Oscar-nominated screenwriter Anthony McCarten on curiosity, ‘The Two Popes’

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“Of course we veer from the public record! We have to serve you to entertain you, and we also have to serve the truth. Truth is not literal. Just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true. That’s the game, it’s interpretive,” stated “Bohemian Rhapsody” screenwriter Anthony McCarten in a Q&A after a screening of his new film “The Two Popes.” According to McCarten, producing a fully factual biographical film, which is a virtual impossibility regardless, isn’t the goal — and even when presented with certain realities through the process, the brilliance of screenwriting requires a translational sensitivity to that truth in order to be realized. 

McCarten stated that he approaches his projects “blissfully ignorant about the people” but empowered by his curiosity, balancing both objectives by allowing the people portrayed to be able to “recognize themselves,” as well as giving “justice to the demand of cinema,” which can be thwarted by “inventing too much or inventing too little.” In “The Two Popes,” it’s the same ball game, finding the world-changing conversations that echoed six years ago within those Vatican walls between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis — engraving a new direction for the Roman Catholic Church. 

In a phone interview with The Daily Californian, when asked about the challenges of writing a film wherein the plot consists primarily of one hefty conversation — and the extra attention or urgency to the dialogue that comes as a result — McCarten explained, “This theological smackdown that this story is was my chance to try and create a debate evenhanded where a conservative and a liberal engage in a kind of intellectual boxing match.” Mccarten also noted that he wanted to create an argument in which “at a certain point … they realize that being adversarial in a debate and not listening to the other side doesn’t get you anywhere — it just drives you deeper into your own prejudices.” 

Throughout his career McCarten has constantly flirted with the relationship between the individual and the world, taking the most phenomenal of circumstances — a significant person who exists within that sphere — and simultaneously downsizing and enlarging each. McCarten said: “My curiosity doesn’t have a kind of logic to it. I can never anticipate what’s going to attract me next, so I don’t have a road map preemptively. But what seems to be a common factor in the projects that do excite me is that they combine the intimate and the epic. So you see an intimate universal story played out against an epic backdrop, which gives me the feeling that there’s significance to the story beyond its immediate concerns.”

McCarten elucidated his point further: “If you have a love story set in an apartment in New York then it’s just about love. If the man is called Napoleon and the woman is called Josephine, and it’s set against, you know, the Napoleonic Wars and revolution, then you’re able to bring in much broader societal issues, historic seismic shifts, critical points in history, which often the intimate story affects. So, I’m very interested in the sort of psychology of historical figures and how we’re all either beneficiaries or victims of the psychological failings of the key players.” McCarten often brings forth these large lives people live, showing how their decisions affect us, yet also personalizes them in a manner that reveals how small they really are — as in, just another human being. 

“I want the ratio of humor and drama to sort of resemble our own lives,” McCarten stated, explaining the process of writing personalities for people he’s never met before. In “The Two Popes” this strategy comes in handy for amusing scenes such as when the two popes are eating, and one takes an awfully long time praying, but the other wants to dig in. When asked whether it was inspired by personal experience, McCarten, who was raised Catholic, chuckled: “Undoubtedly, undoubtedly. It was real life.” It’s this attribute of lightheartedness that breeds authenticity in his films  — or so to speak, it carves a palpable truth in them, a convincing depiction. 

McCarten’s mission to tell stories no matter how controversial they are — from the politics of Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” to the music of Freddie Mercury in “Bohemian Rhapsody” — thrives, because at their core, these stories are human.“The Two Popes” is no different. McCarten pronounced: “At its heart, it’s a debate between a conservative and a liberal. I hope that it speaks to the broader conversation in society where those two camps are more and more polarized and we seem to have stopped listening to each other. The debate has become very angry and charged. To move forward, we need to reclaim the middle. … and that begins with listening, understanding, tolerance, forbearance, and hopefully we can recapture that middle ground. …we’ll have to if we’re to move forward together.”