“It’s Not A History Lesson” Writer Tony McNamara Talks ‘The Great’
Screenwriter Tony McNamara made bigger waves on our screens after he penned the Oscar-winning screenplay for The Favourite for which he received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. McNamara has also served as a writer on some Australia’s most memorable television series, including The Secret Life of Us, Doctor Doctor, and Spirited.
The Great starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, which is based on his stage play is his latest offering. The Great is a TV series streaming on Hulu centering on the life of Catherine The Great (Russia’s longest-ruling monarch) and her strained relationship with Emperor Peter. It is occasionally based on historical events, but only when it serves the story. After all, it’s not meant to be a documentary. It’s a deep character study of two flawed people trying to govern a country.
He originally wrote the play for The Great which led him to write the screenplay for The Favourite. “We were shooting the pilot for The Great before The Favourite was released,” he said, so the two projects were stylistically intertwined.
“Catherine was a great leader who took over running Russia,” said McNamara. Far from being mythologized, Catherine was a deeply-flawed, complicated woman who made for a compelling story. Unfazed by taking liberties with the truth, the screenwriter confessed, “We wanted to make a contemporary comedy-drama about her life.”
Revisionist modern versions of historical stories have been fictionalized on screen before such as Romeo and Juliet (1996), Troy (2004) and The King’s Speech (2010) to great dramatic and comedic effects. The Great alternates between the two.
McNamara is not a long-term scholar of the Russian monarchy, but found the nexus between creating a historical TV show and Catherine’s tumultuous life fascinating. Fact or fiction, “It was driven by Catherine’s complicated character.” McNamara relished the fact that she wasn’t a traditional monarch. She was an arrogant and brilliant person and the screenwriter embraced the extremities of these character flaws in his writing.
Adapting The Play
McNamara’s forty-five minute stageplay was expanded into a ten-part mini-series for television. This expansion allowed the screenwriter to further build Catherine’s world and dive deeper into her marriage to Peter the Emperor of Russia. At one point, McNamara wanted to adapt his play into a movie, but decided on a television series to allow enough time and space to tell her story properly.
“Catherine’s story unfolds over a longer period. It allowed me to be the court and society who don’t believe society can change,” mused the screenwriter. When Catherine came to Russia, she defied all social norms and declared that society can only be changed if you change who you are. This was the main theme of the TV series.
McNamara explored some additional themes about being out of your depth.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be an Emperor, but I do know what it’s like to be a guy pressured to succeed. A big emotional theme of the show is people grappling with themselves.” Peter’s ignorance and Catherine’s ambition made them a great match.
McNamara naturally skews toward comedy writing, so it’s no surprise that The Great continued in this vein. “Narratively, it was written as a drama with a comic thrust. It’s not a joke-driven TV show. The comedy comes from the characters and their situations.” The screenwriter doesn’t believe he can write a straight drama. “Everything I write must have some comedy.”
The defining TV show that shaped McNamara’s writing style is the comedy-drama M*A*S*H. “We walk the line between comedy and drama. M*A*S*H was really funny and then it turned more dramatic as people went into surgery and died. I like comedy that flips you like that.” The screenwriter embraced this technique in The Great to straddle the two genres.
Tony McNamara allowed his writing genre to follow where the story took him He didn’t dictate the process. “I didn’t want The Great to be an earnest drama, but I didn’t mind if it got very dark.” He eventually defined the tone of the show as a black comedy with a dash of satire. He’s not fussed with accurately assigning a specific genre for The Great. “I always say ‘Let’s be true to our characters and their take on the world.’ It’s all about being real and truthful.” On set, he also saw no need to discuss a specific tone and genre with the actors. “It’s how you build the characters to embody their comic truth.”
“Every character must be written from a place that makes sense to them and thinking it’s a good place.” Despite Catherine’s abundance of negative traits, “She was so open and unapologetic about her sexuality in a time like that. She was also very funny.”
In terms of style, McNamara finally added that The Great has a “slightly heightened theatricality to it.”
“I wasn’t a fan of historical drama,” confessed McNamara so he leaned into more contemporary writing when he wrote the play. All he knew was that he wanted to write Catherine’s story his way. This was a liberating decision for him. “I didn’t need to mimic the dialogue of the time or be too faithful to the source material. I wanted to lose the idea that this was a history lesson,” he declared. McNamara was more interested in writing something current and visceral.
McNamara felt that Catherine’s life outside the monarchy was far richer and more extraordinary so he focused on that more than her governing.
He likened this approach to the Oscar-winning Alan Ball’s film American Beauty which was inspired by the tabloid press to become a story about suburban bliss. “What’s the full life of the people behind the headline? This is the political version of this.”
Despite his nonchalant attitude to the history books, McNamara still did his research before writing the screenplay. “There were tentpole scenes that had to be both in the play and the film. I had to honor Catherine and her story. That was more important because dry facts wouldn’t tell her essence to a contemporary audience.” Catherine’s state of mind and heart was something the audience would undoubtedly care more about.
A Story About Marriage
It can be argued that The Great is also an exploration of marriage. “There are a few marriages in The Great. They’re flawed and all very different.” Gregor and Georgina’s marriage is old, while Catherine and Peter’s is relatively new. “I’m interested in the idea of the expectations a young relatively poor woman and an Emperor that has everything.”
“I’m interested in what each party should bring and how much to give. How much does love carry the marriage?” As Catherine and Peter’s marriage progressed, they become more complicated and interesting to each other. The antagonism made them more attractive.
It’s easy to reduce Catherine’s story to one about a headstrong girl trying to take over a country. “She’s really just a kid who married badly and now has to deal with it and maybe kill her husband.” Emperor Peter was given the family keys to the kingdom, but had no idea how to run the country.
The Great also explores class privilege. McNamara poses the question of why Catherine wants to change society when she’s living a privileged life herself. There was seemingly little benefit for her to relinquish any part of her status. Catherine was arrogant and delusional in her relentless drive to implement change.
Tony is an intuitive writer rather than a mechanical one. He doesn’t slavishly adhere to character archetypes or templates. His writing process is equally unstructured. “Sometimes I start writing dialogue for something and I’m not sure what it is. Then I think it’s this character and work backwards to create the whole story. It’s a character and how they talk.”
When asked for his sage advice, McNamara believes that screenwriters sticking too closely to established screenwriting paradigms makes their screenplays less interesting. “Screenwriters seeing stories in a different way is quite refreshing.“
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