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Tony McNamara – The Provocative Poor Things Starring Emma Stone has Racked up Multiple Award wins and Noms Due to a Great Script

Updated: Mar 13

Tony McNamara

The Provocative Poor Things Starring Emma Stone has Racked up Multiple Award wins and Noms Due to a Great Script

by Brad Balfour

It may have taken a while, but director Yorgos Lanthimos' Poor Things ultimately rose to the Awards season challenge, winning several Golden Globes and garnering 11 Oscar nominations: Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Cinematography.

In this fractured tale inspired by the Frankenstein creation story, actress/producer Emma Stone plays a re-animated Bella Baxter as a fully grown body woman with the brain of a rapidly maturing child.

Bella doesn't hold back as she discovers the joys of masturbation and, further on, energetic sex – which she calls "furious jumping" – with Mark Ruffalo's domineering, and equally unclothed, paramour. Then she explores the inner-workings of a Paris whorehouse engaging with many men in many ways – but on her terms.

The movie's sexual candor is only some of the trappings to this extraordinary story of a woman – though born of men – comes into her own. In exposing herself aesthetically and physically, the seemingly fearless Stone is one of the rare A-list actresses willing to risk such exposure for her art.

Poor Things is a no-holds-barred re-imagining of female empowerment displayed in a thoroughly fantastical environment of striking colors, costumes and landscapes. As a result, the movie is rated R for strong and pervasive sexual content, graphic nudity, disturbing material, gore and language. 

Though the cinematic vision is Lanthimos, the essential story comes from veteran scriptwriter Tony McNamara, an Australian playwright, screenwriter, and television producer. Born in 1967, he worked on the script for The Favourite in 2018, the historical comedy-drama film directed by Lanthimos, also starring Stone. Originally a screenplay by Deborah Davis, written 20 years prior to the film's release, Lanthimos and McNamara worked together to refashion it into a final script resulting in it winning, or being nominated for, many various awards at the time. 

McNamara also created The Great, a series revolving around the life of Catherine the Great, starring Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult, which premiered on Hulu in May 2020. It's based on his period play about Catherine, which premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008. McNamara also wrote a film adaptation of it as well.


This Q&A is based on an appearance by McNamara shortly before Poor Things began its run as an award nominee and cinematic phenomenon.

Talk about the process of adapting this from the book by Alasdair Gray. That Poor Things is very much written from the male perspective in terms of people discussing and describing their experiences with Bella. The film switched that into [a story] from a female view of the world. What did it take to adapt and shift the perspective?

The book is a big Scottish classic – it's wild and has hundreds of pages about Scottish nationalism which, you might notice, is not in the movie. Bella's story was told by the men like Duncan and Max; they all tell you what happened to her. You never get her experience of it. Yorgos read it and we both felt the same – she was the character he was interested in. That's an interesting story and it seemed like a great thing to do. The point of the novel was that the men controlled her narrative. While keeping that idea, I wanted to flip it so that film-wise, it was her story.

This is the first time that you've done an adaptation from a book. What were the unique aspects of doing that?

Yes, it was the first time. When I read it, I thought the first one should be the baby's brain in the woman's head [chuckles]. But Yorgos is amazing, and we had such a good time on The Favorite that the biggest thing was to work out what to tell from the book. We could just depart from the book because I adapted material from history and stuff. I'm always a bit like, "Well, a book, that's one thing and a movie is a whole other thing. How do we make a movie that has a relationship to the book but isn't really about the book."

That started with the Bella thing, which let me invent a lot because the men told her story [in the novel]. I could invent her story because we didn't really know... There was nothing there when she went to Portugal, we knew she went, but we didn't know what happened there. I was creating this sort of internal story when she went on her journey, Yorgos kept saying it was a fantasy. We're both Fellini fans so we thought it should be a big European style, old school stage movie.

How do I create a language that's going to be big enough for what he's going to do? I had to create this sort of dialogue that felt baroque but was also contemporary enough that you could feel it emotionally. That was my main thing. You've got to feel her journey.

You adapted from history before. What you do with language is take elements of period language, but then you really look at it from the perspective of a modern audience's lens into it. You created this unique amalgamation. So for this one, in particular, how did you find the way to make the language work in that regard?

I knew the scale of this story and also, I love language. Half the time, I'm not serving the audience, I'm serving myself [chuckles]. I think it's fun to create a particular language for a movie, which is why I was really drawn to doing this. Bella had a particular language, and it was a character where you had to evolve her language, which you never get to do. Usually the person just talks the way they talk. But with her, part of telling the story was changing the language throughout the narrative. So it's how to do that and make it fun.

It's interesting how her language changed, even [if it's] just with the grammar. It's the same way when you learn another language, you learn the present tense first. She's speaking specifically in the present tense in the beginning of the movie but that evolves. How did you find those different layers and textures of grammar and language for her?

It was like knowing where to start. We had this geographic journey, so I used the geography to change her language through each geographic point. She would change a little bit through it, and I knew where I wanted to start. She talked like my four-year-old. He was a real inspiration. He's very proud now. When Yorgos and I were developing it, we were having lunch one day and I was telling Yorgos about my son and I said, "He's kind of a sociopath and he's only four years old.” We were in a restaurant, and it was really loud. This baby was crying, and my son looked at me and went “punch that baby." I went to Yorgos, and he said that we should put that in! So when she's in the restaurant, she goes, "I'm just going to punch that baby." My son feels like he should get a credit now.

We should see if – in the DVD version – he's given credit. Bella changes so much throughout the script. You talked about thinking from different specifications. At the beginning, she started out pretty much a toddler and then we reached a point where this is when she's 16. When she's leaving home for the first time, she's like in her early '20s at first, then her mid '20s. How did you set about creating those different stages?

In my head it was just to create. Basically at its core. In a way, this is a coming-of-age story. It was as simple as that. It's like watching someone grow up and discover their sexuality and then their intellectual life and they come to terms with being mature and emotional. There's a point – on the boat – where she's so self-regarding and then realizes there's a world out there and she has to be part of it. I felt like there were certain points where… I think the contemporary thing for me was things like, "Oh, you go to college and discover books” and you're like "Oh books and ideas!" There were all these steps where you get a boyfriend and you think he's great and then you realize at some point, "Oh my God, he's the worst." There were simple things I was always thinking of but not to take it away from the bigness of it. I had to ask, what are the basics of it in terms of us, in terms of just a human experience?

That idea for Bella was to be like, "Oh, I've got a boyfriend but he's the worst." That's the arc of Duncan [Mark Ruffalo], where it's so great because he's such an audacious character. We understand that he's full of shit from the get-go. But she takes everything quite literally. So when he says, "I bedded over 100 women," she believes that to be true. What was it like writing the dynamic between those two characters with that in mind?

It was really fun to write because he is such a classic trope and yet I felt sorry for him because she doesn't have any of society's ideas which he owns. He has them all in his head and it's like a paradigm he lives through. She doesn't have any of that. So he can't even get the traction that he would normally get from a person. He sort of dissolves. I enjoyed writing it, but I didn't have as much fun as I did watching those two do it. They were so freakin' right.

How did you shape the tension that starts to fester in Duncan because the less that he succeeds with her, the more frustrated he becomes. He's also watching her with the idea of who he wants to be in a world with no care.

I think that was what the irony was. He sees himself as a free spirit and he's outside society like all the men who have their view of themselves. Everyone in the movie had a view of society that she doesn't ascribe to. Even when they try hard, she either resists it or is oblivious to it. It was constructing that, and some people understood that ... like Max [Ramy Youssef] who went on a sort of positive journey in that respect. Duncan just dissolved more and more because he didn't know what to do. I liked the idea of that.

It's great the way that you have other characters start to use elements of her language. Suddenly another character uses the phrase "serious jumping." How did you find those moments when you wanted other characters to step into her world like that?

She's such a powerful character as she goes through life and gathers agency, I think she's so charismatic because she doesn't [back down]. Beat to beat [it's] just a pure response that isn't shaded by anything. How she feels in that moment without judgment of herself, I think that's attractive. I felt like [with the] other characters, [it] starts to rub off on them a little bit. 

What's the difference in writing a character who is so innately reactionary but in such a positive way?

I was talking to Emma about it. It's great for you as a person. I think she felt the same, playing Bella. I think for her and me, and I'm sure for Yorgos, writing that character and her playing that character, you're aware of how much you're shaped by everything. For her, playing a character who is just shaped by a really pure response, and we don't get that. I think that's why she's a character people can respond to because it's a bit of a wish fulfillment of like, "that would be good if you could just live life like that."

We get an opportunity to watch her learning in real time and developing her back story as a character. How did you set about making sure that you are always cognizant of what she has already learned in the space of a scene to make sure that it comes into play here?

I have a really strong process. I guess I've always thought about what she learns. Yorgos and I were very meticulous as it goes. We didn't do that many drafts. But what we did at the end is, we just went line by line over three or four days separately. There's always time between it and as there's a three-week rehearsal. Then we tweak that a little bit if we hear things that aren't quite right or Emma would say, "Oh, that word seems too sophisticated for her at that point." We're very meticulous about her verbal journey as well as Emma and Yorgos creating the physicality of that.

It sounds like with that process as well in the way that you talk about the film previously that you really aren't doing rewrites during production and that even during rehearsal, it's right mental. 

It's joyful. I'd just hang out and drink coffee and watch them do their thing. No one sees the script for a long time. The first person to see the script was Emma. I think the producers didn't see it for years and then when they see it, he's ready to make it. I think his view of it is that we spent four years on this by making it because I think it's right. He is a very strong individual about how he feels artistically. He's like, "That's what we decided; it is what it is!" He never really made changes on The Favourite. He rang me once [to make a change] because they literally couldn't do something physically. Through the couple of films we worked together, he's never changed anything.

This was a project that Yorgos had been trying to make since before The Favourite. What was the chronology of when you two started working on the script?

He'd moved to London and started on The Favourite and knew he wasn't... He'd only made Dogtooth and Alps, so he was like, no one's going to give me the money to make The Favourite. It's going to cost a little bit because of the period. So he went off with his Greek co-writer, Efthimis Filippou, and they wrote The Lobster so they could try and make something cheap. While he was doing it, he rang me and said he'd read this book [Poor Things]. Even when he was making The Lobster no one would give him any money to develop Poor Things. Everyone was saying, "We like you but we're not doing the baby brain!” Once he made The Lobster and there was some buzz, Film4 came in with some money and he was like, "Do you want to do it?" So we started it. We were in pre-production for The Favourite, and I started writing Poor Things.

Going back to Bella as well, one of the things that's so refreshing about her as a character is she's not necessarily carrying this internal dialogue. Everything that she thinks and feels throughout the movie is said out loud. How is that a totally different approach to writing a character for you?

When I write, I'm just asking myself, "Where is she coming from? What does she want and what's in her way?" I knew she didn't question herself much and that was the joy of her as a character because she wasn't super conflicted about anything. Except towards the end, when she has to confront her feelings for Godwin [Willem Dafoe], but even then, she has clarity in the two different feelings she has. I think that was why she was a really refreshing character to write. She manages to be very simple and very complex at the same time.

How did you find what you wanted to be the essence of the relationship between her and Godwin? It's such a fascinating dynamic. He's had the experience of her being an experiment and now he's kind of carrying it out with a lot of love and heart.

Yeah, I think for us it was one of the most interesting relationships we explored in a way because he was an experiment as well. In the book, he's not an experiment. I made that up so that we could understand him a bit better. His father made him an experiment, so it makes sense. He thinks everything is science and everything's an experiment. But deep down, he's a guy who wants someone to see him and not think he's ugly – someone to "get" him. He's someone that's never had that and he doesn't quite know how to deal with feelings.

That's why he rebels, but it's not in the book. There's the Margaret Qualley character where they just make another one [like Bella] but not quite. That was our idea of how we can show him go through a journey. I was like, "Oh, he makes another one." He'd go with his feelings; by the end of the movie, he realizes his feelings matter.

What was the difference that you wanted to show with Godwin and Margaret Qualley's character when that comes up? It's such a different experience for him.

I think because rather than replace [Bella], it was supposed to show the idiocy of what he did by trying to do that to himself. Then he understood it wasn't the experiment he loved, but it was her.

With the narrative up to where Bella goes back to her ex-husband to learn to visit her old life and learn about that. Initially the idea was that it was sort of a kidnapping, and it was against her will. But then you realize that it was important for it to be her choice to go there. How did that change for you?

Yeah, I think we've done it. We've done a couple of years, and we were having lunch, and everyone really liked the script at that point. We had long periods of silence. That's our process. We just sit there not talking for long periods. We all thought there was something wrong with the third act, so I said I'll go think of something and then I'll text Yorgos. What if she chooses it because she's choosing everything else? So why wouldn't she? She's fearless and that broke it open for us because the other way ­– when she was kidnapped, and then there was a shooting and that's how it ended – he was kind of like, I think they shot him or something and he died. It didn't feel totally right because it wasn't weird enough for the rest of it. So we brought in Christopher Abbott's character. I was always nervous about that because it's hard to bring in a character in two hours and have them hold their own in a big crazy movie like this. But Chris was terrific [as a bad guy].

How did you deal with the sexuality of the whole film? Decisions you made and didn't make, where it would and wouldn't be?

It was always part of that coming-of-age thing. She's at a certain age and starts to discover it. A man comes into her life and she's like, "What adventure do I want to go on?" For me, it was all like, every beat wasn't so much a sex scene. It was the evolution of the character and of the general story. How it's shot and how it's managed was really Yorgos and Emma working together. For us, it was always going to be a movie that was like those '70s European films where it's very... Emma Stone was very unapologetic. It made no sense for it not to be very unapologetic. Yorgos was really devoted to that '70s European aesthetic.

The way you write with layers of comedy which stem from a place of truthfulness. There's so much comedy and attention that's created from Bella's perspective in the world. The way that she refuses to be tied down to other people's ideas of her – how did you write that in a way that feels so grounded – and then find the layers of comedy that can stem from that?

I always go for whatever's real, I think I read that someone famous once said, "To make it real, make it funny." I always try to go from the emotional place of what they want, so I never just go for the joke.

Yorgos and I love comedy, but I think it's all built from the ground up and it's built into the structure – it's a satire. She's a fish out of water. Here's the basics. They're all trying to control her and can't, the poor things. They're idiots. There's a certain element of comedy that I built into the whole structure. I love funny dialogue.

Copyright ©2024 All rights reserved. Posted: March 9, 2024.

Photo #1 © 2023 Brad Balfour. All rights reserved.

Photos #2 - #5 © 2023 Yorgos Lanthimos and Atsushi Nishijima. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. All rights reserved.

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