Writers & Company

Bohemian Rhapsody screenwriter Anthony McCarten on turning true stories into award-winning movies 

The New Zealand-born novelist, playwright and filmmaker spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about finding his way into the iconic characters at the centre of his dramatic biopics.
Anthony McCarten is a New Zealand-born novelist, playwright and filmmaker. (Jack English)
Listen to the full episode52:03

Anthony McCarten is best known for his films about high-profile people such as Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Queen singer Freddie Mercury.

The screenwriter of The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody has also earned a reputation for writing award-winning roles. The stars of all three movies — Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman and Rami Malek — won the Oscar for best actor. 

For his new film, McCarten takes an intimate look at two unlikely subjects. The Two Popes imagines a meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, shortly before Benedict's surprising resignation in 2013. Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, the movie explores their divergent views on matters of concern to the Catholic Church, including homosexuality, divorce and the cover-up of child sexual abuse. It received wide critical acclaim on the film festival circuit, including TIFF 2019.

McCarten is the author of six novels and two works of nonfiction: The Two Popes (previously published as The Pope) and Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought England Back from the Brink

He spoke to Eleanor Wachtel from Los Angeles. 

The Two Popes opens in select Canadian theatres on Nov. 29. It's coming to Netflix on Dec. 20. 

Papal precedent

"I happened to be in Rome and it was purely a matter of happenstance that my sister texted me. She said that our cousin had passed away — and if I was near a chapel to light a candle. It being Rome, there was a plenitude of chapels. I ended up in St. Peter's Square, where Pope Francis was giving an open-air mass. You couldn't help but feel the superstar appeal of this man. I started thinking about this man who was projected on the super screen.

I have a deep conviction that great leaders don't walk around with their minds made up all the time.- Anthony McCarten

"Having been raised Catholic, I also knew that in 2013 a previous pope, Pope Benedict, a.k.a Cardinal Ratzinger, had resigned. He was the first pope in hundreds of years to have done so. I was aware that the other pope, the "shadow" pope, was living sequestered in a convent not far away from the very square in which I was standing. It was the first time in centuries that we had two living popes. 

"The question in my mind was, 'What would have inspired Pope Benedict — who by anyone's estimation is probably the most traditional pope of the modern era — to have done the most untraditional thing and resign?' This represents a cataclysmic event in the life of this 2,000-year-old religion. From that question, everything else sort of grew."

What makes a leader

"For many people, dramatizing the life of someone like Winston Churchill is sacred ground. But as a New Zealander I didn't have a preformed opinion of British national icons like Churchill. I wanted to show his uncertainty. I have a deep conviction that the great leaders don't walk around with their minds made up all the time. They're open to being wrong. To quote from Yates, 'The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.' There's so much passionate intensity and arrogance in our leaders today and it gets us in all kinds of trouble.

"When I began my journey into doing Churchill, it was with an interest to look at this incredibly taxing moment in world history. It was May 1940, when fascist Germany was about to take over all of Central and Western Europe. England and Britain were under enormous internal pressure to sign a peace deal with Hitler. There was this absolutely impossible burden of decision-making that fell on Churchill. I began to do a deep dive to examine what it must have felt like for him. Surely this bulldog iconic figure must have succumbed to some doubt and uncertainty."

An extraordinary life

"I wanted to do the story of Stephen Hawking when I read the back cover of his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time. There's just something extraordinary about this man who, because of his illness, was relegated to a wheelchair and could only speak through the agency of a computer. Yet he had tasked himself with unpacking some of the long hidden secrets of the universe. He's an extraordinary dramatic figure.

"But I didn't know how I would approach it or if there was a way in until I read a review of Jane Hawking's autobiography where she revealed the intimate life behind the iconic one. It was then that I perceived I could tell a story that wasn't just the love of physics, but the physics of love as well.

"It was that binary aspect to it, 'the intimate against the epic,' which drew me in. Quite frankly it still is my modus operandi — I love setting an intimate and interesting story against an epic background."

Actor Eddie Redmayne describes how he became Stephen Hawking in James Marsh's The Theory of Everything. 2:04

Rock and roll confessional

"In creating the biopic Bohemian Rhapsody, it was a wonderful experience working with Queen and interviewing drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May. That was just very unique, sitting at Brian's house and him telling me the entire story of these young men who conquered the world musically. Freddie Mercury had this aspiration that he was going to impose himself on history and it was simply a matter of time. He was weighing the world's resistance against him, but was convinced that the opportunity would emerge and he would be ready to take it. 

"But it was also about fashioning a drama where you're setting these incredibly iconic songs into your movie and letting the music partially tell the story for you. It's a musical without being a musical. People don't break into song and sing their love for each other.

"But it is a music-filled drama. It was a great privilege and it's something that I'm hoping to do more of as I go forward. The emotional impact of songs is different from dialogue. It circumvents the brain and goes straight to the heart."

Why we enjoy biopics

"The heart of most drama is in finding someone who wants something — and the interesting obstacles in the way. That's true of all the people I've dealt with one way or another, whether it's Freddie Mercury, Winston Churchill, Stephen Hawking or Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. These individuals all found themselves with particular challenges. 

The heart of most drama is in finding someone who wants something — and the interesting obstacles in the way.- Anthony McCarten

"In their own way, they have all tried to make a difference. They may have emerged from either humble or aristocratic beginnings, but they are all interestingly flawed in some ways or faced some very interesting obstacle. That's the classic hero's journey."

Anthony McCarten's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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