The 'really bad' English student who is now an Oscar-nominated writer
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The 'really bad' English student who is now an Oscar-nominated writer

He's odds-on to win best original screenplay at the Academy Awards. He's just won a BAFTA. And he's an inspiration for anyone who can barely string together a sentence.

Tony McNamara, Australian writer with an Oscar nomination for the tartly black royal comedy The Favourite, admits he was "really bad" at English at school. That's really bad as in "about 51" out of 100 in the equivalent of the Higher School Certificate.

"I don't really love period films. If people tie their shoes with ribbons, I usually put a gun to my head": Tony McNamara at the New York premiere of The Favourite.

"I don't really love period films. If people tie their shoes with ribbons, I usually put a gun to my head": Tony McNamara at the New York premiere of The Favourite.Credit:Dave Allocca/Starpix

Even though he always liked writing, it took time - including an unhappy stint working in the money market after growing up in Kilmore north of Melbourne - to decide to do it for a living.

"It didn't really occur to me that someone who got about 51 for English in the HSC could be a writer," McNamara says. "But I went to London and I saw a lot of plays.

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"They really triggered something in me  - that maybe I could do that. Then once I started writing dialogue, I felt I was good at it. I started writing plays from there."

Friends and family were bemused, as he once said: "Everyone who knew me was like, 'I'm sorry. You can't spell, you can't punctuate and you can barely string a sentence together. And you want to be a writer?'"

Despite the doubters, McNamara has succeeded in three disciplines. In theatre, his plays - often with Sydney Theatre Company - have included The Cafe Latte Kid (1995), The John Wayne Principle (1997), The Recruit (2000), The Great (2008), which he has just adapted as a pilot for a television series in London, and The Grenade (2010).

In television, he has written for The Secret Life of Us (2001-03), Love My Way (2005), Tangle (2008-11), Offspring (2011), Puberty Blues (co-creator in 2012-13) and Doctor Doctor (creator, 2016-18).

Rachel Weisz (left) and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.

Rachel Weisz (left) and Olivia Colman in The Favourite.Credit:AP

And in film, he wrote and directed The Rage In Placid Lake (2003), a comedy about a rebellious teenager (Ben Lee) who decides to lead a corporate life, and Ashby (2015), a comic-drama about a teenager (Nat Wolff) befriending a retired CIA assassin (Mickey Rourke), before The Favourite won a shelf full of best screenplay awards.

Director Yorgos Lanthimos' unlikely royal film about cousins Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz) and Abigail (Emma Stone) vying for the affections of a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) has 10 Oscar nominations - tied for most with Roma - including McNamara and a fellow Australian, production designer Fiona Crombie, a longtime friend since they worked together in theatre.

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The Greek director of such darkly surreal films as Dogtooth (2009) and The Lobster (2015) had been searching for a writer for The Favourite when he read The Great and recognised a kindred sensibility. "He wanted to completely reimagine a period film and what it could be," McNamara says.

They spent more than six years adapting a script for a conventional royal drama by fellow Oscar nominee Deborah Davis into a tragi-comedy with a modern sensibility, witty dialogue and liberal use what's politely known as the c word for comic effect. It is almost a deconstruction of a royal history film, abandoning much of the actual history and ramping up the lesbian love triangle.

"I don't really love period films," McNamara says. "If people tie their shoes with ribbons, I usually put a gun to my head.

"But I was interested in what it could be and what we could make it into that would be different and exciting to write as much as anything."

A shared sense of humour steered the screenplay as writer and director met every year or so in London - and once Rome - and collaborated via Skype when McNamara was back home in the NSW Southern Highlands, where he lives with his wife, actor Belinda Bromilow, and their kids.

"We had an eerily similar view of the film as soon as we started speaking," McNamara says. "We were very much trying to be true to the characters and to make it feel contemporary and fresh."

They had no qualms about ditching the fact that Queen Anne was supposedly happily married in real life.

"The key decision was to start getting rid of elements that I didn't think serve the story," McNamara says. "That she had a husband was not part of the story. Often period films get bogged down in the detail and let the detail derail the film. I didn't want that to happen.

"Yorgos used to say often that it's not a movie you're going to go to for a history lesson.

Tony McNamara directs Ben Lee in the 2003 film The Rage In Placid Lake.

Tony McNamara directs Ben Lee in the 2003 film The Rage In Placid Lake. Credit:Rick Stevens

"What we knew of the history was really the beginning and the end. We knew that Anne and Sarah had this relationship and that Abigail came in and that Sarah gave her a job. We knew there were rumours of a sexual relationship. We knew that the government changed at the end and Sarah was banished. Really what happened in between, no-one really knows."

The final flourish was casting three actors who seem perfect for their roles, Colman, Weisz and Stone, who are all up for Oscars too. That started when Lanthimos worked with the first two on The Lobster.

"When he came back from making that - we'd been working on The Favourite for a couple of years - he knew he really wanted Rachel and Olivia," McNamara says. "And then not too long after, we talked about Emma and he went to meet her. He rang me up and said 'I think it's her'. It was good as a writer: I knew for a couple of years who the main three would be."

So what drives him to write?

"I guess a selfish motivating force is it makes me happy," McNamara says. "More than anything I like writing. I don't know that I could say I want to change the world. It's more like I'm very fascinated by people and motivation and how people are and why they behave the way they do. I'm very interested in how people relate to their society.

"And I'm motivated quite often by things that are difficult: if I feel a script is going to be difficult or an adaptation is going to be difficult, I like the idea of that."

With such poor English skills, writing for a living was always going to be difficult for McNamara but, after a childhood that was "all about sport and reading books and hanging out with my brothers", he studied at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology then the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

More than two decades after graduating, amid all the acclaim for The Favourite that has included Golden Globe, BAFTA and Academy Award nominations, there was one moment that McNamara knew he had really made it.

Emma Stone (left) and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite.

Emma Stone (left) and Rachel Weisz in The Favourite. Credit:Fox

"My five-year-old saw the poster at a train station in London," he says. "Train stations to him are like the pinnacle of human civilisation. He was like 'oh my god, dad, your movie's in a train station!'"

What he calls an amazing ride culminates with the Oscars on February 25.

"It still feels a bit surreal," McNamara says. "I'm excited to meet the writers, Paul Schrader and the Coen brothers and all these great writers who are nominated. The stars are exciting but I really like meeting other writers. And my wife and I get to go away for the weekend so that's exciting in itself."

And his chances against the writers of First Reformed, Green Book, Roma and Vice?

"I guess I'm in it so there's a chance," he says. "We'll see."

Garry Maddox is a Senior Writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.

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