The drama Hereafter, directed by Clint Eastwood, tells the story of three people who are each haunted by mortality. When screenwriter/executive producer Peter Morgan read a book about a woman who lost her sister and really sought to connect with her, he was so moved that it inspired him to explore the ways in which death touches different individuals in different ways. The film stars Matt Damon, Cecile de France and Frankie & George McLaren.
As a writer who has spent much of his career telling stories that are fact-based, Peter Morgan admits that writing something that was more instinctual and emotional was very different for him. During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, he talked about doing more of a mixture in his storytelling now, how encouraging it is to work with someone who puts trust in you as a writer in the way that Clint Eastwood does and how, when a story grabs him in a particular moment, he just has to jump on it. He also spoke about how he became involved as executive producer on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, being directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), and that the biopic about Freddie Mercury, starring Sacha Baron Cohen, is where his focus is now. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: What inspired you to write this script and what made death something that you wanted to explore?
PETER MORGAN: Well, I read a book by an English journalist, called Before I Say Goodbye. It was about a woman who lost her sister and who really sought to connect with her, and that really moved me. I thought, “Oh, that is so interesting. Let me think about that a little bit.” And, this is what came up. Who’d have guessed it. The first character I came up with was the twin, and then the Matt Damon character, and then Cecile’s character. I felt that each needed the other. I thought it was too binary with just Matt and the boy, living in a world in which things like the tsunami and these terrorist attacks happen and death can be imminent, sudden and unexpected.
As a writer, is it more challenging or more freeing to write from an instinctual and emotional place, instead of from research and facts?
MORGAN: It’s certainly very different. I’m not sure I could tell you which I prefer because I’m doing a bit more of both. At the moment, I’m writing something fact-based, and in the intervening period of time, I’ve written a more instinctive one. But, I wrote Hereafter quickly and without mapping it out too much or being too schematic. As an exercise, I think that was incredibly important. I didn’t want there to be a scoop like, “Guess what? We have a scoop on the afterlife.” I wanted it to be something that everybody brings something to, and that what they bring to it was at least as important as what I was giving them.
Since this is different from his previous work, how did Clint Eastwood come to this project?
MORGAN: You would think it was different when you read a log line about it, but then when you see it, I think it feels very much like a typical Clint Eastwood film. It’s very spare, confident and quite simple, and it creates so much room for an audience to come in and bring their own material to this. Hollywood storytelling has so much control freakery.
People test movies within an inch of their life, so that the entire audience experience is a uniform one. They say, “We tested it and we lost the audience a bit here, and we want them to feel a bit more of that there.” It’s about sending people on a theme park ride, where everybody is on exactly the same ride. This film, with its imperfections and its gaps and its holes and its lack of a firm hand on the rein, in terms of control freakery, allows an audience so much more participation in the creation of meaning. At first, all my neurotic instincts were to kick against that to make sure things were tended, but I just let it go.
Is it true that Clint Eastwood doesn’t like to change a script much, once filming begins? Did you notice that with this? Were you on the set during the production?
MORGAN: I was on the set, yeah. I think he reads a lot of scripts, and when he finds one that he likes, he doesn’t want to change it. To writers, who are up to their eyeballs in this industry and this business, that can feel like a discombobulating experience. He just encourages you to let go and trust him, and that’s certainly what the atmosphere was like on the set, where everyone was just blissed out and happy.
MORGAN: No. But, I think Matt wouldn’t want to. Both he and Clint seemed to connect very strongly to the script. Neither of them would have wanted me to come on and do anything. I think Matt liked the fact that it wasn’t a conventional lead.
This movie has a lot of destruction in it, especially with the bombings in London and the tsunami in Indonesia. Did you ever think about toning that down at all, or did anyone ever ask you to tone it down?
MORGAN: No. I guess when I wrote it, I thought that the tsunami and the other ones might be more equal in size, but the tsunami became overwhelming. But really, the point of the tsunami was the same as the bombings in London, which is that it can happen at any time, unexpectedly, to any of us.
What draws you to certain stories? How do you know what you’ll be working on next?
MORGAN: There’s no way of telling why you want to do things beforehand. Something just grabs you. It might not grab you six months later, and it might not have grabbed you six months before, but at that particular moment it grabs you, so you jump on it.
Over the past few years, you’ve been fortunate enough to have so many projects get made. What has that been like for you?
How did you become an executive producer on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and connect with Tomas Alfredson, who’s directing that film?
MORGAN: It was my idea to do it. I took it to Working Title. I wrote a draft of the script. The director loved it and got on board. And then, my mother started dying and I said that I couldn’t carry on anymore. The other writers did so much more work on it that I pulled out as the writer. I spent six months last year not working at all, as my mother was sick. It was actually my idea. I took it to them and to (novelist) John le Carré.
Do you know what you’re going to be working on next?
MORGAN: I’m writing Freddie Mercury for Sacha Baron Cohen.