It feels as much like a celebration as a wake: There's a scene toward the end of "Frost/Nixon," as Richard Nixon's landmark interviews with talk show host David Frost draw to a close, when the disgraced president sits down at the piano. ¶¶ As performed by Frank Langella and directed by Ron Howard, Nixon is both hopeful and doomed -- he knows his televised clash with Frost isn't yet over, that "victory isn't necessarily at hand," as Howard puts it. It's a dramatic encapsulation of everything that unfolds in Peter Morgan's hit stage play, from which the movie is adapted. ¶ But the scene never happens in the play. ¶ Howard invented it for his film, even getting permission from the Nixon estate so that Langella could play a song the 37th president wrote himself.
Directors adapting theater for the big screen inevitably "open up" their stories, adding more characters, locations and cinematic sequences. Howard did all of those things in bringing "Frost/Nixon" to the screen, but he also searched for something else: new moments, almost theatrical little scenes, that might make the movie more personal.
At its heart, "Frost/Nixon" is a gladiator story, two solitary men thrown into the very public ring of television, each trying to vanquish his rival. "They really are lone wolves, and it's ultimately all about them," Howard says. "They are pretty comfortable carrying the world on their shoulders."
But the story's combatants are as much focused on victory as what that success will bring: deliverance. Both want to use the 1977 broadcasts to restore their image. Nixon is a commander in chief chased from the White House, Frost a once-credible interviewer turned into entertainment hack.
So as Howard and Morgan worked to turn the play into a screenplay, the director focused on small, telling scenes that illuminated not only how much Frost and Nixon had at stake, but the lengths to which they prepared for possible redemption.
Morgan's 2006 play (which, like the movie, starred Langella as Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost) referenced the talk show host's struggles to find backers for his interviews, but it did not focus on the mechanics. Howard did. He chose to show Frost's meeting with executives from Weed Eater in search of underwriting and his beseeching of (and rejection by) network executives for distribution.
"The engine had to be what Frost had at stake -- the audacity of the enterprise," Howard says.
Nixon, on the other hand, was depicted as a proud warrior girding for battle. Howard's researchers found that Nixon loved to listen to the score for the documentary "Victory at Sea." So Howard and Morgan created a scene in which the former president is shown jogging in place, listening to the Richard Rodgers composition, his own "Rocky" ballad.
"The more you can draw people into the experience and make them feel they are sharing the experience with these characters," Howard says, "the more they forget that they know the outcome. It makes it feel suspenseful."
The film's interviews don't begin until about halfway through the movie, which Howard points out is about the same place the titular rocket blasts off in his "Apollo 13." "The launch of this movie," Howard says, "is the start of the interviews."
While those sometimes tense talks -- in which Nixon infamously admitted to Frost that he considered his position above the law -- might not be familiar to most moviegoers, they were very much burned in the memory of Langella and Sheen, as they had performed their parts hundreds of times in both London, where the show originated, and on Broadway.
That presented Howard with another challenge for his adaptation: Having lived with these characters, Sheen and Langella had to mold them for a different medium.
"I wound up approaching this film in a very, very different way than any other film," says Howard, who won the directing Oscar for 2001's "A Beautiful Mind." "In our rehearsal period, I made this decision to never have Frank and Michael in the same room together. I never wanted them to rehearse their dialogue together. I wanted to break up the rhythms of the play as much as possible."
What Howard was after was spontaneity and urgency. In supporting parts, he cast actors capable of improvising -- Oliver Platt and Sam Rockwell as Frost's key consultants and Kevin Bacon as Nixon's aide de camp. So when one interview goes off the tracks and the advisors dash onto the set, their interjections are extemporaneous, as is some of the cinematography.
What Howard unintentionally ended up doing on "Frost/Nixon" was re-creating the dynamic from his comedies, in which he would cast skilled jokesters ( Steve Martin in "Parenthood," Michael Keaton in "Night Shift," Jim Carrey in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas"), turn on the lights and camera and get out of the way.
"It was my job to free these guys," Howard says of Langella and Sheen, "and let them give me everything they knew about these characters."
Horn is a Times staff writer.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times