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Before becoming a playwright, screenwriter and showrunner, Tony McNamara was a stockbroker who had failed year 11 English. Now, after being nominated for an Oscar for The Favourite, he brings his acerbic dialogue and honest storytelling to his new TV series, The Great. “I saw a lot of Pinter, a lot of Mamet, Caryl Churchill … I was struck by how visceral it was, how you could get a rhythm going that really carries an audience along.” By Evan Williams.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Tony McNamara

Tony McNamara (centre) on the set of The Great.
Credit: Stan

I know only one thing about where Tony McNamara is video calling me from: it seems bloody cold. The Australian screenwriter, and creator of the excellent new TV series The Great, is wearing at least one blazer, a hoodie and two T-shirts. “Three or four,” he says when I ask for clarification on layer numbers. “It’s very cold here in the car.”

McNamara, who’s either 52 or 53 years old – he gives me an equally equivocal answer to this question that has confounded his Wikipedia page – tells me he is calling from outside a hotel in Perth. It’s early and his family are still asleep inside. Despite the hour, he manages to punctuate his answers with a warm smile. He sports a writerly greying mop and beard, similarly writerly horn-rimmed glasses and an unexpectedly boyish voice that doesn’t match any of that – more teenage surfer than Academy Award nominee.

“It’s completely surreal and funny,” McNamara says of his experience at the 2019 Oscars, when he was nominated for co-writing with Deborah Davis the wickedly funny period drama The Favourite, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. “You turn around and you’re dancing next to Bill Murray… All of that feels slightly like you’re in a strange dream and you’ve eaten too much cheese the night before.”

When McNamara was growing up in Kilmore in country Victoria, the Oscars likely seemed the last place he would end up. “I nearly failed HSC English,” he says. “I got 51. And I failed year 11 English.” Instead of English, he pursued economics, entering an ill-fated career as a stockbroker in London. “I’m not good at many things, and that was one of them,” he says. “It was just something I was doing until I worked out what I was doing.”

McNamara worked that out by seeing plays. “I saw a lot of Pinter, a lot of Mamet, Caryl Churchill … I was struck by how visceral it was, how you could get a rhythm going that really carries an audience along.” And there was also something about playwriting that appealed to his money market background. “Hey, I guess the playwright’s not even here and he’s making money out of this,” he recalls thinking while sitting in the theatre. “It appealed to my idea of being lazy, in life, which was: I could stay home and make 10 per cent.”

It wasn’t until he was travelling alone in Rome that McNamara officially made the call. “I just decided I was going to be a writer, in this completely ignorant fashion. I wanted to write novels, which was very foolish, because I still can’t write prose. I can write dialogue, but I can’t write prose … I don’t have any grasp of grammar or anything.”

Playwright Gretel Vella, who was formerly mentored by McNamara and is now a writer on The Great, confirms this. “When I was his [personal assistant] he would be like, ‘Can you just go through here and put some commas in and if things are spelt wrong, you know, do that.’ ” Even after his Oscar nomination, McNamara remains – technically – not a professional writer. After his revelation in Rome, he embarked on a one-year professional writing certificate at RMIT. “I think I was probably the first and only person to fail it,” he says, with a wry grin.

His first play, The Cafe Latte Kid, premiered in 1994. “I remember getting lots of rejections for it,” he says of the play, which, to be fair, is not for the faint-hearted. Eventually picked up by Sydney Theatre Company, and later adapted into a film starring Ben Lee and Rose Byrne, it is about a suicidal teenager, named Placid Lake, returning from a psychiatric hospital to resume a bristly relationship with his hippie-dippie parents. Along with plenty of grunge-era angst, The Cafe Latte Kid contains flashes of the acid-tongued dialogue that would fill The Favourite and now The Great. Placid, on the phone with his also-suicidal best friend, Gemma, describes his release from the psychiatric hospital: “Oh, you know. Guards of honour, nurses weeping, showering me with gauze pads, few speeches, you know, ‘Placid’s an asset to any institution’, that sort of thing. There’s a chance of a photo spread in Mental Health Monthly, but I don’t want to say too much about that and hex it.”

It was another play for Sydney Theatre Company, more than a decade after The Cafe Latte Kid, that would change the course of McNamara’s career. “Robyn Nevin had been a big mentor to me, and we talked about me writing something for her… and then I found the Catherine the Great story,” he says.

McNamara, who writes longhand – “writing on a pad is tricking myself into the idea that it doesn’t matter what I’m doing because this can just go in the bin” – struggled with making the story of the Russian empress a traditional period play. “It was so boring I couldn’t deal with it.” His solution? Throw off the shackles of the period genre and contemporise it. He loaded his characters with elegantly filthy dialogue, ensuring carefully choreographed f-bombs and c-bombs detonated throughout the script.

“It’s like Shakespeare,” Elle Fanning, who plays Catherine the Great in the TV adaptation of the play, told The New York Times about performing McNamara’s lines. Nicholas Hoult, who plays Emperor Peter III, Catherine’s boofhead husband who – 300-year-old spoiler alert – she will one day overthrow, goes one better in praising McNamara, citing him as the reason he signed up to do the show. “I mean, it was purely based on Tony’s writing, to be honest with you,” said Hoult, who worked with McNamara on The Favourite, in an interview with The Playlist. “Each line of dialogue he writes is just kind of completely different from anything I’ve read before ... fun and smart and well paced and very different tonally.”

Fanning and Hoult’s heated exchanges are a highlight of The Great. Early in the series, Peter proposes fixing their marriage because: “What’s the alternative? You remain unhappy, I become more and more angry and then I kill you. I don’t want to kill you. You aren’t a bad person.” Catherine responds, tersely: “I could kill you. You are a bad person.” Peter laughs. “You see, I like you! You’re funny! In a droll, despairing sort of way. I couldn’t take a lot of it. But, occasionally, it’s refreshing!”

McNamara goes to great lengths to get the dialogue note perfect. When starting a project in earnest, he likes to spend four days alone in a hotel. “It’s about the voice,” he says. “I can’t watch anything. I can’t listen to anything except that, because I’m trying to get a tone, and it’s like a musical tone, so I sort of have to hear that and nothing else.”

After The Great’s run at STC in 2008, the story was reworked into a feature film screenplay. But the blend of contemporary and period was confusing to some financiers. McNamara recalls his producing partner Marian Macgowan telling him, “We tried to convince the Germans it’s funny.” The work may not have landed for the Germans, but it was a hit with one Greek film director.

Yorgos Lanthimos, whose critically acclaimed films include The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, had been sitting on a 20-year-old script by historian Deborah Davis titled The Favourite. He loved the story of Queen Anne and her power struggles but felt a different tone was needed. He was looking for someone to rewrite it when the screenplay of The Great came across his desk. Over the next seven years, McNamara and Lanthimos worked to modernise the story, inserting the vivid dialogue McNamara had honed while writing his play.

The result was met with as close as a film can get to universal acclaim. “A wildly entertaining, bracingly cynical comedy of royal manners … a farce with teeth, a costume drama with sharp political instincts and an aggressive sense of the absurd,” wrote A. O. Scott in The New York Times. The Sydney Morning Herald ’s Sandra Hall called it “one of the finest films of the year” – and wasn’t alone in that judgement, with The Favourite receiving 12 BAFTA nominations and 10 Oscar nominations. Invariably, reviews would single out McNamara’s dialogue for special praise. The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane admired how the film “blends the foulest invective with musty Edwardian slang”, while Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian appreciated the “cheerfully obscene” script’s “freaky zingers and deeply strange laugh-lines”.

After the success of The Favourite, those holding the purse strings were somewhat more persuaded by McNamara and Macgowan’s pitch, with American streaming service Hulu commissioning The Great as a TV series in 2019.

Gretel Vella recalls the series’ writers’ room, assembled by McNamara, meeting in Bowral, in the New South Wales Southern Highlands. “We kind of all turned up with our history books, all ready to go,” she says. “And then Tony said, ‘I want you to take a few points from these that you find interesting, and then throw them out. We’re just going to tell a human story.’”

Telling a human story appears to hover as a north star for McNamara. Ahead of the group’s meeting in Bowral, Vella says, McNamara delivered a message to all the writers. “He did send us a little quote from Faulkner before we started – I’m pretty sure it was Faulkner – ‘I think the most interesting stories you can tell are the human heart in conflict with itself.’ ” It was Faulkner, the internet tells me, at his 1950 Nobel Banquet speech.

McNamara’s dedication to this kind of storytelling feels honest, personal and true – the same dedication shared by his filmmaking heroes Mike Nichols and Hal Ashby – and it means The Great never slips into gimmicks or one-note comedy.

Before his international success with The Great and The Favourite, McNamara worked on successful Australian TV shows such as Love My Way and Tangle, as well as creating Channel Nine’s medical drama Doctor Doctor, which will return for a fifth season. I ask if it disappoints him that the two most popular stories he’s told are set in England and Russia, and not in Australia.

“The business is so international now, I’m sort of like: ‘Well, of course…’ I think it’s just a matter of tyranny of distance and tyranny of small market. We don’t make many shows. I mean, you’ve got to make a lot of shows to make great shows.”

He also acknowledges the numbers can make things hard for Australian writers trying to experiment. “Australia can be tricky because you’re trying to get a big demographic ... whereas America can be niche. They can be a niche show and get four million people and that will do. Here, to be a niche show, that really crushes your budget. So, there’s only a certain kind of show you can make as a niche show.”

He still sees a path for Australian shows to take off internationally, citing the Irish series Normal People as a potential model. Perhaps he’d be interested in writing it himself. “After producing a massive period show, it’d be fun to do a half-hour contemporary show where there’s no carriages or wigs or endless dressing people.”

For the time being though, McNamara, who has already written one more period feature for Lanthimos, is currently at work on another – perhaps his most ambitious. The pair are trying to adapt The Hawkline Monster: A Gothic Western, a 1974 novel by Richard Brautigan that parodies Western and Gothic genres. They’re not the first to have a go. Directors Hal Ashby and Tim Burton have previously both had a crack at bringing the unwieldy book to screen, only for their projects to fall over.

“I’m not surprised, either,” says a weary McNamara. “I’ll see if I can get there.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2020 as "Great expectations".

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Evan Williams co-writes satirical sketches for the ABC’s 7.30 with Mark Humphries. He has also written for The New Yorker, McSweeney’s and The Sydney Morning Herald.