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Blending Tone and Texture from Page to Screen: An Interview with ‘The Great’ Creator Tony McNamara

'The Great' creator, writer and showrunner Tony McNamara shares with Script his approach to breaking seasons by starting with character first, the importance of tone, and how his team navigates fabricating the 18th century on-screen. Plus, he shares what influenced his writing style and satirical voice.

In season two of The Great, Catherine finally takes the Russian throne for her own — but if she thought coup-ing her husband was difficult, it’s nothing compared to the realities of ‘liberating’ a country that doesn’t want to be. She’ll battle her court, her team, even her own mother in a bid to bring the enlightenment to Russia. Meanwhile she’ll also battle her heart as Peter slowly transitions from much-hated husband, to prisoner? Ally? Lover? Ultimately Catherine will learn that to change a country, you must let it change you, that there is a fine line between idealism and delusion, and that becoming ‘Great’, will ask more of her than she could have imagined.

With great power comes great responsibility and this is something that Catherine the Great does not tread lightly. Tony McNamara and his creative force also don't tread lightly in the second season of The Great. There's a great deal of observation, humor, and recourse for Catherine, Peter, and all that haphazardly enter or orbit their world. The greatest laughs you'll find yourself having are more so because they ring all too true even in today's modern society.

Those that have had the rare opportunity in speaking with Tony McNamara about storytelling and writing surely can relate to the great adoration you'll be left with post conversation. Tony shares with Script his approach to breaking seasons by starting with character first, the importance of tone, and how his team navigates fabricating the 18th century on-screen. Plus, he shares what influenced his writing style and satirical voice.

Gillian Anderson as Joanna and Elle Fanning as Catherine in The Great. Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu.

Gillian Anderson as Joanna and Elle Fanning as Catherine in The Great. Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How do you approach breaking down this very specific timeline revolving around Catherine and Peter? Do you start with historical events and work from there or start from character and weave in historical events?

Tony McNamara: A bit of a mix, I kind of just start a season with an idea about Catherine and the arc I want her to have emotionally and narratively. I kind of think of it as a drama at that point. And then there's a bunch of things I know about her that I am very interested in, that I'm never quite sure how they will fit the show, but I have like, a dozen or half a dozen more. I really want to hit those things in the show somehow. So, it's some kind of conversation between those two ideas.

Sadie: And with the second season, we're seeing her come into her own and how she’ll utilize this power in her new role. I'm curious, is there a specific interest for you as a storyteller in the 18th century?

Tony: It wasn't so much the period as it was more that I became interested in the period. In the end, it was more about a young woman coming to a new country and somehow taking it over. And then I guess the period in itself is interesting, because it's the enlightenment hitting Europe, and the tension between monarchies and enlightenment, and the liberty of people and the American War of Independence and all of that going on all at the same time. And what that was doing and countries that attempted the enlightenment or didn't or fought it, it seemed really kind of interesting idea to me.

Tony McNamara

Tony McNamara

Sadie: The writing on this show does not shy away from tapping into those awkward moments. Is this intentional or developed during the writing process?

Tony: Yeah, usually it comes in the writing. It's all planned pretty broadly. We don't really get too specific in the room about that stuff, we kind of have very broad beats in an episode, and then it's more about writing the script and finding all the other stuff so that it's organic. We plan the structure of the episode pretty methodically, but then that's supposed to free you up when you're writing it to where you want.

Sadie: While watching this season, I often found parallels to modern-day social and political strife. Is that something that is also intentionally observed and weaved into the writing?

Tony: I think it's a mix. There's an element of it's just what we're all living in the moment. I do often ask the question, ‘OK, what's the story?’ We’ve got a rough story on the board, ‘OK, what's the contemporary version of that story?’ It's like, a woman in Chicago marries a guy and he turns out to be an idiot, and whether she kills him or not, or takes over a big company and is surrounded by problems. I do kind of try to bring it back to that a little bit. So, we understand it in a more contemporary way.

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Sadie: In regard to character development, again you’re exploring a very specific short period of time and the relationship between Catherine and Peter, how were you approaching finding those arcs for their characters?

Tony: In the first season, watching Nick and Elle work together and just the chemistry they had, whenever I would write these long two-handers for them, they were great. It was fun to write seven-page scenes, knowing that these two actors would have a ball kind of doing them. So, in the second season, it was, ‘What's the relationship?’ What if one of the biggest obstacles to her role is her own emotional life and being attracted to someone who has absolutely none of the same values? [laughs] And sort of the same for him - What is it to have someone challenge you when no one's ever challenged you before? And how that kind of creates this sort of attraction between them in a way.

[L-R] Nicholas Hoult as Peter and Elle Fanning as Catherine in The Great. Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu.

[L-R] Nicholas Hoult as Peter and Elle Fanning as Catherine in The Great. Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu.

Sadie: Yeah, and it definitely works. How much of the story and character development were you able to pull from your original play for these two seasons or was the play mostly executed in the first season?

Tony: It was mostly in the first season. The pilot is a lot of the play. And then bits and pieces throughout the first season. The play ended probably where the first season ended.

Sadie: You get to explore more in the TV version of it. In setting up your writer's room, were you looking for specific voices or those who had a background working on historical dramas or anything?

Tony: Not really, I think it was a mix of people because in the room people do different things. Not many people write scripts, you know, I write most while one or two others write. And then the rest of the room breaks story will research - so it's a mix of people who were like really good at research, people who kind of knew a lot about certain things, and there were good comedy-drama people. There were a bunch of different people that I felt like would bring different things, like young women to kind of bring a more contemporary sort of feel and you know, it's about a young woman, so it made sense that we had a lot of young women in the room.

Sadie: How much research are you doing ahead of time until it’s time to write and take those creative liberties to fictionally turn it on its head?

Tony: We do it as we need it as much as anything. There's a bit of research at the start of the season, because I'll find a couple of things I want to do about her life that I know a little bit about, and maybe we'll do a little bit of research about that. And the rest is just as we go. And often it's just about the stuff at the time, it's more like: What were the inventions then? What was contraception then? What did people do for sport? What were they eating? It's more texture because you can kind of know about a life pretty quickly from anything. So, it's more like the texture around the show. And finding weird things that people kind of were obsessed with or did that we think are funny, and how that will serve the story.

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Sadie: I like that word texture to describe this show, because you get that from the directing, the production design, and the costume design. How did you luck out finding such talented people for those roles?

Tony: I think it's a fun show to do, because even though it's a period show, it's got a world you can build. But it's got a very specific tone, and it's not slavish to history. So, I think for the designers, it's fun, because we can push and it's tonal, everything's tonal to me. We spend a lot of time together with costume and our production design - how far can we go? What would this look like? It's a fun show for everyone to work on creatively because everyone gets to do lavish sets, but we also get to have fun within that, like, the costumes are sort of 70s and 80s, but also sort of like Gucci 1966 sometimes. [laughs] We sort of do whatever we want within our frame as long as it feels like the tone of the show.

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Sadie: Are these actual standing sets or are you shooting on location?

Tony: We are in a very old studio in East London next to a McDonald's. [laughs] And yes, they're amazingly enough all sets. It's rare. Francesca Di Mottola who designed it is amazing. When Gillian Anderson turned up, she spent the first hour just walking around the set taking photos because she couldn't believe it was a set. We're on location, but we're mostly outside when we're on location.

Sadie: Do you and the writers ever spend time in the space and write or do you stick to the writer’s room?

Tony: I'm on set a lot. The room is above the studio. So, we're like always on the set, because it's all in one place - you go down the stairs and you're in Peter's office. [laughs]

Sadie: [laughs] That's actually really amazing. What inspired you to become a writer, especially in comedy? You have a very specific voice and a fascinating way of making the mundane satirical and in your face.

Tony: I love writing. I think I liked novels originally and then realized I can't spell or do that other thing called grammar. And as I say that my assistant is smiling wryly as if she's like you, 'You bet he can't.' [laughs] Then I moved into plays and theater. I loved theater originally, that was my great love and then slowly started doing some TV and movies and went to film school. I'm trying to write things I like really. That's the bottom line - things I'd like to see.

Sadie: Yeah, which is important, because then you're more passionate about it. Have you found parallels between plays in TV writing and then directing plays to running a TV show?

Tony: Yeah, I only directed my own play once. I think the good thing about theater is it's very much an ensemble. Even when you're the writer, you're in the room with actors for weeks and weeks. So, I think it teaches you about ensemble life, and collaboration. And then, TV is a bigger behemoth. You're in charge of a lot of elements and there's a lot more money at stake. In plays, there's nine of you and then on a show, some days, there's like 200 of us. It's a bigger thing to manage, but it's also fun, because it's a bigger world to play with. As a writer, you've got a lot more actors and scope to tell stories and a longer time period, which is probably the thing I like most - you get 10 hours to tell the season, not an hour and a half. And I think that's what's exciting about TV.

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Sadie: Back to your writing style – there’s this sense of freedom you seem to have on the page – your characters say and do things that are wild yet ring true. Are you influenced by any particular writers, is it more instinctual for your voice or are you simply writing to character voice?

Tony: I think I just write the characters as I feel as truthfully as I can, I suppose. I don't really judge my characters. Whatever is right for the story. My heroes are people like Joseph Heller and people who wrote pretty fearlessly and satirically and Hal Ashby, I kind of liked that genre, or Larry Gelbart, people who had a real humanity in their writing, but we're also, super satirical and super funny. They're the people I like, and the people who influenced me as a writer.

[L-R] Elle Fanning as Catherine and Phoebe Fox as Marial in The Great. Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu.

[L-R] Elle Fanning as Catherine and Phoebe Fox as Marial in The Great. Photo by Gareth Gatrell/Hulu.

The Great Season 2 is currently streaming on Hulu.


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