How an Australian Writer Rewrote British History to Make The Favourite One of the Year's Best Movies

The inside story of how Tony McNamara, the man behind Doctor Doctor and The Secret Life of Us, teamed up with Yorgos Lanthimos to create Oscar contender The Favourite

By Ashley Spencer Dec 27, 2018 3:37 AMTags
The Favourite20th Century Fox

In 2011, Yorgos Lanthimos found himself at a crossroads.

The Greek director known for his confrontational, distinctly weird style—see: The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Dogtooth—was attached to a script about Britain's 18th-century Queen Anne and her two close female associates.

But the boundary pushing auteur didn't want to make a standard period film. He wanted it to feel fresh, unexpected and darkly comedic. He wanted it to feel Lanthimos.

Enter Tony McNamara: the Kilmore-raised writer behind beloved Australian TV series like The Secret Life of UsPuberty Blues, Doctor Doctor and a slew of popular plays at the Sydney Theatre Company.

Lanthimos recruited McNamara, and over the next five or so years the pair overhauled Deborah Davis' original script to incorporate their modern vision while keeping her core structure.

"I think for Yorgos and me, and especially me, we had no particular respectfulness," McNamara tells E! News. "We didn't feel beholden to the history. We didn't feel beholden to the way you tell a period story on film. And we wanted it to be contemporary, so it was more keeping with the type of films he'd made and the sort of writer I am."

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The result is The Favourite, one of 2018's most surprising, irreverent and enjoyable films. Starring Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, The Favourite explores the ailing monarch's central relationships with her close friend Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah's cousin, Abigail Hill, played by Emma Stone. Through power plays and sexual manipulations, the two women clamber to be the Queen's, well, favourite, while also holding the fate of an at-war England in their porcelain hands.

"I think with me being Australian, it never felt to me like I was writing a film where I was looking back at something. These felt like characters now who happened to live in a castle and have big dresses. They were just like us, really," says McNamara. "And we wanted to tell this as a great story, so we would leave the history behind whenever we wanted. Yorgos used to say, 'If people are coming to this movie for a history lesson, they're going to be coming to the wrong movie.'"

While they ditched Queen Anne's husband, George, and fabricated her 17 pet rabbits, Lanthimos and McNamara leaned into the widely rumoured love affair between Anne and Sarah and the role Sarah played in influencing (and blackmailing) the monarchy. Add in a dash of Abigail's social climbing, a few C-words and a series of fictionalised exploits, and The Favourite became a showcase for three truly complex female roles.

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"There's a natural desire to fit the system and simplify female characters to be really good or really evil. But we wanted them to sometimes behave well and sometimes behave badly and still have you understand why they wanted things," McNamara says. "The main thing for us through the whole process is that they were complicated, and they weren't easy."

Supporting the refreshingly gender-flipped narrative are bumbling, wig-adorned men—including political opposition leader Robert Harley (Nicholas Hoult) and nobleman Samuel Masham (Joe Alwyn)—who find themselves at the mercy of the women in charge.

"We both really liked how these men have no traction and are desperately trying to find some traction in this society because the women have all the power," says McNamara. "And it was funny in the fact that Nicholas Hoult's side of politics [the Tories] did really dress as crazy as that."

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Though still largely based in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, McNamara is currently spending most of his time in London where he's executive producing The Great, a TV series "similar" to The Favourite about Catherine the Great, starring Hoult and Elle Fanning.

And as awards buzz continues to build for The Favourite—among its five Golden Globes nominations is a best screenplay nod for McNamara and Davis—McNamara is already hard at work on another film for Lanthimos.

"I'm writing a new one for him, and it's similarly accessible," McNamara tells E! News. "It's an adaptation of a book, and it's a sort of comic-fantasy, black comedy, female-driven story. As soon as Yorgos thinks it's ready, he'll go and do it, but it might take years or it might be six months. It's fun for a writer to work with a really interesting director who's very creative and very open. There are no real boundaries because he's not worried about what people think."

The Favourite is in Australian cinemas now.

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