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About The Production

"How goes the Kingdom?" -- Lady Sarah

Though Lanthimos veers into psychodynamics and inter-relational fireworks, the foundation of THE FAVOURITE began with the already mystery-laden reign of the real Queen Anne. "What interested me most were these three characters, their power, their fragile relationships and how the behaviour of so few people could alter the course of a war and fate of a country. It is also for me a love story that can be quite funny and dramatic and gets dark," says Lanthimos.

Queen Anne may be England's least known ruler, not least of all because she left no heirs to speak of her, despite an extraordinary 17 pregnancies. (In fact, had Anne left an heir, there may have been no United States as such, since George III may never have been King.) Ascending to the throne at the turn of the 18th Century, essentially because no other Protestant successors to the Stuart royal line were available, she assumed the role of Queen just as England was on the verge of a tidal wave of changes. Anne would oversee a war with France, considered the first world war of modern times, and the uniting of England with Scotland to forge the Kingdom of Great Britain. She would also confront a shocking new era of acrimonious national division, with Whigs and Tories taking sides as partisans and bitterly battling each other for influence as a young two-party political system was born.

For the world of rapidly enlarging personal and political agendas in which she moved, Anne was not an obvious match as Queen and ruler. Plagued by incessant ill health, notoriously meek, anything but glamorous with her myriad skin and joint ailments, and having only a limited education, she was perceived as highly susceptible to manipulation.

This in turn meant Anne was beset upon by a flurry of people competing to gain influence by finding a way to gain her trust-or perhaps, her heart.

The singularity of Lanthimos' vision sparked the producers to wonder how he might approach the manifold themes of Queen Anne's power struggles. "Yorgos' style can be elegant, simple and complicated all at the same time," observes producer Ceci Dempsey. "He is an enigmatic individual who has this amazing ability to communicate through his films. There is a kind of subliminal magic that goes on with his storytelling, a kind of alchemy where you watch one of his films and a few days later you're still coming up with more questions. He can be incredibly provocative in all the best ways."

The two women who made their way deep into Anne's inner sanctum created a triumvirate of female power-players uncommon for any time period, let alone in the so-called days of pre-Enlightenment.

The first was Lady Sarah Churchill, the legendarily sharp and alluring Duchess of Marlborough, Anne's BFF since childhood who, once Anne took the throne, became a primary political adviser and perhaps (according to rumors that have swirled for centuries) her lover. The second was Abigail Masham, who was Sarah's cousin by birth but reduced to destitution by family bankruptcy, joining the royal household as a lowly maid. Nevertheless, Abigail would set in motion an epic, impassioned battle with Sarah to become Anne's new "favourite," making herself indispensable to the Queen, while pushing Anne in the opposite political direction that Lady Sarah was pulling.

That was the historical account. But the bones of the story come to life with a psychological and sensual resonance that escaped the history books. It started with a screenplay by Deborah Davis, which producer Ceci Dempsey and her company Scarlet Films started developing two decades ago. "The first draft of the script landed on my desk seemingly out of the blue," Dempsey recalls. "It was a fantastic story of betrayal with a rare opportunity to see brilliant women behaving badly, and the fact that it's based on a true story made it even more appealing. Since then, the script has gone through countless mutations but the core story, that of three women each struggling to survive by betraying the others, has endured."

Davis had a wide canvas to work with from a historical standpoint, but felt compelled to focus on specific relationships in the brief but tumultuous reign of Queen Anne. "My focus was on the female triangle in Queen Anne's bedchamber and this shift in Anne's affections from Sarah to Abigail," notes Davis. To research this triangle, Davis combed through volumes of letters between Sarah and Anne and Abigail and Harley. While a vivid picture of Sarah has been painted by her own memoir, "the original evidence for Abigail is sparse and comes mainly from Sarah," says Davis, adding "there were interesting snippets to be found elsewhere where Abigail emerges as a ruthless chambermaid, and her trajectory clearly reveals her ambition."

The experience of researching this era in English Royalty led Davis to a better understanding of the period not always written about in history books. "My focus was always on the three women," says Davis. "I wanted the audience to discover a period in 18th century English history where women held power and influenced events on the British political and European stage."

It was in 2009 that Element Pictures' Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe and Lee Magiday came aboard, and together with Dempsey became acquainted with Yorgos Lanthimos, a director hailing from Greece who was making waves with his Oscar-nominated film DOGTOOTH, a darkly absurd and devastating story of an isolated family that confines its children with unsettling consequences. Film4 boarded the film in 2013, developing the project alongside the filmmakers and co-financing alongside Fox Searchlight and Waypoint Entertainment.

Recalls Guiney, "We both felt that DOGTOOTH was an extraordinary exploration of the nature of a family. It showed Yorgos' ability to explore different facets of our lives--be it family, be it love, be it companionship, or whatever it might be-by telling heightened stories that exist in parallel worlds that nevertheless evoke the very essence of how we interact with each other."


"People are all sorts of things at any given time and they also do the unexpected. Yorgos' vision of the world is that there's a broader way of looking at people and that the deeper you look, the more complicated, perverse and strange people become. Audiences really respond to that because that is true of what people are like." --Tony McNamara, Writer

Says producer Ed Guiney: "We knew that if Yorgos were to take on the British costume drama, he would re-shape it to create something utterly unique. That was exciting. Yorgos is someone who not only has a vision, but can marshal that vision to say something bold, distinctive and inspiring. When you find people with that kind of vision, you roll with them wherever they might take you."

When they shared the early draft of THE FAVOURITE with Lanthimos in 2010, he saw "something kind of extraordinary and very unusual in it," says the director. "I was intrigued by the idea of making a film that had three women as main protagonists. It seemed very rare back then."

But first would come the production of Lanthimos' premier English-language film, THE LOBSTER, which Dempsey, Guiney and Magiday produced alongside executive producer Lower under their Element Pictures' banner. Starring Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz the film went on to win the Jury Prize at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards. A year later, Element Pictures' Guiney and Lowe reteamed with Lanthimos for his second English-language feature, THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER, which was awarded Best Screenplay at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Both these films were also developed and co-financed by Film4.

All the while Lanthimos continued to ponder THE FAVOURITE, while the team searched for a writer whose voice could mesh with his. They found a catalytic match in Australian playwright and screenwriter Tony McNamara, who seemed to share a tantalizing way of probing the weirdness and wildness of everyday human behavior.

As Guiney explains, "Tony's writing is incredibly distinctive. He has great tonal dexterity, where he can leap from high drama to tragedy to comedy all in one scene. I think it's reminiscent of Yorgos as a filmmaker in that he can compress many different kinds of emotional contradictions into a single beat. It felt like a great marriage when they came together. It unlocked the potential of the film for Yorgos, knowing he had a writer who could go the whole distance with him."

Adds Dempsey, "Tony shares Yorgos' irreverence, wit, unpredictability, love of the absurd and dark, dark humour. They also share the same kind of artistic discipline, which was so important."

McNamara says he was drawn to the film precisely because Lanthimos was clear that he did not want to make anything remotely resembling standard period drama fare. In fact, he wanted to break the genre. "I loved being given the chance to wonder: what liberties could really be taken? It was a great opportunity to do something unlike anything I'd done before."

Favoring complexity and feel over slavishness to historical fact, Lanthimos and McNamara discussed guidelines that informed the rewrite from the start. "We talked about having the characters feel contemporary, to be so complicated that you can't just read their intentions quickly-or you think you can but you soon realize you can't," says McNamara. "We were seeking a certain freshness, a certain irreverence and a certain fun in the dialogue and the action of the scenes."

In thinking about the script's architecture, the pair honed in on the women's converging relationships. "We chose early on not to make the movie one person's story," McNamara elaborates. "The idea was to follow this triangle, to see how these three lives intersecting affect history. It was important that no one woman owns the POV of the story."

Certainly one convention of costume drama McNamara and Lanthimos torpedoed was staid manners. "That was one of the things in period films I didn't like - how polite they were," McNamara says. "And even though we knew this was society of manners at that time, underneath that we wanted to show a sort of casual cruelty. Society was rigid and you were stuck where you were, so all you had was your ability to influence other people and to shift yourself and your motive; to shift your ground. That was why people operated with such hardcore cruelty at times."

As he wrote, McNamara referred to written accounts of the period for context and concepts but he never allowed the story to be cemented down by history. "As an Australian and a Greek, Yorgos and I weren't attached to English history, so maybe we felt more free to be fast and loose with it," McNamara muses. "There's a fundamental truth to the big events and the big frame of the story, but we were mostly concerned with exploring these three women. So where the established history was useful to us it stayed, and where it wasn't useful to us we let it go. It was quite fun to do."

Throughout the process, McNamara and Lanthimos spent an unusual amount of time together, travelling to Italy to take long walks and sit for ponderous meals while sharpening the dialogue to a point. "All of that helped me to fuse the writing with Yorgos' vision as a director," says McNamara. After four years of collaboration, the finished screenplay was everything the producers imagined when they first considered Lanthimos. The ambiguity of the characters was intense, but what also struck Dempsey and Guiney was just how unusually proactive and authoritative the three women in the story felt, and not only because they were essentially ruling Great Britain.

"You see women behave in this film in ways that they often behave in real life, but that you don't often see in the movies," observes Guiney. "They are absolutely in control, but at other times are capricious, jealous, angry, and like most of us, absolutely flawed. You see that in all its glory, all its ambiguity, all its frailty, all its power. And then when you put these same women into the pressure cooker of a country at war and at the epicentre of decision making, it results in something pretty original."

"There is also a level of physicality that you don't see in a period film, unless it is two men duelling," adds Dempsey. "In THE FAVOURITE, the women are pigeon shooting, galloping on horses, charging down corridors, physically seducing men in the wood and having sex together."

With characters who demand such bared performances, casting was of course an essential piece.


"Yorgos is completely committed to ideas that are unaffected by expectations or by the normal concepts we all typically adhere to. I think to actors, that kind of originality is intoxicating. He evokes very interesting performances by decoding and challenging normal conventions-and great actors love the challenge of that." --Dixie Chassay, Casting Director

Encumbered by grief, gout and insecurity though she may have been, Queen Anne was nevertheless handed enormous authority and power, and in the screenplay for THE FAVOURITE she moves like a pendulum between extremes of would-be panache and pathos. To embody all her wild contrasts and emotions, Lanthimos had from the start just one actor in mind: Olivia Colman.

Working previously with him with on THE LOBSTER, Golden Globe Award winning actress Olivia Colman ("The Night Manager") is no stranger to royalty. She played the Queen Mother in HYDE PARK ON THE HUDSON and plays Queen Elizabeth II in the new season of "The Crown." But taking on THE FAVOURITE's version of Anne was something deeper and darker.

"I always choose actors because of their presence, their natural inclinations and what the camera sees in them, even if we don't know exactly what that is. I just knew early on that Olivia had to be our Queen," says Lanthimos.

The producers were equally taken with the choice. "Yorgos has great instincts when it comes to casting," observes Dempsey. "Olivia portrays this spoiled, mercurial and manipulative monarch as someone authentically vulnerable, emotionally desperate and weirdly charismatic."

McNamara notes that Anne is a captivating role in part because "She is not what she seems. Though she appears to be an invalid and even simple in the beginning, you start to realize that she is actually aware of her power. It's just that she chooses erratically when to use it, which makes for a very intriguing character."

Colman's portrait of Anne is very much rooted in the Queen's body, in its vulgar awkwardness and its laments, but also its responsiveness and sensuality. Colman says she found her way into the character's many nooks and crannies through Anne's underlying grit, rather than her weaknesses. Just as much as Sarah and Abigail, Anne is a survivor. "She must have had extraordinary strength," Colman observes. "I think she wanted to be seen as a good Queen, but she just didn't have the confidence to do it. I never saw her as pathetic. I'm quite proud of her."

She also tapped into the profound loneliness of a woman who can never be sure who to trust and who has been through the unfathomable loss of 17 children (several were miscarried, others stillborn and her longest-lived son lived to age 11). If anything, her isolation, heightened by the vast, echoing rooms of the Royal Palace, only seems to increase her many appetites, needs and bunnies.

"There's so much sadness in her background, she must have been terribly lonely, because in her position, you never really know if people genuinely like you or if it's only because you're the Queen," Colman elaborates. "At the same time, she is quite childlike, so that part was fun to play. In her heart, she doesn't really feel like a Queen, which comes out in her rages and in her way of putting her foot down. I enjoyed myself, being cantankerous and slapping page boys."

Colman relished the chance to reunite with Lanthimos. "Yorgos is genuinely brilliant and you completely trust him," she says. "Yet, his mind is so extraordinary that you can't really relax, because you never really know where he is going to go next. He shoots things from angles that nobody else shoots and it all looks beautiful. I love learning and it's always a massive learning curve working with Yorgos." Part of the learning curve on THE FAVOURITE was diving into Anne's sexual desires, and the switching of her affections from Lady Sarah, who had been essentially running the country in Anne's stead, to her new favourite, Abigail, who appeals to her in an entirely different way.

"I don't think Anne realizes that Sarah is the true love in her life when she has her head turned by Abigail," Colman observes. "She and Sarah have known each other since they were little girls and they've always protected each other. But with Abigail, Anne is just so thrilled that someone is so attentive towards her. She just thinks, 'oh, this beautiful young creature is looking at me' and she's completely struck by that. But the tragic part is that the Queen thinks it's all for real ... and it's not."


"Lady Sarah has the whole package: she's very intellectually powerful, she's very sexually powerful, she's physically quite powerful and politically she is in charge of ... well she would say, she's in charge of the entire country. I think of her as having the clarity and decisiveness of any modern political leader." --Rachel Weisz

Pulling strings behind the reign of Queen Anne, and propping her up in more ways than one, is her right-hand woman, Lady Sarah Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough-who also attained unprecedented power, though more through savvy than inheritance. Historically, Sarah Jennings Churchill is known for beginning the Spencer-Churchill line that came to include both Winston Churchill and Princess Diana [née Spencer]. But she is also regarded as one of the most powerful political figures of her times, the woman who kept the Queen's purse, bent the Queen's ear and blackmailed her when she felt it necessary. Playing Sarah in THE FAVOURITE is Academy Award© winner Rachel Weisz in her second feature with Lanthimos, following THE LOBSTER.

Lady Sarah Churchill met the Queen when both were young daughters of powerful men, secluded in the boring confines of the Royal Palace. Their friendship would develop into something both symbiotic and highly intimate-the real Anne indeed wrote Sarah passionate letters with lines such as "I hope I shall get a moment or two to be with my dear...that I may have one embrace, which I long for more than I can express." Though Sarah married John Churchill, who was soon named the Duke of Marlborough by Queen Anne, the closeness between the two women continued long after.

When Anne ascended to the throne, she named Sarah to several key positions including Mistress of the Robes (the highest title that could be held by a woman in that time) and Keeper of the Privy Purse. Sarah took those opportunities for all they were worth. She became Anne's most indispensable adviser, holding forth on matters of policy, politics and intricate war strategy. Renowned for her fierce intelligence, her savage temper, her gutsy frankness and also her oft-mentioned beauty, Lady Sarah also drew a circle of sycophants and influence-seekers around her. Her friendship could bestow huge political advantages. But she was an enemy no one wanted to make.

"There was already a great amount of trust between Rachel and Yorgos from THE LOBSTER," Dempsey notes. "And it was more inspired casting. Rachel brings both authority and sexiness to Sarah. She allows her to be imperious and borderline unsympathetic-and yet, when Sarah is humiliated and suffers a dramatic reversal of fortune, you see her retain her dignity in defeat. We have sympathy for her but we don't pity her, which is a very challenging character arc."

Weisz saw the film as Lanthimos upending, and complicating, how history could look and feel, allowing it to have its own unsettling shocks and surprises. "THE LOBSTER of course was a wholly imagined universe. THE FAVOURITE certainly has an historical basis, but it is history as told by Yorgos, and it felt quite different from anything I've ever experienced before," describes Weisz. "The universe he creates is always unique to his sensibility and it couldn't be replicated by anybody else. Tonally, the film is a pure creation of Yorgos-and how he creates tone is perhaps the most brilliant and most mysterious thing he does."

Her previous experience with Lanthimos informed her approach. "I knew the best preparation was to go in totally surrendered," she says.

Weisz was drawn to every facet of Sarah's persona. But for all her brilliance, Sarah cannot deny that her leadership positions stems from one source only: her ever so co-dependent relationship with Queen Anne.

"The Queen and Sarah have a very complicated relationship that is constantly shifting. So it's impossible to sum up in a sentence," notes Weisz. "The Queen needs Sarah and Sarah I think loves to be needed by the Queen. Neither politics, nor battle tactics nor running the country is Anne's strong suit, but that's all very appealing to Sarah. Yet, they are also childhood best friends who make love to one another. To me, their relationship gets into all kind of themes of sexual politics, power games, power struggles, emotional needs, emotional dependence, dominance and subjugation, as well as pain, protectiveness and healing."

Even amid all the men making power bids in the court of Queen Anne, Lady Sarah has few rivals. So it takes her by surprise when the woman she chose to become Anne's bedchamber maid-her subservient cousin, Abigail- becomes her greatest threat on every level.

"Sarah really misjudges Abigail, I mean completely," says Weisz. "She perceives Abigail as being needy and weak because she's fallen on such hard times, and because her father lost his own daughter gambling. I think Sarah initially feels tenderness and compassion towards Abigail. She wants to protect her and teach her how to be a strong woman. It turns out, Abigail needs no help whatsoever."

A more modern reference for the emotional gamesmanship between the two women also came to mind. "Abigail reminds me of Eve in ALL ABOUT EVE, the younger actress who comes and steals Bette Davis's thunder," she says, referring to the Joseph L. Mankiewicz's classic about a young Broadway star who unravels the career of her one-time idol.

Weisz emphasizes that these are her analyses of the character, not necessarily those of Lanthimos, who does not discuss motivation extensively with the actors. "Yorgos gives very elusive notes, elusive yet simple. There's always a sense of mystery," she concludes.


"I didn't want to have a villain and a victim. Instead the idea of who is a villain or a victim is one that shifts and changes and moves from one character to another. This way you feel for what they each do and you aren't be able to make absolute judgements on their characters even if they do a horrible thing." --Yorgos Lanthimos

From the moment Abigail tumbles from her carriage into the stinking mud outside the Royal Palace, she begins to skew the balance of power within. Throwing herself upon Sarah's mercy, she takes a job as a scullery maid but soon ingratiates her way deep into the Queen's bedroom. If Sarah has always dominated the fragile Queen, Abigail soothes her, and the student overtakes the master in the balance of power. As with her cohorts in the film's triangle, Abigail is made of contrasts-her cool, shrewd pragmatism, the fruits of a hard knock life, mix with her seemingly unlimited capacity for charm. Evoking all of them is Academy Award winner Emma Stone in her first outing with Lanthimos, who watched her reveal new sides to her screen persona.

Says Lanthimos, "I've always appreciated Emma a lot and as soon as I met her I understood that she was very smart, that she like to dive into things and that she felt really strongly about this character. It was just amazing to see her work. I knew she could do this, but I don't think she has had the opportunity to ever do something like this before. So it was just a great experience to witness that." It was the way Abigail uses and then breaks all the rules of social mobility that most intrigued Stone. "I love how Abigail unfolds. She has a great amount of confidence and she is a real survivor," Stone says. "She is always listening and paying attention and using what she learns."

Stone was also drawn to the trio of women her character joins. "That there are three really beautifully crafted females at the center of this story still remains rare in film scripts," she points out. "The way they are each so flawed, so hilarious and so very complicated, I love that. It's just reflective of real life."

For Stone, the reason why Abigail is able to win the wary Queen's trust is that Abigail senses her need to be loved for who she is, rather than for her enormous stature and power. "I think Anne's a pretty tragic character. I don't see her as pathetic because she clearly has a power in her that comes out when she's pushed up against a wall, but her life has been so tragic," says Stone. "She is permanently heartbroken and she's so physically debilitated that it breaks your heart--and I do think it breaks Abigail's heart a bit."

The role was also unexpectedly physical for Stone. "I had to learn to curtsy, to shoot an 18th Century gun and ride a horse," she says. Then there was the royal protocol. "In the Palace, everything is so formal and so presentational. That was all fascinating to learn. Abigail has to back out of the room because you don't turn your back on the Queen. Those things are so interesting."

Through all the turns of her character, Stone found the collaboration with Lanthimos rewarding on a daily basis. She notes that he is not a brooding, unapproachable auteur. "Yorgos is an incredibly kind human being. He's not scary in any way, he just has very unique ideas and you just want to be able to submit to them without getting into your head too much. I felt in very safe hands with him."

That became apparent to everyone on set who watched Stone latch onto the role full bore, without restraint. "Emma simply inhabits Abigail," says Dempsey. "Abigail is the lightning rod who sets the story in motion. She transforms from a stranger to a very dangerous political and romantic operative. That is a high-wire challenge for any actor, and to do that all with a British accent adds a whole other dimension- Emma is exquisite in the role."

Stone joined with Colman and Weisz for a 3-week period before production, during which they developed both a rapport and the openness they would need before the cameras. Recalls Stone, "We got to know each other so well and trust each other in those three weeks. I think it created a certain dynamic between us and also with Yorgos himself where we were ready for whatever might happen, which was so important on a film like this."

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