As a playwright and screenwriter, Tony McNamara was never particularly interested in scripting the period piece. The irony is, of course, that he’s spent the last several years doing so, and it’s these projects specifically that have brought his career to new heights.
Between Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite and his Hulu series The Great, McNamara has earned his first Oscar and Emmy nominations, perfecting the art of revisionist historical storytelling, while cultivating the brash comedic tone for which he is now well known.
Interestingly, while The Favourite preceded The Great by two years, it was McNamara’s pilot script for the series that landed him the former gig. Originating in 2008, as a play performed at the Sydney Theatre Company, The Great was adapted first as a film, before McNamara recognized that the story at hand was better suited to the expanse of TV.
Debuting in May, the series explores Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning)’s path to becoming the longest-reigning female ruler in Russia’s history. Billed as an “occasionally true” story, it watches as she plots the murder of her crass and dangerous husband, Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), for the sake of her country’s future.
Below, McNamara reflects on the opportunity he’s found in playing with history, the challenge of building The Great’s world, and his plans for Season 2.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to write the play on which The Great is based?
TONY MCNAMARA: I think the genesis was a mixture of things. I’d written probably four or five contemporary plays at Sydney Theatre Company, and the head of the company, Robyn [Nevin], who’s a mentor and a great actress, said, “Write something for me.” At the same time, I was like, “I’m a bit done with contemporary for a minute,” so I was sort of casting around for something.
I thought I’d probably write something set in the ’50s because I liked that era in politics. But then I saw a little something about Catherine the Great, or read a tiny bit about what she’d done, versus what I knew about her, which was the rumor of the horse, and I thought, “Well, that’s such a contemporary thing, that someone’s life is reduced to a salacious headline.”
So, that made me want to write it, and then I was like, “Oh, well how would I write it? What language would I use? What style would I use, so I liked it?” Rather than it be a straight period thing, which I wouldn’t like, and I probably wouldn’t be very good at writing. So I was like, “Well, what plays to my strengths, and how would I write it?” That’s sort of how it started.
DEADLINE: What value have you found, in looking at history through a loose, comedic lens?
MCNAMARA: I think it’s a good way because on a lot of levels it’s a contemporary TV show, but I think the period aspect gives it an irony and a juxtaposition, and it allows us to have a high-stakes world that’s divorced from ours, so it’s sort of fascinating and fun. So much of it’s true, and often the things that people think we made up are things that were actually true. So, I think I find all that fun. It’s a real opportunity for a writer to make something that is reflective of the contemporary world, in a lot of ways, but is its own world. I think because I’ve loosened from the history a lot, it allows me as a writer to create a world, and to pick and choose what I want, in a way, so it’s very creatively fun.
DEADLINE: Certainly, The Great presents a number of frightening parallels to today’s world. Season 1 addresses timely topics including gender and social class, and in one episode, you even refer to quarantine, after the prospect of a plague within Peter’s palace comes to light.
MCNAMARA: Yeah, that’s kind of a remarkable one because obviously we made it last year before [the coronavirus pandemic] happened. I think I delivered the final edit of that episode the second week of March, and Team Hulu were like, “Oh my God. It’s so weird that we’re doing this.” But I guess it’s that thing, as well, of the world changes, but on some levels, it never changes.
DEADLINE: What kind of research did you use to ground the world of The Great? And what interesting findings presented themselves?
MCNAMARA: Even for the play, I decoupled from history, because it’s just like, if I tell a factual, slavish retelling, A) what am I doing? Because people can look that up in a history book. And B) it’s just a history book: Someone wrote it, someone decided the facts. So, I was just like, “What’s the essence of her life?” That’s what we always go back to. Or “What do I think is the essence? What are the important things from her?” So, that is always the dialogue between what actually happened and what I think we should put in the show.
I don’t do any research now, but I did at the start. Now, I have a writers’ room and they do research, but it’s more filtered through me, and what I think tonally works for the show. There’s usually a couple of events, like the smallpox thing, events in her life that I think we have to put in the show. It doesn’t mean we put them in as a perfect reflection of what happened. It’s like those events mean something in her legacy, and so they’re in—but they’re in, in our way. And then use a lot of smaller details, in a way. Like, that’s the fun aspect. It is like the lemons for contraception, and the pregnancy test with the hay, and all of that’s true. So, it’s things like that. We’re always finding the weirdest things.
We’re doing Season 2 at the moment, and yesterday, we had this specific list for something we’re doing, and it was just insane. I was like, “If we do all this, people will just think we made all of it up, and it would destroy the show because people would just go, ‘These guys are out of their freaking minds, thinking we’re going to buy any of that.’” But it was all true. So I was like, “We kind of have to pick a couple of these, and then we’ll make a few up, and we’ll ground it in our own show.” So, it is constantly like grabbing bits and pieces—and that’s why the title says, “occasionally true,” because it is.
DEADLINE: Has it been challenging to translate the story of The Great for TV?
MCNAMARA: The play was 60 minutes, and the screenplay was 90, so [the first season is] like 10 hours, and now 20 or 30 hours. The challenge is really building the world, as the writer and the showrunner. That’s the biggest thing with the TV show, building the world, building really rich characters that can sustain you, that you can always turn to. I can turn to any of my ensemble of 11 and have great scenes, and find great things that they can bring to the show at any moment. So a lot of the work was that, just building a really cohesive world—a world in script, and in the actual, physical world.
I knew from the play I had two great main characters, and then I knew I had two great actors. So it was then like, “Okay, how do I now build a world that tells the story? How do I build a world of characters that will get me great actors, because they’ll feel like they’re going to have great scenes to do, [where] I’ll have something that can sustain 20 or 30 hours of drama?”
So, that’s the main task, I guess. I wrote the pilot, and then I built the series, which I pitched to Hulu, and then I wrote the second episode. Then, we got green lit, and from there, I had a writers’ room. So, it was sort of like that.
DEADLINE: What have you enjoyed about working with your cast?
MCNAMARA: The show’s tonally very specific, and we cast very slowly and methodically. I think what’s great about all of them is, they all had to be really instinctively brilliant at comedy, and also just be able to effortlessly change gear into drama. So, they had to be very truthful actors, basically. They don’t really reach for the gags because they’re just so good, they don’t need to, and they don’t feel they need to.
As well as watching tapes, we meet them all and spend time before we cast, because it’s also like you’re putting together a team and an ensemble of people, and they all have the same attitude to the work, which is sort of unique. No one ever doesn’t know their lines. It’s a really professional team who love working, and they all get on, so we were really lucky in that way. They’re really disciplined, and it’s quite a disciplined show. No one’s allowed to say a word that isn’t written, so there’s no ad-libbing. It’s very hardcore, in terms of the rhythm of the show, so they have to really be on, and they are.
For me, it’s great. Someone can be sort of in the background, but you can suddenly bring Velementov to the fore and give him a great episode, and he’ll just eat it up. Or Aunt Elizabeth, or any of these characters. They’re just really great, confident actors who I have complete faith in. I never go, “Oh, I don’t know if they’ll be able to do that.” I just throw anything at anyone, and I know they can do it. That’s great for me as a writer, to know they can do that.
DEADLINE: Have there been other major challenges in bringing The Great to life, apart from establishing its world?
MCNAMARA: Not really. I think the biggest thing was casting, and then the other thing I guess is the tone, making sure everyone understands what you’re trying to do. It wasn’t a perfect world, and we’re making it in England, so to them, a period show is creating the perfect world. We have an Italian production designer, so her and I, being Australian and Italian, we’re much more like, “This should be very anarchic and messy, as well as beautiful.” [But] I think some of the English craftspeople were like, “Why do you want us to scratch furniture? Why do you want to break that? Why are you smashing glasses all the time?” So, one of the big challenges was getting everyone’s head in where I wanted the show to sit, probably.
DEADLINE: Can you recall specific highlights or memorable moments from the Season 1 shoot?
MCNAMARA: The first time I saw Nick and Elle do one of those breakfast scenes, where they just sit down and go head to head for five pages, in a two-hander kind of way, I was just thrilled because I was like, “The chemistry’s great. Their rhythm’s amazing. They’re so fun.” I knew they were both great actors, but you really don’t know what the chemistry is going to be until you put them together, and once I saw them together, I was like, “Yeah, we really have a show if we build it on that.” So, I think that was great.
And I think sometimes in Naples, when we’re in Italy shooting in this giant palace, we all get a thrill out of that because we’re like, “This is surreal.” It was quite surreal for the Australian mind to even be there, as well as like, “That’s my carriage, full of people and soldiers.”
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about Season 2?
MCNAMARA: [We’re] in process. We’re trying to work out how you make a TV show with all the protocols that you need in place, safely. That’s what everyone’s doing, I guess. So, that’s a challenge. Then, story-wise, it’s going to be very similar, but very different, I guess is the way you try and do it. I don’t know that I can give any story [details]. It’s just going to be quite fun. I pitched it to Nick and Elle the other day, and they were very excited.
DEADLINE: You’ve said in the past that you envision a six-season run for The Great. Do you still intend to pursue that, if everything falls into place?
MCNAMARA: I don’t know. At the moment, I’m just concentrating on this one. I think originally, I thought it was probably going to be a more Crown kind of structure, but at the moment, Nick, Elle and I just are loving it so much. Hopefully, they’ll let us do probably more than initially thought, but I don’t know. I think at the moment, I’m like some old footballer, just taking it one season at a time.
DEADLINE: I know you worked on the screenplay for Craig Gillespie’s Cruella. But what else do you have coming up?
MCNAMARA: I’ve written a movie for Yorgos that they’re going to shoot next year, and then I’m just adapting another book for Yorgos at the moment.
DEADLINE: What has quarantine been like for you? Has it been challenging to focus on your work, with everything that’s going on in the world?
MCNAMARA: It’s been a bit complicated, I think. I live most of the year in London, and then I also live in Australia, so it’s been complicated in the sense that we came back to Australia. Australia’s been pretty good COVID-wise, but all the state borders are closed, so to see our family in three different states, we have to move around and quarantine all the time. That’s been a little bit tricky, but Australia’s been one of the luckiest places, so it hasn’t been too bad.
Writing-wise, I think all the writers I know, we all joke and go, “I don’t think our life’s changed. We’re just stuck in a room at home.” But I think everyone found it very hard to focus for that first couple of months. I think now everyone’s getting in the groove of it, even though, unfortunately, the Zoom Room replacing the physical writers’ room is not ideal. I think most showrunners don’t like it, but it is what it is.