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‘I wanted to show the immigrant in Freddie’

Writer Anthony McCarten who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody, talks about humanising historical figures on screen and how being a journalist helped him

bollywood Updated: Apr 09, 2019 18:57 IST
Navneet Vyasan
Navneet Vyasan
hollywood,oscar,bohemian rhapsody
Anthony McCarten feels it was important to show the other, vulnerable side of larger than life personalities like Freddie Mercury, Stephen Hawking and Winston Churchill.(Getty Images)

An Anthony McCarten film might just get you an Oscar,” is what the talk of the town seems to be in Hollywood. Anthony acknowledges that, “It is very humbling and very exciting. I must be doing something right,” he says. The writer-director’s last film is testament to that fact. Bohemian Rhapsody, which won Rami Malek his first Academy Award is the third actor to bag the prestigious trophy after Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything in 2015 and Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour in 2018. Anthony is an author of seven novels and his non-fictional work, Darkest Hour: How Churchill Brought Us Back from the Brink, was adapted into the film, The Darkest Hour. His second work of non-fiction, The Pope: Francis, Benedict, and the Decision That Shook the World, is currently being adapted into a film starring, Anthony Hopkins. The writer, when asked, is quick to point out his Indian literary idols — Salman Rushdie and Rohinton Mistry. In an interview, the writer opens up about his tryst with literature and his love for movies.

Was there a particular book that you read that made you want to choose writing as a profession?

Writing was never in my background, I had no role models whatsoever, I come from a normal working class background. I come from a large family with eight children, it was only when I found my way at the university while studying politics, that I got involved in a course and started studying American literature. We had a book, Notes and Poetry of American literature: Volume 3. When I opened it and started reading modern American literature, I was not intimidated because suddenly, people were writing about normal things, but in a powerful and poetic way. That was the first time when I felt I could do this.

When you set out to write about these characters, how do you start?

You start with excitement. And my own curiosity. With these projects, it often starts from a position of ignorance. Mostly because I am fascinated by a subject and I want to know more. That keeps me going and hopefully, my curiosity when it runs parallel with what interests the public then, we are all in it together.

You were a journalist before you turned writer. Did that experience help you in any way?

It absolutely did. That phase taught me many crucial lessons. It taught me how to structure a story. It taught me how to put words in order, on demand. It taught me that you always don’t have to wait for inspiration. You had to produce something by 12’o clock, every day. That was kind of rigorous. I feel, if I am prolific today, it is because of my journalistic training.

Rami Malek and Gwilym Lee in Bohemian Rhapsody.

You’ve brought legends like Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Freddie Mercury on screen. How do you make sure that you humanise these characters and make sure they’re not portrayed godlike?

Yes, you make a good point. It is essential that you humanise them and reveal a part of them that the public does not know about. If you are not breaking news, then you have very little business here. You look for something in detail, which makes them less of an icon and more of an ordinary human being that people can identify with. With Freddie Mercury there was this fact that underneath the icon there was this immigrant boy who wants to be a star. He is subconsciously shy. With Churchill it was not the lion roaring, it was the man in doubt. With Stephen Hawking it was the romantic inside the intellectual. These are not things that I invented, but are products of research and having an eye for them, an eye for detail. That’s important to have, when we write these characters who we think we know.

What’s your research process like?

Many writers say write about what you know. But I write about what I want to know. I always follow my curiosity. I start not as an expert. I do my own research. I am excited by what I find and I hope that the public finds it exciting as well. So this is more or less my aim

When you’re researching for these characters, you obviously want to show a side of these characters not known to the audience. When you’re struggling to find that aspect, does that frustrate you. How do you tackle writer’s block?

Yes, indeed. You’re right. If I don’t find anything that I probably don’t know, then I will not do the project. I am yet to encounter it. I have been very blessed in this regard. Its like rock climbing, I try not to look down. I come in not knowing very much, not pretending to know very much, about these people. But I keep an open mind. I stay hopeful that when I find something interesting, it will be equally interesting to the viewers. Truthfully, it’s a double edged sword. Because if you know too much, there these icons are on a pedestal and your work gets harder.

First Published: Apr 09, 2019 18:57 IST