“You do realize,” a man who approached Anthony McCarten at a screening of The Two Popes told him, “this is a Jewish movie.” McCarten was bemused as the man explained: “The sheer fact that you have two people discuss scriptural debating is very Tom Mulligan. It’s part of the Judaic tradition to debate in such a way that you try to promote your opponent to come up with an even better argument. You’re listening to each other and so forth. Yes, it’s a Jewish movie.”
The screenwriter was delighted. He says the entire idea behind the film was to speak to a larger debate going on in the world right now, between conservative and progressive viewpoints. “In a world where conservatives and progressives are very entrenched, and moving further apart if anything, and a lot of vitriol, anger flowing both ways, we wanted to make a movie about finding the middle ground,” McCarten says. “Because to progress together, we’re going to have to retake the high ground for the middle at some point, and we’re going to have to listen to each other more. We’re going to have to find communion.”
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Already a three-time Oscar nominee, McCarten’s previous work includes the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything, and the Winston Churchill story Darkest Hour. He is also behind the behemoth that was last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. All three landed Best Picture nominations, a string of wins. He’ll next explore John Lennon and Yoko Ono and The Bee Gees. You could say, then, that he’s immersed in biography.
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For The Two Popes, he did exhaustive research in order to make the film as plausible as possible. The movie focused on intense, imagined conversations between two living Popes, Benedict and Francis, at the first time in 700 years that there has been more than one Bishop of Rome alive at the same time. But did he worry that two old guys talking might get boring? “I never bought into that,” he insists. “I think great dialogue is as good as a car chase in terms of being fascinating, exciting, and keeping you on the edge of your seat.”
By the very nature of the Vatican, nobody knows what these two men might have actually discussed, or how close their relationship may have become. But McCarten’s deep research was a good guide for making it as believable and riveting as it has become. That he pulled it off with such credibility is tribute to his skill as a playwright, author and much in-demand screenwriter.
He isn’t worried about offending the Vatican. They have been in possession of the script for some time, but they didn’t stand in its way, and even approved the use of the real footage of the two Popes at one of their three publicly acknowledged meetings. Since the film has screened, the response from the Church is trickling through. “I think the word [from the Vatican] is relief,” McCarten says. “They’ve had quite a few years of bad press, and quite rightly. This is an even-handed, humanistic little piece. It’s meant to be fair. It’s not meant to whitewash anyone, but it is done in a sensitive way, and I think they appreciate that.”
He recalls showing The Theory of Everything to Stephen Hawking and asking for his reaction after the movie played. “His wife Jane had a tear at the end of the movie, and he typed two words into his computer,” McCarten remembers. “Then the computer spoke with that iconic voice, ‘Broadly true.’ I thought, that’s close enough for me.”
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