There may be no screenwriter living who is more of an expert on British politics over the past 15 years than Peter Morgan. The two-time Oscar-nominated writer is best known for his Tony Blair trilogy of “The Deal,” “The Queen” and “The Special Relationship,” but he’s also told the true stories that make up “Frost/Nixon,” “The Damned United,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Longford” and, to a lesser extent, “The Other Boleyn Girl.” Now, Morgan is in the middle of the biggest departures of his career. First to screen is this month’s Clint Eastwood directed supernatural drama “Hereafter” and, at the moment, Morgan is penning the script for a Freddie Mercury biopic that will star Sacha Baron Cohen.
To those who aren’t aware of the legendary Queen front man, Mercury was one of the most charismatic and imposing stage performers of the the ’70s and ’80s. As a songwriter he wrote some of the most popular rock anthems of the past 30 years including “We Are the Champions” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Sadly, only a day after admitting he’d contracted HIV, Mercury died at the age of 45 from complications of AIDS. It’s not surprising such a dramatic and powerful story found its way to Sacha Baron Cohen who has a strong resemblance to the rock icon and is a pretty charismatic fellow in his own right. According to Morgan, Cohen had been trying to persuade him to write a biopic on Mercury’s life for over two years. Discussing the project during an interview today, Morgan said he’d consistently said “no.”
“I’d said to him, ‘Look, it’s a great idea and you’re great casting for him, but I don’t know the story.’ And it took me that long to find what I was doing with it,” Morgan says.
And while he won’t comment on what that “in” was Morgan says he’s currently deep in the writing process and “it’s easier to talk about than ‘Hereafter,’ because that’s what I am doing every day. And I am really loving writing it.”
Another reason this biopic is ready to go is because Mercury’s former Queen band mates are finally allowing their parts of the story to be told onscreen. In comparison, a major fault of another recent rock biopic, last spring’s “The Runways,” was that a number of former members of that 70s band , including Lita Ford, expressively forbid their use outside of publicly stated record. That ended up skewing the events in the drama. and leaving much of the “true” story untold. At the moment, that’s not an issue for Mercury’s tale, but Morgan has made it clear Queen won’t get a free ride for giving their O.K.
“It’s very much authorized and with their cooperation, but I’ve told them, ‘I won’t be particularly kind.’ I’m only gonna do this if I have editorial independence,” Morgan says. “I don’t want anyone to feel this is a movie that Queen has commissioned.”
Morgan insinuated the Mercury biopic could be shot and ready for release within the next two years, but was just as emphatic to discuss “Hereafter.”
An ensemble drama with three intersecting story lines, “Hereafter” more than anything is a contemplative look at the age old question of what happens to us when we die. One portion of the film is centered on a man with the ability to connect to the “other side” (Matt Damon), but can’t handle the burden of such a gift. The second thread follows a French journalist (Cécile De France) who has a near death experience after almost drowning in a Tsunami in Southeast Asia. When she returns home she becomes obsessed with investigating what happened to her much to the detriment of her career. The final plot line is probably the most touching and deals with two twin boys in London who are the victims of a tragic accident.
There wasn’t one event in Morgan’s life that inspired “Hereafter,” but at its core he says he wanted the film to provide comfort without giving emphatic proof the afterlife exists. He notes, “I didn’t want there to be a scoop. ‘Guess what folks, you can pay $10, we will tell you what happens.’ We’re not in a position to do that.”
That’s not to say Morgan didn’t research the issue, “the minute that I got onto the Internet you realize you’re only a couple of clicks away from quite disturbing lunatics. So, I pulled back a bit and I read a couple of books.”
One issue Morgan is keenly aware of are some movie fans expectations of a film that is being marketed with strong emphasis on the more “epic” moments in the picture.
“When it first became public there was a lot of talk about it being like ‘The Sixth Sense’ or it being a spiritual thriller. And, I sort of thought, ‘They are in for a shock,” Morgan recalls. “And when they told me Clint was interested, I was excited because I knew he wouldn’t try to offer an explanation. I didn’t think in his work Mr. Eastwood was a particular religious man and I didn’t think he’d want to make it a movie about a scoop.”
Morgan also knew the wrong director could take the material in a completely different direction than he’d intended.
“It was really important to me the young boys really did come from quite difficult circumstances in London. So, I was very happy when I heard [Eastwood was on board] because like ‘Mystic River’ has real social reality and I thought, ‘He will give the subject social reality’ because it could easily feel too whimsical and never-neverland-ish.”
With the recent coalition government seemingly making no one in any of the U.K.’s three parties happy, I ended by asking Morgan if he’d consider revisiting the intriguing world of British politics again.
“I’m always keeping my eyes open and if something comes up,” Morgan admits. “I just have to be wary, I suppose, of following in my own footsteps too much. I don’t want to become repetitive and I’m very happy to take risks. Even if taking those risks means you fail.”
“Hereafter” opens nationwide on Oct. 22.