How ‘The Two Popes’ Screenwriter Created Those Private Conversations in the Vatican

TheWrap Oscar magazine: “We don’t know really what happened,” writer Anthony McCarten says

A version of this story about “The Two Popes” screenwriter Anthony McCarten first appeared in the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue of TheWrap’s Oscar magazine.

For screenwriter Anthony McCarten, the road to “The Two Popes” started with a death in the family. The British writer was in Rome when he received a text from a cousin telling him that a family member had passed away. “I was looking for a place to light a candle at chapel, and I decided, ‘Well, I won’t mess around, I’ll go straight to St. Peter’s Square,'” said McCarten, whose recent screenplays include “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” (fact-based stories that have led to three of the last five Best Actor winners).

“And as fate would have it, or as God should determine, the square was full of about 50,000 people watching the rock star Pope Francis deliver a morning mass.”

The experience raised two questions in McCarten’s mind. “My girlfriend told me that the other pope, Pope Benedict, was sequestered in some convent behind St. Peter’s, and I thought, ‘Wow, we have two popes. When was the last time that happened?’ And the answer was, 700 years ago.

“And my second question was, ‘Why did Benedict resign?’ Why would the most traditional pope of the modern era do the most untraditional thing?” he continued. “And from those two questions, this story emerged.”

While McCarten’s films about Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Freddie Mercury relied on copious available research, “The Two Popes” is largely made up of private conversations between the two pontiffs, Francis (played by Jonathan Pryce) and Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). Those conversations are clearly not in the public record, and nobody who knew about them would talk — so how accurate can they be?

“There’s different levels of presumption when you embark on these things,” McCarten said. “Because no one’s privy to these intimate conversations, this movie is probably more risk-taking than previous ones in that we don’t know really what happened. The stated positions of both popes are well known, and I researched that heavily. But the fact that they then enter into a kind of theological debate is basically my conceit.

“What you always do is you speculate,” he continued. “Hopefully that speculation is based in facts and the truth, and hopefully it’s inspired.”

Besides, he said, he relished the idea of putting a theological discussion into a piece of popular entertainment. “It was a joy to put these two polar opposites, one an archconservative and one a progressive, into a debate that hopefully speaks to things outside the faith,” he said. “Because raging in the world today is this debate between, is the world better if it’s unchanging and conservative, or do we need to embrace change and take bold risks?”

To read more of the Actors/Directors/Screenwriters issue, click here.

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