When Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles was first offered the opportunity to direct what would become The Two Popes, he was intrigued by what was presented to him. It was initially a project focused squarely on Pope Francis, an intriguing and divisive figure in South America. But he was caught up directing the Opening Ceremony of the Rio Olympics, a project that took two years of his time. And when he was finally free, Anthony McCarten’s play about Francis had been transformed by the writer into the two-hander we see today. “It’s a beautiful, reinvented script,” Meirelles says.
He was ready to jump in because he felt the movie was very relevant for these times. “The big thing about the film is it is about tolerance,” he says. “We have a President in Brazil who’s a total moron. Families are splitting up because of this guy. This is really stupid and nobody talks to the other, and so tolerance became something really rare in my country. So, I’m very sensitive. It’s a very big issue for me and I think that is one of the main things of the film that I like very much.”
For Meirelles, the challenge was to make this story as cinematic as possible, and so stylistically he used two techniques, one involving scenes with Pope Benedict and the soon-to-be Pope Francis where the camera was more steady, and then flashback scenes in Argentina where it was more handheld work, and grittier in the style of a movie like his City of God.
“It was a great read, but when I signed on, I realized it was going to be two men talking. How are we going to keep the interest? I see the films I make as being like living beings. They start with something, but in the end, you are not really sure how they are going to finish. It’s like it has its own voice. I love that. I really let it go. I love to see where the film will want to go.”
Meirelles would have loved to shoot the film at real locations in the Vatican, though he knew that wouldn’t happen. They chose locations to match, including for Benedict’s retreat where much of the first half of the movie takes place. The Sistine Chapel was completely recreated at the famed Cinecittà Studios in Rome with one notable exception: its famed ceiling had to be rebuilt in CG. Even recreating the frescos on the walls was complicated enough. A feasibility study suggested that repainting them by hand would have taken as long as Michelangelo in the first place, and so they turned to a sticker company to print and glue the frescos to the walls. “The texture’s exactly the same,” says Meirelles. “I visited the real Sistine Chapel several times just to check.”
He laughs, remembering one crucial fact. “Actually, ours was five centimeters bigger,” he says, “so it was the biggest Sistine Chapel in the world.”