NOMINATED for five Oscars, director Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (out in France now) retells the dramatic circumstances surrounding David Frost’s 1977 interview with disgraced former American President Richard Nixon in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. The film is based on a successful stage play by Peter Morgan (writer of The Queen), who adapted it for the screen. Oliver Rowland spoke to Sir David, 69, in Monaco.
Are you flattered to have inspired a play and film?
Yes, the reaction to it has been very exciting. The author told me it would be a sort of “intellectual Rocky,” and in a sense it is. There is about 10% of fiction, but the story is there. They have done it brilliantly. Frank Langella gives a fantastic performance as Nixon and the possibility of Oscars is very exciting. It’s wonderful that after 30 years people still find these interviews relevant and that it is happening all over again.
Do you find Michael Sheen convincing as yourself?
I think anyone is the worst judge of whether someone is like themselves. It is not like a great impressionist, like Rory Bremner, you can’t do an impression for two hours, though people say he has caught my mannerisms. It is an original piece of acting and he does it very well.
Was the Nixon interview the high point of your career?
It was certainly a very big landmark. I interviewed him for 29 hours over 12 days spread over a month. No one has interviewed anybody for that long. I have had lots of other memorable interviews, but none as long as this, and it really worked.
It was very hard to set it up?
Yes, and some of the funniest things in the film are when I am trying to raise the money. That was a perpetual struggle and I only just got it together - it cost $2 million.
That was a real challenge. And then the news departments and networks in America didn’t want to take any programmes from
independent producers so I had to erect my own network in America, selling the
programme place by place - and 200 markets took it.
Did you guess how much he was going to reveal?
He went further than we expected - he admitted a great deal and then I pushed him further and he went right through to: “I let down the American people, I let down our whole system of government and the hopes and dreams of all those young people and I have to live with that burden for the rest of my life and can never again serve in public office.”
That was a real climax and the day when we did that part - we did two days on Watergate - was incredibly tense and electric and we were both quite drained at the end of it. He had gone much further than we had expected in his mea culpa and we were euphoric.
It must have been the biggest story in the world
It made front pages around the world. I have a press
clippings service, and in that month I had 29,000. It was thrilling the impact it had.
Did interviewers before you tend to be less willing to ask tough questions?
That was partially true but you can only have a
confrontation where there is a smoking pistol and you have the raw material for it.
When interviewers are just ornery with people for the sake of it, that’s a mistake because you just shut people up, rather than opening them up, but when it is a
confrontation you must go for it and repeat questions where necessary.
You should reserve it for the right occasions.
Some interviewers just get uppity from the first word and you can sometimes see the politician is thinking:“It’s going to be one of those ‘have you stopped beating your wife’ kind of interviews’.”
They go on the defensive and it’s counterproductive.
What are your feelings about President Obama?
This looks as though it was very much the right moment for this to happen. After the eight years of the Republicans there was a need for a change and somebody who would woo and win the public around the world who had become alienated with American policies.
Would you like to interview him?
I would like to very much indeed, though it may take a bit of time to organise.
What would you ask him?
What does he think the most dramatic changes will be after a year or two years, in specifics? I have interviewed the last seven American presidents and the last six British Prime Ministers. I don’t think anybody else has done that.
Are you enjoying working at Al Jazeera now?
It’s terrific, I’m really loving it. Al Jazeera English is doing very well around the world.
It is not particularly Middle Eastern - it really is international.
We do the programme (Frost Over the World) in London and use satellite links, though I do sometimes travel - I went to Washington to cover the election and Uganda for the Commonwealth conference.
One sad memorable thing was that I did what turned out to be the last interview with Benazir Bhutto (former Pakistani Prime Minister, assassinated in December 2007).
The exciting thing is making news around the world. For instance, President Lula of Brazil, the most powerful man in South America, had never done an interview on British television because no one had asked him. We get very parochial.
We have a tremendous number of world leaders through our studio, which has a marvellous address - number one Knightsbridge - next door to the Lanesborough Hotel, a
very high-class canteen.
How well do you know France and Monaco?
The first time I came to France was in the 1960s. We did Let’s Twist in Paris - this was when Chubby Checker’s Let’s Twist Again was popular.
They said to me, go over and pick the 24 most beautiful girls in the twist clubs of Paris to appear in the programme. How about that for an assignment for a 22-year-old?
I have had wonderful holidays in the south or in Paris for a gastronomic weekend. Le Grand Véfour (formerly three Michelin starred, now two) is a great favourite.
One of the first times I came was the opening of the Summer Sporting club in Monaco in the 1970s. I was sitting next to a duchess from Portugal where they had just overthrown Caetano. I said: “It must be exciting in Lisbon now the dictator has been overthrown,” and she said: “Oh no! Portugal is in the grip of democracy!” “Oh dear, how frightful,” I said.
How do you feel about Nicolas Sarkozy?
It’s interesting again that the French voted for a change. I would like to interview him.
I think he is surprising people by being more liberal in some areas than people expected him to be. He has serious plans he is determined to bring to fruition and he seems to have the will to do it.