Fun Fact: Anthony McCarten is the screenwriter behind three Best Actor wins. His scripts have won Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman, and Rami Malek the Best Actor Oscar.
McCarten was at the Middleburg Film Festival to introduce his latest film, The Two Popes, and to receive the Distinguished Screenwriter Award. The film centers on an imagined conversation between Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce). Yes, McCarten is the master of imagined conversations.
The film would go on to win the top prize at the festival, The Audience Award for Top Narrative. I caught up with McCarten to talk about the inspiration behind the film.
I didn’t. When I went into Netflix to tell them this story, I carried two photos: one of Jonathan and one of Tony- without asking them, of course. I plopped it down on the table, told the story and their eyes were on these two faces as I spoke to them. In the end, they said they’d do it. They asked if I had Tony and Jonathan and I said, “Well, not technically not at this point. I’m sure they’ll be interested in taking a look at it.” It never happens, but they both said yes.
I think you’re a master at imagined scenarios and conversations. Where did this start for you?
By happenstance. I was on vacation, and a cousin of mine passed away. My sister said if I were near a church to go and light a candle. I thought I wouldn’t mess around, and I went straight to the top, St. Peter’s Square. Pope Francis happened to be doing an open-air mass and the square was filled with tourists, fans of the man, and Catholics.
It struck me that his fame and charisma far exceeds the Catholic Church. He’s a global figure and a source of inspiration to many for what he’s trying to do against some stiff opposition.
What’s happening in the Catholic Church struck me as an analog to what’s happening in society at large where there seems to be an increasingly vitriolic war between the progressive camp and the conservative camp. I thought this would be a way to speak to that and put both of those, two popes alive at the same time into a debate about the merits of both positions.
It’s a theological smackdown. That’s how it started and how it remained. One of the most pleasing things for me is that what might have seemed a very esoteric subject, seems to be appealing to a lot of people. They’re not interested in religion at all. They’re certainly not interested in the Catholic Church or faith, but they’re interested in that kind of debate.
A guy came up to me and said, “You know you’ve written a Jewish movie. It’s a debate between two rabbis that we grew up with. It’s such an essential part of the Jewish religion to debate scripture, liturgical meaning, and philosophy.” He said, “I’ve never seen such a Jewish movie.” I thought it was terrific.
I love the great debate between the traditionalist and modern. Yet, you have made a movie that isn’t religious. How did you strike that balance of not making it preachy?
The first task of having a debate is to equally arm and equip both sides otherwise it’s an unfair fight and very boring to watch. In boxing terms, if you have a super heavyweight against a bantamweight, then you know what the result is before the match has begun, so why have it? The challenge for me is because my interests and beliefs more naturally align with Francis, I had to learn to love Benedict’s position.
I did grow in appreciation and empathy for him and his beliefs. That was the learning curve for me.
Did you go back and read his books? What research did you do for him?
I got a lot translated from the German newspapers because he was their pope. When he became pope, Die Zeit’s headline went full page with a headline that said, “WE ARE POPE.” The Germans were very proud of him. They were the real documenters of his beliefs and his history. There wasn’t a lot available in the English language, but my wife is German and she helped me with the translation. I had stuff translated from Spanish to get into the guts of Francis story; which is a very dynamic story. The man we know today is quite different from the man his contemporaries knew. He’s undergone a really pronounced journey. There were wonderful textures to play with, so it was really wonderful.
They’re both alive, and it’s the first time in 500 years that we’ve had two living popes. One is a dry, conservative and bookish man lacking in charisma. He has no record of humor. The other is a joke-telling, ex-club bouncer, football-loving man of the people. The seeds of comedy were there too. There was a chance to bring them in intimate, and that’s what I love to do. I could combine comedy and epic.
I loved the comedy aspect of it. Francis humming Dancing Queen was sheer comedy.
The seeds of those scenes come from research. You take a little germ of something, and you run with it. I’d seen a picture of Francis and Benedict watching TV and it was from behind. I thought it was really sweet. The timing was perfect. The year after, Francis had become pope. There was the World Cup final between the two countries and I thought it was perfect for them to be watching that. I had no idea what they were watching. That’s what you do. It’s very judicious use of the artistic licence that has to be in the service of the truth. You can’t just, for your own entertainment, run off and bend stuff.
They’re both fascinating, but what did you find fascinating about Benedict?
He’s a man who, as a young man, found consolation in books and writing. He did not really enter the real world. He became a cloistered intellectual who then found himself in at an age where everyone would be begging for peace and quiet in a spiritual command of 1.28 billion people. That’s a plight that interests me; a man who is overwhelmed. not only is he in charge of 1.28 billion people, but the church over which he presides is also probably facing the greatest crisis in its 2000-year-old history.
Then a super traditionalist does the most untraditional thing possible and breaks a 700-year-old rule, and tries to fathom his own thinking and justifications for doing that. That was of interest to me.
It struck me that Benedict could not have been unaware that his resignation would bring in a period of change. The man who came second to him and had elected him was a reformist. That’s just wonderful territory for someone like to dive into.
I really loved how you wrote the conclave. Do you remember when that happened?
I do. The world is never privy to those things, and the door to the Sistine Chapel is shut. There’s never been a camera inside those doors. We got someone within the Vatican who bit by bit leaked the critical details of what the rituals of the ceremony were.
We were able to show for the first time this very medieval process that is made up of wooden balls, the voting system, how they do the smoke, and how a new pope is elected. It was wonderful to do that.
We weren’t going to be able to shoot in the Sistine Chapel, so we built that.
That was amazing.
We built that five inches bigger than the real one. It doesn’t have to be a parlor piece; we could open it up as we did.
How much did the script change once Anthony and Jonathan signed on?
Not a great deal. Anthony, about five months before we started shooting asked us to lock the script. He goes, “I have to learn this sucker. I’m going to do it once. I’m starting to learn the lines now, and I’m really asking you to not mess around with lines and change a word.” I now know why he said that because Fernando said Anthony’s process is to learn a line over and over. He’ll try fifty different versions and things like that.
He’s like a classical pianist. He’s going to learn this piece, and he doesn’t want the notes moved around. He’s going to find the movement of it all through this forensic study of the words. He’s going to look at how much meaning and emphasis to give to each word. We obeyed.
I think last time we spoke, you were working on the John Lennon story.
We’re hoping to start shooting next year. It’s with Universal. The wonderful Jean-Marc Vallée is going to be directing. I’d like to hear from Lennon in these current times. It’s going to be interesting to see what his voice and resurrecting his voice will add to the discussion about where we go from here.
Has Francis seen it yet?
No. I have a fantasy that one day he might see it out of curiosity. If he does, we’ll never hear about it. Benedict, I’m damned sure will never see it. He’s blind in one eye. He’s very frail.
What were the toughest scenes to write?
All of the Benedict side of the argument. Francis’ lines were easier than the rebuttals from Benedict. They had to be as persuasive as Francis. That’s the toughest thing in any project where it’s a war of ideas; to love the other character. I wore Benedict’s hat and thought, “Bugger it. I have a point here, and I’m going to make it.”
I thought the production design was great, but I really loved those debates.
Well, if it were one-sided, it would feel preachy.
I knew you wouldn’t do that, though, because you’ve never done that.
With Churchill, you’ve got Neville and Halifax; you need to find the humanity in them. You can almost sympathize with the antagonist more than the protagonist.
You did that with Benedict. You humanized him.
People love the Fanta detail. He loves Fanta. He has it every night for dinner.