Anthony McCarten vies for Oscar gold

January 31, 2020 Danny Munso

For your reading pleasure, please enjoy this excerpt from our longer interview with The Two Popes screenwriter Anthony McCarten from Issue 41 – our Oscar issue – of Backstory.


If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

Oscar Lessons: The Two Popes
Writer Anthony McCarten on envisioning an epic transfer of modern-day religious power within the confines of a biopic.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences just can’t seem to get enough of New Zealand-born writer Anthony McCarten. His latest work, The Two Popes, earned him his second Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar nomination, the first being for the 2014 Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything. Even more amazing, The Two Popes is also the fourth film in a row McCarten has written to garner a Best Actor nomination, this time for Jonathan Pryce, who plays Pope Francis, the current pontiff. The three previous nominees—Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything, Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour and Rami Malek for Bohemian Rhapsody—all won. Popes also generated a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nod for Anthony Hopkins, who plays Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict. The film explores how the conservative Benedict ceded his position to the progressive Francis, an unprecedented move that was necessary for the Catholic Church to emerge from the sexual-abuse scandals that have defined its recent history. McCarten spoke to Backstory about conceiving this ambitious and complex screenplay, which he adapted from his own 2017 play, The Pope.

Backstory: What were some of the toughest challenges you faced in adapting your own play into this screenplay?
Anthony McCarten: Well, the difference, in general, between a stage play and a screenplay is often you’re more bound by the limit of the space in the theater, and so you create it verbally. The past is represented as a monologue, as a memory, as a recollection. But in film, you have the tremendous opportunity to physically re-create that and go back and bring that whole past back to life with pictures and sound. And so the challenge with this one was to really go back and re-create the 1970s in South America during the time of the junta. And to this end, [Brazilian director] Fernando [Meirelles] was the perfect guy to rig this, being South American himself. He brought tremendous insight, passion and humanity to the depiction of that time, and that very much bears his stamp in all those sections of the movie.

What was the toughest scene to crack?
It was probably Benedict’s confession [a scene where the pontiff confesses to Francis his own culpability in the abuse scandals, but the soundtrack fades out, so we don’t hear what he says]. When I started writing this as a play, the working title had been The Confession, and I always knew it would consist of a double confession at its climax, and I’d written Francis’ confession [about his controversial involvement with the Argentine junta in the 1970s]. In the movie, it’s a flashback, and we’re taken back to the 1970s. But when I came up with Benedict, I began writing [his confession], and it seemed to me that the flaws and failings and mistakes made by him personally, and the Church generally, were so bottomless no single confession would be sufficient. I sort of got stuck for a long time on how to balance the piece, and then I struck on the idea that perhaps it might be more interesting and more profound if I created a kind of empty space where the public could fill in the blank, as it were, and supply whatever they found to be the gravest mistake committed by him personally or the Church.

What kind of personal reactions have you encountered to that particular moment in the film?
It often comes up when we do Q&A’s. People say they were struck by it and moved by it, that it wasn’t a sort of simplistic laundering of the truth but became a kind of universal confession and you’re able to imagine what it’d be like. So I am very satisfied that it seems to be working for people.

What is your favorite scene?
I think possibly it’s the scene in the antechamber after the men have had dinner. It’s midway through the movie, where these two combatants have thrown [their] best punches and punched themselves out. After a meal, they retire to the small private library and find they only have silence to offer each other. But it’s through this, the silence, and the process of at last listening to each other that the real dialogue begins—the real process of communication and understanding each other as human beings beyond the cant and the rhetoric and the entrenched positions. They finally can start seeing each other as two flawed, frail human beings who actually have more in common than they think. Music and humor play a part, as do recollections of their past mistakes. They’re drawn closer and closer together. I think, for me, that’s the most powerful section of the movie.

If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us to read the rest of the article by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!

For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41, view our Table of Contents.