WASHINGTON — Anthony McCarten is a double-dipper. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
The Catholic writer first wrote a nonfiction book called “The Two Popes,” then was commissioned to write its fictional screenplay, which centers on fly-on-the-wall conversations between Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) and retired Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins).
It also focuses on the struggles of young Jesuit Father Jorge Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, in Argentina during the South American nation’s “dirty war” years in which it routinely “disappeared” its own citizens, priests included — anyone it viewed as a threat to the regime.
For McCarten, it was not the first time he’s turned the book-and-movie double play unassisted. But in his previous efforts, the screenplay came first.
It started with “Darkest Hour,” which dealt with Winston Churchill‘s decision on whether to go to war against Nazi Germany or negotiate for peace with Adolf Hitler and spare Great Britain from the horrors of war.
“A publisher in London called me,” McCarten explained, “and said, ‘Is your movie script based on a book, because I think we could sell a great many of these books.’ ‘I don’t think so, it’s not based on a book.’ He asked, ‘Could it be based on a book?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘If you could generate a book in six weeks we think we could sell a lot of copies.'”
“I thought he was crazy,” the writer told Catholic News Service in a Dec. 4 phone interview from Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, where he was promoting “The Two Popes.”
Pondering the publisher’s suggestion, “I thought I might be able to deliver this thing in six weeks; I think I’m crazy, too,” he said. “It’s an unsustainable practice.”
On the other hand, his last three screenplays — “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” — have won their leading man the Best Actor Oscar. As “The Two Popes” opened Dec. 6 for a three-week engagement at select cinemas, the jury is out as to whether Hopkins or Pryce will be nominated, much less take home similar trophies come February.
McCarten outlined one scene that he thought director Fernando Meirelles captured perfectly.
“There’s a moment about a third of the way through the film where up to then,” he said, “the two popes had been exchanging philosophical blows, and they’ve kind of worn each other out, they retired to a small antechamber. They say to each other, ‘Let’s just sit in silence.’ In that silence it’s like the real conversation begins between these two men — when they leave behind their ideologies and interact as human beings.
“Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict) talked about when he first heard God’s voice. He didn’t just sit there, and, almost with tears in his eyes, he said, ‘It gives me peace, such peace,'” McCarten told CNS. “The real human exchanges are happening almost on a nonverbal level. It’s the beginning of trust and understanding and eventually, even friendship.”
The New Zealand-born McCarten had his bout of disaffection from the Catholic Church.
“It was a kind of growing apathy. I’m 58 years old, and for the first 50 years of my life, the church was like an airless room: Nothing is changing in this institution even though the times cry out for change,” McCarten said.
“With advent of Pope Francis, it was like the windows were thrown open, and it’s a fresh breeze. I’ve revived my interest in this institution in a way that’s surprised me,” he continued. “I think my interest now is an analog to society at large. If the institution can make decisions, and start to serve its people more effectively, then there’s also the question of why society at large cannot also do the same.”
As for Pope Francis’ papacy, McCarten replied, “I think he is evolving in real time, all the time. That gives me comfort. Not many years ago, he said homosexuality was the devil’s work. Fast-forward a few years (and he said): ‘God loves people of color. God loves you like this and I love you like this. Don’t change.'”
He added the pope is “facing severe and profound headwinds within the church,” and said that “Catholics should support Pope Francis. The journey he’s embarked on should be viewed as one for the whole church. If it would come as a small way this movie can support him, then great.”
After the brief theatrical run for “The Two Popes,” it will go to Netflix. (Editor’s note: It is now available on Netflix.) “It’s fate has already almost been assured,” McCarten said. “After a three-week run around the world, opening in almost 50 countries, it’s going to be available in 50 million homes. Multiply that by the average size of households, that means our story will be available at least to a vast global audience. That’s very exciting as a storyteller.”
At the same time, “you’re aware that people will watch this on their phone, but you still have to make cinema,” he remarked. “People are getting bigger screens now. We have 50-inch screens. So pull your chair a little closer to the TV” to get the theatrical effect. “The home viewing experience is much different from when I was growing up, with a postage-stamp TV.”