Filming the World of Frost/Nixon
The difficulties in translating a work from stage to screen were multiplied when outlining a story set in the past. However, the benefit of a period story permitted the director, cinematographer and designers to infuse a reality that doesn't exist on stage. By opening up locations, Howard and the production team made Morgan's stageplay cross continents.
For Howard, opening up the film from the play meant "bringing it to life on the streets." He adds, "One of the things we've tried to do in recreating the period is to be as authentic as we could possibly be. Michael Corenblith [production designer] and Daniel Orlandi [costume designer] have been very selective in drawing on the elements of this era without making a parody of it. In fact, we've had to dial down a little from what we call ''70s cheese.' If we went as far stylistically as many of the research photos indicated, it'd be pretty satirical."
Design and Camerawork
The art department had to work on both a large and small scale to create what the stageplay merely needed to suggest. In the play, the interviews between Frost and Nixon took place on a nearly bare stage, with two chairs and a couple of television cameras. Close-ups of the two men were projected on a large screen. However, what made believable theater would not make credible film.
"Since we were inevitably going to be compared to the real (televised) Frost/Nixon interviews, we took great pains to make anything that had been seen by an audience in 1977 as perfect as we knew how, down to the slightest detail," says production designer Corenblith. "The tiniest brick, the tiniest piece of set dressing, the shape of a leaf on the houseplants on the table--we paid attention to everything that was in the interview corner of that room. At the same time, I took liberties with other aspects of the house to give it a certain character when we did reverses."
Following the footsteps of these two icons of the era was a trick of visual artistry and of retracing history. "While there'll be viewers who were born in 1977, there are many others who were working professionals in 1977 and all range of ages in between," explains Corenblith. "There's a strong sense of period memory to which we have to try to remain faithful. We're also dealing with a documented event we felt we had an obligation to present accurately. On the other hand, the '70s have been replicated so often we had to be careful about not falling into cliché. We wanted to make it a character without it becoming caricature.
"We didn't want to undercut the real emotions and the real drama of what was going on by having audiences distracted by all the garnish of lapels and sideburns and paisley. So, it was a question of how to craft something that was true to the period but not an exaggeration of the period, which was a tremendously difficult task at the end of the day."
Costuming was also a challenge. Dressing 100 extras in haute couture from the period was a task that costume designer Daniel Orlandi relished. "Ma Maison in 1977 was the hottest restaurant in town, where all the stars went," he explains. "It was really fun putting together this highly romantic time and place. We dressed all kinds of people from old Hollywood elite to the up-and-comers…to a couple of high-class hookers. And David Frost, of course, fits right into this with his beautiful tuxedo and Caroline Cushing on his arm in a matte jersey dress inspired by Halston."
As for the camerawork, cinematographer Sal Totino kept his equipment in constant motion for most of the scenes, providing a documentary feeling to much of what transpires. He also brought details into play that provided period authenticity. "You just try to find moments that are intense," Totino explains. "Little details that help build the drama in the scene--we might stay tight on raindrops using the reflection on cars. I tried to approach this film with longer lenses that just made it feel a little bit more intimate."
Locations were also used to their best advantage to provide verisimilitude with which producers of the stageplay didn't have to concern themselves. In the case of one particular location, the filmmakers got more than just a realistic backdrop.
"We visited Casa Pacifica, the Western White House, at the beginning of our research, but we never imagined it would be practical for us to film here," recalls Howard. "But it's so unique, particularly in the courtyard area and the entrance, that we just couldn't find anything that would replicate it. I felt like I would regret not making every effort to be able to film here. Remarkably, after negotiating with the current owners, we were given permission to shoot some key sequences where some of the real events actually took place.
Filming moved off stages and backlots and into international territory when Riverside, California's Ontario Airport was converted into London's Heathrow Airport. Later, the southern California coastal city of Marina del Rey, California, stood in for Sydney Harbor. The challenge, as usual, was adapting not only to the venue but the period.
"We started amassing images from Heathrow, and it began to shape my idea of the film as a whole," says Corenblith. "Ron always loves technology in transition. So I had an idea of a Heathrow terminal and concourse that blended the duty-free area and the crowds of international travelers into a sort-of image-heavy representation of the world in which Frost traveled."
"Ron remembered going to Heathrow in 1977," continues Orlandi. "He wanted to show a really international airport with all kinds of people. So we outfitted backpackers, a rock band, Muslim women and men, Russian and Japanese businessmen. It was loads of fun for us giving all these extras a different character."
As the interviews were being negotiated in '77, the selection of the subject of intense negotiations between the camps was required. Neither the Western White House nor a conventional television studio was deemed appropriate. Not far from where Nixon lived, a loyal Republican couple owned a house, which they arranged to rent to Frost's production team. Thirty years after the fact, the original house no longer fit the part. Fortunately, a house was found in the Conejo Valley's Westlake Village that matched the period, and the interiors were constructed on stages.
That actual couple, Harold and Martha Lea Smith, were hosted to a stroll down memory lane when they visited the sound stage in Los Angeles, witnessing the miracle of production design that made the film's make-believe home into a virtual replica of their own. "It's surreal," commented Harold Smith. "It looks just the same."
The production moved from recreating history to reliving it as filming began at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. The Beverly Hilton was Frost's hotel of choice when he visited Los Angeles in the '70s, and the basic architecture has remained the same today. The production ended up shooting in suite number 817, Frost's former penthouse away from home. Nixon's foray into the lecture circuit was also filmed in one of the banquet rooms.
"I was trying in some small way to bring a little of the old Hollywood glamour to the Hilton suite, and that was where we took the greatest liberties and license," says Corenblith. "We had a number of great publicity photos of the Beverly Hilton when it opened in the late 1950s. So, a lot of what we were doing was taking the best of those mid-century modern ideas and kind of bringing them back."
Continuing production in Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard--at the corner of Vine Street--was closed for filming when The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella premiered for the second time at the Cinerama Dome. (The 1977 film on which Frost served as executive producer was successful enough to garner two Oscar® nominations for its music). For this scene, the art department had little to do other than put up the appropriate signage.
"This environment was so untouched for what we needed to play our scene, that we just moved in and shot," says Corenblith. "The Slipper and the Rose premiere at the Cinerama Dome was like walking into a time warp, with the architecture unchanged. We had access to the graphics and all the documentary footage of Frost's arrival, and we were able to completely replicate the event."
The location work reached its greatest heights of recreated glory as the production moved to La Casa Pacifica--Nixon's Western White House in San Clemente, California. Two hours from Los Angeles, the seaside retreat was built in 1927 and sold to the President in 1969, the year he took office. It was even more of a sprawling, private oasis when Nixon was living there then it is now, with subsequent owners having sold off the nine hole golf course and other undeveloped acreage to build houses.
It would have seemed the perfect place to hold the Frost interviews--and it was everyone's first choice. But in equipment tests, it was discovered that the adjacent Coast Guard station--which handled all Nixon's security--was using electronic surveillance that interfered with the cameras and recording gear needed for the interview.
The grounds were a spectacular place to shoot footage of the president in his element, however, and Frost/Nixon was the only film company ever to get permission to shoot in the magnificent gardens and patios surrounding the house.
"It was chilling for me to wander around these historic grounds," Ron Howard offers. "It was an odd sensation walking around knowing that Nixon, Brezhnev, Kissinger--so many significant people from that era--had decided the course of history here. I definitely think it brought something to our actors' performances to be working here."
After two days at La Casa Pacifica, the Frost/Nixon production moved to another landmark, the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, the site of the modestly built house in which the president was born and spent the early years of his childhood. The parking lot was the setting for the helicopter takeoff after Nixon's farewell. Inside, the library's exact replica of the East Room in the White House was a venue where the movie's art department had little to add.
Truly, the first half of the filming traveled the globe without leaving Southern California. In addition to Ontario airport as Heathrow, the streets of London were duplicated on the backlot at Universal Studios, while David Frost's Australian show was re-created on the Henson stages on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood.
Additionally, Nixon's Office and Frost's Hilton penthouse were constructed on sound stages in Los Angeles, where the production retreated to complete the last half of filming. Production wrapped on October 17, 2007, after only 38 days of a scheduled 40.
With production finished, the screenwriter who started the story years ago reflects on the process and why audiences will be interested in the end result. Notes Morgan, "I take the responsibility of entertaining quite seriously. I hope the surprise that people feel, like they did when they came to the play, is that adult, more sophisticated entertainment can be really fun, too. You can think and have fun."
Of another chapter being written in the tale he and President Richard Nixon began 31 years earlier, Sir David Frost concludes it is most gratifying to see the story come to film: "That's a great honor. Particularly because Ron realized it was a responsibility going into it. If Nixon had come out just smelling of roses, it would have been an embarrassment. The fact that it has become history is exciting and humbling."
ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS
Academy Award-winning filmmaker RON HOWARD (Directed by/Produced by) is one of this generation's most popular directors. From the critically acclaimed dramas A Beautiful Mind and Apollo 13 to the hit comedies Parenthood and Splash, he has created some of Hollywood's most memorable films. Most recently, he directed the big-screen adaptation of the international bestseller The Da Vinci Code, starring Oscar® winner Tom Hanks, Audrey Tautou, Sir Ian McKellen, Alfred Molina, Jean Reno and Paul Bettany. Prior to The Da Vinci Code, Howard directed and produced Cinderella Man starring Russell Crowe, with whom he previously collaborated on A Beautiful Mind, for which Howard earned an Oscar® for Best Director and which also won awards for Best Picture, Best Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress. The film garnered four Golden Globes as well, including the award for Best Motion Picture Drama. Additionally, Howard won Best Director of the Year from the Directors Guild of America (DGA). Howard and producer Brian Grazer received the first annual Awareness Award from the National Mental Health Awareness Campaign for their work on the film.
Howard's skill as a director has long been recognized. In 1995, he received his first Best Director of the Year award from the DGA for Apollo 13. The true-life drama also garnered nine Academy Award® nominations, winning Oscars® for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. It also received Best Ensemble Cast and Best Supporting Actor awards from the Screen Actors Guild. Many of Howard's past films have received nods from the Academy, including the popular hits Backdraft, Parenthood and Cocoon, the last of which took home two Oscars®. Howard was honored by the Museum of the Moving Image in December 2005, and by the American Cinema Editors in February 2006.
Howard's portfolio includes some of the most popular films of the past 20 years. In 1991, Howard created the acclaimed drama Backdraft, starring Robert De Niro, Kurt Russell and William Baldwin. He followed it with the historical epic Far and Away, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman. Howard directed Mel Gibson, Rene Russo, Gary Sinise and Delroy Lindo in the 1996 suspense thriller Ransom. He worked with Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Ed Harris, Bill Paxton, Gary Sinise and Kathleen Quinlan on Apollo 13, which was re-released recently in the IMAX format. Howard's other films include the blockbuster Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, starring Jim Carrey; Parenthood, starring Steve Martin; the fantasy epic Willow; Night Shift, starring Henry Winkler, Michael Keaton and Shelley Long; and the suspenseful western The Missing, starring Oscar® winners Cate Blachett and Tommy Lee Jones.
Howard has also served as an executive producer on a number of award-winning films and television shows, such as the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon and Fox's Emmy award winner for Best Comedy, Arrested Development, which he also narrated.
Howard and long-time producing partner Brian Grazer first collaborated on the hit comedies Night Shift and Splash. The pair co-founded Imagine Entertainment in 1986 to create independently produced feature films. The company has since produced a variety of popular feature films, including such hits as The Nutty Professor, The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps, Bowfinger, The Paper, Inventing the Abbotts and Liar, Liar. Howard made his directorial debut in 1978 with the comedy Grand Theft Auto.
Howard began his career in film as an actor. He first appeared in The Journey and The Music Man, then as Opie on the long-running television series The Andy Griffith Show. Howard later starred in the popular series Happy Days and drew favorable reviews for his performances in American Graffiti and The Shootist.
Howard is currently in production on the big-screen adaptation of Dan Brown's best-selling novel "Angels & Demons" and just finished production on Universal Pictures' upcoming Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie.
After nearly two decades paying his dues by writing industrial videos and TV projects, screenwriter PETER MORGAN (Screenplay by/Based on the Stage play by/Executive Producer) emerged as the top talent in his field in 2006 thanks to the successes of two critically acclaimed films, The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. He demonstrated a gift for portraying public figures as real human beings involved in interesting and complex relationships, which he continued in the award-winning play Frost/Nixon.
Morgan grew up in the London suburb of Wimbledon with a Polish Catholic mother and a German Jewish father who had fled Dresden in the thirties. He went on to study English at the University of Leeds, but found the department's curriculum uninspiring and switched to the fine art department, where he eventually earned his degree. While at Leeds, Morgan began acting in student dramas, but after suffering one nerve-shattering attack of stage fright during a random performance, decided to focus on writing and directing instead.
Morgan found a writing partner in fellow student Mark Wadlow, and the duo's first play, Gross, performed at the Edinburgh Festival, brought them a level of instant recognition. Afterward, the two were recruited by a production company to write training films. Wadlow and Morgan wrote these training films for several years in London before getting a break working on the script for John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka in 1988.
Several more years of industrial work followed before Wadlow moved on to write for the British soap opera Coronation Street, while Morgan got a TV break writing for Rik Mayall Presents, a dramatic series featuring one of Britain's more popular comedic actors. Morgan also penned the miniseries thriller Metropolis in 2000, the TV courtroom drama The Jury in 2002 and the 2003 TV movie Henry VIII, starring Ray Winstone and Helena Bonham Carter, which earned an international Emmy for Best Drama.
With Morgan's 2004 TV script, The Deal, which centered around the codependent relationship between British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown, Morgan started gaining recognition for his exploration of the psyches of public figures. The project also marked the beginning of Morgan's working relationship with director Stephen Frears and the opportunity to move toward feature films.
He was soon hired to write the screenplay adaptation of Giles Foden's novel "The Last King of Scotland" in 2006, a feature film exploring the relationship between Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and a young Scottish doctor, for which he won the BAFTA for Best Adapted Screenplay. Months later, Morgan and Frears teamed up again to create the biggest hit of their respective careers, The Queen. The film focused on the impact of the 1997 death of Princess Diana on the Royal Family, and how, along with the arrival of Prime Minister Tony Blair, it signaled a new era in Britain.
The Queen earned six Academy Award nominations, including Best Drama, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Performance by an Actress and duplicated these four at the 2006 Golden Globes. Morgan won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay, as well as awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, The British Independent Film Awards and the Venice Film Festival.
In 2006, he returned to playwriting with Frost/Nixon. The play moved from the West End to Broadway and played to packed houses on both sides of the Atlantic.
Morgan most recently wrote the screenplay for the recent film adaptation of Philippa Gregory's novel, "The Other Boleyn Girl."
Working Title Films, co-chaired by TIM BEVAN and ERIC FELLNER (Produced by) since 1992, is Europe's leading film production company, making movies that defy boundaries as well as demographics.
Founded in 1983, Working Title has made more than 85 films that have grossed over $4 billion worldwide. Its films have won four Academy Awards (for Tim Robbins' Dead Man Walking, Joel and Ethan Coen's Fargo and Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth), 26 BAFTA Awards and prestigious prizes at the Cannes and Berlin international film festivals. Bevan and Fellner have been honored with two of the highest film awards given to British filmmakers--the Michael Balcon Award for Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema at the Orange British Academy Film Awards (2004) and the Alexander Walker Film Award at the Evening Standard British Film Awards. They have both been given the title of CBE (commander of the British Empire).
Working Title enjoys continuing creative collaborations with filmmakers Richard Curtis, Stephen Daldry, Edgar Wright, Paul Greengrass, Joe Wright and the Coen brothers and actors Rowan Atkinson, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant and Emma Thompson, among others.
Working Title currently has three films awaiting release this year--Nick Moore's Wild Child, starring Emma Roberts; Beeban Kidron's Hippie Hippie Shake, starring Cillian Murphy, Sienna Miller, Emma Booth and Max Minghella; and Joe Wright's The Soloist, starring Jamie Foxx and Catherine Keener.
In post-production for release in 2009 are Paul Greengrass' thriller Green Zone, starring Matt Damon, Greg Kinnear, Amy Ryan, Brendan Gleeson, Jason Isaacs and Khalid Abdalla; Kevin Macdonald's State of Play, starring Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Jason Bateman, Robin Wright Penn and Helen Mirren; and Richard Curtis' The Boat That Rocked, starring Bill Nighy and Nick Frost.
Read more: 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 director Ron Howard and writer Peter Morgan