EXCLUSIVE: As screenwriter Tony McNamara landed in London this past weekend to make good on his BAFTA nomination for writing The Favourite with Deborah Davis, he was already having a pretty ‘Great’ weekend. On Friday he found out his new TV show The Great, about the life of Catherine the Great of Russia would be picked up to series by Hulu (it was announced at TCA this past Monday). So his BAFTA win was just icing on the cake.
Now, speaking for the first time since the pickup, McNamara reveals that it was actually his pilot script for The Great that inspired director Yorgos Lanthimos to reach out to him for The Favourite. Deborah Davis had written a more strictly dramatic draft of the long-in-gestation project she had nursed, and when Lanthimos came aboard, he reviewed the work of some 150 writers before finding just the tone he was seeking in McNamara’s The Great.
“It, too, was a period piece that was irreverent and had a very comic, ultimately tragic tone,” McNamara says now. “It was the same language that we used in The Favourite, in that it’s a hybrid of contemporary and period. He liked all that, and he felt like it fitted with his sensibility and what he wanted to turn the original script into; basically to reinvent the genre a little bit.”
It’s a surprising turn of events for a writer who claims to hate period pieces…
You’re famously no fan of period projects. How did you wind up writing two?
I’m not a fan, really [laughs]. I used to think, If I have to watch people tie their shoes with ribbons, I want to put a gun to my head. I think that was the thing. The Favourite, I mean, it was a great historical story, but Yorgos felt as I did, and I’m not interested in a straight telling. Something straight dramatic. I’m interested in how you change something to make it more contemporary and to speak to an audience now, and to have more fun, I guess.
I think straight away we knew that we didn’t want it to be a drama. We didn’t want it to be a really detailed historical thing. It was all about the three women’s characters, and it was all about the tone. Changing the tone, creating, or as he used to say, re-engineering the whole thing into a different tone and a new tone for a period movie. Giving a new shape to the story.
So it then becomes a character piece that could take place today?
You do end up looking at them like that. I very much took that view, and it was the same with The Great as well. When I wrote The Great—which predates The Favourite—I wanted to think about them as contemporary characters. When they woke up in the morning, the dilemmas they faced were as vital as our dilemmas today. I never wanted it to feel like were watching something that happened a long time ago. I really like to feel like it’s as vital or intense as it is for us today.
Emotion doesn’t change. Relationships don’t change.
Exactly. I always think they were exactly the same as us, except they have carriages and giant houses, palaces and stuff. You get up and you’re unhappy with your friend, or you’re unhappy in your marriage, and how are you going to deal with it? It’s all those basic things that everyone goes through, and I’m sure they went through them in the same way except instead of driving to a coffee shop in a car, they’re getting a carriage down to the crochet lawn or something.
Not only did you win the BAFTA, but, among others, Olivia Colman won Best Actress and Rachel Weisz Best Supporting Actress. You get the sense Emma Stone might have won a third if there was one. The interplay with these three women was so key. How quickly did you find it?
Well, finding the characters was pretty easy; I found that quite quickly. But the interplay between them, and the weight of the story and the balance between the three of them, and how every decision or action to one also affected the other, so they’re all affected all the time. That was a bit of a balance of having multi-protagonists, basically.
And the ending was hard because you’re ending a multi-protagonist story, and you’re trying to do it in a really efficient way. I wanted to end it without too much dialogue, even though the film’s got a lot. My thing is strong dialogue and comic dialogue, so we wanted to reduce that as the movie ended to try to find images that ended the movie instead of too much dialogue.
All three of them had incredibly strong intentions throughout the movie. Incredibly visceral needs that they’re not polite about going after. They’re always trying to get what they want, sometimes motivated by love, and sometimes motivated by power, and sometimes motivated for safety. That was part of the idea of making it more contemporary, that they weren’t polite characters. They were very, “I want what I want, and I’m trying to get it.” They don’t apologize. Yorgos is so amazing at not judging the characters for that, and he lets the audience be with them. He’s such a genius. It’s great to have written a script and to watch him direct it.
You’ll be working together again, right?
Yes, I’m just finishing an adaptation for him at the moment.
So given your distaste for period projects, what led you to Catherine the Great in the first place, bearing in mind you generated that idea?
I began writing theater, and I always wrote contemporary stories. Contemporary comedies, really. I loved things like Barry Lyndon and Dangerous Liaisons, but I had no interest in period stories. I never, ever thought I would do one. Also, because I’m Australian, we don’t really have that in our culture, because we’re such a young country. It’s a thing we watched from other countries, but never did ourselves.
But then I just read about Catherine the Great. I knew the jokes about her, but that was all I knew. I watched 15 minutes of something on TV about her, and then I was interested so I dug a little deeper. She immediately struck me as amazing, because she started women’s education and she kept the enlightenment alive at the time. I thought, well there’s a character. She was a young woman who went to a foreign country and ended up running it. She married an idiot and ended up taking over this country. I thought she was an amazing woman and character and became very interested in writing about it.
And then my period feelings weighed in. I had to think, If I wanted to watch this, how would it have to be written? It would have to be really funny, contemporary and dark, and to feel fast and furious. That was the approach I took. But really, I just wanted to tell this young woman’s story. I had a young daughter, and I was very interested in who she could look up to; which characters in history could inspire her.
Where do we pick up the story in the first episode?
We pick it up with Catherine more or less arriving in Russia to discover Peter, the emperor that she’s married. And of course, as was traditional, they’d never met, so she arrives not really knowing who she’s going to meet and what he’s going to be like. Or even what Russia’s like at the time. It’s a great entrance to any TV show I guess, because she discovers this crazy world that she’s now a part of.
The pilot shot late last year; how did it turn out?
It’s turned out really great. I met Nicholas Hoult when I was in rehearsals on The Favourite, and as soon as I met Nick, things started to click. t wasn’t really a TV show at that point. It had been a play and a film, and I was always struggling the fact it was such a massive story for a film. I wanted to tell it as a story that goes for years and years. I sort of had the script, but I wasn’t that enthused about it. Then I met Nick, and as soon as I met Nick, I felt like he could play Peter, who’s a very funny, off the rails character.
I also knew about Elle [Fanning]’s work, because our managers had a connection, and so I had this idea then about turning it into TV. I’d worked in TV a lot. As soon as I thought of that, I thought, Oh, that way I can tell the story properly, finally, because it’s a great, really long story. I wrote a pilot, sent it to Nick and Elle, and they both wanted to do it. From there it all happened quite quickly. We took it out and people really liked it. We landed at Hulu, who were fantastic partners for us in making the pilot, and now they’ve just greenlit the show, so we all get to do it.
There have been a lot of Catherine the Great projects around, and there still are I guess, but I think we’ve got an amazing cast and a different point of view. It’s not a straight historical drama. It’s very much my version of what historical dramas should be.
Between the pickup and the BAFTA, a pretty good weekend.
Yes [laughs]. We delivered the pilot about a week ago and they told me on Friday. As weekends go, it was pretty good.