'The Favourite' Producers' 20-Year Journey and Fears the Title Could Backfire

Atsushi Nishijima/Twentieth Century Fox; Todd Williamson/January Images
'The Favourite' and (from left) Ceci Dempsey and Ed Guiney

Ceci Dempsey and Ed Guiney open up about how Yorgos Lanthimos' absurdist royal drama, with its knockout performances by a trio of actresses, came to meet its moment with critics and the Oscars.

Even a mere six months ago, there can't have been many awards season pundits who would have predicted that an absurdist, 20-years-in-the-making period comedy fronted by a British TV regular would become a serious contender. Yet The Favourite, Yorgos Lanthimos' anarchic story of backstabbing, lesbian love triangles and duck racing in the early 18th century court of Queen Anne, has done just that. The film's 10 Academy Award nominations — including best film, best director, best actress for Olivia Colman, and not one but two slots in the best supporting actress category for Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone — tie it on the leaderboard with Roma.

The Favourite began its long life in the late '90s as a script from first-time screenwriter Deborah Davis, an early draft of which ended up in the hands of producer Ceci Dempsey. But Dempsey found that studios weren't willing to back it, unsure that the same-sex power/love triangle would have an audience. Around a decade later, the script found its way to Element Pictures co-founder Ed Guiney, who brought it to the attention of Greek filmmaker Lanthimos.

Dempsey and Guiney spoke with THR about fears that their choice of title could backfire, reaching an exciting diversity tipping point and coming home from the set with a frock coat from one of the industry's most celebrated costume designers.

How has awards season been for you so far?

CECI DEMPSEY It's really overwhelming. It's really hard to absorb. But I'm not complaining. We're loving every minute of it.

Has it been like anything you've experienced before in your career?

DEMPSEY Absolutely not. It's really hard to process it all. It's going to take me months. You hear these quotes and you think, "That's so trite." But then you find yourself saying them, because it's true!

Have you learned anything from your stars as awards season has progressed?

ED GUINEY One thing that strikes me about them — and this is almost never the case — is how close they are to each other, and how much they enjoy each other. I know there may be nothing particularly exciting about that, but this was forged in the making of the film and going back to the rehearsals that Yorgos had, the three weeks where they got to know one another very well. And it's actually made promoting the film much more pleasurable for everyone. Because people are happy to see each other again and happy to turn up and do the endless, endless promotions that are required. So there's a real bond and real friendship.

DEMPSEY They definitely enjoy each other's company a lot. It does make a big difference.

Have either of you developed an awards season motto?

DEMPSEY I'm sure there's one, but it's unprintable. It depends on which time zone you're in! Ed, maybe we should work on this.

GUINEY Well, the thing I keep saying to everybody is that 10 nominations is a win as far as I'm concerned.

DEMPSEY That's a good rally!

Do you think calling the film The Favourite has aided its awards run?

DEMPSEY It could have backfired!

GUINEY I actually thought about that, that actually it could totally have backfired for sure.

In the 20 years that this film took to come together, was there a defining moment that made it a reality?

DEMPSEY I have to say, the magic words here are "Yorgos Lanthimos." He was attracted to the story, and it's through his diligence and his view of the world and of filmmaking that the project was really elevated.

GUINEY I would agree with that. Yorgos very much guided the flow to the scripts that we read, to trying to find a new writer, and he was very much involved in the decision to work with Tony [McNamara] and felt that his script spoke to the sensibilities of the film that Yorgos wanted to make.

How does it feel to have helped promote Olivia Colman from a national treasure in the U.K. to international treasure?

GUINEY She was very central to Yorgos making The Favourite. He loved her from The Lobster and very early on was talking about her for Queen Anne.

DEMPSEY He spoke of no one else. Of course, with these three actors, availability became an issue. But we were very happy to wait for Olivia. She had a big commitment, a long TV show that we were very happy to wait for, and we're very happy we did.

If the cinema world wasn't ready for The Favourite 20 years ago, what sort of films do you think might be coming out in 20 years' time?

DEMPSEY Ha ha! I think the thing with The Favourite is that period films were out of fashion. I think there was also a big issue with the same-sex love story. There was always a lot of interest in it, but no one was able to really get their head around it. They'd want to change it or water it down and in the end it would have been a very average period piece. But I think a good story never goes away.

GUINEY At this year's Oscars, I think you can see there's a tipping point. You have more diversity — not enough — but more than we've seen previously, and that will continue. And as that continues there will be more interesting stories that we haven't thought about yet. What's so exciting about it is that diversity turns out to be incredibly enriching. There are new stories to tell and new experiences to absorb. There may be projects that even 12 months ago were getting absolutely no traction whatsoever, but are now seen as desirable and viable. And films that we've been making too many of for years and years that, thankfully, will never see the light of day again.

Did either of you sneak home with a prop or special memento?

GUINEY I actually have a key.

DEMPSEY I have a frock coat. It's fantastic. They're amazingly made. You can see the detail. Good old Sandy Powell!

This story first appeared in a February stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.