Screenwriters Deborah Davis & Tony McNamara Break Down Their Long, Gratifying Journeys With ‘The Favourite’

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A visionary director who had written or co-written each of his films since starting out in 1995, Yorgos Lanthimos changed tack with his latest effort, The Favourite, collaborating with screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, for his first period piece. While the auteur is famously uncompromising in his work, both writers spoke to Deadline recently, revealing just how inclusive and collaborative Lanthimos is. Working at the director’s side over the course of many years—and even taking in his rehearsal process on the Fox Searchlight tragicomedy—each received an executive producer credit on the film, a testament in itself to how involving and rich Lanthimos’ process is.

Examining a period in Britain seldom mined in the past through cinema, The Favourite hits a unique middle ground between history and fiction, with its writers standing in for these opposite ends of the spectrum. Set in the court of Queen Anne, in the early 18th century, the film follows this frail figure and the historical turning point she straddles, as Lady Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, and her inveigling cousin war over the sovereign’s affections.

Olivia Colman - The Favourite

When Davis set out some 20 years ago to write an original script, then titled Balance of Power, she approached it as a “keen historian,” with an interest in the “absolutely vital shift” in Britain “from a despotic monarchy to a constitutional monarch,” and the Rage of Party that resulted. “I was very interested in discovering a piece of history where women were in power, and weren’t particularly nice, sympathetic characters. They were complex and had very deep, intimate, and complex emotions towards one another, and I think that’s a lovely thing to explore and see on screen,” Davis says, “to see women running the show.” Many years later, when Lanthimos became attached to the picture, he brought McNamara with him, who could walk a complex tonal line, and reconfigure the project to feel both classical and contemporary, employing historical basis so far as it could aid the director’s storytelling, and discarding the rest.

As the old adage goes, a film is written three times, finding its final shape in the edit. So naturally, fundamental aspects of The Favourite came about in the cutting room—most prominently, its structuring into titled chapters. And while the film took its time to gestate, going through a number of iterations, for both writers, the final product was worth the wait. “It’s an immense relief that it took this journey and has reached this point, and it’s a source of great satisfaction that it happened as it happened,” Davis reflects. “It took this long, but so what?”

“I remember seeing it and thinking it was amazing,” McNamara adds, “but also what I thought it would be, from how we talked about it, and how I’d understood he was going to approach it, and from watching him with the actors on set.” Recognized by BAFTA, the Golden Globes, the British Independent Film Awards, the Critics’ Choice Awards, and the Gotham Awards with nominations for Best Original Screenplay, The Favourite may be the film to beat in that category, come Oscar night on February 24th.

Deborah, your connection to this film goes back about 20 years. How did you originally discover the piece of history that would become The Favourite?

Deborah Davis: I read an article in a local London newspaper, and the writer said something along the lines of, “Everyone knows Queen Anne was having an affair with Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.” I studied history at university, and knew all about my kings and queens of England, but I didn’t know anything about this event, or anything about Queen Anne. So, I started researching, and stumbled on an extraordinary story of women in power, running the country from [their] royal bedchamber, and a female triangle that was pretty toxic.

At the point when you stumbled on this story, you’d never written a screenplay before.

Davis: That is absolutely correct. I just had it in my mind that this must be a film, so I sent myself to evening class at our local college. We had a wonderful teacher, actually, and the first thing he taught us was, “Drama is conflict.” So, I thought to myself, I’ve got the right story for this film. I showed the first draft to Ceci Dempsey, the producer of this movie, in 1998, and at that stage, she was not ready to take it on. But I was accepted to go to the University of East Anglia to do an MA in scriptwriting, pretty much on the basis of that first draft. So, I went there, and spent two years learning the craft of scriptwriting. I came back to her in about 2002, 2003, and said, “I’ve carried on working on this script, and I’m interested to know whether you’d like to become involved.” And at that stage, she did. It went into formal development with, I believe, the [UK] Film Council, and it stayed in development right the way through. My script was optioned from then on until it got made.

It’s not uncommon to hear of films taking a decade or more to get made. But why do you think it took 20 or so years in this case?

Davis: Really, you’d need to speak to Ceci about this, because she was the one who had to go out and sell it, but my understanding is that the subject matter was very difficult for her to sell, because potential financiers were not that keen on three women leads. Of course, this was not just a three-woman story; it was a very complex female triangle about love, rivalry, loyalty, revenge, and it didn’t really hit the zeitgeist at that point.

Even in its inventions, The Favourite presents fascinating historical detail pertaining to life in Queen Anne’s era. In your research, what were the resources that really opened a window into this world?

Davis: Sarah and Anne wrote to each other throughout their lives, and a lot of their letters survive; a lot of them were love letters, actually. They had a relationship of absolute trust, which went back to when Sarah first went to court at the age of 13 as a maid of honor to Princess Anne’s stepmother. They just grew up together. Sarah was five years older, and she was Anne’s protector, so the letters are very moving, and Anne said things like, “I’d prefer to live in a cottage with you than reign Empress of the World.” And Sarah really looked after Anne through some very difficult times, in the run up to her appointment as Queen. Then, looking at the breakdown of their relationship, which was very moving, Sarah wrote many versions of that. She couldn’t stop writing about it, and how Abigail became the absolute favorite. There is a memoir that she published many years after Anne died, and only a few years before Sarah died, which is absolute dynamite, and pretty much tells you what was going on, how this female triangle had shifted against her, and she had been outmaneuvered by her young cousin, who she had introduced to the court as a favor.

If we turn to Abigail, we have letters from Abigail to Harley, the Tory leader who became the equivalent of Prime Minister after Abigail replaced Sarah. She used to write to him in code; she called Queen Anne her aunt, and she called Sarah “Lady Pye.” They were just plotting, these two. Jonathan Swift, who wrote Gulliver’s Travels, was a very strong Tory, and was very friendly with Harley and Abigail. In his diaries, he says he discovered Abigail deep in conversation with Harley when he went to visit her, so there is no doubt from the primary sources that Abigail was plotting to replace Sarah, and this wasn’t just a question of replacing her in the bedchamber, but also of influencing the balance of power in Parliament.

Was reading these letters instrumental in establishing your characters’ voices on the page?

Davis: Absolutely. Sarah is one of these characters who was very forthright. That was really her problem, in that whatever she thought, she said, and when it came to handling this situation of the Queen’s affections being taken by someone else, she was not strategic, ruled by her emotions. Abigail was totally strategic and had a game plan; she outmaneuvered Sarah because she was playing a game, [whereas] Sarah was just expressing how she really felt.

If The Favourite was ever going to be a more straightforward historical drama, that certainly wouldn’t be the case from the moment Yorgos Lanthimos signed on. With your interest and attention to historical fact, were you ever concerned with the idea of taking creative liberties with the story?

Davis: Not at all. I’d written a stage play, a comic romp about the poet Alexander Pope in the reign of George II, which is a complete sendup of all the classic tropes of playwriting. So, this was absolutely, exactly what I wanted for this film. Yorgos is an extraordinary director [who] had a unique take on this material, more interested in playing with anachronism than in being faithful to history. He was looking at and playing with the form, and that’s what his genius is.

Tony, how did you come to work on the film? What about the opportunity, and this story, was compelling to you?

Tony McNamara: Yorgos had Deborah’s script, and basically was looking for a writer to come in and re-engineer it, to make it a very complex story, but make it feel fresh and contemporary at the same time. He’d read stuff that made him think I could do that, and I watched Dogtooth and Alps, and really loved them, and felt like our sensibilities were very similar. So, we just talked about it for a while, and then started working on it. I was in Australia and he was in London, so we’d work by Skype, and meet in various places over the five or six years it took us to do it.

Can you flesh out a sense of your early meetings with Lanthimos, and what the focus of your conversations was?

McNamara: We talked about what we wanted to do with the characters, making them very complicated and very human, and letting them behave badly, as well. As long as we understood them, we felt like we could do anything with them. We had a big, long conversation about tone, and that was a sort of comic tone that had a contemporary hybridization of language. We knew the end was tragic, but the first two thirds were comedy, so we worked a lot on how that structure would work, and how we would make that work.

We also talked about the history. Deborah’s a historian, so it was a very historical document, the original material, but we were just taking bits of story. We felt like there was a fundamental truth to [Queen Anne and Sarah’s] relationship, and that was what we wanted to tell. But we weren’t really interested in the historical detail of it, if that got in the way of a great film—and particularly, if it got in the way of great characters. We wanted to tell this story about these three women, a personal story that affected a country politically in a massive way, but beyond that, we didn’t really stick to the history slavishly on any level. You know, [Lanthimos] would say, “If people are coming to this movie for a history lesson, they’re coming to the wrong movie.” We used historical details if it suited us, and we felt like it told the story and helped the tone. For example, the way Nicholas Hoult’s character and the people on his side of politics dressed was real; they did dress like that, and we liked the idea of that. But Yorgos, of course, in his way, took it further than the truth.

Was the outright debauchery we see in Queen Anne’s court taken specifically from historical record?

McNamara: That wasn’t really historically lifted. That was more a feeling we wanted about the courts. We didn’t want the film to feel polite, so I would write things where the court was a little debauched, and a little erratic, and had its own thing going on. Because that’s one of the things about period films that I personally don’t really like, how polite they are, and how orderly the world is. I wanted the world to be a little more chaotic, so that you could surprise the audience, and people could do extreme things because that was the world they lived in.

How did you strike a balance with the film’s dialogue, to arrive at an appropriate hybrid, reflecting both a contemporary and historical feel?

I don’t really know. It doesn’t come out perfectly. Sometimes, there would be scenes or bits of language that were too contemporary, and we would go through the script quite often to try and work out how far we could go. It was more a few words in a sentence of dialogue [that were] contemporary, so it’s meshed in, but it’s not everything.

Was it challenging to balance a narrative centered on three protagonists, tangled in power dynamics that are ever shifting?

McNamara: I thought it would be hard, but it was actually kind of liberating to have three, because it just gave you more options and places to go. Often, an action in a script has a reaction, but just one antagonist and protagonist. But because it’s three protagonists, there was always this cascading effect, and there were more twists. It was fun to have options, [though] there was work to do, making sure that the three were in balance, throughout.

Were there aspects of your creative experience on The Favourite that were particularly satisfying for you, in the end?

I think it was satisfying because I got to work with a great artist, so you sort of find things in yourself that are great. It was also satisfying because we had a great time. We ate in every restaurant in London, and ate across Italy, and we enjoy our process. I’m writing a new film for him at the moment and that’s the process, a lot of lunch and talking. It’s very creative, and very organic; we try things that don’t work, and no one worries about it. We just keep trying things. I feel like I found a really lovely way of working, and someone I really think is great, and a friend. Just a good place to be.

You’ve written and directed two films yourself, Ashby and The Rage in Placid Lake. Do you see yourself going back to directing again?

Absolutely not! [Laughs] No. I think now, I’ve seen a great director in action, and I’m happy to try and be a really good writer. Leave it to great directors to direct.

Can you share any details with regard to the next film you’re writing for Lanthimos?

We’re a couple of drafts in. He hasn’t really talked about what it is, but it’s fun. It’s cool.

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