The Favourite’s Deborah Davis on her Twenty-something-Year Journey of Bringing Her Eccentric Script to Fruition

Academy Award nominated screenwriter, Deborah Davis, began developing the The Favouriteafter stumbling upon an article detailing Queen Anne’s illicit triangle with Lady Sarah and Abigail Hill. Intrigued, Davis began a historical excursion, uncovering a wealth of original material, including intimate letters between the chronically shy Queen and Lady Sarah. In her research, Davis discovered a willfully perverse narrative of power play between three lonely women driven by the instinct to survive. And with that, she began the arduous writing process – this was some twenty years ago.

We had a chat with Davis, about her childhood, her inspirations and of course her journey of bringing one of the year’s most original screenplays to fruition.     

Where were you born and where did you spend most of your childhood?

London.

What was your home environment like? 

I am the third of four sisters. Apart from my mother, my grandmothers played a huge role in my upbringing. I adored them.  

What was your childhood dream? 

To be a gymnast. At the age of 7, I was an expert in handstands, headstands and reverse flips. 

What films or filmmakers inspired you growing up?

One of the first films I went to see with my parents was Cabaret. I was entranced. David Lean and Joseph Losey were my absolute favourite directors. I love to watch The Go Betweenwith Julie Christie and Alan Bates on a hot summer evening.  

Can you tell IAWW about your educational background?

I was educated at all-girls schools where I learnt about the fun and fury of female relationships.

As a female, were you given the freedom to explore your own path? Were there any hurdles or obstacles you had to face?

I’m a child of the 70’s and grew up with a strong sense of feminism. I was the first member of my family to go to university. Many of my female contemporaries have done incredibly well in their chosen careers. We felt we could do anything we wanted to do if we went for it. 

Which female figure is your biggest source of inspiration?

Queen Elizabeth I. Elizabeth used her intelligence and character to outwit her enemies (including her family) and emerge as the greatest monarch in history.

What else can you tell us about Elizabeth?

Elizabeth’s mother was murdered by her father when she was 2 years and 8 months old.  Before Anne Boleyn was executed, King Henry VIII annulled their marriage which made Elizabeth a bastard. Anne was forced to agree to the annulment in exchange for an execution that would cause her the least pain. During her reign, Elizabeth never spoke of her mother but she wore a ring that contained her portrait. Despite these unimaginable traumas, Elizabeth was a brilliant and much-loved monarch who outshone and eclipsed her father. Every time I watch Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age, exclaiming: “I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare if you dare to try me!”the hair stands up on the back of my neck. 

Clearly you love history. When did you realise you wanted to be a writer? 

I wrote a diary from a very early age. I felt compelled to write.  When I find a story that I want to tell I feel exactly the same. 

Howdid you learn the craft of writing? 

I went on scriptwriting courses, including an MA in scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia (UEA).  

Are film schools or screenwriting books important to become a screenwriter?

I found them very useful. I was helped enormously by Val Taylor, Director of Scriptwriting at UEA, who made us feel that we were professionals. She helped me to develop my scriptwriting skills for film, radio and stage. 

How has your childhood influenced your writing?

There was tremendous humour in my family. That plays an important part in my writing.

How many hours do you write in a day?

If I am under commission, I make myself write for no more than 20 minutes on the first day, and a maximum of 30 minutes on the second day.  By the third day I am writing day and night!  But the gaps between writing are important. That’s when you work things out in your head and then you type them up the next day.

The Favourite received an overwhelming response from audiences and critics alike. Back in January, you received your very first Oscar nomination. How excited has this journey been?

Beyond!  

How did the idea of writing a costume dramedy on Queen Anne’s(Olivia Colman) antics with Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) come about?

I read an article in a local newspaper. The writer said something along the lines of: “Everyone knows that Queen Anne was having an affair with the Duchess of Marlborough.” I’m a keen historian (I studied history at university) but I knew nothing about Queen Anne or the Duchess of Marlborough. I started researching and stumbled on an extraordinary story of women in power. 

Rachel Weisz and Olivia Colman in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Did you write the script with a cast in mind? How did the cast change over time? 

When I first started writing the script my dream was for Gwyneth Paltrow to play Abigail.

Which character was the most difficult to write and why?

Queen Anne because she was caught between two strong and intelligent women: Sarah and Abigail. It took Olivia Colman to bring her out as the lead actress.

How did you decide the title of the film?  

I sent excerpts from Sarah’s memoirs to Ceci Dempsey (producer) who highlighted key phrases. One of them was “The Favourite” and Yorgos chose it.

You wrote the first draft of The Favourite in 1998. Can you tell us about your voyage? What challenges did you face? 

I researched the reign of Queen Anne and decided that the story of Sarah, Abigail and Anne had to be a movie. The first challenge was to find out how to write a film script so I went to night school. The tutor explained that drama was conflict. That convinced me that I had stumbled on a great story. Once I had written the first draft the next challenge was to find a producer. Not easy as a first-time writer. I showed the script to Ceci Dempsey in 1998. She asked me to stay in touch. I went to UEA and developed my scriptwriting skills on the MA. Ceci came on board in 2003 and the script went into development. The main challenge for Ceci was to secure finance for a female led movie with a complex female triangle. Ceci teamed up with Element Pictures in 2007. In 2009 my script was selected by the Brit List as one of the best unproduced scripts. That was an important step in its progress. In 2010, Yorgos Lanthimos came on board. The rest is his-story!

Director, Yorgos Lanthimos, has strong avant-garde sensibilities. How did the project find its way to him?

Lee Magiday, then Head of Development at Element Pictures, contacted Yorgos after she saw Dogtoothand had the audacity to attach him to my English costume drama.

What was it like working with Lanthimos?

Extraordinary.  Liberating. Fun.  A fantastic privilege.  

Why do you think female driven content is important? 

It’s important to me because I love watching female driven movies. As a teenager I watched actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe and Barbara Stanwyck run rings around men. They were fantastic!  

What advice do you have for females wanting to become writers? 

Treat rejection as an opportunity. I once heard someone say that scientific experiments fail ninety-nine percent of the time. The creative process is exactly the same.

by JSK

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