What I learned from Anthony McCarten’s BAFTA Screenwriters’ Lecture

Anthony McCarten, who wrote the scripts for The Theory of Everything and the upcoming Darkest Hour, recently came to BAFTA’s headquarters in Piccadilly, London to give a lecture about his approach to screenwriting.

He said a lot of very interesting stuff, which I’ll get to in a moment, but he kept coming back to the point of reverse engineering. He thinks of the ending first and works backwards, because that way he knows what traits to give characters, what beats he needs throughout, for example. It dictates structure and gives him the clues he needs. If he can’t imagine or visualize an ending, he won’t take a project on.

He is currently working on five scripts at the same time – 1: a project with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in which they play Popes Benedict and Francis, a film he called a “papal theological smackdown” 2: a Vietnam War movie 3: Bohemian Rhapsody – the Freddie Mercury biopic 4: a biopic about Yoko Ono and John Lennon 5: a project in which Benedict Cumberbatch plays a 400-year-old man!!!

You can hear the whole lecture and Q&A here but here are some other highlights –

– Even though he mainly does films about historical and famous figures, he can still make them feel personal and contemporary

– He takes real-life events and augments them with his own imagination. When it’s based on a true story, he uses artistic licence and he feels like as long as it is consistent with the character and events and serves the truth, it’s fine

– With Theory, he invented 90% of what Stephen Hawking said and he had no idea how he spoke before his diagnosis, but Hawking said the movie was “broadly true”

– He does collaborate during the shoot – on Darkest Hour, Kristin Scott Thomas wanted her character to be more prominent and have her own scene and he honoured that. Gary Oldman felt like he needed to shout in a certain moment so he gave him one.

– He sees his role as creating a roadmap for the actor

– Everyone was in tears filming the break-up scene in The Theory of Everything

– Theory took 10 years to finance and Darkest Hour was another 10-year project

– Even if it is sad story, there must be humour because that is true to life

– If you are having problems in the third act of your script, the issue actually lies in the first or second because you haven’t set it up to make the audience care

– He will turn down a script if he “can’t dream myself into this world”

His chat was funny, fascinating and filled of practical tips. I’m really glad I went.

I also went to the Sean Baker lecture – and you can read about that here.

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