With THE CROWN season 2 due to hit Netflix soon, here are my notes from the C21 drama conference (last December!) from a session on THE CROWN with Peter Morgan (writer / exec producer), Andy Harries (exec producer) and Suzanne Mackie (exec producer).
PM: In this business, good relationships are so important. We went to see the BBC and ITV who were both interested in the show. But we needed a US partner – so we went to HBO, Fox, Showtime, Netflix – ‘The Evian Trail’! Netflix was the last port of call – and they bought it in the room. Incredibly unusual. They’d done their algorithms before we went in – and they had the play, the film, and it was a very good thing for them at a time when they are looking to roll out internationally. It eventually went out on Nov 4th 2016 to 190 countries.
PM: It felt galvanising to me to go with an organisation that was quite progressive and cutting edge and that’s been vindicated. Lots more younger people have watched it than if we’d gone out on the traditional broadcasters – maybe we’ve lost our ‘core’ audience. Netflix seem unconcerned – even if it might be a year before an older audience pick up on it. They’re very focused on sticking to their game plan. It will drive people to Netflix if it’s not available elsewhere. I thought we should do an ad with Edward Fox telling people how to use Netflix (joke).
‘What story did you set out to tell?’
The terrible impact of becoming queen earlier than you’d expect, the pressure on a young couple – and the shock that you can’t just be who you are, character split challenge.
SM: We spent so much time interrogating the psychology of the characters. And all of the locations are extraordinary. Stately homes in combination with Elstree. Obviously can’t use Westminster Abbey or Buckingham Palace. Used Ely Cathedral for Westminster, Lancaster House for Buck Palace.
AH: It is an all-British team working on it. Promoting the fact that it’s all originated in the UK – no long hand of executive control. Netflix are very supportive. It’s very refreshing and great for Peter.
PM: I took the responsibility particularly seriously. Time and energy wise I wouldn’t have been able to do it with lots of notes. When they agreed to that, I took on the responsibility for the show. I was left entirely alone – and I wanted to prove that a show of this scale could be done without execs – I took that very seriously. I thought if we screw this up, I’d feel very bad about that.
Andy’s been working on another show with lots of interference – authorship is such a precious thing.
AH: …and that’s what Netflix are buying in the first place.
SM: We talk to Netflix every week and their notes are in agreement with us – generally broad strokes notes.
AH: We always go back to shoot extra stuff when we can improve it.
PM: I plot out the season. Work it all out beforehand. Tried to incorporate other writers. But huge explosion in TV. Everybody’s got a show – all the writers we wanted to work with. There isn’t a tradition in the UK of writers giving up their lives to be part of Peter’s writing room. I don’t now regret writing it all. In spreading out the process, you do lose specificity of voice – and I think the show thrives on this. We have a researchers room – 6-8 people researching ideas that I suggest. They come to my house, we break down the story. You have to give much more thought because people watching it concurrently – eg romantic story after intense emotional story.
I don’t write cliff-hangers. And I hate ‘arcs’. From script editors, I don’t want to hear the words ‘tracking’ or ‘arcs’. I see it as a series of self-contained films that hopefully in aggregate have a through-line.
Certain historical moments mark a big change in the story – Suez, Wilson, Thatcher.
Often the first ideas are bad ideas, you have to find character-driven stories, it take a while.
Re: dialogue. We have readings and deliberately ask inappropriate people to read the parts – then if they roughly hold, it’s a good sign.
Keep the page count down. People want to binge therefore don’t let the episodes get too long. Around 52-53 minutes is the perfect episode length. 60 too long. Not a page per minute – more like a page and a third per minute. I’m trying to hand in episodes that are 51 or 52 pages. I try to avoid explaining too much. Good actors, directors, editors will trim it out. There’s a generous amount of time in production and post.
AH: Nina Gold cast the show and she’s amazing. Casting the queen was not easy. We went for big stars initially. When Claire Foy came in, it was obvious after about 30 seconds.
SM: She gives you so much by doing so little. I think she’s a great actress. Such an important thing not to bring too much to the character – Claire understands that on a deep level.
AH: We didn’t want to cast anyone in the UK who had already played Winston Churchill.
PM: There’s no record of what the characters say in private, or in the ‘audiences’. So my job is to go in there and try to join the dots. You have to put yourself in their position (ludicrous though that is).
Prince Philip was apparently asked – ‘will you be watching it?’ To which he answered – ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ I am talking to people who work at the palace, people who know them. Sometimes making the intimate choice is better than making the epic choice.
I’ve loved being freed from the question of audience ratings – it’s a tyranny.
I do get pretty involved in the cutting room – because there are 4 different directors – you need one unifying voice.
CHANNEL 4 SCREENWRITING COURSE 2018
A reminder that you only have just over a week left to get your scripts in for the 2018 course. We’ve already received a substantial amount of scripts but, if the last few years are anything to go by, we will receive well over half of the total on the last day. May I suggest that you do yourself a favour and try to get your script in before the last day and avoid the stress of scrambling to get your script in at the last possible moment? We will close the entry system at midnight on Sunday Oct 1st.
HIGH TIDE FESTIVAL Walthamstow
This year, for the 1st time, High Tide has a 2nd iteration at Walthamstow Sept 26 – Oct 1 – much more accessible to Londoners than Aldeburgh!
I spent a day at the festival in Aldeburgh last week and had a really enjoyable time. I was particularly impressed by a reading of ENGLISH, written and directed by 4screenwriting alumna, Melanie Spencer. A fascinating play about language, culture-clash and (indirectly) Brexit. It is thought-provoking, intelligent, funny and powerful – I highly recommend it. A four-hander, there are two Polish characters and Glaswegian. An indication of Melanie’s conscientiousness is that she personally went to Poland to cast the Poles and Glasgow to cast the Glaswegian.
The casting and performances were superb. At the risk of embarrassing Melanie, this was the 2nd play-reading of a new play by her that I’ve been to in the last few months. Previously I went to a reading of her equally outstanding CONTENDER – this is about Olympic swimmers and their coaches. Melanie has researched this with equal thoroughness – spending time living with the Australian swimming team; and the reading was attended by some well-known Olympic swimmers who all gave fascinating (and positive) feedback in their response to the reading. This play is about the stresses and sacrifices involved in making it to the top of professional sport – and the temptations of performance-enhancing drugs.
I’d really advise that you look out for full productions of these two plays in the next year or so – or try to make it to Walthamstow for the reading of ENGLISH on Oct 4th.
And there are a host of other really interesting productions and readings at High Tide in Walthamstow.
The next newsletter will be on Friday Oct 6th.
All the very best
Sept 22nd 2017