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‘The Two Popes’: For Oscar-Nominated Biopics, Screenwriter Anthony McCarten Is Your Man

From "The Theory of Everything" and "Darkest Hour" to "Bohemian Rhapsody," McCarten prefers research to source material.

The Two Popes” is Anthony McCarten’s third Academy Award nomination as a screenwriter, all for true stories: He was nominated for “The Theory of Everything,” which focused on the domestic life of ALS-frozen physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his wife Jane (Felicity Jones), and Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) facing war in “Darkest Hour.” Although “The Two Popes” is in the Adapted Screenplay category, all were self generated: It’s based on McCarten’s own play.

McCarten was visiting St. Peter’s Square with his wife when he started wondering about how this was “the first time in 500 years that we have two popes living,” he said. He started writing a screenplay, a stage play, and a novel, and his agents sent him to pitch the idea to studio executives. The first batch didn’t warm to a film about ideas that starred two old men. But his last meeting of the day was Netflix, and McCarten described “this theological debate between a conservative and progressive. If we do this right, it may speak to larger issues about division in our society.”

When he finished talking, three young women production execs raised their heads and said, “Let’s do it.'”

“I remember thinking, ‘Do your parents know you are doing this?'” said McCarten. “From that day on, we never had the slightest resistance.”

4106_D023_00001_R_CROPLily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright's DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release.Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

Lily James stars as Elizabeth Layton and Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s “Darkest Hour”

Jack English

Once McCarten familiarized himself with the positions of Benedict and Francis, “it was fun to create the swordplay between the two,” he said. “What made it interesting, was I was able to invest both sides with equally powerful arguments. They both have the same weaponry and arsenals. There’s strength in changing a monolith. For Benedict, change is dangerous, but Francis says, ‘If you don’t change, you stop being part of the world, you’re be left behind.’ Their counterarguments had equal validity, and it helped that these two don’t like each other and can’t agree on much, and yet the future of the faith, 1.28 billion practitioners is in the balance.”

His favorite line is Pope Benedict’s: “Sometimes, the hardest thing is to listen.”

“If there is a crisis in modern life, it’s that we’ve stopped listening to each other,” McCarten said. “It’s allowed these divisions to intensify on our society, and if we learned to tolerate and listen to the opposing view, it wouldn’t be so heated. What we’re aching for in our modern debates is movement — for someone to realize they may be wrong.”

That’s what Pope Benedict does, movingly, in “The Two Popes,” as he steps down from the papacy and knowingly turns the church over to reformer Pope Francis.

Netflix gave the movie scale, as it flashes back to Francis’ life in Argentina, peeks behind the scenes of the Vatican conclave, and recreates the Sistine Chapel. The two popes did meet on several occasions, but of course McCarten is making it all up, including their musical taste, their tango together, and Pope Benedict’s digital admonishment to “Keep moving.”

“Bohemian Rhapsody”

Writing screenplays “still remains a steep learning curve,” said McCarten. “You start every screenplay ignorant and have to land it again. At this point, once I know the idea and have cracked the story in my head, I know how to write it now. Writing seems to flow.”

The trick with talky movies when the special effect is the dialogue, he said, “is you need the best people to deliver the lines. Then you’re going to win the day.” So far so good, as actors Redmayne, Jones, Oldman, Rami Malek, Jonathan Pryce, and Anthony Hopkins have all landed Oscar nods. Oldman and Malek won.

McCarten also wrote the original screenplay for the long-floundering Freddie Mercury biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.” He started from scratch after others had failed to crack it — including another playwright-screenwriter to whom McCarten is often compared, fellow behind-the-scenes biopic writer Peter Morgan. (Morgan received a story credit.)

The main challenge with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he said, was finding the love story. “I saw the love story with Mary Austin, a woman who was the love of this famous gay man’s life.  She really was the only one who stuck with him all the way through. He gave everything to her when he died. She’s the only one who knows where the ashes are buried. He was the godfather to her kids. It’s an interesting twist on a gay storyline. Critics thought I was burying the gayness; I thought we had evolved past that point.”

“The Two Popes”

Raised in rural New Zealand in a Catholic family with two books in the house — a cookbook, and the Bible — McCarten credits Catholicism for grounding him in “metaphor and ritual,” he said. “There’s a certain high theater to Catholicism, that goes deep in you. You start the day with candles and someone telling you that eternal life is waiting for you.”

After university in Wellington, McCarten started off as a journalist and playwright. He wrote his first play when a local theater suddenly went dark, giving him eight days to craft a stage play. He taught himself how to write by reading “Waiting for Godot.””This is easy,” he said. “Two people standing on a rock, asking questions.”

His quasi-Beckettian play scored good reviews, “which turns your head when you’re young. That’s it. The die is cast. I started living in rooms with blank pages.” McCarten eventually made his way to London as a playwright and novelist, where he married and raised two kids. He segued into screenwriting after adapting two of his plays into indie films (“Via Satellite” and “Show of Hands”), which he directed.

Next up: McCarten is finishing “The Two Popes” book, and writing a project for his late mom: a Broadway musical about Neil Diamond.

“It’s also a moral instruction, to ‘keep moving,'” said McCarten. “Keep evolving. Don’t stop now, this is no time to stop. Get up and keep going.”

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