Playing favourites

Yorgos Lanthimos, Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, Nicholas Hoult, Joe Alwyn and Tony McNamara on The Favourite

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kent Jones with Joe Alwyn, Nicholas Hoult, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Tony McNamara on the 56th New York Film Festival Opening Night Gala selection The Favourite
Kent Jones with Joe Alwyn, Nicholas Hoult, Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Yorgos Lanthimos, and Tony McNamara on the 56th New York Film Festival Opening Night Gala selection The Favourite Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Favourite director Yorgos Lanthimos with Emma Stone (Abigail), Olivia Colman (Queen Anne), Nicholas Hoult (Harley), Joe Alwyn (Masham), and co-screenwriter Tony McNamara (with Deborah Davis) joined New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones at the press conference for the Opening Night Gala selection of the 56th New York Film Festival.

The Favourite, shot by Robbie Ryan (Noah Baumbach's The Meyerowitz Stories (New And Selected), John Maclean's Slow West, Andrea Arnold's American Honey, Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake) has costumes designed by three-time Oscar winner Sandy Powell (for Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria, Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, John Madden's Shakespeare In Love), and also stars Rachel Weisz as Lady Sarah.

Yorgos Lanthimos on the roles for Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz in The Favourite: "We were just interested in creating this particular world and the story around these three women …"
Yorgos Lanthimos on the roles for Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz in The Favourite: "We were just interested in creating this particular world and the story around these three women …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The sounds of doves cooing and dogs panting set the tone before we even see the first image of The Favourite, which is Queen Anne's (Olivia Colman) gigantic ermine train. Animals play a remarkable, well thought through part in this costume drama/ royal court farce, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, the master of intricate displacements, wondrous horrors and unexpected bluntness.

What catches up with us around every dark corner turned, along each panelled palace gallery, or hidden among sumptuous flowers and embroidered walls, is the savagery and hideousness and self-disgust of those in power.

"Did I lisp?" the Queen asks of her initial favourite, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), who has a good grip on her sluggish monarch, body and soul. The arrival of Abigail (Emma Stone), a remote, impoverished relative of Sarah's, soon shifts the dynamics in the palace. In the kitchen Abigail is sent to - one of the most impressive settings in a movie full of them - a gigantic stove and fireplace is covered high up with soot.

The clearly 21st century fabrics with black and white laser-cut trimmings on many of the costumes match perfectly the ornamentally spaced credit sequences and chapter headings displayed on screen. All the fairy-tale heroines who start out as servant girls longing to become princess - you will see them in a different light after seeing The Favourite.

The following are some of the shiny morsels and pellets from the New York Film Festival press conference the morning of the Opening Night Gala screenings at Alice Tully Hall.

Kent Jones: I'll start with a broad question. Yorgos, what was it that drew you to this particular material?

Emma Stone on Sandy Powell's costumes for Abigail: "There was a lot of laser-cut leather and really contemporary fabrics."
Emma Stone on Sandy Powell's costumes for Abigail: "There was a lot of laser-cut leather and really contemporary fabrics." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Yorgos Lanthimos: Yes, when I initially came across it, it was the fact that it was a story about these three women, that in a particular point in time had this kind of power.

Also the characters and the personalities and how that affected a whole country or the fate of thousands or millions of people. It felt like an interesting thing to explore.

Kent continues by inquiring about the choice to tell it as a dark comedy.

YL: Yeah, just thinking about what would be the most interesting way to approach this. Well, I think, humor in general is something that I can't get away from - no matter what the material is.

KJ: Please don't try!

YL: So I guess, yeah, it was a given for me.

Screenwriter Tony McNamara reflected on the title.

Tony McNamara: It's a battle to be the favourite and a battle to be a favourite. It's a [royal] court which is a contained world … Favour is a sort of malleable thing. It's a thing that comes and goes.

The idea of all these people being subject to trying to be the favourite, trying to be in favour … it just seemed an interesting dynamic to us for a film and really complicated.

Animals, especially rabbits and racing ducks and lobsters, populate the palace.

Olivia Colman on the ceremonial costumes for Queen Anne: "The weight to those costumes really helps to evoke really how awful it must have been …"
Olivia Colman on the ceremonial costumes for Queen Anne: "The weight to those costumes really helps to evoke really how awful it must have been …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Olivia Colman: Em [Stone] and I are both mad animal lovers, so we had a lovely time.

Yorgos Lanthimos: I was surprised but [working with the rabbits] was very simple. It just fell into place most of the times. The only thing we had to do was just to restrict where they were because they were huge rooms.

I thought it was going to be a nightmare but they just seemed to be enjoying themselves just hanging out [like Butterscotch in the Zellner brothers' Damsel] and it all fell into place.

Lanthimos continued to talk about his use of wide angles.

YL: It's a personal preference that I've been developing over the last few years and the last few films. But especially on this film I think we went in it more extreme. Because we felt that it kind of in a certain way visually represented a lot of the themes of the film. The lone human figures in the middle of those huge spaces.

The fact that so few people actually affect a much vaster world. The fact that although those spaces were huge they were kind of distorted and felt quite claustrophobic at the same time. So there were a lot of things that made it seem the right thing.

And I kind of remembered those Dutch paintings in earlier centuries that had those convex mirrors painted in them and you could see the whole space in fact distorted in those mirrors. It also felt appropriately period in a way.

Joe Alwyn is Masham and Nicholas Hoult is Harley in The Favourite
Joe Alwyn is Masham and Nicholas Hoult is Harley in The Favourite Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Emma Stone added to the talk about camera lenses and answers Kent's question about how it felt seeing the finished product.

Emma Stone: I love being obnoxious on set, figuring out what lenses they're using pretty consistently. So I knew what lenses were used throughout the movie. I just didn't know how it was all going to be pieced together.

It was pretty stirring to see that much wide angle. But I knew pretty much every master was going to be about wide angle. And the music and the chapters - the chapters obviously were not there, that was new.

Stone, the only American in the cast, said she knew little of the history behind The Favourite. Her fellow actors shook their heads as if they did not know either - country of birth didn't seem to make much difference here.

ES: I did a bit of research. I read about Sarah and Queen Anne and the little you could find about Abigail. But the nature of their relationship wasn't really completely understood. So I went with whatever they said.

Yorgos Lanthimos: No, but the reality was that the historical aspect of it and whatever fact we knew or assumed about the period, we took that as a starting point. Then we were just interested in creating this particular world and the story around these three women, not be necessarily loyal to specific events or the specific politics of the time.

Tony McNamara on the title of the film he co-wrote with Deborah Davis: "It's a battle to be the favourite and a battle to be a favourite."
Tony McNamara on the title of the film he co-wrote with Deborah Davis: "It's a battle to be the favourite and a battle to be a favourite." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

We tried to actually simplify that part of it. We focused more on the characters and through them understand in a way what is relevant to any period. How people in such positions according to their character, behavior, mood, can actually affect very important events in history … We tried to use quite a few contemporary elements in the film.

One of them was dance and the physicality in general of the characters and the actors. We felt sometimes in subtle ways, sometimes not so much, we would incorporate textures that felt more contemporary, starting with the language, from the script stage. We didn't try and make the people sound the way we thought they sounded like back then, or the way we assumed they spoke.

So from making that decision, using more contemporary language, the dance, the costumes. We tried to stay loyal to the shapes of the period and then use quite a few contemporary fabrics and textures. To music that is sometimes true to the period and sometimes quite contemporary.

Costume designer Sandy Powell joined them on stage for a moment to discuss her work for The Favourite.

Sandy Powell: What the costumes are really - basically they are historically correct in the cut. Then, as Yorgos mentioned before, I used contemporary fabrics, I used African print fabrics and within the restrictions made it bare bones. In terms of how they work with the characters, that just happens with the actors during fittings.

Costume designer Sandy Powell on The Favourite: "All the costumes in the kitchen for the kitchen staff were old jeans."
Costume designer Sandy Powell on The Favourite: "All the costumes in the kitchen for the kitchen staff were old jeans." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Emma Stone: I had never worn a corset before. It also does inform you to the time period, the kind of restriction on women. Needing to lace yourself into that and then you stand in a certain way and walk in a certain way in order to be able to stay upright really. I felt that that was helpful. Also - my first costume was denim. It was like salvaged denim, wasn't it?

SP: Yes. All the costumes in the kitchen for the kitchen staff were old jeans.

ES: Which was so cool. And there was so much leather. There was a lot of laser-cut leather and really contemporary fabrics. They were black and white basically for the most part and how it got so elaborate with the hair pieces.

I don't know if it's especially for Abigail because she is so defined, her rise, is so defined by what she's wearing.

Olivia Colman: And I didn't have to wear a tight corset. And often had on a nightie. The ceremonial costumes! The weight to those costumes really helps to evoke really how awful it must have been to stand still for any length of time and carry around a few extra stone of fabric.

Emma Stone talked about her Favourite audition.

Emma Stone: I auditioned for Yorgos and he had me breathe, like pant, like I was giving birth. Just throughout the lines. And then there were times where I would just like take pauses in the wrong place. I think he just does this to everyone.

The Favourite posters at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
The Favourite posters at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Yorgos Lanthimos: Not the birth part.

Tony McNamara had a lot of lunches with Yorgos around the world to develop the script.

Tony McNamara: We were on the same page very fast. We sort of knew where we were heading with this tragicomedy and very complicated characters that we were driving towards. It doesn't feel like work.

It seemed to be just eating and then a few weeks later there's a script. And then we plan our next lunch. And once Yorgos is happy with the script, he's pretty solid with the script. Not much changes once we are happy.

Yorgos Lanthimos: The script has a very particular tone. Any kind of improvisation was mostly physical or the way you stage the scene.

The Favourite will screen in the London Film Festival as a UK premiere on October 18.

Fox Searchlight Pictures will release The Favourite on November 23 in the US and in the UK on January 1, 2019.

The 2018 New York Film Festival runs through October 14.

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