About halfway through the production of Yorgos Lanthimos’s film The Favourite, which is in theaters Friday, its star Emma Stone realized she had no idea what she’d signed up for.
“One day while we were shooting a scene outside in the garden, I said, ‘What is this movie and what is it gonna be?’” Stone recalled in her Manhattan hotel room earlier this month. “Yorgos shrugged and said, ‘I don’t know,’ so that was pretty much how much I knew about what was happening around me. But I trusted that it was all gonna come together!”
Judging by the response to the film ever since it bowed at the Venice International Film Festival in August, Stone is part of one of the most gleefully deranged, darkly entertaining films of the year.
Opening in limited release on November 23, The Favourite is the true-ish story of two women vying for power in Queen Anne’s court in early 18th-century Britain. Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) is the “court favorite” of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest confidante, who shadow-governs the country while the queen spends her days succumbing to her various physical and mental ailments. This status quo is thrown into disarray with the arrival of Lady Sarah’s cousin Abigail (Stone), a servant who rises rapidly in the court by shamelessly appealing to Queen Anne's vanity.
The set-up might sound like an period costume riff on Mean Girls (with a dash of All About Eve), but Stone pointed out there were real, historical consequences to the social maneuvering. “The stakes are so high because a country hangs in the balance," she explained. "It’s England that’s at stake. It’s not just like power among your community of group of friends.”
In its depiction of rulers so enamored with power they forget about those they’ve been assigned to rule, the film works as a scathing slice of social commentary. But Lanthimos was quick to dispel any suggestions of pedagogy. “For me filmmaking is not about making statements, but about exposing human behavior so people are eager enough to start thinking on their own and make their own assumptions,” he said. “I make films to explore concepts and raise questions, not tell the audience what to think.”
Even in Queen Anne's magnificently mannered court, The Favourite retains the offbeat tone of Lanthimos's unsettling films, such as The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The director spent nine years tinkering with the script (originally written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) before he was ready to finally pursue it. Although the story is based on real events and characters, Lanthimos used history as a template to explore ideas he was interested in now. “In order to make it feel complete, we felt we needed to take a lot of liberties not just with facts and characters and history, but even the way we visualized it,” he said. “Everything from the physicality of the way people dance and bow, the way they move and speak, we felt could have a much more modern texture to make it feel more alive and relevant.”
Lanthimos's all-star cast, which includes Nicholas Hoult and Joe Alwyn alongside the three female leads, took part in a two-week “boot camp” before production to prepare for the rather unorthodox shoot. Much to the cast’s frustration and confusion, the notoriously unconventional director had the cast bond by, according to Alwyn, “making complete fools of ourselves everyday in front of each other.”
Alwyn had imagined Lanthimos would sit the cast all down to talk about the history of the characters, period, and motivations, much like what director Josie Rourke did during preproduction of the other, more straightforward historical film he stars in this fall, Mary Queen of Scots. But Lanthimos is not that kind of director and The Favourite not that kind of film.
“Yorgos made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with that,” said Alwyn, who plays Samuel Masham, the noble suitor of Stone’s Abigail, who seems to be constantly suffering some humiliation in the film's most memorable scenes. “Instead, it was a lot of strange exercises and games and switching parts and rolling around on the floor and dancing.”
But Lanthimos must have at some point explained the reasoning behind his methods?
“Nope, nothing,” Alwyn said, laughing. “He’s very hands-off to the extent that you don’t know what you’re doing and doesn’t give you a huge sense of direction. He might say, ‘Do the line faster’ or ‘That’s dull’ or ‘Not so great,’ but beyond that? You won’t get any real steering you might be used to.”
Since the film’s premiere, reviews have pegged The Favourite as Lanthimos’ most “accessible” film so far. And, to be fair, The Favourite will be to most people more palatable than the sort of brutal sadism that’s inspired audience members to walk out of some of his past films. “I can certainly see why this might appear to be more accessible,” Lanthimos said. “But it’s not the way I think when I’m making films. I just want to feel like I’m trying different things and being bold with my choices and becoming better at what I do. Hopefully, people will appreciate it—and buy it!”