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Feb 18 2019

Interview: Screenwriter Deborah Davis on her 20 year passion project "The Favourite"

by Nathaniel R

Deborah Davis,first time screenwriter,is up for an Oscar this weekendDeborah Davisrecently took home the BAFTA for her work on the screenplay to Yorgos Lanthimos's stunning tragicomedy andBest Picture hopefulThe Favourite.Though Lanthimos has previously co-written his own features this time was attached to a project already in progress.Davis and cowriterTony McNamarathan retooled the screenplay to match Lanthimos's vision.The results were magic,as has long since become obvious.

Before the hardware started arriving we hopped on a cross Atlantic phone call with Deborah Davis briefly.We couldn't find much info about her at the time and were reeling from the realization that the dearth of info came from the fact thatThe Favouritewas her very first movie.As it turns out she became a screenwriter specifically to tell this story.And what a story it is.

Our interview,edited for length and clarity follows...

NATHANIEL: I'm still gobsmacked that this is a first screenplay!

DEBORAH DAVIS: That's correct,yes.By training I'm a lawyer,but I've done quite a lot of journalism.I started to researchThe Favourite20 years ago,and I was actually convinced that this story about women in power and the female triangle would make a wonderful film,so I went and learned how to write a script...

I took myself to the University of East Anglia where I did their MA in scriptwriting,and that's how it started.As a result I write radio plays for our national broadcast of BBC Radio 4.

It's been percolating for 20 years so we're talking a real passion project.

Absolutely.I never had any doubt that this was a story that had to be told,and in my view,it had to be a film.

Why was that?Did you see it visually as you were writing?

Yes,I did.I just thought that this idea of a female triangle,all of whom were,in their time,in power...and then the power shifts -- it was just too good an opportunity for a screenplay.

And how did Tony McNamara,your cowriter get involved?

He came in later.We both worked very hard to support Yorgos' vision,which is extraordinary and unique.Yorgos was going to bring something to the genre of a British costume drama that no other director would or could bring.I think we both complimented each other in that sense.

When I first heard that Yorgos was directing this,I was surprised,because it seemed so outside of what we've seen from him -- not just in its genre but that he usually writes his own scripts.But then when you're actually watching it,it's a perfect fit.

Yes. The was the producerLee Magiday,who had the audacity to attach Yorgos Lanthimos to a British costume drama!

Tony McNamara and Deborah Davis with their BAFTAs for Best Original Screenplay

I have to ask about that great opening scene where we're first getting to know Queen Anne and Lady Sarah,and they're talking over that model of the city.

It's a model ofBlenheimPalace.

That was such a fascinating way to begin the story.Did you play around with other ways to open the film?

Well,during the period of 20 years writing this,I certainly did play around!But that was [always] one of the first scenes.The Queen giving a someone a palace -- that was quite unheard of.Lady Sarah was already a duchess but no royal in this country had ever received a palace,so it seemed to me that that would be the peak of their relationship.The queen is giving her best friend and her great love,a palace.I though it was a very important,symbolic gestureanda great visual one.

It's such a perfect way to drop us in to their relationship dynamic.Obviously,screenplays are kind of blueprints,though.What surprised you most aboutThe Favouritein its final form?

I didn't expect it to be so beautiful.I was overwhelmed by it.Visually,it's a work of art.

Agreed.Obviously with historical pieces about private lives of famous people,there are things you can research,but some of it you have to invent.How difficult was that line for you?

Well,that's the challenge,isn't it?This isn't just a piece of history,but a very passionate story about female love,rivalry and revenge -- [All of that] had to be dramatized and brought forward over and above any historical set of events.

We do get the plot detail about Sarah and Anne's love letters.Were some of them still in existence in order to get the hint of what actually went on between them?

The primary source [of this kind of information] was Sarah's memoir.She describes the events that led to her being replaced as the favourite by Abigail,her cousin.There are letters,yes,and diaries,and things like that.Jonathan Swiftwrote about Abigail being cloistered with Harley and talking politics together.There was a lot of material [like that] that helped you get a very strong picture of what was going on and how these women were controlling the political agenda.

Ultimately the movie is a tragicomedy.And the humor is so Yorgos Lanthimos specific.Were there rewrites to tailor it to his sensibility?

Absolutely yes.Our job as writers was to realize his vision,and that was the fun of it.His vision is quite different from anybody else's!

Since you studied screenwriting in order to tell this story,are there other tales you now what to tell other than that play you mentioned.

Yes!I've also written stage plays,and one at the moment is in development with an American director. I'm also working with another director at the moment,developing another screenplay.

Exciting.There's a lot of talk lately about gender parity in cinema.This movie is so timely even though it's set in the past.You began work on it so long ago so did you anticipate that it would only become more resonant,rather than more antiquated?

I always knew I wanted to write a story or a script about women,and women in power so this story was perfect.Whether it would become more relevant -- that always seemed completely relevant to me!I just wonder whether it took so long for it to happen because everybody else had to catch up.

more interviews|more onThe Favourite

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Reader Comments (8)

Hope she wins the Oscar!So deserving.

February 18,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Incredible that this is her first screenplay.

February 18,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

Curious about the screenplay before Lanthimos' vision.

February 18,2019 | Unregistered CommenterDoodie

New screenwriter,writes first screenplay,gets it produced by A list cast and director...
That is a "Hollywood Ending"that every aspiring screenwriter longs for.So happy that this kind of thing still happens.I hope this is just the beginning of her screen career.

February 18,2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

this script was so funny and over the top.not your typical costume drama at all

February 19,2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

Both Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are credited with the screenplay.And I am sure deservedly so;however if you look at the content and tone of their BAFTA speeches you would be forgiven for thinking that the elements that people love about the script come mainly from McNamara.You would also be forgiven for thinking that the two had no collaboration on the script and may not even have met at any point.

February 19,2019 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

I tink Green Book,Roma n Vice's loss at WGA might give The Fav (who wasn't eligible for WGA) the edge to win on Oscar night..

Many agreed the script is one of strongest aspects o The Fav..Those witty dialogue n sharp black humours r to die for!!

Lotsa o Olivia n Rachel's pix above but Emma can't even get a single exposure?Is Nat cutting her outta his Fav now??

February 19,2019 | Unregistered CommenterClaran

Brilliant screenplay.Loved the film but especially the vicious and relentless dialogue.

February 19,2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

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