On this page: Imagining Frost/Nixon:From Interviews to Stageplay; Understanding the Medium: Television Plays Its Role; Imagine and Working Title Bring the Play to the Screen
Read more: Director Ron Howard talks about directing the film
Read more about: Casting the Film
Read more about: Filming the World of Frost/Nixon
Read more about director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan
Except that only one of us can win.
And I shall be your fiercest adversary. I shall come at you with everything I got. Because the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it'll be the wilderness…with nothing, and no one for company but those voices ringing in our head.
In summer 1977, the televised David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews attracted the largest audience for a news program in the history of American TV. More than 45 million viewers--hungry for a glimpse into the mind of their disgraced former commander-in-chief and anxious for him to acknowledge the abuses of power that led to his resignation--sat transfixed as Nixon and Frost sparred in a riveting verbal boxing match over the course of four evenings. Two men with everything to prove knew only one could come out a winner. Their legendary confrontation would revolutionize the art of the confessional interview, change the face of politics and capture an admission from the former president that startled people all over the world…possibly even including Nixon himself.
Now, Academy Award-winning director RON HOWARD (A Beautiful Mind, Cinderella Man, Apollo 13) brings to the screen stage- and screenwriter PETER MORGAN's (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland) electrifying dramatization of the battle between Richard Nixon (FRANK LANGELLA, Good Night, and Good Luck.), the disgraced president with a legacy to save, and David Frost (MICHAEL SHEEN, The Queen), a jet-setting featherweight television personality with a name to make, in the untold story of the historic encounter that changed both: Frost/Nixon. Re-creating not only the on-air interviews that captivated the nation, but weeks of around-the world, behind-the-scenes maneuvering and negotiations between the men and their opposing camps, the film explores the long-untold story that led to the ultimate face-off in the court of public opinion.
For three years after being forced from office, Nixon remained silent. But in 1977, the steely, cunning former commander-in-chief agreed to sit for one all-inclusive interview to confront the unanswered questions of his time in office and the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency. Nixon surprised everyone in selecting Frost as his televised confessor, intending to easily outfox the breezy British showman and reclaim his status as a supreme statesman in the hearts and minds of Americans.
Likewise, Frost's team harbored doubts about his ability to hold his own against Nixon. As cameras rolled, a charged battle of wits ensued. Would Nixon evade questions of his role in one of the nation's greatest disgraces? Or would Frost confound critics and bravely demand accountability from the most skilled politician of his generation? The encounter would reveal each man's insecurities, ego and reserves of dignity--as both ultimately set aside posturing in a stunning display of unvarnished truth.
BEFORE THE PRODUCTION: Imagining Frost/Nixon:From Interviews to Stageplay
Stage- and screenwriter Peter Morgan was first drawn into the world of David Frost and Richard Nixon in 1992. He had seen a televised biography of the broadcaster and was fascinated by what Frost had been able to accomplish with his infamously canny subject during 1977's series David Frost Interviews Richard Nixon. As he relayed to Richard Brooks in a Sunday Times piece in July 2006, the writer was "driven by this image I had of these two men. The glamorous Frost, 54,000 feet up in the air, going backwards and forwards over the Atlantic on Concorde. And Nixon, a man really living in a cave. A man who found life very hard."
Long interested in examining the humanity of complex world figures such as Queen Elizabeth II, Idi Amin and Henry the VIII, Morgan would research not only former president Nixon, but also one of his greatest (and most unexpected) antagonists: David Frost, the playboy of British television whose entire credibility and career rested on the unique opportunity of extracting a confession during the interviews.
Morgan was intrigued by the contrasting lives of the two and believed that their story would lend itself well to a stageplay format. He felt that if he were to design the square off, he would need to wrap the interviews as "an imminent gladiatorial contest where the only weapons allowed were words and ideas."
Of his research into the subjects, Morgan observes, "I could see both camps were preparing one another in the way that chess adversaries or boxing adversaries prepare--very strategic. I thought it would be possible to write interview scenes with the actual words that were used, but somehow sew them together to construct something with the ups and downs of a really satisfying contest."
In studying their social interactions, Morgan discovered something that would serve him exceptionally well as a dramatist: each man was an opposite of the other in fundamental ways. He reflects, "If you separate Nixon the human being and Nixon the politician, you can't help but feel for someone who found life so difficult--communication, friendship. Then you look at someone like Frost who finds life, certainly socially, very easy; he's very naturally gifted at communicating with people, making friends, being liked. Nixon was quite the opposite, really--suspicious of people, wounded, probably didn't have many close friends, an unhappy marriage--a very lonely man."
The writer believed that the showman best known for puff pieces and fawning journalism was also misunderstood…and quite underestimated by his then contemporaries. "Frost had a great intellectual insecurity," he shares. "He just wasn't taken seriously." Of Frost's interviewee, he adds, "The one thing you could never lay at Nixon's door is the charge that he was stupid--he was a formidable thinker." Morgan took these ingredients and "became excited to bring these two people together."
When creating the play, Morgan engaged in extensive conversations with many who had been involved in the original interviews, including Sir David Frost and others who would ultimately be portrayed on the West End theatrical stage where Frost/Nixon debuted. As he offered to Gareth McLean in his interview with the Guardian in August '06, "Everyone I spoke to told the story their way. Even people in the room [at the time of the interviews] tell different versions. There's no one truth about what happened off camera or behind-the-scenes during the period covered in our story. I felt very relaxed about bringing my imagination to the piece."
Understanding the Medium: Television Plays Its Role
As personified by Frost, a recurring theme of Morgan's developing play was the growing influence and foggy responsibility of the fourth estate in shaping public opinion, as relevant an issue today as it was in the post-Watergate era when the Frost/Nixon interviews were taped, and even earlier in American history.
Since Franklin D. Roosevelt's first Fireside Chat in March 1933, topics from bank crises and national security to the latest war and/or conflicts have been readily available for dissemination to an eager American public, and inspiring works of historical fiction. While politicians have long sought to control the medium by delivering the perfect message point, with the market penetration of television they had a new method with which to sway opinion. That concept offered Morgan much drama from which to draw.
Taking a cue from the camps that surrounded Frost and Nixon before the infamous interviews, Morgan delved into further research about how the burgeoning medium created the public personalities of Frost and Nixon. What he found was enlightening, particularly on just how television dictated and was manipulated by both men.
While television had been Nixon's adversary many times throughout his career, it had also been an invaluable ally in his rise to power. In September 1952, he had used it masterfully during the so-called "Checkers Speech," a sentimental plea during the time he was embroiled in an ethics scandal that threatened his candidacy as the Republican nominee for the vice presidency. Arguably, he came across austere and plainspoken…a solid product of his Quaker upbringing. And upon Eisenhower's request, in March 1954 the then vice-president brilliantly manipulated the media to make a name for himself during his powerful speech in the Army-McCarthy hearings, skewering a man some previously felt above reproach.
It would not stay Nixon's ally forever. The 1960 televised presidential debates between Kennedy and him marked the beginning of a new era in which politicians could present their message and pundits feverishly analyze it. Nixon, sweating profusely and with running makeup, was soundly thumped as the dashing JFK remained calm and collected. Candidates would now be judged not only on their relevant experience for the job at hand, but their comparative telegenic appeal.
That hard lesson would not prove fruitless, and provided rich history for Morgan. Nixon rebounded to win the nation's highest office. Throughout his subsequent presidency--from his July 1969 meetings with President Nguyen Van Thieu in South Vietnam to his February 1972 historic outreach to Asia with Chinese Party Chairman Mao Zedong--he worked hard to become telegenic and approachable. And then came Watergate.
The impact with which television hammered Nixon's Watergate sins into the public's consciousness overshadowed the successes of his two terms in office. As the specifics of those crimes which led to his resignation on August 9, 1974, faded in the collective memory, the former president--through his agent, Hollywood legend Irving "Swifty" Lazar--began looking for a way to bring his accomplishments back into the American consciousness. Nixon would give that most powerful medium one more chance to serve or betray him.
But he would set the ground rules and choose his perceived weakest opponent.
David Frost began his career on television as a young comedian whose buoyant enthusiasm was a wicked counterpoint to the dire events reported on the faux news program That Was the Week That Was. This groundbreaking satire fell victim to the same government officials it lampooned when, during an election year, the BBC cancelled the show because it might be an "undue influence." Frost next became part of an American version of the program that ran from 1964 to 1965. It was his first taste of fame in the U.S. and it made him want more.
In the late 1960s, Frost headlined The Frost Programme for British ITV. It was a precursor of the "trial by television" shows that would later become a genre in both news and reality formats. It was also a major change for the erstwhile comedian: Frost came to be taken seriously as an interviewer. However, the lure of fame in America drew him back to the world of entertainment. 1969-1972 saw Frost become host of a celebrity talk show called The David Frost Show, featuring guests ranging from Richard Burton to the Rolling Stones. Then the show was dropped and Frost was unable to find another American network that would hire him.
He hosted a celebrity-driven chat show in Australia, but longed both to get back on the air in the U.S. and to be regarded with gravitas. When he hit on the idea of interviewing Richard Nixon, he had to convince a number of people that he was the man for the job. But it was, ironically, his reputation as a "lightweight" that lured his intended subject to agree to the series of historic interviews.
When the special aired, politicians more than anyone realized the reductive power of Nixon's close-ups, and how that pressure led to his confession. From that moment on, television would be used to not only deliver their messages, but, better still, a personality package--often in place of anything substantive.
The maturation of the medium and how TV would forever influence politics fascinated Morgan, and it would become the playwright's throughline for this work.
Morgan was keenly aware that, in shaping this story, television as equalizer would be examined. As he documents, these two men rolled the dice--with promises of ruin or resurrection--and gave it everything. Nixon relied on his ample skills as a negotiator and statesman…Frost on his ability to have others open up and reveal to him what they weren't certain they wanted to share. And that made for good TV.
The series of Frost/Nixon interviews, according to writer James Reston, "remains the most watched public affairs program in the history of television," with a viewership of more than 45 million. It would be the last major appearance on television for Richard Nixon before he died in April 1994.
ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
Imagine and Working Title Bring the Play to the Screen
Morgan's play Frost/Nixon premiered at London's Donmar Warehouse on August 10, 2006, under the direction of Michael Grandage. One of the country's leading theater critics, Benedict Nightingale of The London Times, praised, "Welcome to Michael Grandage's absorbing production of a play that last night did two unexpected things. It showed David Frost shedding his genial, tabby-cat image, finding his claws and becoming as tigerish as any Humphrys or Paxman. And it managed to win a little sympathy for his unlovable prey, Richard Nixon…As often with docudrama, you're not sure how far Frost/Nixon is to be trusted, but there can surely be no doubting the authenticity and power of its climax… Factual, fictional, it makes for riveting drama."
Cast as Richard Nixon and David Frost for Morgan's play were Frank Langella and Michael Sheen. The two men created their roles in the production's widely honored debut on London's West End and revisited their work on Broadway. For his portrayal of the president, Langella would be lauded with the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. These actors had grown intimately familiar with the affectations and eccentricities of their historical characters. Just as important, they had studied the relationship that formed between their counterparts during their brief, intense on-air interactions.
Of utmost importance to the project was the endorsement of Sir David Frost. Naturally, the journalist had rights to the interviews and any creative interpretation of them, including stageplay. But to ensure Frost/Nixon was seen as a dramatized event, not an authorized biography/documentary, Frost understood he would not have editorial control of the content. Rather, he was asked to provide guidance of the actual events and historical reference. He admits he was quite satisfied with the results.
Frost was most concerned that the story not be a verbatim replaying of the events, but one in which the story was told fairly. He reflects of the first time he saw Sheen portray him: "For about 20 minutes, it was rather odd watching someone play you. And then I really started to think of it not as me, but as the Frost character. Because I was more interested in the content and wanting to see that the content was done justice."
The journey that would take this stageplay to a screenplay began when two American filmmakers came to the West End to see Morgan's work. "I think it all started on the second preview of the play in London, when one particular director and producer just saw it and they immediately rang up, and this escalation of interest happened. Everybody seemed sure it would make a film," recalls Morgan. He initially believed Frost/Nixon, however, would never translate into a script. "I'd written screenplays, and I'd done my best to write this in a way that it could never be adapted. I'd done things that I thought were so theatrical it would condemn it to a theatrical life, and that's what I wanted."
The author's best laid plans, in this effort, went gratefully astray.
The filmmakers who propositioned Morgan about adapting his play were Ron Howard and Brian Grazer of Imagine Entertainment, partnering with Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner of Working Title Films in a deal that bested a number of directors and producers eager to option the project. The four were impressed with "the character-driven story that's all about the intensity of the conflict between these two men," says Howard.
Of his excitement for the material, Howard explains, "While these interviews were watched by millions of people all over the world, the real drama of this event was a dynamic between the two men that very few people understood. It was a battle of wits in which each man was fighting for his professional life and only one could walk away the winner. It came down to the evasive skills of Nixon, versus Frost's ability to get people to talk to him."
The fact that it was written for the stage didn't bother Howard, as he knew that Morgan's story could be translated into a different medium. He reflects, "I wasn't as worried about opening it up visually as I was about making it ring true and exist in a world that we relate to."
During these discussions, Frost/Nixon--due to its successful run in London--opened at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre on Broadway in April 2007, and played to sold-out houses. Grandage received a Tony and Drama Desk nomination for his helming of the Broadway production. Frost/Nixon also earned Tony and Drama Desk nominations for Best Play and Frank Langella won both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards for Best Actor in a Play. For his Broadway stagework, Michael Sheen received a number of critical nods, including a nomination for a Distinguished Performance Award from the Drama League. For his British debut, the actor received nominations for Best Actor from the Olivier Awards and Evening Standard Awards.
While his play was roundly lauded, however, there was more legwork ahead for Morgan as he revisited the world of Frost and Nixon for the screenplay Imagine and Working Title commissioned. He recalls, "For the play, I'd flown to Washington and met with Jim Reston, Bob Zelnick. I'd met with Kissinger. It was very East Coast."
To research the screenplay, he'd need to extend his travels. "I'd never been to the West Coast locations," Morgan shares. "I'd never actually gone to where it all happened--Orange County, California. I'd never been to the Nixon Museum or the Nixon Library, the Nixon Foundation. I hadn't seen that helicopter; I hadn't met people who'd worked for him. I hadn't been to Republican Orange County; I hadn't been to San Clemente. It was really exciting to do all that, and I did all that with Ron once he'd committed to making the film."
The end product was a script that Morgan formerly thought impossible to make. He states, "The force of these peoples' convictions made me think, you know, maybe there is a film in it." The director and producers were quite pleased with the results.
"What Peter Morgan has given us, first in his play and now in his screenplay," commends Howard, "is so rich and dimensional. It's funny; it's smart, but ultimately it's suspenseful and very intense."
Most surprised at the translation of his words was Morgan. The author says, "I love how Ron has managed to take some challenging, adult material and make it accessible. He has the ability to democratize a story that could otherwise have been too complex and make it into something you really want to go to the cinema to see when it comes out. And I very much wanted that. I did not want this to remain a sort of artsy-fartsy, rarified piece."
Frost/Nixon's scheduled Broadway closing was on August 19, 2007, approximately four months after its opening. The movie began principal photography five days later.
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