It’s unexpectedly delightful to speak to Deborah Davis. She’s on the phone from the UK and has never given an interview before this. As a fellow royalist and historian, it’s an honor to speak to her about her affection for the reign of Queen Anne. As a young girl, Davis always loved the Royal Family. She loved the stories of the Queens of England, but until recently she had not heard about the torrid court of Queen Anne and her bedroom antics with her lady-in-waiting, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough. One night, she read a story about the Queen and her lady-in-waiting and her eyes were opened wide.
And that, was when the journey to The Favourite began. Yorgos Lanthimos directs the story of the Queen whose private life we have known little about, until now. France and England are at war. Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) is on the throne, but gout plagues her leg, leaving her in constant need of attention. Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is her lady-in-waiting who tends to her every need, including her sexual desires. Abigail (Emma Stone) appears one day and works her way up to lady-in-waiting, which leads to Sarah abruptly getting the boot. It’s a delightfully wicked romp through Queen Anne’s court with a divine triple threat of Colman, Stone and Weisz stirring up the fun.
Read my chat with Davis below:
As someone who loves the monarchy, I feel very little I know about Queen Anne and her antics. Until now. When did you first become aware of that triangle?
I first became aware of her story when I read a piece in a local evening paper and it said, “Everybody knows Sarah was having a relationship with Queen Anne.” As a historian who studied history at university and someone who had a lifelong history, I knew nothing about Queen Anne and I knew nothing about this relationship. So, I set myself the task of finding out about Sarah and Queen Anne and very quickly stumbled on the story about women in power and a female triangle.
Did you ever see or hear about the Royal Shakespeare Company doing this play about that triangle?
I did. I actually went to see it. They did it a few years ago. I rushed up to see it.
Is that where The Favourite began?
My version began twenty years ago. From there. I did a lot of research and as it turns out, there is a wealth of original sources. You have historical accounts of the period. One of the best sources is Winston Churchill who wrote the story about his ancestor who was the Duke of Marlborough and he covers the female triangle and the relationship between Anne, Sarah and Abigail in his four-part biography. There are enormous amounts of sources out there. Another one was, of course, Sarah’s memoir where she wrote about how she was replaced in the Queen’s favor by Abigail and how Abigail had become the absolute favorite.
What was the journey to Hollywood?
I wrote the first draft in 1998 and I had no experience in scriptwriting. I took myself to night school to learn. I took that first draft to Ceci Dempsey and she was very interested in it, but at the time she wasn’t ready to take it on. She said to always keep in touch with her and just at that point, I was accepted into the University of East Anglia to do a scriptwriting course and I was helped and influenced by my tutor who was really interested in The Balance of Power as it was then called. I went back to Ceci in the early 2000’s and she said she was ready to take it on. She had never ever wavered in her support and passion for this project. In 2007, she took it to Lee Magiday who was head of film. I carried on writing drafts for them. In 2010, Lee had this extraordinary of attaching an avant-garde director to this British costume drama and that was Yorgos and the rest, as they say, is his-tory.
It’s outrageous. In the UK the C-word rolls off our tongues, but sitting watching it with Americans, some of the audience members were mortified. Was it always wildly witty and outrageous when you wrote it?
Tony and I didn’t work together, but we were there to support Yorgos’ vision. You have to understand that he had his own unbelievably unique vision to this material. I think Tony and I complimented each other on that.
What was it like writing about the royal family and those characters especially when the story is one of female power?
I’ve always loved the royals and the Queens. When I was a little girl, I was drawing portraits of Queen Victoria. My father bought me a biography of Queen Elizabeth. I thought this material was so exciting. It wasn’t just about a Queen in power, it was about women in power. Her lieutenant was a woman and the person who comes in to replace her is a woman. So, it was exciting to find this period in history that is all about women.
Let’s talk about Yorgos and his endings. How did you arrive at that ending?
My view was that it should end with Sarah being booted out and it would be Abigail who comes into that position. And Yorgos transforms it into a far more profound portrayal of Anne and Abigail.
The film has played so well with people loving the film. What’s it been like for you to see people respond to the film the way they have?
It’s been so exciting. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to see your idea, something that started when you were young and to see it be made. To see it received with affection and support, it’s the most exciting thing to have happened to me.
At what point did it become The Favourite? You mentioned it had other titles before that.
It was Ceci who came up with the name. She went through Sarah’s memoirs and she found key phrases and she found The Favourite and Yorgos wanted it too.