IN THE MERCIFUL SHADOWS. Anthony McCarten is a novelist, playwright, journalist, television writer and filmmaker, best known for writing The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody and The Two Popes. His play The Collaboration, with Paul Bettany and Jeremy Pope in the leading roles, brings the artists Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat together.

You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.

Anthony McCarten, is The Collaboration only going to be performed at the Young Vic in London or also somewhere else?

I had the idea that theatre would be an amazing place to start this project and then we would make it into a movie with the same actors. It was written as a play so we’re not treating the theatre as a workshop for the film, but it allowed us to develop something for the stage and then to use all the discoveries we made so that the film would benefit. We will finish the show and then shoot the movie, and then the plan is to take the same actors to Broadway for a third expression later this year or early next year.

What is The Collaboration about?

It’s a debate about what art is, what it should be, what its function is. Andy and Jean-Michel represent different philosophies. Andy is the older artist, established, but when we find him his career is in decline – hard to imagine now that by the mid-80s galleries were no longer taking his work and his prices were dropping. Jean-Michel started as a graffiti artist using city walls as his canvases, graduated to canvases and then was picked up by the art scene and catapulted to fame. By the age of 25 he was the hottest young artist of his generation in America, and the first major black painter who had emerged, so he was carrying a lot on his shoulders. Both of them needed salvation, and both sought it in their art.

How were you able to recreate the spirit of New York at that time?

I had a tour guide, a friend of mine who lives in the Lower East Side. He’s older than I am and he knew Warhol. In a single day he took me between a Basquiat exhibition at the Brant gallery, across to the Lower East Side where Jean-Michel and Andy used to live and work, across to the Whitney where there was a Warhol retrospective. I soaked up the atmosphere and was able to dream myself back into the mid-1980s.

You were twice nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Two Popes, based on your own play, and The Theory Of Everything, and now you have a new project with Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as the protagonists. Why do you put two very different characters with the same métier together?

The beauty of dialogue where people’s ideas are competing with each other is that you are allowed to contradict yourself as a writer, and put as much energy and conviction into the contradiction as to the original argument. This is pleasurable because it obliges you to empathize with opinions not native to you. What a Jewish friend of mine called rabbinical dispute is absolutely vital in society. If we avoid debate because we just want peace, then we don’t make any progress and become increasingly polarized, so I wrote a play about two popes who couldn’t agree on very much except that they both believed in God. That led to this play The Collaboration, and then the realisation that with the Buffett-Gates play, Wednesday at Warren’s Friday at Bill’s, there was a trilogy here, all three debates concerned with the things we worship, Gods, art, money. So I named it The Worship Trilogy.

“Between the known points there are vast wastes of the unknown.”

Anthony McCarten

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in The Two Popes (2019)

Anthony McCarten, as an artist, how do you create the dialogues of the characters?

I engage in well-researched speculation and learn enough to create a plausible scenario that is based in history, and I then honour the known points, but between the known points there are vast wastes of the unknown. There is not always a record of what someone said to someone else on a certain day, and the artist, I believe, is best qualified to try and fill this space. Fiction is the great repository of the truth, because we have a bigger palette. Biographies are imprisoned by the known facts, which only ever account for 50 percent of the truth.

Are you able to put yourself in places where you do not belong?

I specialize in that. Trespass excites me. My career has been increasingly based on exploring worlds that I had no direct experience of. I’m like a burglar, I’ve stolen into other people’s lives, and I try to work out the essential quality and themes that underlie those lives. I was once walking down a street, and saw a couple dancing to music I couldn’t hear. Working out what that music my characters are dancing to seems to be my job.

Why did you invent the popes watching a football match between Argentina and Germany? 

Pope Francis is a huge football fan and Pope Benedict is utterly disinterested in anything except classical music and God. They never watched this game together. I knew this, of course. But such an invention promised to reveal something truthful about their differences. In my strategy I do not limit myself to the known facts, because there are other revelations about historical characters that you can deliver for audiences.

What are the constraints when you work with very well-known real characters and transform them into literary characters?

You must be respectful of the constraints of history. It would be absurd to tell the story of Napoleon and have him win the Battle of Waterloo, but you can create a scene on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo that we do not know happened, but which we also do not know didn’t happen! These speculations can tell us something about the state of mind of Napoleon that evening that is fresh and enlightening. It is a delicate balance that must be struck and some people have accused me of going too far. There’s a scene in Darkest Hour, when Churchill goes into the London Underground and talks to local people, that has outraged historians and critics. They are not interested in the emotion that you receive from the scene. Or what deep character is revealed in Churchill, that is accurate to his nature. Finally, I’m not a biographer, I’m an artist and the artist must claim and maintain and even defend a degree of freedom.

How was it having a great actor like Gary Oldman playing Churchill in Darkest Hour?

I’ve been very fortunate in working with some of the very best and I’ve been overjoyed that the collaboration between us has resulted in three of them winning Academy Awards for Best Actor, including Gary. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce were both nominated, and Felicity Jones was nominated for Best Supporting Actress. There seems to be something in my work that allows actors to do their best performances. Anthony Hopkins was a great joy to work with. I am able to call him Tony. He became a friend and is certainly one of the greatest living actors.

Which one of Pope Benedict and Pope Francis do you prefer?

I initially sympathized with Francis, and could not at first dream myself into the world of Benedict. It was much harder for me to try and understand his impulses and then present them as powerfully or as naturally as I could present Francis’s position. But once I am able to crack the code of a character I go in there and find the ultra-conservative views of Benedict within myself – and discover, often with surprise, that I can sympathize with them. These moments of self-revelation are one of the great by-products of doing this kind of endeavor.

“Fiction is the great repository of the truth.”

Anthony McCarten, in The Collaboration do you have a preference between Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol?

I felt more bound by history with Andy Warhol, because more is known. Basquiat was more of a challenge to write, but for me personally more of a revelation. As a writer, there are two great dramatic gambles in this play. One is to have speculated that Andy is afraid of painting, because it opens up to him to too much emotion, painful emotion, and he cannot afford or allow that. He is not strong enough, and so pushes people away and does art that doesn’t require an enormous emotional investment. The other gamble is the idea that Basquiat’s work at its heart was spiritual and that he had a belief that art had this metaphysical, and even reincarnatory power, able to bring people back to life, either as a metaphor, but also even perhaps physically. These were two entirely original ideas that audiences may reject, but this is what I felt from my research.

Did you meet Warren Buffett and Bill Gates?  

I met Bill at a party in the hills of Colorado at a film festival. He was at the next table and I drank two quick glasses of tequila to get the courage to go and sit down with him. I announced that I had written both a play and a non-fiction book about him and Warren, and he moved from being very suspicious of me to embracing the idea of the project in about two minutes. This showed me that Bill can turn complex moments into opportunities very very quickly, and something of his genius resides in that capacity.

What is the connection between Buffett and Gates?

When we find them in the play they’re number one and number two on the Forbes richest list, so they have vast wealth in common. But Bill didn’t want to meet Warren because, he said, “We won’t have anything in common. I make things and he shuffles paper. He plays with stocks and so forth. But I create things.” When they did meet, however, they found that they had a great deal in common, which was that their very unusual brains functioned in similar fashion. They both have great analytical powers, and also far-seeing abilities; so they could project their fortunes into the future in a way that not all of us are capable of doing. The big difference that these two have is about what money should be used for. They have money entering into their bank accounts like fire hoses that cannot be turned off, and that creates very unusual problems that are unique to the very, very rich. Warren thought his duty in life was to increase the value of shares in his company Berkshire Hathaway. Under the influence of his wife Melinda, Bill was starting to consider another entirely new remit for the very, very rich, which is to responsibly give their money away so that the last check that they write bounces. This was such a radical idea when it was first presented to Warren that he would have thought it was a derogation of responsibility to his shareholders, but the journey of the play is from that distance that separated them to the moment where they come to realise that they will work together and create the biggest philanthropic organization the world has ever seen.

When is Wednesday at Warren’s Friday at Bill’s going to be performed?

Next year, as the final part of the trilogy. I hope that in the future some ambitious theatre will stage all three of them on consecutive nights. Then you will see that there is a common impulse.

Why are there many great well-known novelists, but not so many screenwriters?

Films are much more expensive to produce, and a limited number of opportunities exist. It’s relatively cheap to produce and press a small print run of a novel, and that creates a very broad opportunity for creative people with very little downside. For films to be successful and reach a wide audience, you need actors – the famous ones are expensive. You need a cinematic story that is expansive enough to make people want to leave their homes and come and see it, and you need budgets that range from single digit millions to hundreds of millions. Even if you are a good screenwriter the chances of you getting all the resources and the money and the actors you need are very slim. The great majority of screenplays that are written never see the light of day, and screenwriters therefore never get to mature because they’re just not able to do enough work and learn from it and then do the next one and do the next one. So they always stay as an apprentice. 

Without the writing of the screenplay there would be no film and dialogue in films is very important. Shouldn’t screenwriters be better known?

In Hollywood terms, we live in the cult of the actor and to some extent the cult of the director. There has never really been the cult of the writer. As William Faulkner said, the only way to stay sane in Hollywood was to do your work, take the check and get out of town. There’s no point in hanging around waiting for anybody to respect you, and there is almost a complete ignorance on the part of the public when they watch a movie about who created the film out of nothing, which – if it’s an original story – is the writer. He or she imagines every character, every scenario. They tell the actor or actress to enter a scene; tell them what they say, what to do, what to feel, when to leave. You could argue that the director is really only the second director, and that the writer is the first director of every film, but the public are not interested in that. Also the critics. You could count on one hand the number of screenwriters who are household names. That is our destiny, but it’s a glorious way to spend your life, in the merciful shadows. 

You don’t mind?

I am thrilled I have a job that is the creation of stories that are, at present, reaching a wide audience. What a miracle! There were many years when this was not the case. I really only found the ability to reach a wide audience in the last 15 years, and I’m now 60, so between age 25 and 45 were very difficult years. I couldn’t find much of an audience. I couldn’t find a way in, but I never gave up hoping that I might. I’m so very grateful that I’m working at a more meaningful level now and that totally eclipses any potential disappointment that I don’t have notoriety or fame.

Anthony McCarten

Jeremy Pope plays the magnetic Basquiat and Paul Bettany is the iconic Warhol in the world premiere of The Collaboration at the Young Vic, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah

Anthony McCarten

A scene from The Collaboration

Anthony McCarten

Bill Gates and Warren Buffett share a moment

Anthony McCarten

Anthony McCarten with Stephen Hawking. McCarten’s script for The Theory of Everything has been described as “elegant, witty and compassionate”, and centres on the complex relationship between Stephen and Jane Hawking

Anthony McCarten

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) tells the story of the legendary British rock band Queen and lead singer Freddie Mercury, leading up to their famous performance at Live Aid (1985)

Anthony McCarten

I Wanna Dance with Somebody (2022) is the joyous, emotional and heart-breaking celebration of the life and music of Whitney Houston, possibly the greatest female R&B pop vocalist of all time. The English actress Naomi Ackie is playing Whitney

“I am a disbeliever whose disbelief regularly fails.”

Anthony McCarten, do you have any new movies coming out?

I have one about Whitney Houston called I Wanna Dance with Somebody. I’m producing it, alongside the Houston estate and Clive Davis, the great music mogul. Sony Pictures are distributing it this coming Christmas, globally. We are excited its potential to entertain a wide audience.

What do you like about musical stars? 

I’m very interested in the interplay between drama and music and what it does to us emotionally. I’m getting better at using music in my stories in more and more natural ways. In this Whitney Houston movie the music really magnifies in a wonderful way the emotional moments.  Music is the universal language of the heart after all.

What is your next project?

A Broadway musical about Neil Diamond that’s starting in Boston in June and then coming into New York in December. This is a very close to my heart because I I was one of seven children raised on the coast of the north island of New Zealand, on the side of a volcano, and my mother medicated her maternal stress by playing Neil Diamond records my entire childhood. I finally got to meet Neil Diamond in New York in 2019. He taught me how to play Sweet Caroline on the guitar, and it’s another of the great joys of my life that I’ve been able to work on a project that will bring some of the genius of Neil Diamond to people in a way they haven’t seen or heard it before.

Do you have a great life meeting these big people, artists, musicians, politicians, philanthropists?

I was born in a small town and I had a great curiosity for what was happening over the horizon – quite sure that there was a party going on to which I had not been invited. I’ve spent my professional life trying to bust into other people’s parties. (laughs) Every now and again some host will ask: ‘And you are?’ 

Is there a religious sentiment in your work?

I have a displaced Catholic religion running through my work. I stopped believing in the dogma, but there’s a line in the play where Andy Warhol, who was also Catholic, says, I am a disbeliever whose disbelief regularly fails. I feel that in my life.  Although I’m not particularly attuned to religious worship, when we are confronted and confounded by a moment of extraordinary beauty the only word that seems to suffice is God.

What do you feel about this horrible moment, children being killed and the destruction going on in Ukraine?

The human race has proved itself unteachable yet again. It refuses to learn from its past mistakes. And yet we tend towards improvement and we tend towards enlightenment. I think that journey in the end will be worth the price of admission.

Thank you, Anthony McCarten for this interview. We wish you all the best.

Thank you very much.