By JAKE COYLE
NEW YORK — Peter Morgan’s Midas touch for portraying the intimate drama of the powerful has made the screenwriter — unknown to Hollywood a year ago — a sudden two-pronged Oscar candidate. The 43-year-old British writer stands an excellent chance for an Academy Award nomination not only for his original screenplay for ‘‘The Queen’’ but also for adapting ‘‘The Last King of Scotland’’ to the screen. (The stars of both films — Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin — are both widely considered the front-runners in the best actress and best actor categories.) ...
Morgan’s play ‘‘Frost/Nixon,’’ about David Frost’s 1977 interview of Richard Nixon, was a sensation in London and is being adapted for the screen by Ron Howard. And, to top it off, his acclaimed British TV drama, ‘‘Longford,’’ was recently chosen for the Sundance Film Festival.
‘‘It is a bit like four buses have arrived at once,’’ Morgan says, speaking from a remote vacation house in the mountains of Austria. ‘‘I’m just so heading for an almighty thrashing with the next thing that I do.’’
The son of German and Polish refugees, Morgan was raised in South London. He lives with his wife (who’s Austrian) and their four young children in Vienna, but they plan to move back to London soon. It was in the Alps where Morgan penned ‘‘The Queen,’’ which depicts the reactions of the queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair in the week following Princess Diana’s death in 1997.
Much of the drama revolves around the diametrically opposed perspectives of the modernizing, ‘‘call me Tony’’ prime minister and the old-fashioned queen. Morgan envisions the story as similar to a mother-son relationship, a clashing of generations.
If he could have, Morgan would have thrown out every other character but those two. ‘‘It is absolutely the relationship between him and her that interests me. Diana was only ever, for me, the McGuffin that brings them together and brings them into conflict.’’
The film, which intercuts real news footage, is entirely a dramatization, imagining how behind-closed-doors conversations might have gone.
Still, Morgan did considerable research to learn the inner workings of Buckingham Palace and Downing Street.
‘‘I thought to myself, this has to be true about the two worlds I’m writing about,’’ he says. ‘‘What I’m writing has to be so accurate that the palace insiders will need to feel that we got it right, and the government insiders will feel we got the political story right.’’
In college, Morgan set out as an actor, but an attack of stage fright pushed him into writing. ‘‘It wasn’t a calling. It was much more practical,’’ he says. When he planned to direct a play and take it to the Edinburgh Festival, he found himself without enough money to purchase rights to any material.
‘‘So I suppose with the arrogance of an 18-year-old — but I think it’s innocence too — I thought I’ll just write something,’’ Morgan remembers. ‘‘And the thing that I wrote seemed to work and ever since then, I’ve done nothing but write.’’
After working through the ’90s in television (notably creating a British miniseries called ‘‘The Jury’’ and a show about a self-destructive game show host titled ‘‘Mickey Love’’), Morgan wrote a script for a TV film, ‘‘The Deal,’’ about a dinner in which Blair and Chancellor Gordon Brown forged a political partnership.
The script found its way to director Stephen Frears (‘‘Dangerous Liaisons,’’ ‘‘High Fidelity’’), who was struck by its originality. Their film would win a British Academy award for best TV drama and begin a friendship and collaboration that continued with ‘‘The Queen.’’ The pair are planning a third project together: a film about an English soccer club manager.
‘‘Meeting Stephen encouraged me to think, ‘Oh God, maybe I can do this,’’’ says Morgan. ‘‘And so possibly my confidence grew as a writer and possibly people’s confidence in me grew as a writer.
‘‘I think Stephen trained me. He doesn’t do it specifically. He just sends these text messages which go, as it were, the scene where Tony’s writing his speech, ‘I think you can do better.’ ’’
‘‘I like to be unpleasant, if that’s what you mean,’’ Frears says with a hearty laugh when asked about his prodding of Morgan. ‘‘You’re editing his intelligence the whole time and challenging him.’’
Frears, known for his inclusion of screenwriters throughout the filming process, says that Morgan ‘‘has the ability to write about relationships of powerful people and make them human at the same time.’’
The theme is quite extensive in Morgan’s work. He expects to one day continue the trend with a third dramatization of Blair, portraying his fall from grace with the British public — a future only hinted at in ‘‘The Queen.’’
‘‘I like writing about people in power as though they are ordinary people,’’ he says. ‘‘Most often, people in power are only represented through satire or abuse. The idea that our leaders and our public figures are complex human beings seems a revolutionary one. As a dramatist, the added bonus you get about writing about powerful people is that the story has other resonances — it will always still play on another level.’’
Of the Oscar buzz for his two films, Morgan says: ‘‘If ‘The Queen’ were to be nominated for best picture, I would be tipping with pride. I would be hallucinogenic. I wouldn’t be able to operate machinery.’’