Anthony McCarten is a novelist, filmmaker, and playwright. He is most known for producing and writing the screenplay for the award-winning movie, The Theory of Everything. However, he first came into international success with his play Ladies Night. He’s adapted two of his novels, Death of a Superhero and The English Harem, for the screen. Now he is back with his film on Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour, which is already receiving favorable praise.
Screen Rant got a chance to talk with Anthony McCarten on press day, where we discussed why this film was such a passion project for Anthony, why it is so imperative that the audience know about Winston Churchill and his history prior to May Day, and what draws him so much to writing biopics more than anything.
SR: First question I have is Dunkirk was a huge success this past summer. It’s a lot more visceral, and this film is a lot more cerebral. It’s obviously the opposite side of what happened on Dunkirk. What were you hoping, what things were you hoping to get across to the audience?
Anthony McCarten: Well our film is about whether Britain would or would not enter into a peace deal with Adolf Hitler. Winston Churchill is a central character and history tells us this was a guy who never changed his mind and was really bullish until May Day. That’s not the case. The historical record showed me, when I did research, that the guy changed his position on this issue by the day and sometimes by the hour.
SR: Is that something that was publicly known, because I know I read that this was like a pretty big passion project for you?
Anthony McCarten: Yeah, yeah. It isn’t widely known and Winston was pretty good about air-brushing it out of history too. I don’t think he really wanted to emphasize the fact that he had so seriously entertained the idea. He variously said things like he would be thankful to get out of the current difficulties by peace deal, doing a peace deal. He said that he would you consider it. He was quoted by Chamberlain in his diaries saying he would jump at a peace deal. This stuff, it”s almost like sacrilege in the church of Churchillia.
SR: Right right right. Churchillia, I like that.
Anthony McCarten: Who knew? And so I thought well this is an interesting reason to make this movie, because the idea that this great man had doubts, to my mind makes him even greater.
SR: Right! There was one line that really got me, when he was on the train or underground, and he said ‘lost causes aren’t the ones worth fighting for.’ And I was like wow, this is this is such a powerful moment and he had so many lines that were like that.
Anthony McCarten: I know. I actually had a guy last night saying ‘okay, listen I never do this in movies but I made a note of all these lines and I want to say are these yours or Winston’s? ‘
SR: Yeah I was gonna ask you that!
Anthony McCarten: And he went down, and I had three out of three were mine, and he said ‘oh my god I got goosebumps.’
SR: That’s crazy, that’s amazing. So you’ve written screenplays for truly iconic figures like Stephen Hawking, Churchill, and Freddie Mercury in the upcoming Queen biopic. What do you do to get into those figures heads?
Anthony McCarten: Well, you know my rule of thumb is that pedestals are for statues and that you’ve got to find the human inside the myth. And it’s partly doing the hard work of research and finding those animating details that make them like us. And so you’ve got to find those points of entry and create characters that represent us on screen. And in this movie there’s a few of them. There’s the secretary. Who shows up at Winston’s door on the first day and she’s told Winston Churchill is in there and he’s like in a bad mood. Good luck. And when she goes into the bedroom and sees him light a cigar in a darkened room, we are entering that bedroom.
Anthony McCarten: Because I’ve held Winston back. Everyone’s been talking about him for ten minutes but we haven’t seen him. So we’re meeting him. So those techniques are a way to get inside that character. And then you see him not giving a great speech, you see him trying to find his cat under the bed. You know, it’s human. It’s almost banal but while he’s then dictating letters to the French Premiere about the collapse of Belgium he’s going ‘god damn cats under the bed again.’ So that’s that’s my approach to it all.
SR: Interesting. So how do you toe the line between historical fact and your own interpretation while you’re writing a real world person?
Anthony McCarten: Yeah it’s a really really interesting question and it’s a debate that rages on and on and writers have different attitudes to this.
SR: Is that right?
Anthony McCarten: Yeah very much so. Some people say you can just break a character down to the little parts and just choose the parts you want and leave behind what you don’t. And that kind of, that approach is partial and you don’t get, you know if it’s a painting that you’re doing, then it suddenly becomes a self-portrait. Your choices reflect the writer rather than the person you’re depicting. So you have to do a lot of research, you have to get the facts straight and you have to work within the tolerances of history, but also the tolerances of what audiences will handle. Because when you put these precious words on the start of the movie, “based on a true story,” you’ve entered into a contract with the audience, and the audience will, if they smell a rat and go no way did that [happen], then you’ve lost them and the project can collapse. And we can all think of examples, right, where you go “Nooo.” And then everyone can Google anyway so they check that out and they go ‘hang on.’ You know like in ‘The Imitation Game,’ Alan Turing he didn’t do thing on his own, he had a Polish guy working with him. And hang on, he didn’t build that computer from scratch, they bought it. The Poles had already invented one and he bought it. Hang on! Whoa! Stop! You know, you don’t want that.
SR: That’s interesting. One thing I actually loved a lot in this movie was the relationship that Churchill had with King George. Is there anything during your research that, with King George or Churchill, that you may have come across where it either really fascinated you that you didn’t know before? I know that you were talking about the decision he had to make and he flip flopped with it, I know that obviously. But like anything else that you may have found fascinating within those characters during your research?
Anthony McCarten: Yeah. Well I didn’t know tat the King was completely anti-Winston at the beginning. And the reason was was really sound. I mean, Winston had a retention mainly for disaster and misjudgment, miscalculation. And the king deeply wanted Halifax. I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that Winston was such a kind of joke character in May 1940 when he became prime minister. I thought, well he became prime minister, he must have been popular. I mean it was a crisis for the country and the world, and they made him Prime Minister. How can he be a joke figure?
SR: Do you think that they did that more so as a scapegoat kind of if things went south that they could push it on Churchill?
Anthony McCarten: There’s two things at play. One is that the ruling party had their hand forced by the opposition party who insisted on Churchill. So there’s an interesting argument as to why the opposition would push Churchill on the ruling party. Almost, you can imagine a sort of long game whereby you put a joke character and the government’s going to collapse. You’ll be in power, right?
Anthony McCarten: So you can see that sort of strategy. You can also see, within the ruling party, the idea that Winston was such a a loud mouth, he’s such a big character that we can’t have him in the back seat. He’ll be a backseat driver. Let’s put him in the front seat. Give him four weeks, he’ll blow up. And then the real guy can takeover, Halifax, who’s standing in the wings. So there’s those sort of conspiracies going on as well. So it’s a really interesting political context.
SR: Whose story are you interested in bringing to life next?
Anthony McCarten: Oh that’s interesting. I am working on the John and Yoko Ono story.
Anthony McCarten: Yoko’s producing with me and Michael De Luca and Josh Bretton. And I’m just finishing the script at the moment. We have all of John’s music courtesy of Yoko. It’s the first time Yoko’s agreed to allow all of John’s music to be licensed. But we’re going to tell this fantastic story of the sixty’s and what it meant to be in that time. That rebellious, wonderful free love and time.
SR: I can’t wait for that.
Anthony McCarten: And it’s laced with all those incredible songs and it’s John’s story. It’s Yoko’s story. And it’s called Peace and I’m really excited about it.
SR: I’m excited about it now too. Bohemian Rhapsody is finally in production after a couple of complications with pre-production. How did you conduct your research?
Anthony McCarten: Well I said I’ll take the job on. They tried half the writers in Hollywood before I came on.
SR: Oh is that right?
Anthony McCarten: Yeah, but no one had ever signed off on the script. It had never kind of worked. So they rang me and said ‘would you take it on?’ I said ok but I want to interview the band and spend time with them. And I was told ‘well, the band won’t really be pleased to hear that.’ And I said well they must be sick of the writers interviewing them and they said no, none of the other writers have wanted to talk to them.
Anthony McCarten: And I thought wow, boy, they’re not very curious people these other writers because what what an incredible opportunity to meet these extraordinary guys. So I got to sit with Brian Mayer, Roger Taylor, spending afternoons with Brian with his guitar on his lap playing. Telling me how he wrote songs like Bohemian Rhapsody.
SR: [hushed] What?
Anthony McCarten: You know doing licks on his guitar and saying ‘Freddie would suggest this riff and then this is what I did.’ Brian May doing air guitar in front of you. It was a tremendous honor to work on that. So I went to the first source, I wemt to the horse’s mouth and talked to the guys. I just said tell me your story. What was it like for you guys? You were in art school and then you know, you’ve got a band already, playing blues. You had no stage show. Two guys looking at their feet or even turning their back on their audience. And this guy keeps showing up in the audience who’s got black finger nails and his name is Farrokh Bulsara. With huge overbite and he’s going, ‘hey guys you should change your act. You need lightning in a bottle. You need you need you need someone, you need a new front man. And I said so walk me through what happens then and that’s the movie.
SR: That’s so amazing.
Anthony McCarten: Yeah
SR: So cool. How will the music biopic stand out and break the formula of the tragic musician movie?
Anthony McCarten: Bohemian Rhapsody is a celebration. So it gets away from the tragic. It’s a celebration of what a bunch of people, very ordinary in many respects, are able to do when they when they get together and they get that wonderful chemistry and brotherhood going. So I think that, you know, I don’t know which biopics you’re referring to that are tragic.
SR: I mean I think like The Doors is one that comes to mind.
Anthony McCarten: That’s just not very good.
SR: That’s true as well. I guess I wouldn’t say Walk the Line, ’cause Walk the Line is pretty solid.
Anthony McCarten: I think Walk the Line is the highest performing music biopic, I think the biggest box office of them all. But watch this space because Bohemian Rhapsody should deliver right around the world. I imagine in Europe and South America they’re still fiilling stadiums.
SR: As soon as I saw the first production photo that was released of Rami Malek as Freddy Mercury, I flipped out. I was like this looks amazing. Just on that one picture. Looks great. Is there any other genre that you’ve written that you would be interested in writing , is there any other genre that you would want to do in the future?
Anthony McCarten: I’d love to get into the Marvel Universe.
Anthony McCarten: Write a James Bond. You know I love challenges and I’m constantly curious.
SR: What Marvel character in particular would you like to take a stab at if you had your choice.
Anthony McCarten: I guess Spider-Man. I think I can do something interesting with that. I’m not so much into the sort of Green Lanterns and all those minor minor characters. When I grew up on Superman and Batman, you know the more human they are the better.
SR: I agree.
Anthony McCarten: It sounds like Taika Waititi has great stuff with Thor.
SR: Oh, it’s hilarious.
Anthony McCarten: Have you seen it?
SR: Yeah, it’s great.
Anthony McCarten: And again what are you doing? You’re kind of humanizing.
SR: That’s exactly what it is
Anthony McCarten: These iconic figures right? And the more you humanize them and make them seem like you and I with a little added extra,the more buy-in there is for audiences.
SR: Absolutely. You know one question, to get back to Churchill real quick, is that there’s a lot of biopics coming out, Lyndon B. Johnson is coming out as well, so there’s a lot of biopics coming out from twentieth century leaders.
Anthony McCarten: Yeah
SR: What do you think that says to the political climate of the world right now? Especially Churchill.
Anthony McCarten: Yeah yeah. You know when I started writing this thing for four years ago, I didn’t really think there was going to be a lot of interest in this. But now that it’s sort of coming out in this political climate, a portrait in leadership has suddenly become a very relevant thing. I think there’s a bit of a crisis in world leadership right now and I think there’s a bit of confusion about what we what we want to demand out of our leaders. And honesty is definitely one of the things and Winston was almost incapable of being dishonest. He had no facility with intrigue or deception. And that, if he had no other qualities and he had many, if he had no other qualities other than that, we would have reason to love him.
Anthony McCarten: His facility with words. His grasp of humor and his understanding that certain conflicts can be completely dissolved through use of humor if you deploy it right you know. And his ability to have an open mind and take the other position and weigh it, weigh two positions at the same time and then make your decision. All these ingredients that, I don’t know, it’s hard to see people who have all of those things, all of those qualities in them at the moment.
SR: You know one thing that I’m curious about personally, is that I know I read that this was a big passion project for you, but why was that?
Anthony McCarten: Well it’s very close to a writer’s heart this story. Because at the center of it is this belief, this proposition that words matter that they count and in fact can be enlisted to change the world. And not everyone will sign up to that . Theyll you go ‘ah, words you can say something and then you can walk it back tomorrow.’ We live in those times that a statement, is not, you’re not nailing your colors to the mast when you say anything because tomorrow you can just walk it back. That does a serious injury to any kind of discourse and it builds distrust. If words are rendered meaningless we’re in deep deep s***.
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