Film

Anthony McCarten, the writer with the Midas touch, on his 'Pope Opera'

Anthony McCarten, the writer behind new Netflix film 'The Two Popes', on why the story of Benedict and Francis contains lessons for a divided world – and why John Lennon and Yoko Ono are next for the Oscar-winning biopic treatment

“It’s a mixture of research, speculation and shots in the dark!”

Anthony McCarten is a man with the Midas touch. In recent years, every lead role he writes ends up with an Academy Award Eddie Redmayne for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything, Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour and last year Rami Malek made it a hat-trick as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.

No wonder Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce jumped at the chance to play Popes Benedict XVI and Francis in McCarten’s film for Netflix, The Two Popes. The king of the biopic explains everything…

The Big Issue: How do you recreate conversations taking place within one of the most secretive institutions in the world?

Anthony McCarten: It’s a mixture of research, speculation and shots in the dark. I’m like a 19th-century portrait artist. I have to do justice to the likeness. So I found out what their mannerisms were, how they walk, how they talk, their histories, their likes and dislikes. Their political views and theological positions are well known, so once you’ve loaded all that in you can start writing with some hope of doing them justice. And Francis is a breath of fresh air in an institution which has been like an airless room for most of my life.

Many of us had only ever known Pope John Paul II until the events you depict…

It was unprecedented. In 2013, when Benedict resigned, it was the first time in 700 years. Then the situation arose, which was a gift for a dramatist, of two popes who were supposed to be infallible when they speak ex cathedra – with the authority of the church – but don’t agree on anything.

Two people with opposing views coming to an understanding –  don’t we need that right now? 

That’s my hope with this film. You don’t need any interest in the Catholic Church because what’s happening in this story is what’s happening in the world at large. We are increasingly thrown into two opposing camps that are moving further apart – the progressive and the conservative. You could swap into that debate Corbyn and Johnson. We need to re-establish the high ground in the centre and get over the accusations and verbal abuse.

Have we lost the art of listening?

Yes. Listening means absorbing someone else’s ideas, not just hearing them out, ignoring what they say and moving on to your rebuttal. It has to be coupled with at least the concept that you might be wrong and the other person might be right. Cromwell wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury saying: “I beseech thee in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be wrong.” That seems like a credo for these days.

I didn’t expect to so many languages in a mainstream movie…

That’s my thing now. We have moved past everybody speaking in an American accent. Let’s find opportunities to speak English where we can, but it has to be realistic. So if you’re Italian, you’re going to be speaking Italian. It respects the intelligence of the audience.

We see Pope Francis choosing religion over love, his crisis of faith, his exile.

He was asked to step down as head of the Jesuits in Argentina after the dictatorship of the 1970s and spent two years in contemplation. That fascinated me. Great leaders – and I think he is a great leader – are often people who have reckoned with their flaws, not swept them under the rug.

Did Benedict, by deciding to step down, himself become a great leader?

That’s my thesis in the film. When Benedict was elected [in 2005], the current Pope came second. So in stepping down, he knew there was a likelihood he would be replaced by a progressive. It was unprecedented. In 2013, when Benedict resigned, it was the first time in 700 years. Why would he do that? I could only conclude he came to peace with the necessity for change. He couldn’t provide change, but knew someone who could. That speaks well of him.

How did you find the humour in their interactions?

We know Francis loves to joke but Benedict doesn’t have a famous relationship with humour. I had fun with his struggle to understand what the joke might be. My approach with any of these portraits is not to artificially put humour in. But I also don’t make an effort to leave it out because it’s a universal survival mechanism to deploy humour.

How much of a thrill is it to have your words spoken by such great actors?

It’s the ultimate thrill that you can be sitting on your own in front of your laptop and within a short space of time have Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins speaking those lines out loud. I have to be remind myself to be grateful for the fantastic actors that have taken on the roles I’ve written in the last five years.

I can see at least one Welshman picking up a little statuette for this

Are these actors knocking at your door now? 

Actors are quite diplomatic. They don’t just knock on your door. But they are very open to reading my things now, and not for awards, because they want roles that stretch them. I happen to be drawn to doing portraits of epic characters. They run the gamut of emotions. They’re heroic, flawed, funny, depressed, angry, sad. Give a great actor that toolbox and they’re gonna do great work.

Why have you tended to concentrate on biographical films?

Purely by following my curiosity. I’ve always loved stories that combine the intimate and the epic and found a niche where the writing feels easy. It is a good indicator of how to best employ your talents. 

Who’s next in this list – Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, the Popes…

Neil Diamond! I’ve written a Broadway musical and we’re going into rehearsals in New York. My mother, whenever she was feeling low, would drop the needle on a Neil Diamond record, so I know every lyric of every song. 

That wasn’t the answer I was expecting. Going back to Oscar winners from your films, you’ve two contenders in this one. Is your money on Hopkins or Pryce?

Jonathan Pryce is in the Best Actor category and Anthony Hopkins is in the Best Supporting Actor, so they’re not in competition. I can see at least one Welshman picking up a little statuette for this.

And then you’re moving on to John Lennon?

I’m writing it and producing it with Yoko. We’re really excited. It also speaks to these times, with John’s journey and his political activism. You can feel it today [with Extinction Rebellion]. John would be out there in his jean jacket with the peace symbol stitched on it and his tinted glasses. He’d be pounding out a song he’d written last night about the environment. And Yoko would be providing backing vocals…

The Two Popes is on Netflix from December 20

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