Morgan savors Howard’s on-set vibe

Duo's 'Frost/Nixon' confab produces a winner

It’s spring, London 2006. I’m in a smoky cafe in Hampstead, and the director Ron Howard (in the U.K. to complete the music for “The Da Vinci Code”) has kindly asked me to write something, an assignment, for his company Imagine Entertainment. I have to decline, unfortunately I’m busy, and so to pass time he politely asks me what I’m working on. I tell him a stage play about the interviews David Frost conducted with Richard Nixon in 1977. Even Ron Howard, the most gracious man you could hope to meet, struggles to contain his blank expression of utter boredom.

Two and a half years later, I’m sitting in a hotel in Beverly Hills writing this article on the morning after the Los Angeles premiere of Ron Howard’s latest movie, “Frost/Nixon.” Six months after our first meeting in that Hampstead cafe, the play went on at London’s Donmar Warehouse, directed by Michael Grandage, starring Frank Langella and Michael Sheen, and seemed to spark the imagination of several esteemed filmmakers. Because Ron Howard and I already knew one another, because he flew over to see me, because he’s the nicest, most inclusive person I’ve come across, and because he committed to making it his next movie without a single word of the screenplay having been written yet, I sold the rights to him and Brian Grazer. We then dived straightaway into the process of writing the film adaptation while the play transferred first to the West End and then to Broadway.

Making the movie with Ron Howard was by some margin the most satisfying experience of my professional life. It disproved at a stroke the axiom that I had come to believe after 20 years that filmmaking is a tough and fractious experience — life-shortening but necessary. Because of his consummate skill as a filmmaker, his tireless appetite for rewriting and research, but even more because of his extraordinary skills as a human being, he knew how to get the best out of me as a writer, taking the script to a new level, and as a former actor, how to raise the bar for two performers who must have felt they had covered everything there was to cover after 15 months and 356 performances onstage. To Ron and to his wonderful team of collaborators, fellow-travelers, editors, producers, and production team, people who’ve been working with him for over 20 years, I owe a huge debt of gratitude and perhaps the highest compliment a playwright can give. I love the movie every bit as much as I love the play — thank you.

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