Fernando Meirelles (‘The Two Popes’ director) on the challenge of making his Netflix film cinematic [Complete Interview Transcript]

Fernando Meirelles has returned to the awards race with “The Two Popes,” starring Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Francis and Pope Benedict, respectively. Some of Meirelles’ past contenders include “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener.”

Meirelles recently sat down with Gold Derby editor Zach Laws to discuss how he connected to “The Two Popes,” working with Pryce and Hopkins, and what he’s working on next. Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Fernando, what’s so interesting about your filmography is that you really never make the same film twice. I think knowing that this is from the same guy who made “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener” would be pretty surprising to people. What about this movie appealed to you and made you want to tackle it?

Fernando Meirelles: It was the character, Pope Francis. The film at first was a film on Pope Francis and then when they invited me I couldn’t be involved. I was doing the opening of the Olympics in Rio, which took me two years. And when I finished, they had a script. The script was about Pope Francis but in a conversation with Pope Benedict. It was a very good script, so I jumped in, but I liked Pope Francis for the same reason that I shot “City of God,” because he talks about this society that we’re building and social exclusion and all his politics. I agree with his points. So in some way, it’s connected to my other films.

GD: It’s so interesting, you’re known for making very visually visceral movies and you and Anthony McCarten do a lot to open up the film, as it were, but the real heart of it is in these conversations between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. Was that part of the appeal to you to try to make cinematic what is essentially a conversation piece?

FM: Actually it was not part of the appeal it was part of the challenge. Because the dialogue was very nice. When I read it I said, “It’s very good dialogue, I want to do this,” but then when I signed I realized that at the end of the day the film was only two guys talking, and a lot about religion and church that could be very boring, I would say. So my challenge was how to make this cinematic and interesting and even entertaining and my bet was to try to make it very intimate, so I told myself instead of making a film about a pope talking to a cardinal, I want to make a film about two men that disagree in everything trying to find the common ground, very personal, very intimate, the cameras very close to them, there’s a lot of jokes. So you see two men that happened to be one pope and the other one who became a pope. I think it was a good choice because we really understand who’s behind the white cassock.

GD: You talk about how these two men disagree with each other and certainly finding common ground is very important right now not just in this country but all over the globe.

FM: Tolerance is a commodity that we’re missing a lot on the planet. This whole idea of populism and this wave in the whole world, it’s quite scary. Pope Francis was a guy who was trying to build bridges, put down the walls and build bridges between nations and religions and societies, so I like that very much.

GD: You talked about agreeing with Pope Francis. Obviously Pope Benedict is on the polar opposite of a lot of what Pope Francis is talking about. In terms of finding a way to represent his character, to identify with his character, was that a challenge or how did you approach that?

FM: For Benedict, yeah. When I first read the script, for me it was very clear. It was the good pope and the bad pope. That was my first reading and then when I started preparing, I understood more of Pope Benedict’s point, and he has a point. He’s one of the most important intellectuals of the century. I understand what he says and I like some of the sermons. I would vote for Pope Francis but it became much more like a gray area, and then Anthony Hopkins came on board and he also understands Pope Benedict. He has such a charisma that gave Pope Benedict this charisma that Hopkins has. So you watch the film and you don’t just dislike Pope Benedict anymore. It’s very balanced. You can agree with one or the other but this was mostly thanks to Hopkins performance.

GD: Talk a little bit more about working with the actors. Both Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis. Obviously this movie has to succeed on the backs of the actors so talk a little bit about working with them and creating that chemistry, that dynamic between the two of them.

FM: Working with those two actors, it’s quite easy in some way because they bring a vision of the characters so what I would do was asking them, “Do you prefer this, would you feel okay walking here,” asking more than telling them what to do. The only thing that I was just insisting all the time was to say, “Very small, don’t say the lines like big statements. Just throw it away.” There was a crazy idea and I think it worked. The big line in the film is when Benedict tells Francis that he’s going to resign. Francis is the first person… actually at that point was Cardinal Bergoglio, was the first person for whom he’s telling his idea of resigning, resignation. But he says it in a way that is quite a risky way. He says, “You know I’m going to resign and this marble is cold,” and he walks away. It’s like he was saying nothing, like today’s going to rain. If you read, this is the big statement of the film and we just throw it away. But it works so well. It becomes so alive and anyway, we found this kind of trick to make it really easy and people engage with the story.

GD: In terms of opening it up I think one of the things that is most beneficial telling this story cinematically is that you’re able to show flashbacks into Pope Francis’s life and into the things that led him to the priesthood. How did those end up being in the script? Was that in there initially or was that something you worked with McCarten to put in there?

FM: No, actually the first draft we had much more flashbacks. We would first meet him when he was nine, then again when he was a teenager following him through his life. And then, in the end, we start working on the script and we just used a chunk. Pope Francis made really big mistakes when he was a cardinal in Buenos Aires so we explore this event with the junta, his relationship with the military junta, the dictatorship in Argentina. So we explore his mistakes but we felt that we didn’t need to show his whole life, just that part. I think we got it right. We showed the segment as a big chunk in the film for the Argentinas and they really responded well to this whole sequence. I’m pro Brazil. Brazil had the same issue of a very brutal dictatorship. Not as brutal as Argentina but I grew up listening to stories of torture and all that. So I think I was emotionally equipped for the job.

GD: I also really appreciate that the way that you brought a lot of scope into the film, particularly when you see the Vatican in Rome through Pope Francis’s eyes. You see the splendor and the grandeur of it and you experience that through his eyes. Can you talk a bit about that?

FM: Actually, we never shot inside the Vatican, ‘cause we weren’t allowed, so it’s all shot around Rome and different palaces and the main set for the film is the Sistine Chapel that we built a perfect replica. We do have this moment of Pope Francis staring, but he has a critical look. It’s like he’s looking at all these big marbles and saying, “How much money is spent here? What a waste.” In the end of the film, we have a sequence in which he guides a bunch of refugees to visit the Vatican, which really happened. He did that. So we improvised a bit and it was a shame that we had to cut but what Jonathan would say was, “You see all this, ridiculous. Look at this. It’s marble,” criticizing the whole wealth of the church. It’s funny because he’s showing how beautiful. “See, ridiculous.”

GD: Yeah, that’s what’s so interesting about your approach to it visually is that you really do put the audience into the shoes, or the robe, if you will, of Francis. That is part of the conflict between him and Benedict. When he goes to Benedict’s house it’s this huge palace for a billionaire.

FM: Castel Gandolfo, yes, it’s a palace.  Now this was the summer residence. The first sequence happens in the summer residence and when Pope Francis took over, he decided not to use that summer residence anymore and it became like a museum so you can pay and visit but he doesn’t go there anymore. It’s just a public place. So he really believes in what he says.

GD: The film has been connecting with audiences worldwide and you guys have won a bunch of audience awards at various film festivals.

FM: Five audience awards so far.

GD: What do you account for the amount of love and interest for this movie? You would think it would be something that has a very select audience. But it’s finding its audience all around the globe and different walks of life. What do you account for that?

FM: I have to say that I was surprised because when I signed for the film, I thought it was a film for a niche, or a big niche, the Catholic Church and all that. But then I was surprised to see that everybody engages with the film. There’s a lot of levels for you to get engaged. There’s a personal level that I was talking about, tolerance. The idea of tolerance, we really need that nowadays so everybody responds to that. The idea of forgiveness and self-forgiveness, because not only Pope Francis had done really stupid things in his youth, but also Pope Benedict. So both of them have to self-forgive themselves and absolve the other. So that’s something… everybody has done stupid things so you relate to the guilt and all that. There’s also a second level which is the political level. Pope Francis’s agenda, he criticized the economic system that makes a very unfair society and anybody can relate to that. And even in the other level, the spiritual level, we don’t talk about Catholic beliefs. We talk about relation with God, no matter which kind of God. Even if you do yoga. Sometimes you do yoga and you feel that you’re very connected and sometimes you do your yoga and you don’t feel anything. You’re just sitting there. So we talked about this, the moment in any religion you lose the connection. In the film, we call it the dark night of the soul, and this is the name of a book or a poem from John of the Cross, a theologian, Spanish, from the 16th century that tells that everybody who believes in God, at some point you lose the connection and you have to go through this long night, might last 10 years, three weeks, doesn’t matter. You have to go through it and wait because at some point, God will connect to you again. Anyway, we talked a lot about this. So even in the spiritual levels, we talk in a way that everyone can connect no matter Jewish, if you’re Muslim. So really, the audience responded. Good for us.

GD: Before I let you go I wanted to ask you a couple of other things about your career, You got an Oscar nomination for “City of God” 16 years ago. What’s so interesting is that your film was eligible in the foreign film category the year before.

FM: No it wasn’t.

GD: It wasn’t? There was a kerfuffle about it, right? It was not nominated, obviously, for foreign film.

FM: And I thought it was gone. And then next year…

GD: Next year, you get nominated it gets these three other nominations. That must have felt pretty vindicating, right? For it to not get nominated for the foreign film category but then to be called one of the best directed, best written, best edited and best shot films of the year.

FM: Yeah, and it was a big surprise for me at that time. I was working on “The Constant Gardener,” so in the beginning of the year, Miramax called me and said, “We want to make a campaign because we think that the film deserves.” And I said, “Whatever, I’m working on something else. I won’t have time to do anything so do what you do, thank you very much but I won’t travel I won’t do anything.” And I just forgot. So I was actually working on “The Constant Gardener,” by chance meeting with John le Carre, and the producer comes in the room and says, “Fernando you got four nominations!” I did not even know I was in the running, so it was good news.

GD: Certainly it helped bring the film to a wider audience. It opened in my town the weekend after the Oscar nominations came out.

FM: Yeah, it helped the film and of course, my career. It’s a good stamp.

GD: And you got a Golden Globe nomination for “The Constant Gardener” immediately after that. Talk a bit about what that recognition meant, why that film was the right one to follow up to “City of God” with.

FM: Yeah, it was actually the film that really put me on the map, I think. “City of God” was very well received, we got 54 international awards, no complaining. But I think only when I made this film in English, “The Constant Gardener,” that the international market said this guy can shoot in English and then I started getting more and more offers. But I had my life in Brazil so I wanted to be back, I wanted to shoot in Portuguese. In the last years I’ve been working on TV series in Portuguese, then as I said, I worked on the opening of the Olympics two years, and now I’m back doing a couple of films in English again.

GD: What are you working on now?

FM: I’m working on another project for Netflix already. Hopefully to shoot next year.  I won’t tell you the story but it’s on the climate crisis. I’m completely obsessed with this theme and I’m very pessimistic, to be honest. The challenge is how to talk about it in a way that people will, like this film, that people will engage and listen, not reject as we do anytime we hear about climate. We don’t want to deal with this. It’s quite scary. 

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