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“You don't have to overthink it,” Anthony McCarten discusses screenwriting craft at IFTA Masterclass
31 Aug 2023 : Luke Shanahan
Anthony McCarten
The Irish Film & Television Academy presented an IFTA Masterclass with Anthony McCarten in the The Lighthouse cinema on August 30th.

A packed audience of emerging and established screenwriters descended upon Screen 3 in The Lighthouse cinema yesterday for a screenwriting masterclass from Anthony McCarten, the mind behind some of the most revered biopics of the past decade, including The Theory of Everything, The Darkest Hour, The Two Popes, Bohemian Rhapsody, and most recently Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody. McCarten shared insights into his craft, such as the various ways in which he has approached bringing iconic larger-than-life figures to the big screen. Three of the leads of said films have gone on to win Oscars for their respective performances: Eddie Redmayne, Gary Oldman, and Rami Malek.

The Masterclass was hosted by Gerard Barrett, who recently announced his new screenwriting programme with Kerry College supported by IFTA. The Masterclass began with a brief overview of the journey that led McCarten to screenwriting. Despite his lifelong love for cinema, McCarten never went to film school. His entry into writing was through journalism, age 17.

“I consider it good training, but it was brutal. What is the story? Who wants what? What's the problem here? Get it told, and tell it simply.”

McCarten describes the notes he would later receive from studios as “toothless” compared to the notes he received from his editor as a journalist. In college, McCarten tried his hand at poetry, playwriting, acting, and later wrote a novel. His foray into film began with the New Zealand Film Commission funding his first short film, Via Satellite, which had begun life as a stage play. Speaking of what he earned from his early work, McCarten had this to say:

“Talent is not bestowed, it is not God-given, it can be developed. I do not believe I had any level of demonstrable talent when I began. All my brothers and sisters are in the trades, and I look at  storytelling as a trade. Learning the craft is going to stand you in better stead than any heavenly bestowed giftedness.”

He cites The Theory of Everything as the major turning point in his career, a film which took seven years to get off the ground. He had always been interested in Stephen Hawkings’ story and the idea of adapting the story into a film, but it was the insight into his relationship with his wife Jane Hawking when reading her biography that gave McCarten a way into the story.

“Halfway through the book, there was a Eureka moment where she asked Stephen whether she could take a lover because he was not capable at that point to fulfil that role. And with enormous generosity and dignity, he allowed that. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is extraordinary’. Not only is he extraordinary, but their whole relationship is extraordinary. I realised the movie is about the love of physics, and the physics of love.”

McCarten coldcalled Jane Hawking, which led to seven years of meetings between McCarten and Hawking, eventually resulting in her signing a contract that would allow McCarten to adapt the script. He explains that one of the hardest parts of writing a film such as this, is opening up the inner life of a character that has become a historical figure. In the case of Hawking it was the physical struggles he faced that helped bring the story to life, citing a moment in which Hawking excuses himself from the dinner table and attempts to crawl up the stairs unaided while his young child watches. Upon seeing the finished film, Hawking told MCarten the film was “broadly true”, which McCarten argues is something worth striving for in this context:

“Broadly true, it's a good thing to aim for with anything historical. Fiction is a great repository for the truth.”

McCarten describes bringing this ethos in relation to his work on The Darkest Hour. The film follows Winston Churchill in May 1940, when he must decide whether to negotiate with Adolf Hitler, or continue fighting.

"I wrote the first draft in six days. I was sitting at my laptop and the minutes of the war cabinet were available online. Suddenly I realised I could access this trove of historical documents. And it was dialogue recorded in these climactic moments in history."

Rather than take a verbatim approach, McCarten used this transcribed dialogue as a jumping off point, and built the drama and narrative arc of the film from there. McCarten expands on his point about opening up the inner lives of historical figures, explaining that it was Churchill’s wit that gave McCarten a way to inject life into the character.

The success of The Theory of Everything and The Darkest Hour led to McCarten being asked to take on a project that had been in and out of development for 10 years, with no other writer previous to him managing to figure out how to best tell the story at hand. This project was Bohemian Rhapsody. When producer Denis O’Sullivan called him about it, this is what McCarten had to say:

“I said ‘I'm not a big Queen fan, and I don't really know much about them’. So, you know, we were on a telephone call and I said ‘Tell me the story’. He said, well, the story is essentially this. Within the next 10 minutes, he told me the story of the band. And I told him ‘You've just given me the movie’.”

“You don't have to overthink it. That's the story, from the formation, to his death, with these high points, and finish at Live Aid.”

Perhaps the best insight into McCarten’s craft came as he was discussing The Two Popes, a film which sees Pope Benedict XVI and an incoming Pope Francis at loggerheads about the future of the Catholic Church. When asked why he wanted to tell this story, McCarten stressed the importance of writing dialectically:

"As a writer it's an interesting challenge when you have to make the argument and then imbue the counterargument with just as much credibility. And to do it in such a way that the audience cannot tell where your sympathies lie.

“It takes an effort to fully occupy and embody a position that is alien to you. I think it's so necessary in the world today. We're so entrenched in our own position, we just do not want to leave the safety of our own position and occupy the contradictory one."

Towards the end of the masterclass, McCarten took questions from the audience. Delving into the details of where to begin, McCarten states that he likes to create a detailed outline of the narrative and start at the end, to ensure the film will have a satisfying ending and work up to that.

As Barrett brought the Masterclass to a close, he asked McCarten the question that all writers struggle to answer: Where do good ideas come from? McCarten offers an honest and perceptive answer.

“You never know where they’re going to come from. You just have to keep your antenna out there and wait for something to come along. I don’t try to push that. When you’re really attentive, and you realise what you’re good at, you can latch onto good ideas. Then the challenge is to reveal something interesting through that idea.”





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