From 1542 to 1567, Mary Stuart ruled over Scotland yet was undermined by the men within her employ, her emotional stability and sexual proclivity constantly under question. But times have chang… Well, actually, they haven’t changed that much at all. Josie Rourke’s Mary Queen of Scots derives much of its power by correlating the hardships of Mary & Elizabeth to our own modern struggles, patriarchy still as present as always.
Saoirse Ronan stars as the shrewd but proud Mary, fueled by her staunch belief that it’s her birthright to rule over Scotland (and England, too). Despite these ambitions, she grows to feel a kinship with England’s own Queen, Elizabeth (Margot Robbie), the two women bonding over similar threats and crises. The film dovetails how these two women successfully (and not-so-successfully) deal with these mounting issues: the pressures to marry, produce an heir, and most importantly, maintain the crown.
In the following interview with filmmaker Josie Rourke, she discusses the timeliness of the picture, lessons learned from Mary & Elizabeth’s life, and crafting the score to the film. For the full interview, read below.
The score in the film is great. How did you decide on Max Richter as the composer?
Josie Rourke: I’m a Max Richter fan above anything else. I was actually listening to a lot of Max’s music as Beau [Willimon] and I were working on the screenplay. Actually, Max’s album Vivaldi Recomposed… He takes apart the Four Seasons, one of the most famous pieces of classical music, and reconstructs it where it feels essentially like itself, but also new. That was a perfect musical metaphor for what I was trying to do with [Mary, Queen of Scots]. So in the incredible luxury of film as compared to theater, when they asked, ‘who do you want to do the score?’ I said, ‘Max Richter.’ That’s how that came about. It’s been one of the great collaborations I’ve had with an artist. He intuitively knew the material and can work with you on both a practical & emotional level in terms of what you need. I actually just tweeted one of the tracks…
Yeah, I’ve been listening to it!
Rourke: When Max first emailed the sketch of that to me without the orchestra, I was getting on a commuter train to go across London. So I put my headphones on this crowded train, and the synth started to play, and I started to sob uncontrollably in the middle of the carriage. People are looking at me like has someone broken up with this girl… But I’ll never forget that moment because it was a perfect expression of what’s going on. The track has all the youth of [Mary] and it also somehow innately has her divine right to be queen. There’s an impetus to it, a forward motion that really takes Mary through her fate. That track runs through the end of the movie, from the shot in the forest cottage, all the way through the ‘fateful day.’ I was telling someone yesterday that within a hundred years, a British royal will be walking down the aisle to that track. It has that classical element to it.
Do you give Max any guidance on what the score should sound like?
Rourke: I didn’t necessarily give guidance on what the sound should be. But we talked a lot about the music of the period— people like Thomas Tallis, who was actually Elizabeth’s court composer. He was so gifted that even though he was a Catholic, she tolerated him. We talked a lot about the music of the period, and what that meant to us. We also spoke a lot about the character of Mary and Elizabeth, these two women together. Another big part we discovered was the drumming. I’m a theater director by trade, so a drum from the very earliest days of Greek theater is a tragic beat. It’s a beat that tells you about your fate, that tells you the Gods are coming for you. It also gives the sound a sense of militarism. It’s that space between the tragic and the military that we were really interested in. As I was shooting the film, I kept throwing drums into scenes, so we could move between diegetic and non-diegetic sound.
So you had the idea for what you wanted the score to be as you were shooting?
Rourke: I knew the screenplay takes this shape where Mary ostensibly has three battles. So the first battle, a skirmish really, is where she has a civil war with her brother. Then, there’s the assassination of Rizzio, and Mary manages to turn that on its head. [Lastly,] there’s the third [battle], where they really come for Mary and in the end, get her by attacking her as a sexual being. The drum functions there [too], present in that violent act of taking her body against the marriage. Then, when you go into the church, everyone’s drumming— they’re all beating the benches… That was conceived. I didn’t fully know what we were going to do with it, but I knew we needed that texture.
Did the score change at all during the process?
Rourke: I would say there was very little that Max did that wasn’t completely perfect. Because he’s a minimalist composer, he does audio stems. When you’re working with him, you can take a piece apart and reassemble it against a new cut that actually works well. So it didn’t change loads. We had a couple passes of underscoring what begins that cottage scene [between Mary & Elizabeth]. But that’s just because it goes on such an enormous journey as a piece of music and because it’s such an incredibly sensitive scene… So we tried a couple things there. But he just got it, he got me.
Moving to the beginning, how much of the script was in place when you joined the project?
Rourke: None. There was a screenplay that had gone through a number of iterations. Working Title had been wanting to make this project for a long time, and Saoirse [Ronan] had been attached to it since she was eighteen. I came onto it a couple of years ago. I looked at the material that was there— Elizabeth was not in that screenplay… Really what the movie aims to do now is what I wanted [from] the screenplay. I knew that in order to do that, I would need to start afresh and ideally, I would need Beau Willimon. I knew from his work on House of Cards, he could write with a Shakespearean dimension. He really understands how to make politics vivid and dramatic. I wanted to take these women seriously as politicians and think about their leadership and the cost of power. That was something I knew Beau would do brilliantly, so I wrote a pitch. A tiny one that basically said I think we need to take Mary more seriously than history and the screen has taken her up to this point. Let’s revise that. Let’s have an amazing scene that’s like a Renaissance Heat [between Elizabeth & Mary]. Let’s think about looking at just one period of Mary’s life. That’s where Beau and I began. Then, there was this terrific book by Dr. John Guy [Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart]. That’s what the film is based on. It’s both vivid and forensic in terms of how it goes through the archives & shows how people besmirched Mary.