“For some time, I have been an advocate for the evolution of the biopic towards these short stories,” says screenwriter Anthony McCarten, whose scripts for 2014’s “The Theory of Everything,” 2017’s “The Darkest Hour” and 2018’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” provided a path for stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking, Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill and Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury to claim Best Actor Oscars. “These slices of life. These distillations where someone is revealed. But half the time, I ignore my own rules. The reason I do it is because you have to look into the life and say, ‘What’s the theme of the story?’ ”
That is certainly true of his latest awards season hopeful, “The Two Popes,” which stars Jonathan Pryce as the future Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict as the 21st century pontiffs meet in Rome at a moment when the Catholic Church is mired in the sexual abuse scandal and Benedict is considering resigning. McCarten considers his latest truth-based story “an analog of society at large. The battle between the progressive position and the conservative position. … I thought it would be interesting to have a debate between a progressive and a conservative to see if a middle ground cannot be found.”
Gold Derby spoke to three-time Oscar nominee McCarten at the seventh edition of the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia, where he not only received the event’s Distinguished Screenwriter Award but “The Two Popes” also claimed MFF’s Audience Award for favorite narrative feature. One of the more delightful aspects of the film is how humorous it is as these two religious men, one rather rigid and the other open-minded, try to find common ground.
“I wouldn’t classify it as a comedy,” says the writer, who based his script on his own 2017 stage version of the story. “But I try to be lifelike … there’s got to be humor in there if it portends to be lifelike. Anytime two people get together, there’s usually an attempt at humor because that is how do the basic transaction. How do I build trust in you. How do I make you trust me. I’ll tell you a joke.” The approach is also true to the main characters as well. “Francis is known to love a joke, so to do justice to him, there had to be some attempts at humor. Benedict is famously a stranger to humor and I thought there’s something funny in that.”
McCarten also spoke about the advantages of having a streaming outlet like Netflix fund and distribute a movie over traditional Hollywood studios, his own relationship to Catholicism while growing up and his plans to do a biopic about John Lennon and Yoko Ono with director Jean-Marc Vallee (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Wild”). “The Two Popes” will open in limited release in theaters on November 27 and will start streaming on Netflix on December 20.
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