The Six Senses of Peter Morgan



Peter Morgan broke out in 2006 with the screenplays for Stephen Frears’s The Queen and Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland. Both films portrayed political leaders in crisis, and Morgan continued the cycle in 2008 with Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon, adapting his own stage play. The London-born Morgan was Oscar-nominated for The Queen and Frost/Nixon and may well garner another nomination for his latest screenplay, for Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, about a psychic (Matt Damon), a journalist (Cécile de France) and a bereaved boy (Frankie and George McLaren), all confronting death. Morgan recreates the Asian tsunami and 2005 London subway bombings—but his focus, this time, is not on history but on character. 

DANIEL D’ADDARIO: What inspired this script? It seems kind of a digression from your previous work—or is it?

PETER MORGAN: [LAUGHS] Yeah. Um, well. I was very moved by a book that I read—really moved, really, really moved—about a woman who lost her sister and was trying somehow to connect with her, but she was coming as a child of the Enlightenment. And she approached it with the rigor of journalistic inquiry.  And that really interested me, and, I guess, is the Marie part.

And I was going to also explore the loss of somebody, and that was the boy, and the Matt Damon character just came to me as the cement that would bind these two bricks together. I wrote by myself—I didn’t pitch it, didn’t tell anyone, I just wrote, then after six months, a very close friend of mine died—

D’ADDARIO: Oh, I’m sorry.

MORGAN: Yeah, he was godfather to my children, and a former boyfriend of my wife, a really close friend, and, at his funeral, I thought, I really want to explore this movie again. So, I went back to my desk, and I sent it to my agent, and they sent it to—in a very experimental stage—Kathy Kennedy, and she sent it to Steven Spielberg, and he sent it to Clint. And he said he wanted to do it and not change anything. He said, “This is something that really spoke to me, this is delicate and gentle, I’d like to work it. I like things to be instinctive.” And for me, I quite like to hone things down, I like to work something to the ground. He thought that with material like this, if you were to do the work, it would become too premeditated and cultured. He said what’s beautiful about the movie, in his eyes, is its rawness, and its lack of schematic intent. So, there you have it! I’m as bewildered as anybody else!

D’ADDARIO: I think an element that may be unfamiliar for moviegoers is that the psychic is much more grounded—so to speak—and conflicted than, say, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost. Did you do any research into psychics at all, or just come up with this notion?

MORGAN: I did a little bit, and I found it really scary. I wouldn’t respond to any of the people. And so I just settled down and wrote a guy that I would trust and believe. And he came out in that shape. You know, I wrote him to be lonely and withdrawn and I wrote that stuff about Dickens and—I don’t know where that came from, I wrote it so quickly.

D’ADDARIO: About Dickens—his work is so sprawling and yours tends to be so precise and focused on moments.

MORGAN: I don’t know why Dickens came to me. I wanted something that would be the least likely thing for a tough, blue-collar guy to be listening to. And I’m a big fan of that language—I mean, that language!—especially the way it’s beautifully read by Derek Jacobi. I couldn’t tell you why I like it, but it’s my favorite stuff in the movie.

D’ADDARIO: Yeah, I was interested in the amount of literary things going on onscreen. This is probably the only movie I can remember where major action happens at a book fair.


D’ADDARIO: Have you been reading anything good lately that inspires you to write?

MORGAN: Generally, I read nonfiction. There’s very little fiction that I enjoy enough to spend my time reading. I am generally a nonfiction guy.

D’ADDARIO: Why is that, as a creator of fiction?

MORGAN: It’s like being a chef, and when do you eat and how do you eat? You have to eat. You have to read. So when I switch off, I don’t want to be thinking, Mm! I like that turn of phrase, or I wish he’d written that differently, I wish he’d move the narrative along more. That, to me, is not relaxing. Movies feel like work, and reading fiction feels like work, whereas reading nonfiction feels like pleasure.

D’ADDARIO: So about a third of your film, maybe less, is in French. Do you speak French at all?

MORGAN: No! That was the funniest thing. I actually speak fluent German. And I live in Vienna, and I’m married to a Viennese woman.

D’ADDARIO: Oh, okay.

MORGAN: You’d have thought that the commonsense thing would have been to write a Viennese woman. Clint was saying that a very, very well-known international movie star wanted to play the part of Marie, but it would have involved changing the nationality to a different nationality. And he said no, when the studios were begging him to say yes, because he instinctively felt Marie should be French, in the same way I instinctively felt she should be French. And I cannot conceivably tell you why that is. I have no idea whatsoever; it just felt right. That journey that she goes on felt like the journey French women go on. Of course a Viennese woman could have done it to— it makes no difference. But…

D’ADDARIO: I don’t know if it was realistic or not, but the cooking class part of the film really lightened the mood. What was the impetus for making George go to a cooking class versus anything else?

MORGAN: The night school, to me, is the area of humor, rather than the cooking. I did originally write it as something else. They were doing some sort of D.I.Y. with all the drills and hammers. It may have been some sort of electrical class. But night school being a place where people go to meet one another, like an art gallery, or libraries, where a quarter of people’s attention is on what they’re learning and three-quarters is on who else is there, and whether they’d like to have a drink. I agree with you about the light-heartedness—looking at it now, I wish I’d written maybe a bit more.

D’ADDARIO: And I thought a lot of it, in addition to your script, was brought out by Eastwood’s light touch. You’ve worked with other big names as well, but I was wondering if there’s a director with whom you haven’t yet worked whom you’d most like to?

MORGAN: Oh, God, loads! Aronofsky, oh my God, Ang Lee, um, Fincher. All the people you’d want to work with. The first and primary requirement for me in a director that I’d want to work with is: do they love writing, and do they love the collaboration process with writers?