N.Y. Film Fest: 'The Favourite' Team on Historical Research Behind British Period Film

'The Favourite' Cast and Director at NYFF Premiere - H Getty 2018
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

Director Yorgos Lanthimos and producers of the Fox Searchlight film, starring Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone and Olivia Colman, say the movie offers a timely depiction of the far-reaching influences of political machinations.

Fox Searchlight's awards hopeful The Favourite is grounded in history, set in the early 18th century court of British monarch Queen Anne (Olivia Colman).

But director Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, Killing of a Sacred Deer) wasn't afraid to take artistic liberties to tell the film's story of two women — lady-in-waiting Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and her cousin, a former aristocrat turned ambitious servant Abigail (Emma Stone) — competing for Anne's attention and affection.

"We did the research initially, and we very early on decided that we were going to first of all include the things that help to tell the story we want to tell, but then we wanted to be able to veer off to any direction we thought was necessary in order to make this a powerful, complex film," Lanthimos told The Hollywood Reporter at The Favourite's New York Film Festival premiere last week. "Some of the things in the film are accurate, and a lot aren't."

Nicholas Hoult, who plays Tory leader Harley, admitted he did only "very little" research into the history of the period as he developed his character.

"I remember in my audition asking Yorgos what he thought the character would be like, and he said, 'We'll see.' And I think that was the only time we ever spoke about character," Hoult told THR. "It just developed very organically from the rehearsal period, where we played a lot of games and ran the film almost like a play. I've read a little bit about Harley, but a lot of it came from the costumes and the makeup. The script was so strong on the dynamic."

Similarly, Joe Alwyn, who plays Abigail's love interest Masham, said he quickly learned that the film would not be overly focused on its real-life background.

"I started to do some research and then realized that wasn't really the direction it was going in," Alwyn said of his work on his character. "I think people turn up to the rehearsal period thinking maybe they should've read their history books and thought about their characters and their intentions and all of that stuff that you normally think about, but Yorgos made it quite clear early on that there wasn't going to be much consideration for historical accuracy to a degree. He wasn't too caught up with or concerned about that. He just wanted us to have fun as people and as a cast and to explore the relationships between us, which is what we did."

A film telling the stories of three women might seem particularly timely in an era in which there's a greater emphasis on amplifying women's voices, but beyond The Favourite's female focus is an illustration of the far-reaching impact of political maneuvers, Lanthimos and producer Ed Guiney said, another issue with contemporary resonance.

"I was attracted to the story because it was about these three women, which is rare to see in films, especially three women in power during that time," Lanthimos said. "I really was interested in exploring those characters and making a film that focuses on personality and characters and personal relationships but shows how these people in power can affect the fate of countries or the whole world."

Guiney added, "[The film] also speaks about how interpersonal relationships are amplified beyond the small place where they take part. In other words, you have these three very powerful people, and as their interpersonal relationships change, their impact on the greater society changes as well. The capriciousness of that and how that impacts beyond the small world of the palace and place of our film, I think that has resonance these days as well."

The Favourite, which doesn't hit theaters until Nov. 23, kicked off the 56th annual New York Film Festival, which is filled with high-profile awards hopefuls but is missing some of the splashy world premieres that have characterized prior editions of the annual event.

Festival director Kent Jones said this wasn't due to a conscious decision on the part of the festival but more a reflection of shifting industry trends.

"That was always a very incidental part of the festival, the fact that [some movies] were world premieres," Jones told THR. "We chose films that we liked; we just decided for a while that we were going to do that. The business is constantly changing. The way that things are skewing now, filmmakers want to get their movies into more and more festivals so they can get them onto more and more big screens, for reasons that are obvious. I think since that was never a crucial thing for us, we were always proud to present the world premieres that we did, but this year it didn't happen and work out that way, and we decided that we would just keep on going. It wasn't a loss, it was just a change."