“We’re making this like a film”: Peter Morgan and Stephen Daldry on how Netflix’s The Crown was made
Matthew Turner | On 05, Nov 2016Reading time: 18 mins
“We’re making this like films,” says writer Peter Morgan of The Crown. Netflix’s royal drama is certainly not your average TV show (read our review here): with a reported budget of £100 million, it’s one of the most expensive series ever made. No wonder, then, that the BBC couldn’t afford to compete with the streaming giant’s funding – or its approach to serial programmes as something closer to a 10-hour Hollywood production than an episodic soap. How exactly did the show get made?
We sat down with Peter Morgan and director Stephen Daldry to talk The Crown, the relevance of Brexit and being surprised by Prince Philip. (Read our interview with Matt Smith and Claire Foy.)
What kind of extensive research did you do?
Stephen Daldry (SD): We had a team of researchers, which is a great source of strength – I mean, often these TV shows work on the basis of a writer’s room and Peter [Morgan] is the sole writer on this, but what Peter has and what we have access to, and what the actors have access to, is this extraordinary and very diverse group of full-time researchers who feed us, feeding Peter, feeding me, and feeding the actors with everything, how Peter constructs the story, and the narrative that Peter wants and every situation, every dramatic situation, is then researched to death in all the different accounts of that circumstance. Now, we’re not making a documentary, we’re making a docu-drama, but it’s sometimes incredibly useful to know exactly all the accounts and some of them are often hugely contradictory and that is also interesting. But it frees you, in a sense, to then have the imagination to create the drama that you want to do.
Peter Morgan (PM): So we have about seven or eight full-time researchers. And what we’d all initially imagined would be a writer’s room, you know, with different people doing different episodes, very quickly, we found that actually too many different voices didn’t help the unified tone of the show, and that actually the biggest help to me would be people that I could sort of throw a storyline at and say, ‘Tell me about what was going on leading up to the war, us going to Suez, what was going on in Downing Street, what was what was the reality? How split was the cabinet? Oh, this guy was against it, that guy was for it, what was the Queen doing, or where was Mountbatten?’, that sort of thing. And then there would be other episodes where I’d say, ‘Well, where was Princess Margaret at this point, what was she up to?’ and so we’ve got, essentially, a split research team between Buckingham Palace and Downing Street and every time you think you know something, you don’t. And so I come up with the broad architecture of a story, and then I go to them to sort of fact-check it, and sometimes what they come back with means that my conjecture was ridiculous. But it’s important for me always to start with my imagination and then to see how the facts changed my imagination, rather than to start with the facts.
What surprised you the most in the course of the research?
PM: I think Philip. I sort of knew almost nothing about this woman as a young woman, so pretty much everything that I learnt about her as a young woman was interesting, but Philip was the big surprise, just because of how much more interesting he was – in a sense, I think some parts of her are what we see, whereas I think Philip is a whole lot of things we don’t see. I think who he is and how he presents are two different things. Whereas, I think there’s a great big part of her that is who she is, she is contained, even as a child, she was much more contained than Margaret, much more responsible and much more durable. But Philip was just a whole bunch of surprises and, of course, little things like I think I had certain ideas of who Churchill was and we’ve always concentrated on certain parts of Churchill’s career, but the fact that he was having strokes. There was a point where he’d had a stroke, Eden was having a life-saving operation in Boston and the Queen had no idea. So that both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister were completely and utterly – not just indisposed, they were virtually dead, and there was a huge collusion – these little things and how she navigates that and how she doesn’t, these were all [new to me]. I didn’t know about the Great Fog of London, I didn’t know about that – I mean, what a scandal!
What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing a ten-hour TV show about the Queen?
PM: Well, I can tell you what the disadvantages are! It’s really hard work. It’s a nightmare, and the truth of the matter is, I think in the past, television shows were made in a way where the deadlines were so quick. Actually, I think you could get a room full of showrunners and they would all tell you it is by a considerable margin the hardest thing they’d ever done. It’s really, really hard work. Because my only training is to make feature films and therefore I brought exactly the same skill set into making this television show. This is the first television show Stephen has ever done – I had written television before, but we’re making this like films. There’s nothing – when I ask even some of the people on the set, I sort of say to the location manager, ‘Is this is different from a television show or film?’ and he said, ‘No, this is a mid-range movie’. This is not a low-budget movie, this is – everything about the way in which we’re making this. All the scripts were written before, and three or four or five drafts of each script have been done before we even begin the process of shooting, which is not like television, this is much more like how you make feature films.
You talked about Philip – if you had to write The Queen again, would you do it differently?
PM: You mean The Queen, the movie? Nooooo, what a good question! That’s the best question I’ve been asked today. Yeah, that’s so interesting. No, I would have written it differently, I’m pretty sure. I know him and understand him and have more sympathy for him now. That’s a terrible mistake. I must write him again as a totally obnoxious caricature. No, actually, I felt that we’d written him that he was protecting her and I do think that he was different. I do think, and this is partly the story of what we tell, across the two seasons, is that he goes from being an agitator into being much more of a supportive role, as he accepts his position, but I feel so much more compassion for him, knowing him in the way that I know him now, and particularly the second season, which I think of as Philip’s season. You know, we really learn a lot about him.
From the very start it seems obvious that the clichés one expects from costume drama aren’t present. Was that something you wanted to avoid?
PM: Yeah, because I keep thinking that even though I can’t quite bring myself to do it, I keep thinking this is a show that will travel forward in time, relatively quickly. And I think that’s why a lot of people have mentioned Downton Abbey and so forth, I think partly because they’re seeing great British actors in frocks, right? And I keep thinking, well, this second season ends in 1964, so we’re a fraction away from Harold Wilson in that sense, and now you’re into a completely different vibe, once you’re into Harold Wilson, Ted Heath, Jim Callaghan. You know, by 1976, the end of Jim Callaghan, you’re into the Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols. So we’re not there yet, but I do see this as something which is evolving, and so that makes me not think of it as a period show at all.
Have you shot the second season yet?
SD: We’re shooting it now.
So there’s the possibility of a third season, but that’s not confirmed yet?
PM: I mean, just by virtue of her longevity, there’s a possibility of God knows how many seasons – it’s genuinely a conversation for me to have with Ted Sarandos about what do we feel, about how relevant the show is, because the toll it takes on me personally and the sacrifice that I feel in terms of the carving up what it takes of my career – because I can’t do anything else. Everyone else can do other things, but I cannot do anything else, I would just do this. And so that would have to be a very adult conversation between me and Ted Sarandos about how relevant the show is, whether it really has – you know, yes it might be useful to have, but maybe I could do something else for them. I’d be only happy, I mean, I love the process. I just don’t know whether I can carry on writing Elizabeth, unless there really is a compelling case for it, and I don’t mean from a business point of view. If I can look you guys in the face and you say, ‘No, no, no, you must carry on’, you know, if I get enough of that, then maybe I will.
This is the third time that you’ve written about Elizabeth. Why did you feel the need to come back to it for The Crown? Did you feel that there was a lot that you hadn’t said?
PM: Yes, I did, really, because I’d never written about her as a young woman and just this new thing, this new way of making television is so interesting and it’s given us such a beautiful canvas on which to paint. I’m going to say something else, though, which is being far too honest. If it wasn’t this material, in which I suppose I have some proven track record, I don’t think Netflix would have trusted me to the degree that they have, and one of the great pleasures of this has been the complete carte blanche trust that they’ve given me. So that I can, together with Stephen, build up a company of actors, some heads of department that we love and respect, so that actually – because sometimes making movies is a nightmare. You know, just dreadful people and dreadful circumstances and dreadful interference.
SD: And we’ve had none of that.
PM: And we’ve had none of that, and I think we wouldn’t have had that power if people didn’t think, well, actually, if Peter doesn’t know it, who’s going to know it? Do you know what I mean? So I think partly, in answer to your question, it’s because there’s more to write about, but partly also, I’ve earned the right to write about it in a certain way.
Is there a concern when you’re writing for the cinema, that you have to give your screenplay to someone and you have no power over the result?
PM: That’s only happened to me once in my life, and that was with Clint Eastwood, where, actually, he just said, ‘Just leave me to this’, and I thought, ‘Oh, okay’. Almost all the time, particularly in England, I know the people and it’s very collaborative. And I do know that exists, along with the whole process of being rewritten by other writers, but I thank God that I’ve managed to avoid that. And you can do certain things to ensure that that doesn’t happen.
If you do end up telling the later years of their story, will you have to change the actors? Have you thought about that already?
PM: Yes, yes, yes. No, no, we couldn’t go any further than where we get to at the end of Season 2 with Claire and Matt. We need to get a middle-aged Queen. In fact, a middle-aged everybody. And that could be an exciting challenge. It would feel like a different show.
Do you think this is coming at an interesting moment, when Britain is having a conversation about itself and its place in the world?
PM: Yes. I mean, really, you know. This is the amazing thing – you start writing something, and then – pffft! – the world changes and suddenly what you’re writing becomes something different to what it was that you thought you were writing, or at least people start looking at it through different prisms. So I now think that it’s perfectly possible that people in Britain, now we’ve made this inexplicable decision to cut ourselves off – or at least, for some people inexplicable, so let’s not make a judgement call – we’ve made the decision, 52 to 48, to go alone. And if we’re going to go alone, then isn’t this a good moment to look at who we are and what we are and how we got there? And so, yeah, partly because I do think that because of her, a lot of, especially older people in this country, still feel more connected somehow to the Commonwealth than they do – I think while you got a head of state whose natural centre of gravity is the Commonwealth, it’s very hard for us to think that our natural centre of gravity is Europe. And I do think that plays a role, and having said that, I then thought, well, God, do you think the rest of Europe will just think, ‘Enough of these Brits, go to hell, I don’t want to watch this show’? But at the same time, it might work the other way, it might actually be well, now that we see how mad they are, or how eccentric the system is at the heart of the British constitution, maybe we understand better why they couldn’t be European, because I think for a lot of Europeans, they feel so betrayed or in shock, and it’s like until you understand what this island is or who the people of this island are, what the soul of the country is – when I say this island, I mean the United Kingdom – it’s complex. And I think even though she never says a word, I do think that orientation towards the Commonwealth as opposed to – and I do think there’s a huge constituency of elder people in this country who feel more naturally connected with people from India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and certain African countries, they feel an affinity, they feel somehow more connected there, than to Brussels, for better or for worse.
You touched on this already to a certain extent, but how important do you think Netflix is to the future of serialised drama on TV?
PM: Well, it’s hard to say, because we’re in such early stages and in such infancy, but you’ve got to think it’s game-changing and that, you know, they are already the state broadcasters in every country. I keep going to my children and saying, ‘What’s happening with television? and they’re like, ‘What?’ They just look at everything through their laptops. Everything. They watch films through their laptops, television, news, music, and the idea that you go to a TV, that’s one form of entertainment, you go to a cinema, that’s another form of entertainment, and that distinction is existing less and less. And that’s the sense – I keep going back to how we were, how we made this show, which is like, ‘Is it film or is it television?’ I don’t know, we just made this thing.
SD: I was trying to explain to my children the other day what a CD was. They really have no understanding of what a CD was, what it will do, where you put it in. You try to explain to them what a television is, it’s a thing that sits in the corner. We don’t have one at home, so it’s like, ‘Oh, we’ve got these television things’ and, apparently, things are on at a certain time and you can’t watch it when you want, and all of this. And it’s just like… I don’t know, it’s just interesting.
PM: And the other day, just to go the other way, I had supper with three women – this will give you an idea of what they looked like – who carried the queen’s dress at her coronation. And they were like, [adopts very posh accent], ‘So, what is this Net-flix?’ And I said, it’s this, um – and then you soon realise how quickly you get into trouble. ‘It’s this thing over the internet’. ‘Ohhh. Internet, Oh, I’m not going to get that’. ‘Why?’ ‘Well, we don’t have internet in Norfolk.’ ‘I’m sure you do…’ ‘Do we? I’ll ask my daughter or my granddaughter – she might know.’ And then she goes [posh voice], ‘Oh, is something to do with broad band [sic]?’ And you go, ‘Well, they’re kind of related, yeah…’ So you then think, wow, look what’s happened. Look what’s happened. That’s in two generations, three generations.
And are you big Net-flix fans yourselves?
PM: What, Net-flix?
Do you watch Netflix a lot? What have you seen and enjoyed recently?
SD: I do. Stranger Things, I watched all the way through. Narcos, I watched. My kids watch a lot of Netflix, so I tend to watch [it with them].
PM: I watch all the documentaries. When I’m writing, I can’t watch drama. It’s really hard for me to watch drama when I’m writing, because I keep watching it and thinking, ‘Oh, why didn’t I do that?, or ‘Ooh, I like that.’ It’s not relaxing at all. So I watch lots of docs.
Any particularly good ones?
PM: I loved Weiner. How fantastic was that? You just go, [cringes] ‘Ohhhh…’
SD: I haven’t seen it…
PM: Oh, my God. You’ll need to lie down for about a week after you watch it. It’s the most emotionally draining thing I’ve watched. Partly because, on behalf of all men, I sort of think, ‘You moron’, and then the other half of me is thinking, on behalf of all women, going, ‘Ohhhhhhh’. And now, it could change the course of the American election as well. This has not been a good time for men in politics. Oh, and Amanda Knox – that’s a really good documentary too.
With the royal family, was it hard to know when to humanise them and when to deify them?
PM: Not as a writer, because you sort of think, I know that she happens to think that it’s God’s will that she is who she is. I mean, I can’t imagine that there’s anyone on earth who would agree with that. I mean, that’s just clearly mad, but, you know, you have to write – I’m sure that the people who wrote Breaking Bad weren’t themselves cooking crystal meth in their kitchens. So I think that at some point you sort of put yourself in the mind of the people that you’re writing about and that’s an interesting thing for a central character to think.
SD: Do you mean, do I put them on a pedestal?
Yes. As a director, as a producer, was it your goal to humanise them?
SD: I don’t think it’s to humanise, I don’t think that was our goal at all. I think it was to explore the dramatic context of a family – inevitably, a very young, vulnerable family, who then unexpectedly have this power or this crown thrust upon them, and how the family cope with this incredible challenge. And sometimes they cope well and sometimes they cope incredibly badly, but they’re fighting to survive. And at the same point, the country is fighting to survive, and it’s a history of post-war Britain and, indeed, the world, to a certain extent. Those are the things that we find interesting. The starting point was never to humanise the royal family – it’s just they happen to be the characters in this particular time and place.
PM: I mean, anything – look, tomorrow, right, something could happen in the Royal Family that could make us hate them. A story could break tomorrow in the way that the email story for Hillary or the Trump Billy Bush story – a story could break tomorrow that could change our entire perception of them. That’s the sort of news cycle and scrutiny we live in. The fact is, if we went to the polls today, and had a referendum about whether the royal family should or shouldn’t stay in this country, it would be an 85 percent landslide yes. Which is extraordinary.
SD: And has not been consistent over history.
PM: But it is pretty weird. I mean, I think that’s weird, because clearly monarchy makes no sense on any rational level whatsoever.
All episodes of The Crown are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.