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‘Two Popes’ Walk Into Abbey Road Recording Studio (No Joke)

The soundtrack to Netflix’s “The Two Popes” is the tonally diverse product of Grammy Award-winning musician Bryce Dessner who was tasked by director Fernando Meirelles to score the film, generating large-scale cinematic energy to unseen, intimate moments between religious figures. 

Scheduled for release on Friday, Dec. 20, “The Two Popes” explores the friendship between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis), two pivotal figures in the recent and highly turbulent history of the Catholic church. The story of conservative-leaning Benedict’s decision to resign (from a position typically served until death) was placed in contrast to forward-thinking Bergoglio’s apprehension towards the papacy. The film exposes the two clergymen’s fundamental differences as they deal, together, with surfacing corruption and the future of the Catholic church. 

Recorded at Abbey Road, Dessner’s soundtrack gracefully merges two disparate sonic identities — one characterized by an energetic nylon string guitar sound and another by a more traditional, romantic orchestral treatment — that accentuate and complement the opposing ideologies

Variety caught up with Dessner, a guitarist with major successes in both the classical and alternative music worlds. Dessner is also a member of the rock band The National talks about how he finds the right tone for experiences that are out of view.

 How did you come across this project?
I’m a really big fan of Fernando Meirelles, like “The Constant Gardener” and “City of God.” I think “City of God” is one of the best movies I’ve seen, really. I think he is an extremely music-minded director. It came up where he and one of his producers were shooting in Rome already, and I believe they played some of my music as temp music and started taking up the idea of me working on the project. I think that Fernando liked the diversity of my background, in particular, some of my classical music and music I write for voices, so he reached out.  I went to meet them in Rome on set, actually and had a really great day. And then just from there, it got started.

You’re putting music to such intimate moments that have never really had a soundtrack before. How did you approach a setting that usually requires silence?
I think that the screenplay was originally written by Anthony McCarten as a play. It does have this incredible intimacy about it, almost like a Samuel Beckett kind of play, which is largely these conversations about theology between two old men, two incredible actors. I think to stage that in a cinematic way was a challenge–to figure out how you make a movie out of dialogue between these two characters. Music, among other tools that Fernando had, was one of the ways to make it cinematic and to bring energy into certain scenes. I worked really hard on finding sounds that both felt like they belong in the film, but were also surprising, because Fernando doesn’t ever do the obvious didn’t want me to write straightforward Hollywood film music. The challenge was to find an intimate sound with a lot of character that matched the quality of the action that was on screen.

How did you approach these sounds you would hear at a Catholic mass–grand organs and strings–without it coming off as cliche?
The film has a surprising use of score, but also source. There’s a lot of humor in the movie, that’s a big part of what Fernando was bringing into this, as a sense of levity. You think of a movie about two popes and humor is not really the first thing you think of. But this movie is quite funny, actually, and the use of music accents that. I think one example is that the use of the saxophone is a sound that is totally unexpected and happens in two key religious moments for Bergoglio. In general, some of the sounds we associate with Benedict are slightly more expected, which are bigger orchestral moments that relate to him pushing himself and has very much a kind of romantic orchestral music associated with them, which I wrote to that characteristic in my language. The sound that we associate with Bergoglio is much more intimate and folkloric and uses primarily the South American nylon string guitar as the center of that sound. The film has different sonic identities, and I do think that the source music as well plays into that.

ABBA is a group whose music I didn’t think I’d be hearing. What’s the genesis of that music cue? Was it referenced in the script or did you help incorporate that?
I don’t know if ABBA was in the script or Fernando put it in the movie and then they put it in the script. I know that Abbey Road and The Beatles were in the script.  We recorded the score at Abbey Road, which I knew from the start of working on the movie, which is really quite an incredible experience. That was something that was really surprising to me but I grew to love it. When I first heard it, it was a bit of a challenge to figure out which version of [Dancing Queen] we would put in. I did work on a version of The Beatles’ “Blackbird.” The ABBA is taken from The Royal Philharmonic in London.

Was the decision to record at Abbey Road made before you came onto the project? Pope Benedict’s album was actually recorded there. Is that just a coincidence? It does seem like a perfect fit with “Blackbird” and The Beatles references.
I helped them decide that we would record at Abbey Road since record production was based in London. That is one of two places that you do scores like this in London, the other being AIR Studios, but the fact that it’s mentioned so much in the movie just made it so much fun. For all the producers, and the main editor, and Fernando to come, it was really great, we had a really great day there with the London Contemporary Orchestra–it was a complete dream. I think for a musician to be able to do that–you know, my life is full of memorable moments, but to do that was kind of next level. 

You’ve incorporated plenty of Argentinean guitar sounds, representative of Pope Francis’s home country of Argentina. As someone who is a classically trained guitarist, how do you integrate the guitar alongside a full orchestra? What is that like?

 It’s not the first thing I tend to do, but I did do a couple of cues like that and Fernando immediately responded to it and didn’t want that kind of grandiose orchestral sound necessarily for Bergoglio/Francis. Eventually, I was able to arrange Pope Francis’ election scene and that starts with this intimate guitar sound and then becomes a kind of massive orchestral piece, so that was fairly natural to get there and go from one to the other.

My next question was going to be, how did you take on that culturally significant music? But you had already you had a bit of a background in it already just by growing up playing the guitar.
Everything I am doing is not necessarily Argentinian, I should be clear, but it is the use of the nylon string guitar, which I guess is really Spanish in a way, although the origins of those guitars goes further back than that. The guitar music you hear is not based on any South American folk music. I did spend some time recording some South American traditional pieces, one of which is on the soundtrack and in the film, called “Siete de Abril.” It is an example of a Colombian traditional melody, and I had a really good time learning some of that music and recording with this incredible bandoneon player. But for the most part, I used the guitar in my own language. Similarly, there’s the use of the bandoneon in places on the score, which is again associated with Piazzola or traditional tango music, but I use it in a more orchestral way, it’s not used to play traditional themes.

There’s this really heartwarming scene between Pope Benedict and Cardinal Bergoglio when they’re chatting at the pope’s summer residence and Benedict starts to play the piano. It’s a moment of kinship that’s pretty seminal in the development of their friendship. Anthony Hopkins can indeed play the piano, and he’s even worked on some of his own music. How did you work with him to pick and choose the pieces that he would play, or was it already in the screenplay before?
Anthony is a really good piano player and those are pieces that he actually had in his repertoire. Director Fernando Meirelles had him try those out on set, it actually wasn’t my choice. As far as I understand, he is kind of an active pianist. 

The recent influx of streaming platforms leads to more opportunities for more films and more opportunities to score more films. From winning Grammys for your classical compositions, and for your work with The National, you’re very uniquely and impressively well rounded. Looking ahead, would you like to do more films or create more music for screens?
I think to work on projects like “The Two Popes” or say on “The Revenant” are dream situations where you get to work in large collaborative environments with so many incredible artists. I very much enjoy it and it’s something I’m really learning about. It is an industry that’s shifting and expanding and movies like “The Two Popes,” which might not get made by a giant, regular studios like that is very interesting. It’s really based on really quality acting and great directors that are given pretty much creative freedom. It was a dream situation for me to work on a project like that where I wasn’t necessarily feeling the pressure you might feel on something five times bigger. But we had obviously the resources to go to record and orchestrate at Abbey Road. So it was an incredible experience. 

Dessner’s soundtrack for “The Two Popes” is slated for release on December 6 via Milan Records.

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