Kiwi writer Anthony McCarten on Queen, the Popes, John Lennon and Weed
It's been a whirlwind of a time following the success of The Theory of Everything, but Anthony McCarten certainly hasn't been resting on his laurels.
The New Zealand-born writer, based in London, has just finished screenwriting a film based on Winston Churchill's life, polished off Bohemian Rhapsody – a story about Freddie Mercury and his band Queen, and is now embarking on a new venture – the story of John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
He's also writing a non-fiction book to accompany a new Winston Churchill movie, The Darkest Hour, to show the historical context in which the movie is set.
That's in amongst theatre productions – which proved to be more of a surprise for the writer.
"I just stumbled upon two ideas that were particularly appropriate for theatre and I could see them on stage, and I haven't had that feeling for theatre for over a decade," he said.
"I was always looking for stories and turning them into novels or movies.
"They sort of impose themselves on me, rather than me choosing them, and one of therm is about the fact that we have two living popes for the first time in 700 years and I happened to be in Rome and stumbled into St Peters' Square and an old Catholic went to light a candle.
"Pope Francis – the superstar pope – was actually having a service in St Peters Square and his face was up on the screen and I became aware that not too far behind him, in a small convent, there was another living pope, Pope Benedict, and I went and did some research and I thought, 'gee, how unusual is it to have two living popes'.
"These two popes couldn't be more unlike one another: one is sort of a closed-off intellectual and Francis is sort of a man of the people and, in terms of their basic theology, they're almost polar opposite as well, so I could just imagine a cardinal and a pope having a sort of papal smackdown on stage."
READ MORE: Anthony McCarten, writer of The Theory of Everything, is at Writers Week
McCarten is best-known locally for writing Ladies Night, New Zealand's most commercially successful play, but also has gained international recognition for his screenplay for the Stephen Hawking biopic The Theory of Everything.
He has also won numerous accolades for his novels and was inducted as a Literary Fellow of the New Zealand Society of Authors.
He's closed the book on the group of "young guys with a musical dream and at one point became the biggest band in the world".
The offer to write Bohemian Rhapsody came out of the hype created from The Theory of Everything – it was one phone call among many but McCarten, as he does, followed his nose.
"It's a lovely project and it's now in pre-production in London," he said.
"Most of it was talking to the band. They had the best stories and very little had to be invented because of how extraordinary the journey had been for them."
No matter how great the movie, McCarten's flair for writing means he's never tied to just one project – he juggles theatre, movie and bookwriting – sometimes in a single day.
"It's not ideal ...it's a little bit disorientating," he said.
"The words at this point, touch wood, sort of arrive more or less on cue."
He admits he seems to be in a phase of portraiture.
"It's a real privilege to give voice and impersonate the voices of these extraordinary people," he says.
"And it's a real presumption to design a bedroom scene for Winston Churchill."
Despite that, McCarten is aware of giving his subjects justice, aware that he could injure the stories of history.
During his writing of Darkest Hour, one feature of Churchill really stood out to him.
"I was surprised by writing it, how available humour was," McCarten says.
"When I started to write him, all this humour started to cascade out of him.
"It's there in his oratory and in the way he conducted himself."
In 1990, McCarten, then a very early playwright, released his legendary Kiwi play Weed at the former Circa Theatre.
The play will return to stage this July after a successful run as the toast of the Taranaki Festival.
It will feature an all-star cast, including Bronwyn Turei (TV's Go Girls, Three Days In The Country), Gavin Rutherford (All My Sons), Andrew Foster (Hound Of the Baskervilles) and Simon Leary (A Master To Two Servants)
Somewhat relevant to Parliament's current conscience vote, Weeds looks at a struggling farming industry.
Henry Donovan is being forced into the mortgagee sale of his farm. But thankfully, his mate Jack Riorden has a cunning plan. Fired up by a marketing conference, they decide to go for broke and grow a cash crop of marijuana.
"I believe it's still relevant," McCarten said of his golden oldie.
"I haven't been tracking the whole legalisation issue in New Zealand. It seems inevitable the tide of history is taking away the stigma of marijuana and treating it as you would alcohol."
Weed will be performed at Wellington's Circa Theatre from July 1 to 29.