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Josie Rourke, 42, is an award-winning theater and film director. She has worked in theater since 1998 and, in 2011, became the first woman named Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse in London. Rourke spoke to Senior Editor Paraag Shukla about Mary Queen of Scots, her first film, which opens in theaters on December 7, 2018.

How familiar were you with this particular story prior to coming aboard?

Well, this is my first movie. I’m a stage director by trade and through that work I’m quite familiar with that period of history. I’ve always loved reading about it.

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?

I don’t always see those things necessarily in opposition. In the film there’s a scene of the killing of David Rizzio. The fantastic book on which the movie is based, My Heart is My Own by Dr. John Guy, tells very vividly the account of that Julius Caesar-style assassination; how many men burst into Mary’s chambers, how it was dragged out. There’s even a thrilling and terrifying moment in which Mary spoke about feeling the point of a dagger in the small of her back as it first went through Rizzio when she was protecting him with her body. Such incredible detail like that can give you fantastic drama and amazing stuff to build on.

In terms of creating stories that are entertaining, there’s nothing quite as vivid as the life of Mary Queen of Scots. What one tries to do is try and cherry-pick the really great detailed events and try to shake that into a story that can take the shape of a movie. So we’ve focused on about seven years of her life, from her arrival in Scotland after the death of her first husband, the French king, through to her flight into England. That gave us a great window in which to focus our attention.

In the film, we see a realistic, intimate depiction of Mary and Elizabeth—their strength, but also vulnerability, flaws, self-doubt. How did you cut through the many cultural myths to humanize them?

There have been a lot of period dramas about this Tudor and Stuart part of history, but not a lot of those films have been directed by women. Almost all have been told by male directors. When I think about what it is to be those women, living through those moments, I think about my own body and experience and questions that instinctively and naturally arise as a woman and as a woman filmmaker.

We had a fantastic screenwriter, Beau Willimon. Although he is known for his tense, political drama, he always begins with character. He and I sat down with Saoirse Ronan and got to know her and understand who she is as a young woman, and then thought about creating this version of Mary for her to play. The whole thing is infused with a screenwriter who is focused on character, a woman filmmaker who is coming at it from her perspective and gender, and two extraordinary young women who were both at the peak of their power.

The final act has an engaging climax in the conversation between Mary and Elizabeth—it’s like a dance, with slowly unveiling themselves and their aspirations. One can’t help but think that a male director would’ve likely preferred to make the climax a battle scene of some sort.

Yeah! Fortunately, both Working Title Films and Focus Features were excited to get a fresh perspective and were tremendously encouraging of me following my instincts about the best way to tell the story. One of the key things about that scene is trust, especially my trust as a director in those two actresses to carry an eight-minute dialogue scene. That’s a long time to be with to characters as they talk. It’s a scene defined by extreme need on both sides. Mary really needs Elizabeth’s help, and Elizabeth really needs to be able to look her cousin in the eye. And you’re right, it places a great deal on the actress’ skill and power as performers, but they utterly deliver.

Tell me about Saoirse and Margot Robbie and their work on this film. So much weighs on their shoulders and they have given truly strong performances.

Yes, both of them. There have been so many celebrated portrayals of Elizabeth, and Cate Blanchette is one of Margot’s heroes. At first, she didn’t want to take on the role, because she felt there was so much status and history to it. So early on it was my work to find ways to give Margot confidence and access to discovering who this woman was and her interpretation. You are absolutely right—what defines both those women as actors is that they are capable of extreme acts of courage, and to take on these iconic roles and humanize them. It took detailed preparation and understanding the history and working with our choreographer to work out how their bodies would be in their clothes. What underpins all that is an iron will to make this work.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

It was that scene you mentioned, when the two queens meet. I’ve never had a day like that in a rehearsal room or in a theater. It was completely extraordinary, the work they did on that day. It was a revelation, and most of us were in tears by the end of it.

And as someone who has worked in darkened auditoriums her whole life, shooting in the Scottish Highlands with 300 soldiers was pretty cool!

What did you find most challenging?

Altering my intellectual and physical rhythm. Theater is, to a degree, about endurance. For someone who hadn’t worked outdoors, I had to work out when I needed to sprint and when I needed to walk. We were in some challenging physical environments; sometimes we were shooting when it was raining sideways into my ear. But that’s the nature of the weather in Scotland!

What surprised you the most about the subject matter?

I had an instinct that Mary had been maligned by history, but it wasn’t until I read John’s book that I realized how much. William Cecil, played by Guy Pearce in the film, really rolled up his sleeves and started ripping letters out of the archive, writing over documents, publishing fake news. It painted Mary as an emotionally driven and politically hopeless femme fatale, and that is so utterly untrue. And that revelation gave me a mission to tell this story.

Given today’s political and cultural climate, this film is incredibly relevant. What do you hope audiences will take away from it?

If the film is underpinned by anything, it is the cost of power. And it asks us to look really hard at how challenging it is for women to lead and what demands—sometimes unreasonable—are put upon them when they try and do that. I hope there is a quiet but persistent argument for change, compassion, and humanity in leadership—and for understanding that we need to create better context in which women can succeed and thrive as leaders. ✯

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:

Beau Willimon — Screenwriter

Jack Lowden — “Lord Darnley”