Set in early 18th century England, The Favourite stars much buzzed about Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, at a time of war with France. The Queen is frail, and her close friend Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) governs in her stead, but when a new servant (Emma Stone) arrives, the three women’s lives become entwined in a film that director Yorgos Lanthimos says was influenced by All About Eve and The Servant (1963, Joseph Losey).
“There’s also a play by an English writer that I really love, called Phaedra’s Love by Sarah Kane,” he adds. “It is a rewriting of a Greek tragedy, which has a very particular tone, and is very humorous but gets very dark. There were many things that we talked about in order to define the tone of this film, and also look for a writer that I would work with to achieve that.”
In the works for 9 years, the original script was written by Deborah Davis. “She had done a lot of research, but I felt that we needed to find a different voice in order to bring the tone that I wanted,” says Lanthimos.
In steps Australian Tony McNamara (The Rage in Placid Lake, Doctor, Doctor). “There was a lot of Skyping,” adds Lanthimos about the process of working with the Australian based writer.
If you have seen any of Lanthimos’s past films then you will understand that tone is everything for the filmmaker. From his breakthrough Dogtooth in 2009 and its festival hit follow up Alps in 2011 which both defined the Greek Weird Wave, through to his English language debut Lobster in 2015 and most recently the arthouse darling The Killing of a Sacred Deer, the filmmaker has an unmistakable cinematic voice, which he now applies to his first period film.
“It’s inspired by history and real people, but I hope it is obvious that we tried to create our own little universe,” he says about The Favourite. “We made a decision that we wanted to keep whatever was interesting from this story, but then do whatever we felt was necessary or interesting in order to tell a story that feels contemporary. We used contemporary language and other aspects that add a contemporary texture to the film. For instance, we used costumes that maintained the shape of the era, but we used contemporary fabrics. The way that people behave or dance or do things is definitely not loyal to the period.
“I was interested in making a period film that would have a contemporary feel to it, and that would feel relevant today.”
And inadvertently, his story focusing on three strong women could not be more timely.
“When I initially read the original script, I felt that it was very rare to see a film that has as protagonists, three women. There is a real story with these three women that’s never been explored; they had this position of power at a moment in time, and these three women actually affected the fates of so many people, the fate of a nation, the fate of a war. Even more interestingly, their personal relationships all felt very relevant and contemporary.
“I started working on this film nine years ago, and it wasn’t something that was said aloud,” he says about the issues raised by the #MeToo movement. “But I think the way to do justice to women, especially if you’re a male filmmaker, is to just show them as human beings, as anyone else, the same way you would approach a story of male protagonists; to show that there’s no difference. And yes, there can be a story with women in power that are manipulative, crazy, loving, sensitive, whatever. They’re human beings and can behave as badly or as amazingly well as anyone else, and they’re capable of anything like anyone else.”
Yorgos Lanthimos is a prime example of that last statement.
“Growing up in Greece and becoming a filmmaker wasn’t an obvious choice because there weren’t many people making films in Greece,” he says about his beginnings. “Or there were very few. There isn’t much support in making feature films in Greece; very few young people ever thought of becoming filmmakers.
“I did like films very much, and how I started was I fooled myself that I was going to study film in order to do advertising and direct commercials, which I did for many years, and that was a great school for me. [Later] I got into film school and I started studying film and getting exposed to all these great filmmakers and watching their work. I knew that at some point, I would want to make a film, no matter how it happened. It was a gradual, slow way of learning the craft through commercials, and learning all the technical aspects of filmmaking, and finally feeling confident that I could actually go out, and with very little means, go and make my first film.”
And it was his third film, Dogtooth that opened the floodgates.
“I didn’t even know if my friends were going to go see it; all of a sudden, it was much more than we could have ever imagined. And it was actually quite weird, and I actually went ‘how can all these people like this film? What the hell is going on? What’s their problem that everybody seemed to like it.’ We made this film, literally, it was ten friends gathered in a summer house without having anything. Everybody lent us their clothes, their food, it was just like a family thing going on. And we thought ‘we are going to make this and share it with our friends maybe’.”
And now, Lanthimos’s latest film, The Favourite is being released on the most desirable release date on the calendar by 20th Century Fox Films.
“I never imagined that I would ever do anything like that,” he says about making films outside of Greece. “For us, it was just make films the way we want to make them with whatever we have. Let’s just do whatever, who cares if anybody sees them. If we’re happy making films, just do that.”
The Favourite is in cinemas on December 26, 2018
Top photo credit: Emma Stone