Tony McNamara: And they could shift between the two. If everything I wrote for them was truthful to who they were, they’d be able to do it, because I wouldn’t be asking them to be dishonest in scenes, and just reach for comedy or reach for… So, that was sort of the principle of it. And then it just becomes this slightly relentless day to day managing of not so much script and acting, more like then it’s about what are the costumes? What is the tone of the look of the thing? So then it becomes a hundred different things. How to choose the food, all this stuff. So there’s all these minimum tiny things that you’re always managing about, whether it’s too far or too funny, or whether it’s too dark and too… So you got parameters that you’re trying to keep within that you feel like won’t tip it either way.
Kaitlin Fontana: Even so, I feel like in the end, speaking as a writer myself, and most of the people who listen to this podcast, I feel like there’s a certain point where as you say, you’re managing all these different elements that carry that tone for you. But at the end of the day, I would imagine it has to be a gut check more than anything else. It feels right. It feels like I didn’t go too far one way or another.
Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think that’s why because I trust the actors. I really didn’t have to manage that, because I felt like they were on the same page as me, as well as we spend time casting of course, but we would have coffee and talk. And so I got a sense of where this sense of comedy was and as a person, whether they… So all the actors are in our world of how they view the world in a way. So, that made it easier. And yeah, but a lot of it’s just instinct, which is just me thinking that’s too far and that’s not. There’s no real science to it. It’s just like, yeah, I think that makes sense to me in the world I’ve created. And that doesn’t make sense to me. So there’s a lot of that in terms of design and background and just saying, endlessly that kind of stuff.
Kaitlin Fontana: I think the point about meeting with your actors and speaking with your actors is a good one. I think it’s not always possible, but also a lot of writers are I think sometimes reluctant to give themselves over in that way or to make it that dialogue. And I think that’s just this work and the favored too, is a good lesson and what it means to actually speak to your actors and make them part of the writing process.
Tony McNamara: Yeah. I think it was important because I wanted them to know where I was coming from as well as they read the pilot, I guess. But also, that they’re on board, what I was going to try and do. I do agree about the you want to go, “I’m going to be with these people for nine months. So I want to like them and be happy to get drunk with them at night.” So I want that because you want people you like around you who can do it. And I think the theater thing helps. That helped me really be very comfortable with actors and really understand what they needed to know to help them. So I do think it’s a good thing to be able to know them and know where they’re coming from and just meet in that way, rather than just see the tape and cast them and not really know. And they don’t really know. I mean, I wanted us all to them to be happy with where I came from.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. So one of the things that I think is interesting is that the show has a very interesting way of treating sex and partnership in that they’re not mutually exclusive as they usually are, particularly in period pieces. It’s this destined partnership, love affair, but that The Great has this complicated nuance to who one has sex with, and seeks pleasure from versus who one partners with for political reasons, or for safety. And I think I really admire the freshness with which that is handled. And I wonder if you could speak to the process that went into to that particular aspect.
Tony McNamara: Well, I think it just made sense that we would treat sex different. I just was like, “I don’t want the sex to be all TV sex.” Everyone’s relationship is incredibly dynamic, is different. And everyone’s having sex for different reasons. And you know, Peter and Catherine it’s purely functional. So I wanted that to be sort of comically functional in a slightly dark way. But, when she’s in love, that’s a different kind of sex. And then what Peter has with Charity, who plays Madam Dymova.
Tony McNamara: That’s different because that’s sort of political, but sort of real. And so everyone… I just wanted all the sex to have its own character driven, like everything in the show should be character driven, I was like, “Why isn’t the sex character driven? And why don’t we shoot it in?” When Francesca and I talked about it, we were like, “It’s like basically a giant apartment building you’re not allowed to leave.” So essentially you’re just going to be drinking and having sex with people all the time, because nothing much else to do except go ride your horse. So we were thinking of it in that way, I guess.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that brings up another thing, saying that all these, these people are essentially trapped in a giant apartment building. You put your characters in such peril all the time and really let them dig their own way out, which I find really fascinating. I think it’s a piece of feedback I’ve given other writers before like you made this too easy for your character. And I get it because you love them. You want them to be okay, but there’s a real riskiness and perilousness to this. No one feels safe and not in a Game of Thrones way, in something different. It’s more like they’re not emotionally safe, which is a really interesting way to position your characters. Is there a philosophy at work there, and how do you find that peril for those characters?
Tony McNamara: There’s a philosophy in the sense of it’s not like Game of Thrones, I guess. It’s always like it’s a smaller world and it’s a more… I think the philosophy is what’s fun? When I write, what’s fun to do to a character to me? And what’s also what illustrates the dilemmas of this court. Because in a way, it’s not like a blood… There’s blood, of course, and there’s violence, but it’s pretty casual. And I think it’s like how do you show that the court is a dangerous place, because it’s not also not just physically dangerous, it had to be emotionally dangerous.
Tony McNamara: It had to be emotionally difficult. It’s like Grigor the best friend, it’s emotionally difficult for him to live in this place, despite his level of privilege and his level of… It’s like that’s a more interesting thing to me as a writer to write about. A guy who has to put up with his best friend, sleeping with his wife and not really understand what it is, and also still love his best friend and be on the edge all the time, just seemed fun.
Tony McNamara: A lot of it’s driven by you think it’s fun as a writer. You’re like, “That would be fun to write.” So a lot of it’s driven by that, but on one level, it’s also driven by if she’s going to change these people, we have to understand who they are and what their pressure points are and what their dilemmas are, I guess.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah, yeah. On that same note, this show has a rather comfortable relationship with death, which is Russian in a certain sense, it’s very Russian lit, and it’s also something that I found kind of oddly cathartic during a global pandemic, which I know was not obviously not your intention because you wrote it before that, but I’m curious about whether that arose out of the back story, the history at work here, or was that something you discovered in the writing or something that you knew you wanted in there from the get?
Tony McNamara: I knew I wanted the world to have this casual brutality and that a human life didn’t mean as much in a way to us. And because people were used to as they were, it’s historically true. There was a kind and there was a sort of fatalism, which is I guess, the Russian fatalism, but it’s like they often say in the show, we had this thing, which we used to say too in the room. I was like, “This is Russia.” Things aren’t going to go well sometimes and you can’t expect them to, which I think is a Russian thing.
Tony McNamara: I think that’s also slightly an Australian, we have a fatalistic sense of humor in a way. So I think it’s probably that as well, coming from my side, when a writer or two in the room who are Australian.
Kaitlin Fontana: Sure, sure. And to that point, I wanted to ask you about the process of choosing the writers to be in the room, because as you said, you wrote the first few episodes, it’s obviously based on your play, but a lot of people listening to this are going to be writers who want to be staffed on shows. And I wonder if you could give us some insight into what you in particular, are looking for when you’re trying to choose someone to write on a show, or this show in particular perhaps?
Tony McNamara: Well, I guess you’re trying to create a brain bigger than your own. On this show in particular, obviously I was looking for a really strong female perspective on the show, and young. I really wanted a very young perspective and also political. So you’re doing this mix. So I wanted to a young, really fresh voice and a take on the world that was very much attached to being that age.
Tony McNamara: Because she was very young and I wanted that to be important in the show. And then people who were really good, quite political I wanted and who are good at research, because I don’t do any. So, with an writer’s eye, they can bring things in and throw things on the table and then we can chop it up and see and filter it, and see if any of that works in the tone of the show.
Tony McNamara: And then you’re looking for experienced people who know our room and can keep a second watch on a bunch of things you’re always looking for, structure and overall arc and where things are going. I didn’t have a big room, but I just had three or four I think. And I was just that I’m just trying to bring all the things on I’m half really.
Kaitlin Fontana: Right. Yeah. I like the idea of constructing a big brain as being a metaphor for a writer’s room. I’ve never heard that before.
Tony McNamara: I think I noticed it when I was just staffing and not… I was like, “Oh, when this works, it’s like we’re a better brain than anyone in this room could be even working on a show that had really great writers who all went on to do great things. I was like, “Oh, we’re much better sometimes.”
Tony McNamara: And you know what a room is like, sometimes it’s a joy and sometimes it’s the schizophrenic mess. So, it’s just those moments where you built something and you go, “Well, I could never have thought of that by myself.” And we’ve built this idea that’s really great. I mean, that’s what you’re looking for. I mean, there’s sort of rarer than you want, I guess, but that’s the concept anyways.
Kaitlin Fontana: As I said before you wrote the screenplay for The Favourite and I saw that you are working with Yorgos Lanthimos again, this time on a Western adaptation. So I’d be curious to hear the relationship between the two of you as writer and director, and how that developed over the The Favourite and what it was like to craft a relationship with someone who has this obvious, very specific voice. And how that’s playing out with this new project?
Tony McNamara: Yeah. Well, it’s just a lucky accident, for me anyway. We found each other, we just hit it off straight away from our first phone call, we knew, it was a quick phone call, I think, which freaked the producers out, because he was like, “Yep, he can do it.” I was like, “I’d do this.” And he was like, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do.” And then from there, we just spent a long time writing the… I’d write the script and I would go to London or Italy and hang out with him and we would just have lunch and walk around and talk. There’s a lot of lunching, so we’re both big food guys.
Tony McNamara: So, I just did that. And at the same time I was adapting another book for him at the time. So we’ve worked on two movies together now and just the Western’s the third one, which is just a good relationship. It’s just like we get each other. We’re different. He’s obviously brilliant and he’s free. He’s just the person who’s got great freedom. There’s never in himself. He’s never conscious of anything except what he thinks is cool to do. And what he thinks makes sense to him and how he wants things to be. In the best version, he’s an auteur, but he’s certainly not a dictator. People misunderstand that about him. He’s a person who, I guess he would say, gathers like-minded people around.
Tony McNamara: So there’s a lot of freedom working with him. In a way it’s like creatively really for me, it really unlocked a lot of creativity in me, and a lot of try anything. And so he brings that in and he brings that with everyone in a way, but he knows what he wants. So it’s a nice mix of that I suppose, creatively of he knows what he wants to do and you’re doing it with him and you [inaudible 00:29:50].
Tony McNamara: As a writer, I’m with him a lot. And then both of us were living in London for the last year or two. So, we saw a lot of each other working on this new thing. So, it’s just like a good… I just think sometimes you get lucky and you get a relationship that makes a lot of sense to you. And I think when I first, he hadn’t made Lobster or Deer when we started Favourite, he’d just moved to London. But I’d watched Dogtooth and Alps. And even then I was like, “Oh, well that’s the director I just want to work with, because he’s just got his own view of the world and his own voice.” And that is a great thing to see, and he’s a good guy. We’re very good friends now.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. So who are your writing heroes when you were growing up? Who did you look to? Who did you admire?
Tony McNamara: I suppose in television, I really admired Larry Gelbart a lot and he was a big hero of mine and then theater-wise, the sort of angry men, Edmundson, John Osbourne, and Albee and people like that. Probably Albert Albee, I really, really loved his plays. I think any writers with rhythm, was a big deal for me. So in a strange way, it’s a weird thing to say. I sometimes didn’t care what it was about as long as the rhythm was amazing, because that was a real obsession to me when I was a younger writer was how to create rhythm with writing.
Tony McNamara: And I think because of theater as well, you sit with an audience and you know if you’ve got them or you haven’t got them, and it’s a brutal experience at times when you haven’t. So I was sometimes like, “Oh, rhythm is really important because it keeps them in.”
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I feel like that plays out in the writing that I’ve seen of yours, that there’s an obvious rhythm to The Favourite, of course. And then I think The Great, it has its own. I think the characters each have their own kind of little rhythms and they bump up against each other. Do you have other heroes now? Are there people you’ve sort of stumbled upon along the way that people that have come into your… And I know one of the things we’re doing here is tearing down the idea of a hero, as you said earlier, people that you look to or you’ve learned things from along the way?
Tony McNamara: Yeah. Well, I think it’s like Joan Didion’s a big hero of mine and Mary Oliver and for similar reasons in a way. And also just that clear eyedness in a way, and there’s sort of sharpness, I guess. Jenji Kohan when Orange is the New Black, I thought it was at the time, such an amazing show for a comedy drama. They’re strange. They come out when you need them, I think. For me, I sort of grow out of people and into people depending where I’m at, I suppose.
Tony McNamara: And it’s like when as a young kid, of course as a young guy, I liked Charles Bukowski and then I hadn’t read any for 20 years. And then I found a poem of his the other day. I always liked his poetry more than anything. And suddenly, I’m like, “Ah, that’s amazing.” So, I think when I was young, I liked the toughness of it and now I get the tenderness of it underneath it. So it’s just so those things change, I guess, as you get older.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. You interact with it as a different person at different points.
Tony McNamara: Yeah, exactly.
Kaitlin Fontana: Obviously, there’s a big political movement and moment happening in the United States specifically, but it is happening across the world, as we speak. And I wonder what you, as someone who now you’re a show runner, you’re someone who has “power”. One of the themes we’ve been talking about, and I wonder what you see your role personally, as in this new moment, it’s not a new moment, but this moment we’re all moving towards together. What do you see as your role in crafting this new world?
Tony McNamara: Well, I guess I don’t really know. I guess it’s like the grade is about change. So I guess my thing has been politically is that how do we change because we need to, and how do you affect change that’s effective, I guess is what the show becomes about as it goes on. So I think for me, it’s like that. It’s transforming this rightful passion and rage into actual change that’s meaningful because I think it’s that thing of… Well in the show, we’re always like, these guys don’t go away easy. You know what I mean? They’ve had it for a long time. People who have power like clinging onto power. And even if they cling on make people change things. And so I’m interested in that.
Tony McNamara: I’m a big student of the sixties in America and civil rights and how change… And we talked a lot about activism and change in our room. We had two boards running. One was history and one was contemporary activism because we saw her as a kind of activist. So I think for us as writers, it’s just how to reflect what’s going on in the world, through your prism and your point of view, I suppose, as much as possible.
Kaitlin Fontana: Yeah. Yeah. Well said, thank you very much, Tony, for being here today and talking about The Great. Congratulations again, and I hope there are many more seasons to come.
Tony McNamara: Oh, thanks very much. Me too.
Kaitlin Fontana: That’s it for this episode. On Writing is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. Tech production and original music is by Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writers Guild of America East online at wgaeast.org. You can follow the Guild on social media at wgaeast, and you can follow me on Twitter @Kaitlinfontana. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thanks for tuning in. Write on.