Tony McNamara puts the F back in Historical Fiction

July 3, 2020 Jeff Goldsmith

For your reading pleasure, in honor of the second season being greenlit on Hulu – please enjoy this interview excerpt with The Great writer/showrunner Tony McNamara from the upcoming issue of Backstory.
If you enjoy what you’ve read in the excerpt – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!
Note: While this article is currently found in Issue 41, it’s actually a part of the upcoming (currently unpublished) issue 42 and will be moved into 42 once it goes live.
Issue 42
The Great – Season One
By David Somerset
Anyone who watched 2018’s Oscar-winning black comedy The Favourite knows that when it comes to historical drama, Tony McNamara is no fan of sticking with the dry textbook retelling of past times. Alongside director Yorgos Lanthimos, he took a script originated by Deborah Davis and cooked up a chaotic, cynically minded look at royalty, rank, female friendship and a jostling for power that was quite different from other sanitized and quite proper period dramas. And now he brings a similar zest to the story of longtime 18th-century Empress of Russia Catherine the Great.
One might be surprised to learn that the genesis of The Great stretches back more than a decade in the form of a play written by native Australian McNamara that premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company. With her rich, multilayered real-life arc, it’s not all that shocking why Catherine would make a very compelling subject for McNamara. The actual Catherine arrived in Russia from Prussia as the unsure, naive bride of Peter, a short-term Russian emperor. Quickly taking hold of life in the court, she ended up—spoiler alert—overthrowing both her husband and the country. From there, she encouraged the study of science and the promotion of art and literature. A creative part of the stage work was McNamara’s choice to have two actresses playing the main character in different periods of her life: a young woman who takes over a nation and an older, firmly established ruler. After the play’s successful run, the writer began to consider bringing the comedic drama to the screen. “What made me think it could work in a way is that someone wanted to option it, which was helpful!” he laughs. “And so we went down the road of a film for a while. Even after the play, I didn’t think I was done with it.” He tried a few screenplay drafts but soon realized that a film’s more limited running time couldn’t encompass everything he wanted to achieve. “We persevered with it as a film for a while, but in the end TV seemed a more natural home.” Still, as show business would have it, in his attempt to take the semi-fictionalized work to the screen, a draft of The Great caught Lanthimos’ attention, won its writer the job of rewriting The Favourite and landed him a well-deserved BAFTA Award for best original screenplay, which he shared with Davis.
With his focus pivoted to television, McNamara saw The Great picked up by Hulu for an initial 10 episodes. Having worked on several TV shows in Australia, he set up a small writers’ room, meaning three to five scribes, and dove right in crafting the first two episodes to establish the show’s style and tone. “TV is a slightly different animal, in that it’s a 10-hour story in this case—hopefully more—and so you approach it differently. The basics are the same, but the length of the story you’re telling and want to tell is different. You’re often writing episodes and you’ve got an idea of what’s going to happen down the road, but you also know there’s a lot of stuff you don’t know about, and it’s less so than when you’re writing a film or a play, where you’re more sure of that. But I like that about TV. I like being 75 percent sure of where I’m going, and 25 percent of it I’m going to work it out later and be surprised myself.”
Fortunately for McNamara, he landed the leads he wanted in Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. McNamara had worked with Hoult on The Favourite, and the British actor was his first choice to play the pompous, preening, obliviously capricious Peter, a boy in a grown-up’s position with a fixation on his dead mother and a seething need to be loved and respected by everyone around him. Fanning proved to be the perfect young Catherine, with the ideal mix of intensity and sensitivity McNamara was seeking. “I was very confident about both of them when I cast them, but I didn’t know what they’d be like together in a screen chemistry way,” he says. “Once I saw them together, early on, they did one of their breakfast scenes, where they bounce off each other. They were so great, and their ability to play five pages across the table at each other was great. It made me want to write long scenes between them a lot, because it’s an integral part of the show anyway, and they had a lot of fun with it, even though they’d sometimes complain when I’d come to them with some six-page scene: ‘So many words!’ ”
Dig what you’ve read? We hope you’ll read the rest of this article to learn more about McNamara’s experience making the first season, including spoiler specific info as well.
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For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.