Yorgos Lanthimos: ‘The Favourite’ Is Not a History Lesson – Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast

Yorgos Lanthimos talks to the Filmmaker Toolkit Podcast on how he and screenwriter Tony McNamara crafted the unconventional period drama.
Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in "The Favourite"
Yorgos Lanthimos

When director Yorgos Lanthimos read Deborah Davis’ script for what became known as “The Favourite,” he first became intrigued by the idea of making a period costume drama. On IndieWire’s Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, he talked about what it was specifically that drew him to Queen Anne’s story.

“I was interested in three women that had this kind of power,” said Lanthimos. “And how their relationships, although very intimate and personal, they affected the fate of a whole nation.”

However, he had little interest in making a film that was slavish to history. According to screenwriter Tony McNamara – whom the director hired to rewrite Davis’ script, history was just the starting point.

“I remember [Yorgos] said in some development meeting,” said McNamara. “‘If people are coming to this movie for a history lesson, they’re going to be in the wrong movie.'”

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For McNamara and Lanthimos, the story was always about the women’s humanity, not the details of their lives. History and primary documentation were fodder for story ideas, rather than source material.

“It was what serves our story and serves the essence of what we’re trying to do,” said McNamara. “And if does, and it’s true, that’s nice. If it doesn’t, we don’t care that much.”

Lanthimos interjected, “Or we’ll fix it. Sometimes when we got stuck, we would look back. If we needed an idea for something and we couldn’t come up with something, sometimes we would go back and check what actually happened and maybe we can get something from there. Sometimes it would be useful.”

In particular, the two collaborators found the womens’ real-life private letters to be helpful. Yet the language of the time, and how the women would have spoken, was something they never concerned themselves with mastering. According to McNamara, they were looking for the characters’ language to be more contemporary and freer than in a traditional period film.

Emma Stone and Director Yorgos Lanthimos on the set of THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Atsushi Nishijima. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Emma Stone and Director Yorgos Lanthimos on the set of “The Favourite”Atsushi Nishijima

“We wanted a tone that wasn’t ‘Howards End’ or a Merchant-Ivory. We wanted a tone that was different and reflected what we would like to see in a period film,” said McNamara. “We aren’t from that tradition. A Greek [Lanthimos] and an Australian [McNamara], making a English period movie — what do you expect?”

Lanthimos was also concerned his actors would put too much emphasis on the dialogue. He wanted to get the text drilled into the actors through an unconventional rehearsal process that steered them away from over-intellectualizing their lines.

“I don’t want them to learn the lines by rationalizing what the scenes are and how they’re supposed to do it and how they’re supposed to say certain things,” said Lanthimos. “So I try to have them learn the lines while they’re doing a bunch of other physical activities that basically take away their concentration from the actual lines and what they mean. So they have these very contradicting activity going on – from jumping around a room when [reciting] dialogue – that has nothing to do with [the drama].”

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, OvercastStitcherSoundCloud and Google Play Music. Previous episodes include:

The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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