In Netflix’s The Two Popes, screenwriter Anthony McCarten expertly choreographs a complex verbal dance between Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, the archbishop of Buenos Aires who would become his successor, Pope Francis. The intense and intellectual debate about the role of God and the church that takes place over the course of several days is a dialogue, let alone a premise, that even McCarten admits is presumptuous. “I’m speculating on what these two highly intelligent, articulate men might have said to each other in the privacy of these rooms,” he says. “Even the idea of them meeting and talking about the future of the church is something I’ve imposed on them. It’s one of the more audacious works I’ve done.”
The New Zealand-born writer is no stranger to putting words into the mouths of some of the most brilliant minds of the past century. For The Theory of Everything, McCarten adapted Jane Hawking’s book about her marriage to scientist Stephen Hawking, a film that garnered Eddie Redmayne his first Oscar nomination and win. Two years later, his screenplay for Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic detailing his early days as prime minister during World War II and the War Cabinet Crisis of 1940, netted an Oscar for Gary Oldman. And last year, Rami Malek’s performance of McCarten’s words brought him the Academy Award for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
But few projects have felt as personal to the 58-year-old McCarten as the one examining the state of Catholicism in the 21st century. “I’m not often aware what’s driving my curiosity, and usually, in the process of writing, the source of it slowly dawns on you. In this case, I think it went back to all my years in church when I was an altar boy,” says McCarten, one of seven children raised in an intensely Roman Catholic family in New Plymouth, New Zealand. “When I was a teenager, I lost interest in the Catholic Church, but working on this particular movie has revived my interest in the institution. I think its fate is an analogy to society at large, and that if it can correct itself and be more admitting of its faults and do more to correct its failings, then there will be hope for society at large.”
In a time of extreme political divisiveness, McCarten’s fascination with the religious institution was piqued by the near-unprecedented events in 2013 (the last time a pope abdicated was 700 years earlier) that led to the reshaping of the Catholic Church. “An ultra-conservative pope abdicated knowing there was a very high degree of probability that he would be replaced by a liberal progressive. That would be equivalent of Donald Trump waking up tomorrow morning, calling Elizabeth Warren, and saying, ‘Over to you, sweetheart,’ ” says McCarten, whose adapted screenplay is based on his own play, The Pope. “The creative challenge is speculating on what a debate between these two men would look and sound like.”
For someone who has made a career of writing dialogue for history’s great orators, it might be surprising to hear that McCarten hails from a culture of reserve. “New Zealand is a particularly, dare I say it, nonverbal country,” he says, calling from London, where he has lived for the past 20 years. “It didn’t particularly reward verbosity. It rewarded silence, physical achievement, and that left its stamp on the people. They’re a nation of action rather than description.”
Consequently, it is his strong work ethic, which McCarten says he received from his working-class father, that he credits for his own success. Having expressed enthusiasm for journalism at age 17 purely to dodge class, McCarten soon found himself in charge of a branch of the provincial newspaper. “It was incredibly dull, but it got me facing the challenge of putting the right words in the right order. I think it accounts for my productivity to this day,” he says. “I don’t look at it as an enchanted exercise in creating these fictions, but a trade. You have to learn the skills, and once you’ve acquired them, you apply them as efficiently as you can.”
With six novels translated into 14 languages, two nonfiction books, eight screenplays and 13 plays, the past four decades have been prolific for McCarten. It is his recent accolades, however, that now make him a bona fide hitmaker.
For his work on The Theory of Everything, McCarten won the BAFTA for adapted screenplay and another one for best British film. He was nominated for an Oscar that year both for best adapted screenplay and as a producer for best picture. Two years later, Darkest Hour again garnered McCarten an Oscar nomination as producer for best picture.
An invitation for him to take a stab at Bohemian Rhapsody, the biopic examining Mercury’s rise to fame, soon followed. “They commissioned maybe 10 scripts from different writers, and they hadn’t succeeded in getting something that they felt was filmable,” he says. “Because I wasn’t passionate about Queen and hadn’t grown up with the music particularly, I told them to just tell me the story, and I said: ‘What’s the problem? You just told me the movie.’ All the diamonds were lying on the floor, and we just had to pick them up and string them together.”
The added challenge for McCarten was figuring out how to tell a story using musical elements, a discovery that is now serving him on his next project, writing a Broadway musical about Neil Diamond. “I started to really delight in discovering how songs can move the narrative forward and especially when the songs have an autobiographical element,” he says. “You find that the artist is expressing something a bit like interior thought in a novel in those songs.”
As the architect of real-life heroes’ journeys, McCarten is well aware of the minefield he steps into each time he starts to construct a nonfictional narrative for the purpose of entertainment. Each of McCarten’s recent biopics has gone through the wringer for sometimes playing fast and loose with historical facts — from romanticizing the Hawkings’ brutal breakup to moving up Mercury’s HIV diagnosis by several years to serve the plot. “These days I even do nonfiction books to accompany the movie almost just to show people that every decision we’re making in these films is done as responsibly as possible,” he says. “It’s not done out of stupidity. If we’re moving something chronologically around, we’re doing it for a good reason. You’re doing no one any favors, let alone the subject of your film, if your film is boring and doesn’t work. Can you imagine if a movie about Freddie Mercury was dull?”
In the case of The Two Popes, chronology is of no matter as a meeting between the two took place, to the best of everyone’s knowledge, at Castel Gandolfo after Bergoglio already was pope. Yet to convey the inner workings of two very different leaders, McCarten threw himself into research, reading more than 20 books about the pontiffs and translating articles from the German and Argentinian press. “I’m primarily in the service of the truth in doing these things,” he says. “However, the truth is not a fixed, finite thing. You need, in the end, to fashion a work of art out of this.”
What he hopes viewers will take from the film is that even when it seems impossible, it never is too late to course correct. “Many of the things that are shackling that institution are actually problems in Western society. It’s got more than a lot to do with the nature of leadership. More than ever we require specific things from our leaders, and by and large we’re not getting them,” he says. “The degree of openness to change that has been exhibited in the Catholic Church during our time does give me hope that even the most power-hungry administrations and parliaments, in the end, can be persuaded to do the right thing.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.