READ MORE: Tricks of the Trade: “Iron Lady” and “Shame” Scribe Abi Morgan Muses on Screenwriting
As of part of BAFTA New York’s In Conversation series, “Suffragette” and “Shame” screenwriter Abi Morgan joined journalist and critic Joe Neumaier for an intimate chat about her career on Monday night at New York’s Standard Hotel at the High Line — a canny location, given its importance in Morgan’s 2011 film, “Shame.” The Emmy-winning Morgan, who is currently making the rounds for the Sarah Gavron-directed “Suffragette,” has an enviable and varied resume to her name, one that includes forays into both playwriting and scripted television (including the beloved BBC drama “The Hour”), along with her more star-studded feature films, like the Michael Fassbender-starring “Shame” and the Meryl Streep vehicle “The Iron Lady.”
“Suffragette” has recently come under fire for a myriad of reasons — from bad t-shirt-based marketing to a cast comprised entirely of white faces — but Morgan remains almost unfailingly upbeat and honest when speaking about the many roads her career has taken her on, even the controversial ones.
From the intricacies of her process to that one time she met Margaret Thatcher to whether or not we’ll ever see another season of “The Hour,” check out the highlights from Morgan’s BAFTA chat below.
On the Strange Start to Her Screenwriting Career
The daughter of actors, Morgan first tried her writing chops on plays, though she didn’t have much luck early on. A chance encounter helped steer her towards screenwriting: “I remember very clearly bumping into a young woman who was a year below me at university… and I just got talking and I said, ‘Oh, I’ve been trying to write this play,’ and she said, ‘Oh, send it to me.’ And she, at the time, worked for Sam Mendes, and she showed it to Sam Mendes, who said, ‘That’s not a good play, but isn’t there some kind of screenwriting course…?’ And that was a real turning point for me, because I discovered screenwriting and that was the revelation.”
Her Very Weird Interaction With the Real Margaret Thatcher
In 2011, Meryl Streep starred as Margaret Thatcher in the Morgan-penned “The Iron Lady,” an ambitious look at some of the latter days of the embattled British prime minister. The film gave a truly human face to Thatcher, and was partially inspired by Morgan’s curiosity over “I wonder if Margaret Thatcher ever goes out and buys a pint of milk,” which was in turn sparked by a real interaction Morgan had with Thatcher many years earlier.
“When I was waitressing, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was waitressing at the National Portrait Gallery and there was a birthday party for Lord Whitelaw there, it was for 20 people, members of the Cabinet, ex-members of the Cabinet, were having dinner together. I was walking out with a tray of canapés, and I shoved a whole load of them in my mouth, stuffing my face, and I turned around, and this old lady looked at me and smiled, and it was Margaret Thatcher,” Morgan remembered. “She just smiled rather sweetly and walked on, and I thought, ‘God, that’s Margaret Thatcher.’ That’s slightly stayed with me, she seemed like a sweet old lady.”
The Necessity of People-Watching
“I definitely people-watch. I often see photos of myself with my children, I’m always in the background with my mouth wide open, looking somewhere else,” Morgan laughed when asked about how she uses the powers of observation to craft her characters.
Location helps inspire that observation, too, as Morgan continued, “I’m staying in New York at the moment, and I find New York such an amazing city and it’s so diverse and I love the characters. Just this morning, having breakfast, I just went to Katz’s Deli, which I know is the most tourist thing in the world to do, I just was so fascinated by the people who worked there and the people who were coming in.”
Her (Relatively) Short Scripting Process
When asked about the rumor that she starts many of her scripts without planning their end first, Morgan said, “It’s not like I sit there, sort of lying on my chaise lounge, and think, I don’t know where this is going, but I do give myself the freedom of not knowing where it’s going.”
“I write an actual script rather quickly, a draft will take me two weeks, but I write a lot of drafts. My big thing is I don’t re-read. When I write, I never re-read back. I’ll send it, because if I re-read back, it will cripple me,” Morgan said. “I always re-read meticulously before I go in for my first meeting, so I’ve edited it myself. And I’ll come in and say, ‘Okay, I know the last third doesn’t work, but–,’ so that’s sort of how I work.”
If “The Hour” Will Ever Come Back
In 2011, Morgan created “The Hour,” her beloved BBC drama about the behind-the-scenes goings-on of an investigative news program during the Cold War, and although it only lasted two seasons before being cancelled, fans remain eager for more. “Still, to this day, people come up to me and go, ‘Is there ever going to be another series of “The Hour”?’ and they’re really isn’t, and I’ve always been sad about that,” Morgan said.
The Modern Messaging of “Suffragette”
“With ‘Suffragette,’ what I hope you take away is this incredible sense of the importance of our vote and how far we’ve come, but it’s still incredibly shocking when you realize that there are still so many things that we don’t have equality in. As a 21st century woman who feels like she has equality in her everyday life, and then I look at the statistics and go, ‘Oh, okay.’ The numbers still shock me,” Morgan said.
How She Deals With Criticism and Failure
“You get a bad review and you feel like you’re wearing a cold, wet blanket all day. You hate yourself…It’s a huge motivator for me. I genuinely say this, I think most of what I do is failure, I just genuinely think that’s most of work,” Morgan said. “I’ve been incredibly lucky, I’m very lucky with the people I’ve worked with, but there are 10 scripts that haven’t got made.”
“When you finally see that film, there’ll be 20 scenes that never got in that movie, that you’ve worked and worked and worked, but they just didn’t work on the day or they weren’t loved by the director, so most of it is a process of letting go and just being grateful for what survives,” Morgan added. “I think it’s about not being put off by that failure and actually finding it incredibly useful and incredibly helpful and motivating.”