Peter Morgan (“The Queen”) has long divided his time between playwriting, screenwriting, and television. But having just wrapped the second 10-episode season for Netflix’s “The Crown” (December 8), the executive producer and showrunner is now wholly devoted to a new genre that he calls “cinematic television.”
It’s not a difficult transition. “The Crown” has the scale of a big-budget production (Netflix paid in advance for two seasons, as well as bonuses to buy out all future royalties), as well as serious awards gravitas: The first season scored a Golden Globe win for Claire Foy and now has 13 Emmy nominations, and could win the fierce contest for Best Dramatic Series.
While Netflix doesn’t confirm budgets, Morgan wants to set the record straight: the show did not cost $100 million per 10-episode season (that’s the level of “Rome,” “Westworld,” or “American Gods”) but rather a still-hefty $6 million-$7 million per episode for 20 episodes, or about $130 million.
However, money isn’t what makes the show; it’s what money can buy you, like a bespoke suit on Savile Row. However, merging the standards of a feature film into television, which requires multiple episodes of specific lengths on a strict schedule, is more like, say, creating custom-fit pairs of Nikes.
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“There’s a feeling that you are making a bespoke suit made-to-measure,” said Morgan of feature filmmaking. “But in television, it’s off the peg and more industrialized for a production line. That’s why films were more special, because you could feel the attention and the bespokenness — the longer time to think about things and time spent to fix things in post. This is one of the reasons why people are watching more television, right? The scale, but also the boutiqueness, that episodes are honed and refined.
“But at the same time,” he added, “the companies are expecting delivery to old television schedules. So they’re expecting new levels of quality, but on old timetables. They want it every year, and to be making television at this level.”
This, he said, is why he bristles at comparisons with “Downton Abbey,” the last period British import with plummy-accented aristocrats in lofty drawing rooms.
“The difference is in the way we make it,” said Morgan. “This is something new. The biggest challenge of doing the show is that I’m stuck in the middle of two huge expectations, both of which are mutually contradictory, and in conflict with one another. We are now in an age with the budgets to produce properly cinematic television, that we are now making.”
While Morgan relies on producers and directors like Stephen Daldry to run the show on set, “creatively, the buck stops with me,” he said.
Writing is the most fun for him. After all, no one knows more about Queen Elizabeth II than this royalty-obsessed historian. He started out writing Stephen Frears’ 2003 TV movie “The Deal” with Michael Sheen as Tony Blair; the actor who went on to play the Prime Minister in Stephen Frears’ “The Queen,” which won Helen Mirren the Oscar as Elizabeth. Mirren returned as the Queen onstage in London and Broadway in Stephen Daldry’s “The Audience,” hosting a line of prime ministers.
With “The Crown,” Morgan returns to the young Elizabeth Windsor (Claire Foy), starting off with her marriage to dashing Prince Philip (Matt Smith), the early death of her beloved father King George VI (Jared Harris), her coronation, and power struggles with her husband, her rebellious sister Margaret (Vanessa Kirby), and the aging Prime Minister Winston Churchill (John Lithgow).
Since Morgan writes the episodes himself, he doesn’t have a writers’ room; he has a researchers’ room. “I look at a what happens in a decade; that takes me three to five months,” he said. “It’s a bit like a bath in one of those old English country houses where the tap runs dirty for a while and then you have to let the dirt run out and then eventually the clean water comes. Automatically, historians and cultural historians have so reduced decades to three or four identifiable events.”
Morgan likes to find more than the landmark events of a decade. “It’s much more nuanced and complicated,” he said.
For example, he devoted an episode to the great London Smog of 1952, which enveloped the city and caused more than 4,000 deaths. Morgan used it to show Churchill’s limitations, as well as his skills as a statesman. “I hadn’t even heard about it,” said Morgan, “so when I came across that [I thought],’I don’t care, I’m going to be indulgent and do it for me, this is my show.'”
Morgan doesn’t get to the set much because he’s busy writing, casting with executive producer Daldry and casting director Nina Gold, and supervising post-production. In American television, the showrunner is boss; in England, there is a tradition of allowing directors to be more than helmers-for-hire.
“With a director like Stephen, who’s had that much experience in features,” said Morgan, “if you are to have the relationship with directors that I still want to have — I don’t want functionaries, to just come and do the thing and pack up and go. I want people to really be invested in and pursue the episodes.”
Cinematographer Adriano Goldman filmed six of the 10 episodes, and provided a steady beat for the different directors while adjusting to their styles. “The challenge on ‘The Crown’ was how to deliver this massive amount of footage and still be sophisticated,” he said.
Morgan works closely with editors in post-production and has managed to reach “amicable final cut,” he said, “with every single director on every single episode, with no executives breathing over our necks.”
All the directors came back to shoot Season 2 (1956-1964), including Daldry, who cherry-picked episodes eight and nine. After the success of Season 1, the team moved with more confidence into the story that digs deeper into Queen Elizabeth’s relationship with her husband and her prime ministers, such as Anthony Eden (Jeremy Northam), as he colludes with Egypt on the Aswan Dam. John and Jackie Kennedy come to Buckingham Palace. And old-fashioned Elizabeth has to face harsh criticism from one politician, Lord Altrincham (John Heffernan). Season 2 also features more color and travel, roving from Tonga and Papua New Guinea to the Antarctic.
“It was a hugely significant attack on the monarchy,” said Morgan, “after which she had to start changing her accent to speak in the more modern way. If you listen to the Queen talking when she’s 21 and Prince Harry talking now, you hear the shift in vowels, and it’s one family.”
Season 2 will mark the last season for Foy and Smith. Morgan is now plotting out ideas for Season 3, assuming that every role will be recast, as Elizabeth ages from 40 to 60. “Everybody has to be recast, not one person stays,” he said. “Once you recast one, you have to recast them all.”
But is there a deal? “There’s willingness on both sides,” said Morgan, who wants to write more episodes so he that he knows who his characters are. “The assumption is it will go ahead, but I’m being cautious. I want to see who we can find to cast.”
While Morgan is happily obsessed with “The Crown,” he hasn’t given up on his screenwriting career. He’d love to see Ang Lee’s Mohammed Ali fight picture “Thrilla in Manilla” come back to life — the director postponed it to do “Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk” instead, testing the high frame-rate technology he wanted to use for the boxing match. And Freddy Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” has moved on to other writers.
For now, “The Crown” is the only thing Morgan has time to obsess about.