The Deal. The Queen. The Last King of Scotland. The Other Boleyn Girl. And now, The Damned United: If it’s a film about a larger-than-life politico with crisp dialogue, sharp characterization, and scenes that zing, odds are the screenplay is the work of Peter Morgan (whose credits also include Longford and Frost/Nixon). Morgan’s most recent historical drama, The Damned United (adapted from the novel by David Peace and directed by Tom Hooper), chronicles the rise and fall of a famous, volatile soccer coach, Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. While in Vienna, Morgan took time to speak with Script about his adaptation process, the importance of an instinct for rhythm, and crafting conflict.
What is your process in adapting these national icons for the silver screen? How much liberty do you allow yourself?
For the most part, I try to keep it as accurate as I can, because I think an audience will immediately reject it if they feel you’ve been too soft on [the icon]. When an audience comes to the cinema there’s a sort of covenant of trust that exists between somebody paying [and the filmmakers]. I think they want to see a writer’s or filmmaker’s take; I don’t think they want to go there and say, “Well, gee, that was fantastic because I bet that’s exactly how it was.” It’s not just about re-creation. I think you can want layers of that, but I equally think when an audience feels that a filmmaker’s been disrespectful and lazy, an audience will reject that film even if they’re not obsessed to know exactly when and where — you can usually smell it a mile off.
Could you describe your adaptation process of David Peace’s novel, The Damned UTD, for the screen?
[The Damned Utd] was a very difficult one because it has separate timelines. In general, what I do is I’ll read the book once, and no more — then I’ll put it aside and try to think about what was the story and try to tell it to myself. Then, if I can make sense of it, great. If I can’t, then I have to start my work as a writer. It may be that the way I see the book is different from the way the novelist sees the book. I think it’s always very difficult: I always reach out to the novelist at the beginning and say to them, “Look, I’m only doing this because I love your book,” — in each of the adaptations I’ve done I’ve really loved the book — “but I’m going to destroy it as far as you’re concerned. You’re only ever going to see the differences and not the similarities.” I just want them to know that where I take liberties is meant just for the best and not as disrespect. For the most part, I think it’s best to sort of remain separate from the novelist and not to try and engage too much in a partnership or collaboration, although I’m aware of plenty that have been successful. For the most part, I think it’s best that you and the novelist agree to meet at the premiere and hope that it doesn’t end in a fist fight.
In this case, I wrote [novelist David Peace] a letter in the beginning, telling him how much I loved his book, which was true, and that was the last we’ve spoken to one another. He wished me luck and that hopefully we wouldn’t follow it too closely, that he was relieved, and that the film would result in increased book sales, which it did.
How did you approach Brian Clough’s inner monologues from the book? Why not use a voiceover device?
I just, you know, I just don’t like that stuff. To be honest with you, the quality of David Peace’s writing is so particular to him. And I felt that the book was dark and noble and magnificent and dirty and like Raging Bull but for soccer in the 1970s. But that just wasn’t how I remembered Clough. And I also couldn’t possibly replicate David’s writing, and I wouldn’t want to, that’s no fun for me. And why would I want to take on a job in order to copy someone else’s writing down? The main issue was that I didn’t recognize the Clough that I remembered [in real life] entirely: There were bits of it, which I thought were just brilliant and dazzling. But there was a whole softer, gentler, more lovable, comedic side to Clough that I felt was missing from the book. That’s what we concentrated on, particularly in post-production.
You’ve written four films now that have largely featured Michael Sheen, such a fantastic actor. Since The Deal, have you had him in mind when writing?
Yes, I’ve had Michael in mind for every single one. The first time, I wrote Tony Blair in The Deal not knowing who would play Blair. That’s when Stephen Frears said he would do the movie, but then he delayed the movie. Stephen said he wanted to delay shooting because his casting director told him there was only one person who could play Tony Blair. So we all said, “Well, who is it?” He said, “Michael Sheen.” None of us had ever heard of him. I can understand delaying the film for [someone famous], but Michael Sheen, who no one has ever heard of? I was like, “Who the f**k is Michael f**king Sheen?!” As any writer knows, you don’t want the first day of principal photography to be delayed or pushed in any shape or form because a) that’s when you get paid, and b) once a film gets pushed, it often doesn’t come back. So the feeling that we were delaying the movie for two or three months until Michael Sheen was available was, “Who the f**k is Michael Sheen?!” Now we all know.
Why did you choose the dual chronology of Clough’s ascent with Derby and Clough’s descent with Leeds? Why not tell the story linearly?
Well, I tried, but it was boring. First of all, David Peace’s book is also intercut, so there is something about that that goes to the story’s DNA, to tell those two stories at once. Telling the narrative linearly, it was just too unbelievably sequential, episodic, and dreary. Stephen Frears always says, “The answer to your question is, ‘Would you have preferred we made a worse film?'” Would you rather I wrote it badly? It just feels to me that intercutting preserves some surprises, keeps you guessing. There are occasions in the movie when you get a very strong and satisfying sense of the jigsaw coming together. If and when you can do that with a structure it’s enormously satisfying.
Your narrative shares many qualities with a Greek tragedy and Clough with a tragic protagonist, so marked by that hubris. Considering that, did you have a mind to keep Clough somewhat likeable despite his arrogance?
Yeah! And Michael Sheen gave us a much more dark performance than actually has remained onscreen — you can see it in a number of deleted scenes; there’s some pretty dark stuff in them. In the end, the producer and I both felt that something of the funniness of Clough had been lost in our pursuit of that darker, more Greek anger. You know, the retribution, the fall from grace, the pride, the hubris, and so forth. And then with the music, with the cutting, the choices we made in some of the scenes, we very much went into that cutting room with a much darker film than we came out.
Into many scenes, you craft these moments of silence for Clough. How do you know when to write dialogue and when to employ a character’s silence?
It’s a rhythm I suppose: I mutter aloud while I’m writing, I’ve been told, I wasn’t aware of it. You sort of get a taste, I suppose, for the rhythm, where a natural lull comes. You should try to hear [the script] read as often as possible. Then you can get a sense where a text or an audience needs a lull. I guess it’s instinct.
What was your insight to the relationship between [assistant manager] Peter Taylor and Brian Clough, sort of a platonic love affair between two men?
I always saw this as a love story: that Brian Clough is sort of infatuated with Don Revie and all that glitters. In so doing, Clough completely and utterly disregards the “wife” at home [Peter]. Like the Paul Newman quote, “Why go out for hamburger when you can have steak at home?” It felt for me like Peter Taylor is a naturally overlooked and under-appreciated spouse. In a partnership like that, there’s always the “Overlooked One.” The fact remains that if you look at the record, Clough never achieved anything without Taylor. The minute they are separated, both of them fell apart. Neither of them achieved anything without one another, and that’s the soul of their love story. Revie [on the other hand] is such a strong individualist. You sometimes see writing partnerships like [Clough and Taylor] in which one person seems to do all the talking and the other one, even if the other person doesn’t just sit there, that other one makes sense of the world to the dominant one. Clough never achieved anything without Taylor, it’s simple as that. We very much felt that out. The film is much more about that than the book ever was.
You have a thrilling climactic confrontation between Don Revie and Brian Clough. What makes for an effective clash between hero and villain?
There’s always a scene at the end — with The Queen, with Frost/Nixon — if you’ve done your job right in the rest of the film, that scene should always be written in one draft, very quickly. The hard work comes before. It’s easy to look at those scenes and say, “Oh, wow, those scenes are the grandstand scenes,” but they’re not actually. If you’re bursting to write that scene, it probably means the rest of the film isn’t right. In other words, you see it again and again: “at the end of the movie, the protagonist and antagonist meet.” If the writer’s done the job right, the audience wants them to fight. You’ve been waiting for this all the way through the movie. And so, I guess, it’s not the final scene, it’s how you got there.