Peter Morgan had two more weeks of shooting on “The Crown” Season 4 when the pandemic shut down the Netflix series. And he never looked back. As post-production forged ahead, the showrunner and his editors had to figure out how to finish the last episodes.
“One day I’ll tell you what holes were missing,” Morgan said on the phone from London. “Hopefully you won’t notice. I’ve done my best. For the final block, one director [Jessica Hobbs] was filming three separate episodes. A couple of scenes were missing from each one. Having looked at them, we [could] just about get away with it. She will forever rue not being able to shoot them. The price of waiting would have meant to not get the show out on the same schedule. And nobody to whom I’ve shown the episodes can tell what’s missing. I’m really relieved. I was neurotic of course, flapping around not doing anyone any good. Then we had to work harder in the edit.”
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The crew was supposed to fly to a ski resort and shoot an avalanche for a week. They weren’t able to get on airplanes. And yet the episode is still called “Avalanche.” “It works metaphorically now,” Morgan said. “It’s less a story about what happens in the Alps and more what happens in the aftermath. We had to be willing to adapt and rethink and complete things. We have to do what have to do, make a meal with five ingredients, not seven. It’s slightly recut. Suddenly we lose that subplot, and slightly retell the story, and focus more on the other subplot, which becomes the main plot, which is no less interesting. We have to do it; we have no alternative. Editing is so much like the writing process.”
Meanwhile, the reception to Season 3 of the acclaimed series stayed on course. It racked up 13 more Emmy nominations, the same number as Seasons 1 and 2, including Morgan for Best Writing and Best Drama, and his new Queen and Princess Margaret, Olivia Colman and Helena Bonham Carter, as Best Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively, who are both favored to win.
As Morgan keeps moving through the reign of Elizabeth II as she interacts with history, he works with his archive team to figure out how to slice and dice each season’s decade. He thinks of the second half of the 20th century as one long sausage. “I cut the sausages into a row, not divided by time, and not royal events. We divided time up according to the prime ministers, by and large,” he said.
Series showrunners do different jobs: Morgan’s include outlining stories and writing and casting all the episodes, and then letting his producers and directors have authority over executing them, as he supervises the final edit in concert with the directors. “Ultimately the director and I reach final cut together,” he said. “Partly because I cut my teeth doing feature films, the reverse of a lot of people, I started in theater and feature films and ended in television.”
Morgan tries to get all the episodes laid out ahead of time, so that the laborious pre-production process can commence. “I write a draft of everything, not because I’m over-dutiful,” he said. “If there are ways to plan long in advance, it minimizes and rationalizes the cost.” (By last count, Netflix was budgeting about $6-7 million per episode.)
The showrunner enjoyed seeing how his new Season 3 cast was going to match up with their characters. “That’s when you start maybe doing some extra work,” he said, “to take into consideration who you find you have. When I discovered Princess Anne [Erin Doherty], I found myself writing extra scenes, and for Helena Bonham Carter too, because she’s so utterly mesmerizing.”
“The Crown” marked Morgan’s first longform series, and it proved daunting indeed. Most showrunners aren’t single-handedly writing every episode. Like Aaron Sorkin before him on “The West Wing,” at some point Morgan hit a wall, as he was publicizing one season, shooting another, and writing a third.
That’s when Morgan persuaded Netflix to let him conclude “The Crown” with Season 5 instead of his originally planned six seasons. But when COVID came along and slowed everything down, and “The Crown” stopped shooting, he started meeting his new Season 5 cast, including Imelda Staunton as Elizabeth. They reminded him that Claire Foy and Olivia Colman each had two seasons to get even better. Finally, Morgan called Netflix TV chief Cindy Holland and returned to Plan A, to everyone’s delight.
Season 3 primarily tracks the relationship between Queen Elizabeth (Colman) and Labor Prime Minister Harold Wilson (Jason Watkins). Following up on Claire Foy’s young Queen, Colman brought her own interpretation of Morgan’s character: sadder, older, wiser.
“I wouldn’t have guessed some of that,” Morgan said. “I loved what she brought to it. Olivia has this boring everywoman quality. That’s who Olivia is. Even though the Queen is the grandest person in the country, she is the woman at the bus stop. If you stripped the fact that she was the Queen and put 50-year-old Elizabeth Windsor at a bus stop you wouldn’t think twice. For example, Kristin Scott Thomas looks like a Grand Duchess, wherever you put her. She’s too aristocratic to be the Queen, so aquiline. Our Queen came to a point in middle age when she became every woman. That’s what so remarkable about Olivia. She’s a four-quadrant connectability woman.”
The episode “Aberfan,” like the London fog story in Season 1, dramatizes an historic incident that many do not remember — the 1966 Welsh coal mining disaster when nearly 140,000 cubic yards of black slurry slid down the hill above the town of Aberfan in Wales, burying 144 people, many of them schoolchildren. The Queen took her time responding, but eventually did show up at site of the disaster.
“She was tough on herself, she was self-critical, not happy, she gave herself a bad mark,” Morgan said. “That episode is all about her internal life. The director [Benjamin Caron] and production team got caught up in the business of the impact of the coal slurry on the school. The story had never been told. We were involved in outreach to the community in Wales, and got sucked up in the big tragedy. When a crisis goes off, it throws the spotlight on our leaders. This was a way of getting to the internal life of the Queen. What was called for was an emotional response. She was able to give constancy and inscrutability, to show up on time and do her duty. She doesn’t do emotion. The story was to make the audience not just weep at the lost lives in Wales, but her emotional shortcomings.”
At the end of the episode, the Queen sheds a single tear. What is she feeling, really? “I think she’s crying a real tear,” Morgan said. “No one is in the room. She’s crying for Aberfan — or for herself. Is she crying for what’s happened to her as Queen? She has had to lock away so many parts that she treasures, the emotional vulnerable parts that have been taken out of commission.”
The Season 3 finale, “Cri De Coeur,” pits the Queen against her most formidable adversary — her younger sister Margaret — who finally comes through, after years of competitive rivalry, by telling her sister that her role, ultimately, is to paper over the cracks. For Morgan, it was “a hard scene to write, because Elizabeth wobbles between Windsor and Regina,” he said. “That’s always quite hard. You don’t want to overstep it one way or the other. You’re required to write somebody who is shut down.”
During the pandemic the Queen emerged from seclusion and spoke to the nation, which is quite rare — it was only the fifth time she has addressed her people on unprecedented events in her 60-year-reign. “She operates on the subconscious, in a way,” Morgan said. “She’s mother to the nation. We don’t want a head of state to be a troubled figure. We want someone parental and reassuring. She hasn’t put a foot wrong with her constancy, when we’ve had a shockingly turbulent time. When it has felt impossible to have any confidence in our political class during our schizophrenic war over Brexit, the country has felt rudderless and unhinged. It has been unsettling for everybody psychologically and emotionally.”
Morgan is struck by the role the Queen has played for almost 70 years in the U.K. “She’s a constant, not just in your life, but there’s not anyone alive in the U.K. who hasn’t had her as head of state the entirety of their life,” he said. “She ties the generations together.”
Looking ahead, Season 4’s 10 episodes encompass 1979-1990, beginning when Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) comes to power and ending when she’s kicked out. Josh O’Connor continues as Prince Charles, as he juggles Camilla Shand (Emerald Fennell) and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin). For Morgan, who is 57, Season 4 “marks my first season when I came into adulthood,” he said. “Now I’m connecting with it. And my children have never heard of Thatcher or Diana before.”
As they shot Season 4, Colman and Anderson presented two diametrically opposed ways of working. “Olivia doesn’t prepare,” Morgan said. “I don’t think she’ll hate me for saying that. That’s the amazing thing about Olivia, she’s constantly adapting, one of the fiercest actors, she’s off-book, entirely instinctive.”
Morgan’s partner Anderson, on the other hand, prepared months in advance, working slowly and methodically from the inside out. Where Anderson could tell someone in ADR exactly what she was doing with her neck in take four, Colman wouldn’t remember what she had just done the previous day. “They had a lot of scenes together,” Morgan said. “The poor director! One has known the text a year, the other learned it in a taxi on the way over. It’s an almost, like an ‘Amadeus’ level of talent in the moment.”
Morgan finds the encroachment of age a moving part of this story, moving from “Claire Foy’s hope and excitement and youth, to Olivia, and Margaret, who was Vanessa Kirby before,” he said. “Oh God, all our faces tell the stories of our lives, the wounds, the highs and the lows. That’s every movie as we’re watching actors age. We’ll feel that even more when we have Imelda Staunton, it is heartbreaking.”
Next up: With Season 4 in the final mixing stage (the series resumes on Netflix in November), Morgan has just started writing Season 5, which will extend now into Season 6. He knows exactly when in time “The Crown” will end — but he wants to feel free to change his mind.
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