Written by Anthony McCarten as an adaptation of his play The Pope, the film is about a debate between Pope Benedict XVI, played by Anthony Hopkins, and Pope Francis, played by Jonathan Pryce, about the modern role of the Catholic church. Injected with the fiery energy and epic scope that Meirelles traditionally brings to his films, he balances the storied life of Pope Francis’ with the age-old tale of two experienced intellectuals coming to verbal blows over a common goal.
At the AFI Festival red carpet, I had the privilege of speaking with Jonathan Pryce, Fernando Meirelles, and Anthony McCarten along with supporting actor Juan Minujin, who played the younger Pope Francis, and production designer, Mark Tildesley. We learned about how the filmmakers achieved their epic scope and how the story appealed to everyone involved.
Jonathan Pryce (Lead Actor, Pope Francis)
The Knockturnal: What specifically about the character of Pope Frances and the project as a whole did you find so appealing as an actor?
Pryce: I would say his politics. I’m not a Christian or a member of the Catholic Church. However, he is the first Pope I’ve ever taken notice of and listened to. He said things that needed to be said and still need to be said about the environment, the refugee crisis, and building bridges not walls. He’s hopefully an inspirational figure beyond just Catholics.
Juan Minujin (Supporting Actor, Young Pope Francis)
The Knockturnal: So what was it about this role that you found very attractive?
Minujin: I think the script was fantastic and being able to work with Fernando Meirelles was a dream. Of course, to be in the same movie with Jonathan (Pryce) and Anthony Hopkins was great.
The Knockturnal: What was it like getting to work with them?
Minujin: It was great. It is fantastic getting to talk and work with Jonathan and Fernando. It was a very exciting opportunity for me.
The Knockturnal: Since you are playing the younger Pope Francis, did you talk to Jonathan at all to inform your performance?
Minujin: Yes. They flew me to London and we were housed for a week. I had some readings and talked a lot with Jonathan. I wasn’t trying to copy anything, quite the opposite, I was trying to see the journey from Bergoglio to Francis.
The Knockturnal: Did you review any footage?
Minujin: Yes, a lot of YouTube.
Fernando Meirelles (Director)
The Knockturnal: How do you see this film connect thematically with your previous work like City of God or Blindness?
Meirelles: I think Pope Francis’ agenda connects to what I am doing. He is always trying to protect poor people and fight against the current, unfair economic system. This is completely my agenda. Also now, he published the Laudato si’, which is the encyclical on the environment based on science. This is my biggest obsession nowadays. Climate crisis. Pope Francis really talks a lot about it, I think he is one of the most important voices today. He believes in what I believe and supports what I support.
The Knockturnal: So it really must be a phenomenal opportunity to showcase your beliefs through this film.
Meirelles: Yeah. It true is. I support what he says. So supporting him supports the ideas from City of God.
The Knockturnal: What are some advantages or challenges to adapting from the play The Pope?
Meirelles: Actually, I read the script four months before I read the play. I was invited to make a film on Pope Francis, any film. At the time I couldn’t do it, so the producers waited for two years. Then the producers found the play, asked Anthony (McCarten) to adapt, and three years later he sent me the script. I thought it was brilliant.
The Knockturnal: What was it like getting to direct Jonathan Pryce and reunite with Anthony Hopkins?
Meirelles: Working with these actors is always great. They came very well prepared. We didn’t need to rehearse much. We did a couple of table reads. On the day, they showed up, rehearsed one or two times to set up the movements, and then just shoot. Every day, I was surprised because they would bring little details; it was such a pleasure. Sometimes instead of cutting and finishing the scene I’d ask “hey, let’s do another one”.
The Knockturnal: So, it’s fun
Meirelles: Yes, it’s just like a private play! I enjoyed it so much.
Anthony McCarten (Writer)
The Knockturnal: This was an adaptation of your play The Pope, did you find any challenges adapting the play to film?
McCarten: The film adaption provides the opportunity to make it cinematic and give visual metaphors to what was verbal before. That is a creative challenge. But mainly, it’s just exciting to have the resources to dramatize something like building the Sistine Chapel and staging a scene there. I remember when I was typing “interior- Sistine Chapel” and thinking that we will have to build one of the seven wonders of the world. We were able to go to Argentina, and what was a monologue in the play of his (Pope Francis’) past, we could bring to life and reinvent the 1970’s and the barrios of Argentina where these missions occurred.
The Knockturnal: What aspects of the film do you think will resonate with modern audience, specifically a non-Catholic audience?
McCarten: Well here’s the thing. I wrote this play, which became a movie, thinking it would have a niche audience. Pretty big niche, 1.4 billion Catholics.
The Knockturnal: Big niche
McCarten: Yes it’s a big niche. But we won five audience awards in a row and we are still trying to figure out what about the film effects people so much. I think it has something to do with the fact that we are sick of arguing. We have two people who start out polar opposite and they come together through a process of finally realizing they are going to have to listen to each other. They punch each other to a standstill, then they stop and say “Can we take a break now. Can we just sit and listen? In Silence.” I think people were really touched by that.
The Knockturnal: Were you thinking about these themes as you were writing it or did it come out more after the finished product?
McCarten: In my usual experiences, I don’t know where I’m going to be going. It teaches me as I’m going through the process. Probably, somewhere in me, maybe from watching the news too much, I was thinking “god will people just shut up, listen, and absorb what the other person is saying before rebutting.”
The Knockturnal: Well it’s hard to find that on the news
Mark Tildesley (Production Designer)
The Knockturnal: From a production design standpoint, what techniques did you use to elevate the film into a grand, epic scale
Tildesly: Making the Sistine Chapel is a challenge; it is a grand, epic building. One of the masterpieces of Michelangelo. We had to use a couple techniques to get that right. We looked into the possibility of painting scenically, but that was going to take too long in order to rehearse there. We looked at printing the pictures, but that was too dull. We came across a technique only found in Italy, in Milan, from a company called tattooWALL. They make tattoos, like stickers, that you stick on your hand and peel off. We printed the image of the Sistine Chapel and stuck them on (the set). That’s how we achieved it in time.
One of the problems was the coloration of the images was prior to its restoration. César Charlone, our cinematographer, and Fernando Meirelles were very keen to have this sensation as you walked into it. Fully restored like in the day was first painted. In the end, we had to paint it at 1/3rd scale, using ceiling artists, then photograph it, then reproduce it with the tattoos.
The Knockturnal: Has that technique been used with any other recent films?
Tildesly: It is a technique that is available but I don’t know if others have used it – not to my knowledge. Certainly, not too many other films have used it to the proportions that we did. They were working for four weeks to get this up.
The Knockturnal: Since this was an adaptation of the play The Pope did you discuss at all with the writer ideas regarding drawing elements from the play for set design?
Tildesly: I love the play, I trained as a theater designer, but we didn’t really talk about the play that much. Obviously the script, adapted from the play, was absolutely sensational. It’s like a Frost/Nixon two hander. It is very unusual, two old men talking about the future of the church. It is more a story about hope, reconciliation, and understanding in the modern day. It is a great film for understanding how to listen to each other.
The Knockturnal: Building on that, how do you think this film will resonate with a modern audience, particularly a non-Catholic audience.
Tildesly: Everyone will love it. Someone in the audience came out and told Anthony McCarten that it is a Jewish film, because Jewish people debate the scriptures.
The Knockturnal: Yes, we do that a lot
Tildesly: There is a lot to talk about. It is a film for all of us really about listening to each other. Since it is about one side being the more tradition right of the church, and the other a more progressive thinker. They are just both interesting people to listen to.
The Two Popes will have a limited theatric release in the United States on November 27st followed by its Netflix release on December 20th.