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Hereafter - Peter Morgan interview

Peter Morgan

Interview by Rob Carnevale

ACCLAIMED screenwriter Peter Morgan (of The Queen and Frost/Nixon fame) talks about some of the themes and controversy surrounding his latest, the Clint Eastwood directed Hereafter (starring Matt Damon).

He also reflects on his own career, and the way he approaches each project (including the new Freddie Mercury movie) as well as some of his past successes.

Q. I really enjoyed Hereafter but the film has got mixed responses so far. Was that something you were expecting?
Peter Morgan: Well, it’s an uncomfortable subject but if you don’t worry about that too much, then it’s quite a life affirming movie. Or at least I hope it is!

Q. Do you think the response depends on how people view the afterlife themselves?
Peter Morgan: Definitely. Possibly not how they view the afterlife, because none of us really know about that, but how they view death and what their feelings are about that. I think it’s fair to say that the older you are, the more you’re moved by this movie. And the more its gentleness feels hopeful. I think for young people, for whom death is not even on the menu… it’s just an unthinkable aberration – and it’s quite right that they should think like that. But as we go through life our relationship with our own mortality and our inevitable demise increases. A 20-year-old is never going to give death a second thought, whereas someone in their late 50s is going to think about it… I don’t know, 20 times a day. Someone in their 80s might think about it most of the time. But Hereafter has, in many ways, provoked some of the most interesting and enjoyable responses to stuff I have written so far… sometimes boundary shattering conversations.

Q. I gather it came from a personal place for you – the death of a young friend?
Peter Morgan: Yeah, I had written it and was working out what to do with it, but then he died… he was a friend who was very young when he died – 40. He died in a skiing incident. He lost control of his skis and went into a tree. It was over instantly. But at his funeral, I remember thinking: “What the hell happened? It just makes no sense…” I had no intention of providing any answers or solutions, because you’d only look a fool, but I did want to talk about what it’s like to be in a state where you’re wondering. And perhaps I was also receptive to the fact I was entering middle age and those thoughts come – to pretend that they don’t come is just crazy.

Q. Have your views on death changed as a result of writing this? Or through people you spoke to as part of your research?
Peter Morgan: I don’t think so because I haven’t come up with any facts or data, except what I was saying earlier. I’m still young and healthy but the possibility of death… I do think of it as an inevitability and you have a relationship with something that you’re definitely going to do at some point. Maybe Hereafter was me beginning to think about it for the first time. I’ve now buried both my parents… for at least half your life, appropriately if you’re growing up in times of peace and live in a country where there’s plenty of food and good healthcare, you grow up without any relationship with death. In that case, you’re a fortunate person. We in our age spend longer not thinking about death than people from any other previous generation. And there is this huge taboo about the subject.

I mean, we give each other a wide berth even if we have the flu, let alone… So, I think that’s part of the stigma that people who have diseases suffer. It’s almost infectious… if somebody is closer to death, they’re almost a bad omen and I think that’s terrible. I went through it last year when my mother died of cancer – it was a long, protracted and painful passing. It wasn’t until quite near the end, when she went to a really lovely hospice, that you thought: “Ah, she doesn’t have to worry about a stigma here.” Everyone was in the same boat.

Q. There are also a couple of key scenes in the film that could contribute towards some of the negative reaction – the use of the tsunami and the London bombings as plot devices. Were you aware of that possibility when you were writing? Or do you not worry about that?
Peter Morgan: Absolutely I was aware of it and what I was trying to say was that when we look at the tsunami and when we look at the bombings, from our sofas… one of the things that inspired me to write it was, if you remember after the 7/7 bombings and then two weeks later, on the 21st, there were more bombs in London… or at least the threat of bombs. On that day, I saw absolute fear gripping London. I was in Holborn when it happened and all the cell-phone networks were cut. There was no way of reaching your loved ones, there was no way of telling anyone where you were… the buses were told to park and throw people off, the Tubes stopped and you were just stuck there. You had to walk. No one could talk or communicate and you felt very cut off from everything that felt familiar and reassuring. It was very frightening.

Being at the mercy of suicide bombers… obviously, people of a certain age would have grown up in London during the IRA bombings and felt like that. But in other words, the idea that you could live in a metropolitan centre and the possibility of death be all around you – and sudden and unannounced death made me think: “Oh my God, look at the fear all around me… apart from all the obvious reasons, why are we all so frightened of death? What is it about death that is so frightening?” I wanted to try to engage in some subject matter that, even if it was just for myself, made death feel less frightening. I figure that if you have some kind of grip or hold over your fear of death, or even your fear of flying, it’s enormously liberating and empowering for the actual business of life and getting on with it.


Q. It was therefore obviously crucial to find the right director to handle this material and you couldn’t find a better one than Clint Eastwood…
Peter Morgan: [Smiles] Well, yes, quite. That was a shock. It still doesn’t make any sense to me that Matt Damon and Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg are all involved. I’m not even entirely sure it’s all really happened!

Q. Did you get to work closely with him?
Peter Morgan: Not really, because he does his own thing. We had a couple of lovely lunches and I went to the set. We also spent some time together in New York when the film first opened in America. He’s a delightful man. But you don’t really work together with Clint Eastwood. I mean, he takes the script and he shoots it – and he shoots it very faithfully.

Q. Have you got past the issue of trust when you hand over one of your scripts to a director? You seem to have been very lucky so far in how they’ve turned out…
Peter Morgan: One advantage of having a body of work is that you’ve had every experience. I’ve had every different experience. I mean, I’ve had directors like Clint Eastwood who have taken it and done pretty much what they’ve wanted. And then other directors who need you on set every day. For a writer, it’s quite hard sometimes… the process of writing is hard enough, but then knowing where to pitch yourself in a relationship with the person who is making the film is quite difficult.

Q. Which do you prefer? Letting go of it completely, as with Hereafter, or collaborating?
Peter Morgan: There are pros and cons to both. If you put a gun to my head, I would probably say the collaborative one because although it’s more painful and time consuming and less remunerative because you can’t get on with anything else, you just are that much more heavily invested in the film. It’s made deeper inroads into your life and, presumably, has more of your suggestions and inputs.

Q. Given the fact that this is something of a departure for you in terms of being fictional, did you have fun creating characters and is it something we’re going to see more of from you now?
Peter Morgan: Yes, I’ve done a bit more of that. I’ve written a couple of films now that are going to come out that are fiction. But also I can’t resist going back… I’ve just written a film about Freddie Mercury, which we’re in the very early stages of, and I’m now researching something else that is fact-based. So, I have a hunch that I’ll be doing the two.

Q. How is the Freddie Mercury one coming along?
Peter Morgan: I loved writing it and I’m now going through that slightly nerve-wracking process of the band reading it. That’s probably… it’ll probably be a painful experience because I’ll be getting things wrong as I wasn’t in the room. They will be judging it from the point of view of accuracy rather than truth, I think.

Q. Is that something that you’ve also learned not to worry too much about? I mean, you can only do so much research and every person’s interpretation of history is different anyway…
Peter Morgan: Exactly… I’ve learned that from my experience but it doesn’t make it any easier when you show someone a script, they look at it and they go: “But that’s not how it was…” I have to say that it’s how I think it was, even though that might not have been how you saw it, or indeed how you felt it.


Q. How fondly do you look back on your own work, such as the Blair trilogy, or The Queen, or Frost/Nixon?
Peter Morgan: I don’t really dwell on anything once I’ve done it. I’m always pre-occupied with what it is that I’m doing at the moment. And the thing that I’m most in love with is the thing that I’m writing at the moment. I was deeply in love with those, or pre-occupied or struggling with those when I was doing them. But it’s almost like they represent a relationship that you can’t go back to. It’s like once you’ve loved someone and then split up, you don’t then go back to loving them. It feels very like that. I never go back over something I’ve done and I never watch them again.

Q. But in the context of Hereafter, are you aware of your own legacy, in terms of the strength of work you’re going to leave behind?
Peter Morgan: Oh, I don’t think of it like that because I’m still looking forward. I’m thinking of things that I may not be writing right now, but want to write in the future. So, no I tend to only look forward.

Q. Do you feel any pressure from your success?
Peter Morgan: I don’t look at it like that I don’t think. I just try and do something good. But as a writer, you’re slightly out of control. You know that you’re working with other people and sometimes it doesn’t work out the way you want, and sometimes you didn’t realise what a mistake you’ve made until you see it projected. But you can only do the best you can in the minute that you’re doing it. I give everything my best shot and sometimes it doesn’t work out and other times it works out much better than you thought. It’s slightly in the lap of the Gods as it were… it’s slightly pixie dust. You have to sort of accept there’s a degree of powerlessness.

I mean there are so many other people involved in the making of a play or a television series or whatever… even if you’re a novelist there’s so much in just the marketing of a book, or even the time… the zeitgeist, the moment at which it comes out. There’s a lot you can’t control.

Q. How do you go about picking your projects?
Peter Morgan: Basically, I try and generate them myself. If I can, I’ll always write an original screenplay. It might be more difficult because you haven’t got a book or a prop, but for the most part I like to write unpaid… initially [smiles] and my own stories. Because then you’re not letting anyone down if you screw up. It’s really a lovely feeling to write knowing that failure is taken off the table because if it’s bad you just never show it to anyone [smiles].

Read our review of Hereafter

Read our interview with Cecile de France

  1. Great, insightful interview for a superb and unfairly maligned film.

    Tom    Feb 2    #