Want an Oscar? Star in an Anthony McCarten biopic

Darkest Hour, for which Gary Oldman won, premieres on Indian TV soon. McCarten also made Bohemian Rhapsody and The Theory of Everything

  • Published 15.03.19, 11:55 PM
  • Updated 15.03.19, 11:55 PM
  • 4 mins read
McCarten over phone about what goes into writing an effective biopic

Anthony McCarten may be a three-time Oscar nominee himself, but what’s more significant is that his last three important outings as a screenwriter — The Theory of Everything (2014), Darkest Hour (2017) and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) — have all won their leading men Best Actor Oscars. With Darkest Hour — in which Gary Oldman won an Oscar last year for his portrayal of Sir Winston Churchill — premiering on Indian TV this Sunday (Sony PIX at 1pm), We chatted with McCarten over phone about what goes into writing an effective biopic and why he gravitates towards conflicted characters.

Congratulations for the big wins that Bohemian Rhapsody earned at the Oscars last month. Darkest Hour, The Theory of Everything and Bohemian Rhapsody, all biopics written by you, have won their leading actors (Gary Oldman, Eddie Redmayne and Rami Malek respectively) the Best Actor Oscar in their respective years. You’ve made quite a habit of this, haven’t you?

(Laughs) Yes, I’ve been having a good run, and thank you for noticing that. It’s not something many people have bothered noticing. For most people, it’s about the actors in a film, but hardly about the ones who write the film and its characters. So, thank you!

Darkest Hour is a film that stands out among the biopics you’ve written, primarily for the way in which your pen effortlessly humanised Sir Winston Churchill. Has that been your toughest screenwriting assignment yet?

It’s definitely been one of the tough ones. When you write about a historical character, not only do you have to be accurate, but you also have to look for attributes in that character that will make them relatable to the audience at some level. Churchill was such an iconic figure, especially in Britain, that almost everything was thought to be known about him. So the challenge for me was to find things about him that brought him to life in a new way. What I tried to bring in was the element that he was capable of doubt; till then, most portraits of him had been of a man who was always certain of mind. 

What’s the key to writing an effective biopic? And how does one walk the thin line of sticking to facts and yet keeping the film entertaining for the viewer?

History is not a perfect storyteller. There are always gaps to be filled in and as a writer, you are obligated to fill in those gaps as authentically as you can. You do that by staying true to the character and to your research. If you are too flippant with facts or cross the line into doing damage to someone’s reputation or misrepresent things, then the audience will walk away immediately. So you have to find a balance between contemporising a true story and adding the necessary details to make it watchable as a movie, but also sticking to what will make your film authentic. It’s a very thin line.

You started off as a journalist and then moved to penning a ton of bestsellers. How did you graduate to writing film scripts?

There was a period when I was writing one novel after another and I was tired of sitting in a room alone. My personality demanded that I go out into the world. So when an opportunity came on to direct a film based on a play (Ladies’ Night) I had written, I asked if I could direct it myself. I knew nothing about directing a movie, but I have never let ignorance stop me from doing anything (laughs). I found I loved films and began to increasingly write for the medium. It now dominates my writing.

Which would you pick as your most satisfying screenwriting experience so far?

The satisfaction with these last three biopics (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody) has been immense. Writing these real-life characters has given me many ‘eureka’ moments and also been an informative and educative process. Learning that Churchill had self-doubt on many occasions or that Freddie Mercury worked as a baggage handler at Heathrow Airport or that Jane Hawking asked Stephen Hawking whether she could take on a lover…. When you discover these things and bring them to life, those have been the most thrilling moments.

Hawking, Churchill and Mercury are very diverse and complex characters. Do you naturally gravitate towards characters that are conflicted?

Very much so. I didn’t know much about Freddie Mercury — apart from the fact that he was the rockstar that he was — but once I was told about his story, I had no doubts that it would make for a fantastic film.

Sometimes the stories come to me and sometimes, I discover them. My next film, The Pope, is about the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (played by Jonathan Pryce). Had I not been in Rome that afternoon when my sister called that my cousin had died and told me to light a candle in a church in her name, then I wouldn’t have started to look into the story of Pope Benedict and his abdication and his relationship with Pope Francis. Like this, there have been a lot of happy accidents along the way and I have tried to keep my eyes and ears open.

What’s your writing process like?

I am the most efficient model of a one-man business. I have no secretaries, no assistants…. I take my time to research a story and I am careful about what I commit to. I have to be sure in my mind that I have something to contribute to the subject. Which means I could spend months working on a project and never progress with it. My process is slow, methodical and solitary.

The next person from history on your biopic wishlist would be…?

I am working on several, actually. I’ve just delivered scripts on George Washington, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I am also looking at making something on Elvis Presley. There are tons of interesting lives out there that one can bring to life in a whole new dimension.