Emmy- and Oscar-nominated writer talks about Tony Blair, Bill Clinton, and why he'll never write about George W. Bush
“Movie-star politics on the international stage” is how Peter Morgan describes the milieu of “The Special Relationship,” his Tony-nominated HBO movie about the close ties between British Prime Minster Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton. The third installment in a de facto Blair trilogy that began with the British television film “The Deal” and continued with the Oscar-winning feature “The Queen,” the film traces the decline in the fortunes of Blair (played in all three films by Michael Sheen), who was swept into office in a wave of enthusiasm but left a decade later irreparably damaged by his support for the war in Iraq.
Morgan, a two-time Oscar nominee whose other scripts include “Frost/Nixon” and “The Damned United,” received one of five Emmy nominations for the film; the others went to lead actors Sheen and Dennis Quaid (who plays Bill Clinton), actress Hope Davis (Hilary Clinton), and the film itself in the category of Outstanding Made for Television Movie. (Below: Morgan, center, with Sheen and Quaid; photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)
You’ve now written three movies about Tony Blair movies, all for different platforms. One was made for British TV, one was a theatrical release, and one was for HBO.
And I’m working on an opera, and a radio play. We’re going through the whole cycle. [laughs] I don’t know how it’s worked out that way. For different reasons, you end up in different places. And it’s been so piecemeal because after I wrote the first one, I never thought I’d write the second one. After I wrote the second one, I never thought I’d write the third one. Every time I think it’s over, it isn’t.
How far can you go with Blair?
Oh, I fully intend to make as many Blairs as Harry Potters. He can carry on forever and ever. He’s the story that never stops giving. Even as we speak, the Chilcot Inquiry into Iraq is unearthing more and more skeletons, while he jets around the world on Gulfstreams and has earned 30 million pounds since leaving office. It’s right up there with African dictator levels of extravagant wealth and shamelessness.
So do you follow Blair’s exploits avidly, with an eye to your future?
No, no, no. In between projects, I hopefully get back to having a normal life, and not thinking about Tony Blair. And then every now and then I read the newspaper and think, oh God, there is actually still juice in this. And then I get people like ["Special Relationship" executive producer] Kathy Kennedy ringing me up and saying, [American accent] “Peter, you have a moral obligation as an artist to continue this.” And then I think, I suppose she’s right.
Well, I’m not paid well for any of these. They take a lot of time to research, and a long time to write, and it’s very difficult to write material where you have an army of people ready to shoot you down, because there are so many interest groups involved. But you do realize that you’re in the middle of something rather unique: you’re chronicling history as it unfolds. And it’s a pretty rare privilege to be able to do that.
Wasn’t this film originally going to involve Blair’s relationships with both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush?
No, never. That was always reported, but I never understood where the Bush thing came from. It was always about, how did Tony Blair get from there to there? How did the chap who was elected with a huge landslide in 1997, and who really felt like it was a future with hope, and a new generation and a new Britain … how did that guy, who was such a natural ally and obviously a close personal friend of Clinton’s, how could he then stretch over to someone like George W. Bush, who … [sighs] It was just unimaginable, and the sense of personal betrayal that so many of us felt was just so gob-smacking that nobody could follow it.
How do you try to answer the question of how it happened?
You ask other questions. Was there an ideological basis for it? Is the alliance between two powerful, largely Christian democracies like yours and ours, is that the glue, or is there something else? For somebody from a political system like ours, with diminished impact on the international stage, the idea of being the closest ally and friend of the most powerful nation on earth is very seductive. And to what degree is the special relationship something that you want to foster because of shared political vision and ideological common ground? Or is it personal political pragmatism and opportunism?
Originally, you were going to direct the film. What happened?
I still haven’t quite figured that out. Most of it was that my mother suddenly became terminally ill, and she died in the time that I would have been filming. But there was also a part of me that was uncomfortable, even though I’d got to about four weeks before shooting. And I think that was because part of me was thinking, where’s my writer? I love close working collaborations with directors, and I’ve seen how valuable a writer-director partnership is. To have it just be the same person feels to me a bit like an unchecked dictatorship.
I must say, I felt lonely being the writer-director. I wanted a buddy in the co-pilot’s seat. I think that was probably about 20 percent of it, and 80 percent of it was my mother.
You obviously didn’t have to worry about who’d play Tony Blair, but what were you looking for in casting Bill Clinton?
Clinton’s a pretty impossible person to cast, because he’s just so particular and distinct. There are people who’ve got this part of Clinton or that part of Clinton, but the overwhelming thing that Clinton has, that everybody mentions again and again and again, is this absolute ability to connect with people, and this unbelievable personal confidence in his own skin. And the sexiness. And Dennis is all those things. He’s a Southerner, which I think is critical, and he has that utter likeability and charm, the love of being with people, and the sexiness and naughtiness.
There were all kinds of people that we were thinking about, but in the end, there were so many parts of the Clinton kaleidoscopic complexity that Dennis ticked.
It seems obvious that you could carry the Tony Blair story forward into the Bush years…
No. I hope that all the questions that I would want to have answered in a Blair-Bush movie have somewhat been answered in this one. I hope that Clinton is somehow a metaphor for the relationship with Bush, in that by telling the story with Clinton you understand how we ended up in Iraq. And personally, I would be too depressed to write the story between Tony Blair and George Bush. I can say with some confidence that that’s something I’d never write. But I do have an idea for a fourth movie.
Would you just skip the Bush years?
I’d like to look at what happens when somebody leaves office, but I think I’d have to wait a couple of years until Michael has aged a bit more. There was something really riveting the other day, when Gordon Brown resigned and David Cameron went to see the Queen. What happens is that as the prime minister, you go with a motorcade and police outriders [escorts] to Buckingham Palace. While you’re in there offering your resignation, the outriders are driving across town to the guy who’s about to come to the Queen. And when you leave, the outriders have gone, and basically you go straight into your first traffic jam.
It’s fantastically matter-of-fact, and unbelievably brutal. And from the minute you walk out that door, you’re no longer called Mr. Prime Minster. In America, you’re called Mr. President to your grave. But in England, the minute you leave you’re Mr. Blair. And he hadn’t been called that for 12 years. So what happens? What’d that like? I think I’d like to tell that story, and tell a story of what Tony Blair’s done since.
Didn’t you write the James Bond movie that’s in limbo now because of MGM’s uncertain status?
No. Sadly, it’s been stood down, and we’ve all gone on to other assignments. And who knows what’ll happen?
I wish I had done it, because I’d be talking to you from a solid gold telephone if I had.