Beau Willimon, 41, is a successful screenwriter and playwright. Prior to writing Mary Queen of Scots, Willimon developed the American adaptation of House of Cards for Netflix. He spoke to Senior Editor Paraag Shukla about the film, which opens in theaters on December 7, 2018.
How familiar were you with this particular story prior to coming aboard?
My mom is actually a huge Elizabethan history fan. When I was growing up, she had every book you can imagine, whether it was about Henry VIII and his wives to Mary and Elizabeth and beyond. She was constantly reading about that era and talking to me about it. As I became involved in the theater early in my career, you start with the greatest of all the greats: Shakespeare. When you’re navigating all of his wonderful plays, you’re going to absorb a certain amount of history—to varying degrees of accuracy.
How did you first become involved with this project?
The film’s director, Josie Rourke, is the artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. I had met her when she was running the Bush Theater in London, and we got along right away. We promised that we’d work together one day, and we always imagined that would be on the stage. Years passed, and one day I got a call from asking if I’d be interested in writing Mary Queen of Scots, and that Saoirse Ronan was attached to play Mary. I gave her an enthusiastic “yes” right away! I was flattered to be asked. And we got to work!
Movies are, first and foremost, entertainment. But audiences often learn more about history from a feature film than from a book. How did you strike a balance between historical accuracy and entertainment?
You are absolutely right. Often you can absorb history more from a film or play or historical fiction because you’re feeling history. It allows you to slip into the characters’ shoes and see them as human. The best historical fiction, no matter when it’s set, feels like it’s happening in the present tense.
For this project, I already knew more than the average person about the story. But I was far from being an expert. So I was quite lucky that we were able to option John Guy’s wonderful book, My Heart is My Own. It was very important to Josie and me to offer something fresh. A lot of people assume that “history is history,” but of course there can be wildly different interpretations of historical events.
Mary and Elizabeth are figures made larger than life by the passage of time. But in the film, we see a realistic, intimate depiction—their strength, but also vulnerability, flaws, self-doubt. How did you cut through the cultural myths to humanize them?
Mary has often been portrayed as being reckless, naïve, impulsive, and overly-emotional. Elizabeth has also been portrayed as being cold, calculating, and heartless. And through John Guy’s book, we found both of those stereotypes to be false.
Mary was quite politically shrewd, and lot of her decisions were astute and deliberate. In many ways she was a more capable leader at the time than Elizabeth was. Elizabeth could be quite insecure and indecisive and was still grappling with how to manage her tenuously-held throne. And she was quite vulnerable and frail at times.
So we wanted to explore the dynamic between the two women who in many ways had been maligned by history and portrayals of them that did not accurately reflect who they were at the time. John Guy’s book was a great launching point for that and really gave us some great insight. And he made himself readily available throughout the writing process.
We started with a thesis: whatever you thought of these two women, we want you to reconsider—and also reconsider the dynamic between them. That has often been portrayed a sort of regal “catfight,” but in fact their instincts were, more than not, to find way to coexist peacefully. It was the political tectonic forces of the time that tragically forced them to be antagonists. But that’s not what they wanted to be.
History is always a way to reflect on the here and now. There’s so much about Mary’s story that has a ton to say about power and what it means for women to be in power. Unfortunately, we still see many of the obstacles and challenges that Mary and Elizabeth had faced.
Given today’s political and cultural climate, this film is incredibly relevant. What do you hope audiences will take away from it?
First and foremost, I’d like them to take away the emotional journey of these two women and how extraordinary they were in navigating these incredibly complex times. And that this story endures because it continues to have so much to say about who we are now. Some of the parallels are poignant.
One example is the divisiveness between Protestants and Catholics at the time. It was not too different from the divisiveness between liberals and conservatives now. Red and blue. We see, not only in America but across the world, sort of fracturing along tribal lines of opposing ideologies. And that’s dangerous and volatile. And that is certainly what Mary and Elizabeth were facing in their own day.
In terms of being women in power, the double-standard and scrutiny placed on them is still prevalent today. We continue to see very different tracks between men in power and women in power, and that was amplified between these two women.
The final act has an engaging climax in a face-to-face conversation between Mary and Elizabeth—it’s like a dance. And wisely, you wrote a line in which Elizabeth says that any mention of their meeting will be met with denials.
Of course, that meeting didn’t happen in real life, and we used that line to cover ourselves a little bit. We knew we were fudging the historical record a little bit. We talked to John Guy quite a bit about it, because we weren’t doing it out of ignorance but rather in a deliberate way. Sometimes it’s more effective to dramatize the emotional trajectory of characters with a scene that is anachronistic than to stick purely to the historical record. If we limited ourselves to only letters and emissaries, we wouldn’t have that narrative expectation for the audience that these women need to come face-to-face. So through that scene you’re able to access an emotional truth that you wouldn’t through letters.
We talked about it and tried to imagine that if they had met, how would it have been purged from the historical record and never seen the light of day? It is in a remote secret setting, and the rules are established from the get-go that this must never be spoken of. As far as we know they never met, but if they did, there wouldn’t be any record of it. When you’re going to break the rules a little bit, you need to make sure you do it in a responsible and believable way.
Also, from a purely cinematic and storytelling point of view, it would be a real shame if you have these two extraordinary actresses in the same film and they never share the screen once. That’s where the audience’s expectation and the demands of the story give you permission to envision these things. But that’s the one place that we veered a little bit from the historical record. Everything was thoroughly researched, and we stuck to the way things actually happened.
Of course, there are some scenes that are purely speculative. We cannot know what was spoken in bed between Mary and Lord Darnley! So that’s where you bring creative forces into the mix and imagine.
As with every project, there is a film that is written and a film that is made. Tell me about Saoirse, Margot Robbie, the excellent cast, and how they brought your words to life.
My first draft was 180 pages long! I told Josie that I put in there everything I wanted to see on screen, and of course we’d pare it down. She and I worked on quite a few drafts and worked out exactly what we wanted to do. Then she got to work on preproduction and filming. I was busy working on other stuff so I wasn’t on set a lot. But I knew it was in her capable hands and the hands of our two capable stars.
After filming had wrapped, I had that wonderful experience of seeing a rough cut. What was extraordinary was that everything we had discussed she had achieved. And not only achieved, but also added layers to it that made it even better than I could have imagined. And that’s one of my favorite things about working in theater, film, and TV—it’s a collaborative process and a lot of people’s voices and visions come into the mix. With actors like Saoirse and Margot, it’s often what they find between the lines, or in scenes with little or no dialogue, that really makes it sing. They bring an emotional complexity—what you see in their eyes, their presence, that one could not possibly write or describe. And that’s magic. I was thrilled and proud of what they achieved. ✯
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of Military History magazine at HistoryNet.
Mary Queen of Scots opens in theaters on December 7, 2018.
Check out our other Film Recon interviews for Mary Queen of Scots:
Josie Rourke — Director
Jack Lowden — “Lord Darnley”