get a line of 10 writers you’d get a 50/50 response.
But you were involved in a Executive Producer capacity as well?
Well, I wasn’t really. They were very kind to give me a credit, but I didn’t do a bloody thing. [laughs]
So, you didn’t have discussions with Clint? Because there are some weighty themes in there, big questions about what happens when you die.
I agree and, probably, I think it’s fair to say he knows this, I think my preference, even though it’s more painful and harder and more sweat, is probably to work something through deliberately. With Stephen Frears, Tom Hooper, Ron Howard, people like that, I’ve always ground something out, really done a thousand drafts. It’s been blood from a stone.
In the end, whether it’s for better or for worse, that’s what I know. With Clint, this idea of he just takes it and shoots it, I felt very like, “Oh goodness, really? Can’t we do anything? Can’t we have a conversation?” [laughs] And nothing.
The first time I really talked to him about it was at the press conference after the movie came out.
And you’ve got other people like Steven Spielberg in there as well.
Huge. And these people don’t need to be told anything, you know what I mean? If anyone could get up and make a movie, it’s those two.
So, on the one hand I thought, “Wow, I kind of want to watch this to see how this unfolds and to see whether it was a vindication either of their method or my method.”
And has it changed the way you work now?
No, I think I would still prefer to work the old neurotic way. I can’t help it. That is just the way I am. [laughs]
What I found interesting was how much the Matt Damon character resembled a role Clint Eastwood would have played. He’s a man who’s alone because of what he does, ostracised from society because of what he does.
That’s a very interesting observation. He really related to that character. When I asked him – I did get to the shoot once and I bought him lunch – “Which of the three characters do you most relate to?” And he said, “Oh Matt. That story. That’s why I wanted to make the movie.”
And that’s interesting because I wanted to make the movie because of the boys, that was my way in. That’s what I cared about. And Kathy Kennedy wanted to make it because of the French journalist. She thought the other two were just like ornaments and that it was really all about this poor woman who was just, like, you know, found out and was being silenced and the conspiracy of silence and denial around the whole subject. She thought that was what the movie was about.
So, there you have three radically different – I said, “Is that going to make for a satisfying audience experience or an unsatisfying audience experience, that three of us would think so wildly differently about it?” And the answer is this has always been a film that has slightly divided people. People either really connect with it or they really don’t.
And obviously Clint profoundly – There was one time where he couldn’t cast someone to play the Matt part to go at a certain time. Matt was only available much later. It would have involved Clint waiting six months, which he doesn’t like to do. And on that flight, I think he was coming back from South Africa – I never knew about this, they never told me – Apparently when he couldn’t cast the Matt role, he said to his producer, “Let’s get all the scripts out.”
And he read the twelve or fifteen scripts he’d been sent that he liked, to work out which one he was going to do. And he re-read Hereafter and said, “No. That’s the only one I want to do. I’ll wait six months.”
So, he clearly deeply connected with this in a way that’s powerful.
When I watched it I thought Cécile de France’s character, the journalist, was almost like a proxy for you. She’s someone whose life has been rooted in fact-based work and then suddenly she embarks on something much more personal.
That could be. There could be some truth in that. Because there’s certainly nothing in the twins’ story that I would personally relate to. But that felt to me like the heart of the film. But what you are saying about that makes perfect sense.
Can I ask a very quick question about Bond? I’m a guy in a room with you, I can’t leave without asking this. Are you still attached to writing the next Bond?
No. Because of the delay and we all had to – There came a moment where we either had to say, “I’ll stick with the ship or I’ll go off.” And I went off and wrote Freddie Mercury, I’m afraid, so I’m a whore. No, I’m not a whore! [laughs]
I felt a burning need to write the Freddie Mercury story, I really did. And when Sacha Baron Cohen rang me up to do it, I just couldn’t say no. So, I excused myself from the – whatever the word is – the shackles.
Also, somehow you know when you say yes to something, it needs to go with the momentum, and then in this appalling delay of a year, a year and a half, the whole process of Bond, the fantasy, the dream, the sort of fairytale part of writing one, the reality, it’s never quite the – and then [clicks fingers] there was a real moment of momentum on The Queen thing. And I think I made the right decision.
Peter Morgan, thank you very much
Hereafter is released in cinemas on Friday, January 28th.
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