Anthony McCarten penned the screenplay for The Two Popes, which is nominated for three Oscars. Lydia Burgham spoke to him last year about the inspiration behind the movie. This article was originally published in December 2019.
Anthony McCarten's storytelling has taken him to some interesting places. He's penned Oscar-nominated movies about Winston Churchill and Queen.
They're big stories and his latest — about the transition from the previous Pope, Benedict to the incumbent, Francis — is no different.
He also just happens to be a New Zealander.
"I have no idea what New Zealand thinks of my work to be honest because I've been largely living outside of it except for my annual Christmas," the London resident says.
McCarten grew up in New Plymouth. Taranaki is known for its farming industry and All Blacks but not so many screenwriters. It happens to be where I grew up too.
A massive television-watcher during his childhood, McCarten grew up with seven siblings, and found solace in on-screen stories between "a carnival of wonderful chaos".
"I think somehow TV became my education of storytelling," he says.
After high school, he worked as a reporter for two years, filing stories from Stratford. He went on to attend Massey and Victoria universities.
The idea for his latest film, The Two Popes, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins and fellow Welshman Jonathan Pryce, arrived when McCarten was holidaying in Italy. His cousin had just died and his sister texted him the news and said if he was near a chapel he should light a candle.
"I ended up in St Peter's Square where, as chance should have it, Pope Francis was giving an open-air mass. And I was immediately aware of his superstar sort of status," he explained.
"I knew about the existence of this other Pope [Benedict], the shadow pope, the one who had done the unthinkable and had been the first pope in 700 years to retire. He was now living 100 yards behind the one I was looking at."
Fifty-eight-year-old McCarten was raised Catholic. Thinking about the popes reminded him of his childhood. It inspired him to write a non-fiction book, a play and, finally, a screenplay.
"What I've discovered later in the game is that the reason I'm attracted to an idea ... it's usually got to do with something internal. Something that's putting pressure of expression on you. I guess there was a lot of Catholic stuff in there that I wanted to explore.
"Indeed, the writing of the play, and the film, and the book came very easily and rapidly which I guess is further evidence that something had to come out from childhood."
McCarten doesn't consider himself religious now, at least not in a "churchgoing way", but finds himself drawn to churches. He recalls drifting into empty ones and just sitting in the stalls.
"The church where I grew up was really the spiritual, cultural and intellectual centre of our community. And that leaves a very deep impression on you. It shapes you in many, many ways."
The Two Popes, which has had strong early reviews of powerhouse performances by the leads, is a tale of not just two popes, but a juxtaposition of progressive and conservative views. It's told through the imagined conversations of Pope Benedict (Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce), who became Pope Francis, before the former abdicated from the papacy.
An attempt to humanise the men, Benedict is the ultra-conservative steeped in tradition, Francis the progressive figure not afraid of change.
They drink Fanta and watch football together, occurrences that may have strayed from fact but are clever storytelling devices.
"At the heart of the story is the debate between those two ideological positions," says McCarten. "And I wanted, in some way, to speak to the broader conversation at large where those two camps are moving further and further apart and are characterised by increasing anger and vitriol. No one's listening to each other anymore."
He believes society is beset by division and people must come together to move forward. If a 2000-year-old institution like the Catholic church can find a path forward, then it is possible for the entire world too.
The Two Popes, in parts, resembles a documentary, thanks to the use of archival news footage and some of the camera.
"It was definitely a primary aim of the director Fernando Meirelles to achieve a kind of journalistic realism to the piece," explains McCarten.
As a meticulous researcher, I wondered if he felt pressure writing realistic conversations that had happened in private.
"This whole endeavour is akin to portrait-painting. It's not photography, you're not even attempting documentary representation. You're giving your view about what you think might have transpired in these moments in history."
His painting of real-life people has been a trend in his hit films, from Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, through Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, to Freddie Mercury. A project about John Lennon and Yoko Ono is reportedly in the works too.
"You hope you end up with a portrait in which the subject could recognise himself. The closest I've come to that was with Stephen Hawking."
Despite his run of Hollywood hits, McCarten says he will be a perpetual student of his chosen art form.
"On a personal and professional level, it's the same old gig. Just doing it every day. And you're trying to keep the faith."
Who: Hollywood-conquering Kiwi screenwriter Anthony McCarten
What: The Two Popes
When: Streaming on Netflix now
Anthony McCarten's Hollywood hits
DARKEST HOUR (2017)
Gary Oldman was brilliant in this Oscar best picture-nominated film as Britain's wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING (2014)
McCarten met physicist Stephen Hawking's former wife Jane to discuss adapting her autobiography. The resulting movie earned Oscar nominations for best picture and best adapted screenplay.
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (2018)
The Freddie Mercury biopic took US$904 million ($1.4 billion) worldwide at the box office and earned a Golden Globe for best drama film.