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NFSA Presents: Inspired

NFSA Presents: Inspired – Tony McNamara

Tony McNamara Interview

NFSA Presents: Inspired is a collection of conversations that dive into the creativity, the inspiration and the success of Australian cinematic talent. Hosted by film journalist Jenny Cooney, the video series complements the NFSA’s exhibition, Australians & Hollywood: a tale of craft, talent and ambition. Book tickets here now. 

In this episode, Jenny Cooney interviews Tony McNamara (The Favourite, The Great, Cruella). He talks about creative ambition, the filmmakers that have influenced him, and the importance of honing your craft. Watch here:

NFSA Presents: Inspired – Tony McNamara in conversation with Jenny Cooney about Australians & Hollywood, 2021.

'That broke out in a way I don't think any of us expected'

Jenny: Let's just start with your first or most influential Australian cinema memory.  

Tony: Wow. I think my first was Picnic at Hanging Rock (Peter Weir, 1975). Because we lived near Hanging Rock, so I'd been to Hanging Rock a lot as a little kid. And then I could never go to Hanging Rock the same way. And even now my brother lives under Hanging Rock.

Jenny: That's so funny.

Tony: And I think that's what's amazing about the movie. You can't go to that place and not think about the movie.

Jenny: That's really true, and it still scares people, even though we all know it was a movie, right?

Tony: It's true, it’s true.

Jenny: So what film, music or stories do you find yourself going back to and why?

Tony: I watch Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, US, 1971) a lot. I love Hal Ashby. I suppose I watch that and I watch a lot of M*A*S*H (1972–83). M*A*S*H is probably the most influential thing on my writing, just because of  Larry Gelbart's ability to manage drama and comedy in the one thing and seamlessly go from one to the other. So I've always loved that about him.

And then I just like, I love [Federico] Fellini and The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, US, 1972). You know, I just watch those things a lot.

Jenny: Do you have any Aussie films or TV shows or anything that you go back to?

Tony: I really loved that era of Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1989), that was a really important movie. I think for me anyway, because it was such a dark comedy. Even though Jane's a Kiwi, it felt very Australian with Gen Lemon. So I do like that era of film and PJ and [Muriel's Wedding, PJ Hogan, 1994] and Baz [Luhrmann] and... That era is sort of when I came of age in watching, and wanting to be a filmmaker – [they] were really important, I guess.

Jenny: So what do you think is the secret sauce for Australian cinematic success?

Tony: No idea. I don't know. I mean, I guess just good stories, really? I don’t think you can guess what's going to be successful in some ways. I mean, some ways you can, you know, things will be small or they'll have a capacity to be bigger. But then you never know.

Like The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, Ireland-UK-US, 2018) was... That broke out in a way I don't think any of us expected.

Jenny: You were surprised with all the attention?

Tony: Yeah, we totally were. I don't think we thought it was going to be big. I mean, we knew we had Emma [Stone]. And so she had a certain draw. But I don't think we thought people... It was a weird little movie to us, to Yorgos and I, and I don't think we thought people would connect with the movie in the way they did.

'For me, ambition means curiosity'

Jenny: When you reflect on your career, what does ambition mean to you?

Tony: I think for me, I mean, I just think of creative ambition. Because the other ambition is just destructive in a way, because if you're focused on that, then you're sort of focused on the wrong thing. So I think for me, ambition means curiosity really.

I love finding people I haven't worked with who I think will make me do something I haven't done before. Or I'm always drawn to books I don't think I can adapt, rather than if I get a book and I know how to do it, I'm not that interested in it.

But if I get it and I'm like, I don't even know how you would adapt this, then I'm interested in doing it. Or something I haven't done before. Like, Cruella (Craig Gillespie, US, 2021) was a big studio film, and I hadn't really done a big blockbuster film like that.

So of all those things, I think for me ambition is that it's just like, 'What have I not done?' and 'What do I think I can't do?' and 'How can I express myself in a different way from what I think I can do?'.

Jenny: What element of the filmmaking craft fascinates you beyond what you already do?

Tony: Editing, really. I love editing. And it's always my favourite thing because it's like the last draft. And editors have a certain personality, they like being locked in a small room. So it's not unlike writers. So usually you get on well with editors because they're like you.

When you're making a show, there's so much going on all the time. So it actually gives you time to see the detail of your own show in a way, and to stop and see tiny bits and appreciate the costume and appreciate the production design without all the time pressure. So I kind of like enjoying everyone's work while I'm editing.

Jenny: What does the National Film and Sound Archive mean to you?

Tony: Well, I think it’s just a place where you collect the story of Australian filmmaking and TV. We have somewhere that really is a central place to go and kind of find out what happened and find out our stories and find out the trajectory of our industry. Somewhere to go that goes, 'Look what we did', 'Look what's important', 'Look at all the people who invested their lives into something'.

And beyond the famous people. It's everyone who did everything, you know, it's all the aspects of the process that you don't see – the great cinematographers or production design or all those things that maybe the public aren't aware of as much as they are a director or an actor. So yeah, I think it's vital.

'There's such an appetite now for interesting voices'

Jenny: So which Aussies inspired you as you were coming up in your career?

Tony: I think Peter Weir was a huge influence on me. Not that I make things like he made, but just his range and his technical brilliance and the way he told stories. He could make The Cars That Ate Paris (1974), but he also made Green Card (1990). I just loved how he had this range. It felt like he really ran the gamut and he really did know how to still be himself within the Hollywood system. It never felt like, you know, he wasn't just [being] who he was making films, whatever they were – small films, big films.

So him and then I think who I mentioned before, you know, I think Jane [Campion] and Baz [Luhrmann] and PJ [Hogan] were like, you know, they came out with that crop of really dark, funny films and that was really like, 'Oh, we can tell those stories and we can [convey] that sense of humour'. And that was important to me.

Jenny: So who currently inspires you?

Tony: Fiona Crombie, who production designed The Favourite. You know, Justin Kurzel, Craig Gillespie, who did Cruella and I, Tonya (US, 2017). I think there's a ton of... Kate Dennis, who's done amazing things in TV.

I think all those people... There's so many people now who are doing interesting, great things, which is very inspiring to a new generation and makes it look not as hard. I think when we started, it looked very hard. And now I think there's such an appetite in the world for interesting voices and talented people who know their craft. And so I think it's, you know, all those people are doing great things.

Jenny: And were there any Aussies that helped you in the early days of your global career?

Tony: Well, I think in my career, the people who helped me most were probably John Edwards, the Australian TV producer who gave me my start, kept me working for a long time. And Robyn Nevin at the Sydney Theatre Company gave me a lot of goes at writing plays, hoping one might be good. And then Marian Macgowan, who's the Australian film producer I make The Great (US, 2020–current) with, I think her and I have worked together a long, long time as friends and trying to get things happening internationally.

And so, yeah, I think those people were the main people who helped me in my career, I suppose.

Jenny: And so what's your advice to Aussies dreaming of Hollywood?

Tony: I'd almost say forget dreaming of Hollywood and just focus on your craft and focus on getting good at what you do. And that'll take care of most of it, I think.

And then the Hollywood thing, I think, is a bit persistence and luck. It's a lot of luck in it. But I think that's the main thing. That's the advice I give everyone.

Just learn to enjoy your craft and enjoy what you're doing and... it takes a long time to understand Hollywood.

If you ever do, you know there's so many elements of what's going on, you can't second guess it, because it changes every minute. So I think that would be my advice.

Jenny: Well, it's a good thing all the Aussies know how to have fun, no matter what, right? Because I guess that's what you've got to focus on. What makes you happy, huh?

Tony: I mean, everyone I think is in this business because they want to have a fun job and it's a hard job. But it is. I mean, it's a great job, you know? So it's incredibly fun. And I think if you focus on that side of it, it's better.

Interview transcript edited for length and clarity. Book your tickets now for Australians & Hollywood at the NFSA.