Screenwriter and playwright Anthony McCarten stumbled upon a calling with ‘The Theory of Everything.’ Now he has three biography-based projects out at once.
By guest author Esther Zuckerman
Jan. 4, 2023
Anthony McCarten is Hollywood’s go-to guy for the biopic genre. The screenwriter and playwright brought the stories and voices of Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill and Freddie Mercury to the big screen in projects that earned accolades, including three best actor Oscars, all in the last eight years.
Now, he has several new biography-based works out at once: the film “Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody”; the Neil Diamond musical “A Beautiful Noise”; and “The Collaboration,” a play about Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
“It was a nightmare, to be honest,” Mr. McCarten, 61, said. “You cannot not be worried about its reception. To have three of them emerging at the same time? You imagine adding all that up and carrying it around with you.” (He also has a novel called “Going Zero,” a tech thriller about surveillance, coming out in April.)
Even if the average viewer doesn’t know Mr. McCarten by name, his credentials hold weight. “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” directed by Kasi Lemmons, has been advertised as coming “from the writer of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’” a film that won Rami Malek an Oscar for his portrayal of Queen’s lead singer and grossed over USD 900 million worldwide. Gary Oldman won the same award for his role as Churchill in “The Darkest Hour,” as did Eddie Redmayne for playing Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.”
Mr. McCarten himself has two Oscar screenplay nominations to his name, for the Hawking film and “The Two Popes,” about an imagined conversation between Popes Francis and Benedict XVI. He has another two nominations for producing best picture nominees.
Mr. McCarten didn’t always intend to focus on bio works. The New Zealand native was working in England primarily as a playwright and novelist when he pursued the rights to “Travelling to Infinity,” the memoir of Jane Hawking, Stephen Hawking’s first wife. Once “The Theory of Everything” was “quite successful,” Mr. McCarten said, he decided to try it again. “Then the phone starts ringing, and it’s almost like you were an architect who built a building of a certain scale and they want a building of that scale,” he said. “They go well, ‘Who built that one?’ They call you up and say, ‘Could you take on this subject?’”
He was reluctant to do a musical, but when a producer told him it was about the life of Neil Diamond he felt he had to say yes.
“I grew up with that music,” he said. “My mother played him exhaustively all through my childhood.”
Whitney Houston’s music wasn’t as close to his heart. “I’m sort of more of a Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Leonard Cohen type,” he said. Mr. McCarten wasn’t even aware of who superstar music producer Clive Davis was when a mutual friend invited them to dinner. At that meal, the subject of a potential Houston movie came up. Mr. McCarten said his involvement was solidified after a subsequent meeting at Mr. Davis’s office, where he said the producer showed him Houston’s performance of a medley of songs at the 1994 American Music Awards. That performance is now featured at the beginning and end of the movie, which stars Naomi Ackie.
“He was interested in knowing his subject,” Mr. Davis said. “I committed to really introduce him to over a period of a year, year and a half, to the key people that he would have to meet with and really do extensive research that was required for an authentic, honest film on her life.”
Mr. McCarten spoke with not just Houston’s family, he said, but also her colleagues in music, hair stylists, and rehab counselors. Mr. Davis, who is played onscreen by Stanley Tucci, praised the “accuracy” of the film.
Kwame Kwei-Armah, who directed the Warhol-Basquiat project “The Collaboration” for the stage and film, also credited Mr. McCarten’s investigative instincts. “He researches really well,” Mr. Kwei-Armah said. “And then he puts it on the page.”
Screenwriter and actor Danny Strong, a friend of Mr. McCarten’s whose own based-on-a-true-story projects include “Recount” and “The Butler,” said that the genre can be extremely difficult for a writer.
“You’re condensing a lifetime of who an individual is into a small period of time,” Mr. Strong said. Working within those constraints, he said, Mr. McCarten doesn’t just get “under the skin of the characters” but also “finds the right dramatic story in their lives to tell so that it’s a compelling dramatic narrative.”
There are practical challenges when it comes to making a piece that’s a comprehensive look at a life, Mr. McCarten said. In “The Collaboration,” Mr. McCarten had “more license to move in a situation like that because it’s more of an imagined debate.” The play is part of a series that includes “The Two Popes,” he says, and a film he’s working on about Warren Buffett and Bill Gates—based on an as-yet unproduced play he wrote that he subsequently turned into a nonfiction book. He deemed it the “Worship Trilogy.”
“They’re basically disputes between different positions,” he said.
His career, he said, still feels like a lucky accident.
“This working-class boy from New Plymouth, New Zealand—what business does he got telling Winston Churchill’s story, or Freddie Mercury’s story, or Whitney’s or Andy Warhol’s or Neil Diamond’s or the pope’s?” he said. “Absolutely none.”