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U.K. talents take on ‘Frost/Nixon’

Peter Morgan, Michael Sheen try to extend streak

There are few more momentous moments in modern American history than the Watergate break-in and Richard Nixon’s subsequent fall from power.

Just as it would take the unlikely figure of British TV presenter David Frost to get Nixon to admit culpability for his part in the crisis and apologize to the American people, so too has it fallen to the British writer-and-actor team of Peter Morgan and Michael Sheen to dramatize the iconic events in “Frost/Nixon.”

Morgan and Sheen are, it must be noted, memorably aided in their task by a stellar U.S. contingent of talent, including producer Brian Grazer, whose Imagine co-produced the pic with Brit powerhouse Working Title, helmer Ron Howard and thesp Frank Langella, who turns in a memorable perf as the disgraced former U.S. prexy.

Pic marks the latest collaboration between Morgan and Sheen. The two previously worked together on “The Deal” and “The Queen,” with Sheen playing former British preem Tony Blair in both pics and will reunite once again for the forthcoming “The Damned United,” in which Sheen plays legendary English soccer coach Brian Clough. Pic is in post-production.

The British connections in “Frost/Nixon” run deep.

Pic, an adaptation of the Morgan-penned play that world preemed on London’s West End in 2006, will receive its world preem in London on Oct. 15 at the 52nd Times BFI London Film Festival.

‘That the creative roots for the project spring out of Blighty, and not the U.S., where all the action takes place, could be one of the reasons its political observations are so incisive.

“When you’re not immersed in a piece of material or a historical story that’s part of your culture it’s probably easier to be objective, and the project has achieved that element of objectivity,” says Working Title co-topper Eric Fellner, who also lavishes praise on Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s creative contributions. “Interesting, talented, creative people should be able to work without geographical constraints.”

For Morgan, the pic marks another step in an upward trajectory that has seen him acclaimed as one of the U.K.’s top writing talents. Looking back now, however, the scribe is quick to note the daunting nature of the task he undertook.

“I think I was a bit like David Frost in that I went into the project quite innocently and naively. Had I known the degree to which Nixon’s transgressions had traumatized America, I probably would have ruled myself out, and felt I was ineligible, that it was sort of trespassing on the trauma of a country,” says Morgan. “One of the really fascinating things about being involved with this project, right from the get-go with the play, was seeing how it was received in America as opposed to England. This movie is about our two countries, our two cultures, to the degree that in America most people call it ‘Nixon/Frost,’ despite the fact that it’s never been called that anywhere. The Americans just do that to it. They take ownership of the Nixon part. I feel it’s very much American history seen through the eyes of a British tourist.”

It is Sheen’s Frost, who begins the film a perma-tanned playboy consistently outwitted by Nixon before battling back to find his feet, who provides the narrative backbone, scrambling away to raise the coin for his independently-financed series of interviews with the former prexy, all the while maintaining a public show of joviality.

“Fortunately for me, all I had to worry about was portraying David Frost. I didn’t even have to begin to talk about dealing with Watergate because part of the story is our Frost is a bit at sea with all that anyway,” says Sheen. “The thing with Peter is he takes on big, important cultural themes and deals with people in power and the leaders of our culture but makes them very human. At a time when people’s images are manipulated through the media so much, anything that reminds us of their human flaws that we feel in ourselves every day is really exciting for an actor to play and an audience to watch.”

The possibility remains for further Morgan-Sheen collaborations. The writer is currently developing “The Special Relationship,” in what would mark the third part of his Tony Blair trilogy. Fittingly enough, pic looks at Blair’s relationships with U.S. presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during their handover of power in 2000. Morgan is hoping that Sheen will reprise the role he has virtually made his own.

“Although I seem to spend a great deal of time looking at Michael’s image through television screens, in cutting rooms, on sets and in movies, I never grow tired of it,” says Morgan. “We don’t have a relationship outside of filming hours and yet I feel very close to him. I don’t know how it’s been that we found our way to one another in this way, but I have at least two more films in mind for him.”


When: Oct. 15-30

Where: Odeon West End, London

Web: bfi.org.uk/lff