Listen: Anthony McCarten on Writing ‘The Two Popes,’ a Movie About ‘Two Old Guys in Dresses Talking About God’

Anthony McCarten was in Rome when his sister called to tell him that one of their cousins had passed away. She asked him to stop by a church and light candle.

The Oscar-nominated screenwriter headed to St. Peter’s Square, where Pope Francis was giving an open mass.

“Having been raised Catholic in quite an intensely Catholic family, I knew about that Pope. And I also knew there was another one, there was a second Pope — a shadow Pope — the German Pope who had resigned. And although I was raised Catholic, I didn’t know the details of that resignation,” McCarten says on this week’s episode of “The Big Ticket,” Variety and iHeart’s movie podcast. “It kind of passed me by. So I got out my phone and I Googled, ‘When was the last time a Pope resigned?’ And the number 700 came up, 700 years. It was 1213 when a man called Celestine V decided to resign because he just had enough.”

And that’s when McCarten decided to write a play that would eventually become “The Two Popes,” the Netflix film starring Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as the Argentinian cardinal now known as Pope Francis. The film imagines a series of conversations between the two men as Pope Benedict reveals that he is going to resign.

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No surprise, but McCarten didn’t have any access to the actual popes. “They didn’t supply me with a giant key or anything like I got an entry to the walled city,” McCarten said. “No, it was one of the more interesting experiments I’ve done with the biographical form in a way in that I did enough research to know what the stated positions of each character was and their idiosyncrasies and how they were. But they had delivered these statements and proclamations and so forth in separate rooms. So this is where I got involved and got excited was that I opened doors and got them into the same room and contrived a conversation, a debate between them.”

Directed by Fernando Meirelles (below left with McCarten, right), “The Two Popes” goes into the Golden Globes with four nominations, including nods for best picture, McCarten for screenplay, Pryce for lead actor and Hopkins for supporting.

Fernando Meirelles and Anthony McCarten'The Two Popes' film gala screening, Arrivals, AFI Fest, TCL Chinese Theatre, Los Angeles, USA - 18 Nov 2019
CREDIT: Michael Buckner/Variety/Shutterstock

“The Two Popes” has also been a part of the Oscar conversation since it premiered at Telluride, with McCarten’s track record consistently referenced as a hopeful talking point. He wrote “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which earned Oscars for Eddie Redmayne, Rami Malek and Gary Oldman, respectively.

McCarten insists he’s already won. “Audiences are responding in an unbelievably cool way,” he said. At one screening, a man fell into McCarten’s arms with tears streaming down his face. “We had about 20 people who you wanted to say to them, ‘Don’t drive home in this condition. Sit down for 10 minutes,’” McCarten recalled. “Who would think that a movie about two old guys in dresses talking about God would do this?”

Besides, McCarten added, he’s changed since the first time he did the awards circuit. “I have a relaxation that I didn’t have,” he explained. “I was very anxious and quite competitive and I’m from a very large family and I’m quite a competitive person. So I remember the first go around, I bought into it. I was really wanting to win. [But] it can overwhelm you. It’s not good. It’s not good. It doesn’t bring out the best side of your nature. It’s not good for your creativity. It’s not good for the reason why we’re all here — to make good art. Artists shouldn’t be put in competition with each other.”

“The Two Popes” is available now on Netflix.

Next up for McCarten is a Broadway musical based on the life of Neil Diamond as well as a biopic about the Bee Gees. You can find out what he had to say about these upcoming projects by listening to the full interview below. (You can also find “The Big Ticket” at iHeartRadio or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.)

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