Don’t go into The Great, Hulu’s retelling of Catherine the Great’s rise to power, for total historical accuracy. The gist of the story remains true, as you may know from a history book (or Helen Mirren’s recent HBO show): The young Catherine, born to minor German nobility, was married off to Emperor Peter III of Russia, and eventually overthrew him to take the throne for herself. But The Great, which describes itself with an asterisk in its title card as “*an occasionally true story,” takes that basic structure and runs with it to the point of gleeful absurdity.
In the show, which debuted its full first season on Friday, Catherine (Elle Fanning) is a naïve young woman who has to deal with the capricious nature of Peter (Nicholas Hoult), who is basically the 18th-century version of a trust-fund baby. “Everyone knows she did eventually take the throne, but it’s a bit unknown — and a bit made up, from our point of view — how she did it,” creator Tony McNamara told Vulture. “There were certain things that were essential to telling her story, and a lot otherwise that we would make up. It’s not a history lesson; it’s a show.”
McNamara knows a thing or two about ahistorical drama, with an Oscar nomination for his work as a screenwriter on The Favourite, and he spoke with Vulture about the steps he took to develop The Great’s specific tone, the details from history that made sense to use in the show, and how much of Catherine’s story they decided to cover in the first season.
1. Start with a play
The Great was first conceived as a play, which was staged at the Sydney Theatre Company in 2008. Most of McNamara’s previous work had been in contemporary comedy, but as he was casting around for material, he’d heard a bit about Catherine the Great and got interested. “I knew the scurrilous rumors about her, but I didn’t know that she was a kid who took over an empire herself, and kept the Enlightenment alive, and she invented the roller coaster,” he said. The result was a large, two-part play, with a younger and an older actress playing Catherine: The first half was about her marriage and coup, and the second was about her rule. “The first 40 minutes of the play is the first two seasons, essentially,” McNamara said. “I had points of her life that I wanted to hit, and they didn’t have to be in the order that they happened.”
2. Decide when history works (and when it doesn’t)
The real Catherine — born Sophia Augusta Fredericka in 1729 — married Peter III in 1745, then overthrew him just six months into his official rule as emperor in 1762 with the help of 14,000 infantry soldiers, after which he died in prison, leaving the blood technically off her hands. To up the drama in The Great, McNamara decided that there needed to be a more equal conflict between Peter and Catherine, giving her a more formidable (if kooky) antagonist whom she has to use all her wits to scheme against in order to enact her coup. “I wanted to write about young men in our time, so the character Nick plays is not a good representation of who she actually married,” McNamara said, “but the truth of coming somewhere with a romantic ideal and realizing you married the wrong man and your life is screwed, that felt like the true bit.”
Meanwhile, the little descriptions of Russian life in The Great often ended up being both the most absurd and the most true. “The fun stuff was stuff from the era, like, how did a pregnancy go? And it was that you pissed on wheat and hoped that it bloomed or whatever,” McNamara said. He researched a lot about Catherine and her era while writing the play, but didn’t want to go back to the facts too often while developing the ahistorical story. The writers’ room, he explained, was good at finding weird facts, especially as answers to plot-driven questions. “Someone would go and find out what actually happened at a certain point,” McNamara said, “and then we’d go, ‘Okay, that’s great, the rest we can not worry about.’ It was a mix of what the story demanded and things that we wanted because they were amazing — an organic mix of truth and fiction.”
3. Fill out the royal court
Most of the characters in The Great, aside from Catherine and Peter, are inventions, amalgams of the type of people you might’ve found in the Russian court at the time, designed to fill out the story McNamara wanted to tell. “In reality, Catherine felt she needed the church, the military, and the aristocrats to overthrow the thing,” he said, “so we needed people who represent all these things.” On the show, Catherine’s surrounded by an archbishop (played by Adam Godley), a military general (Douglas Hodge), and several scheming aristocrats, as well as a lover (Sebastian de Souza) assigned to her by Peter, and a representative of the people in her maid (Phoebe Fox), who pushes her toward a coup. “Here are a bunch of people who think the world can’t change, and there’s this young woman who comes and says the world can change,” McNamara said. “Then they have to ask themselves the question: Do I want to change it?”
4. Find the contemporary parallels
Off of that idea, McNamara wanted to emphasize the aspects of the story that resonated with the modern day. To that end, the language is “hybridized” so that it feels “more rhythmic and more fun,” and Catherine and Peter are designed to evoke contemporary archetypes. “With Peter, I was thinking of an entitled, privileged kid who’s out of his depth,” McNamara said. “When challenged, he reverts to this male violence, but only because it’s all he’d been brought up in.” For Catherine, “I always thought she was a delusional optimist. Her default position was a kind of arrogance that [she] can change the world,” McNamara said.
Elle Fanning, not an actress known for her comedy chops or her British accent, won him over when meeting for the Catherine role. “Like the character, she was so extraordinary as a young person. She was 20 when I met her,” he said. “What Elle brought to it was a faith in herself, an ability to engage with the world and at the same time still be a kid.” And Hoult, whom he’d worked with on The Favourite, was a no-brainer: “After the first day of rehearsal, I rang my co-producer and said, ‘I think I’ve found Peter.’ We really get on together.”
5. Trust the tone
Director Yorgos Lanthimos hired McNamara to work on The Favourite after reading his script for The Great. But it was the success of The Favourite that also gave McNamara confidence that The Great could actually work as envisioned it. “I knew this style worked onscreen,” he said. “Even when we made The Favourite, there was still a question of whether we made a film that people who liked period movies wouldn’t like, or that people who didn’t like period movies wouldn’t come to see. But it turns out they did like it.”
6. And, yes, also address the horse thing
One of the most infamous rumors about Catherine, spread by her enemies, was that she had sex with horses. At first, McNamara wanted to avoid that part of her biography entirely, but then changed his mind after recognizing how it would work as yet another parallel with the present day: The show introduces it as a rumor, and then later it resurfaces as an object lesson in how gossip shapes perception regardless of its relationship to the truth. “There was nothing more contemporary than the idea that this woman has been destroyed by a salacious headline,” he said. “The joke is that throughout the show she’s going, ‘Nobody’s going to remember that.’”