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How Kiwi Anthony McCarten wrote the Queen movie Bohemian Rhapsody

Capturing genius: Anthony McCarten. Photo/Getty Images

New Zealand screenwriter Anthony McCarten talks about Bohemian Rhapsody, his second big film of 2018 after the Churchill drama Darkest Hour.

Did you actually like Queen?

I loved Queen. Always did. Their music still means so much to so many people. They were just so unique; in blending pure rock, music hall, theatre and even nursery rhymes and opera they were irreverent, inventive and playful. Before the internet, they were the kind of band whose albums you didn’t really need to buy, because you heard their music anyway, everywhere.

Were earworms a problem writing this?

Big problem, but a good one to have. The genius of Queen, almost unique in rock history, is the fact that every member of the band was capable of repeatedly penning massive hits.

RelatedArticlesModule - Bohemian Rhapsody Anthony McCarten

There aren’t many rock biopics on your CV. Does this have anything in common with your previous work?

What it might have in common with earlier portraits I’ve done is that it features a fearless individual pursuing a dream with heroic intensity. Great lives don’t always make for great films, but Freddie’s journey had a naturally filmic shape.

The film credits you and Peter Morgan with “story by”. Did someone say, “Get the guy who’s done that other Queen and the guy who did Hawking and Churchill?”

Peter and I have never met, unfortunately. While the screenplay credit is mine alone, the shared “story by” credit is appropriate because Peter was the first of several writers to write versions of this story, and it was Peter’s idea to end the film on the Live Aid performance. It was the one element that remained consistent across all the versions, and the one aspect that everyone agreed was the fitting climax to the Freddie story.

As the final writer of several attempts, did you rip it up and start again?

I started from scratch. That was important to me. I’m not in the rewrite business; I like a blank canvas. I began by interviewing the band. I spent many hours with Brian May and Roger Taylor hearing the Queen story as they had lived it. I trusted their telling of it, rather than leaning on published biographies or news articles.

Having brought Mercury back to life, what do you think of him?

His stage persona led many, myself included, to see him as a wild hedonist incapable of insecurity, but I learnt that, at his core, he was much more fragile than that, a deep thinker, an outsider and underdog, very easily hurt, often battling with loneliness, who spent his life looking for a home. It was his greatest personal achievement that he found one, in the end, even inside the crazy circus that is fame. 

The movie concentrates a lot on what was Mercury’s brief romantic relationship, if lifelong friendship, with Mary Austin? Why?

That the love of Freddie Mercury's life was a woman was a very surprising discovery when I first began to explore this story. I just didn't expect that. This wasn't the Freddie I thought I knew. But Mary was the person Freddie said he trusted the most, called his "common-law wife", the one he left everything to in his will, and to this day, she is the only one who knows where his ashes are buried. She just had to be at the very heart of the story.

The film takes some liberties with the band’s history.

The film is accurate in all its most important details. Even the fact that I have Freddie learn that he had Aids before Live Aid is something his bandmates suspect was possibly the case, even though Fred didn’t tell friends or make it public for another two years. Brian and Roger were very good in both getting the facts straight and in allowing us to move small things around for dramatic impact. They understood that we’re making a movie here, not a documentary.

Bohemian Rhapsody is in cinemas now.

This article was first published in the November 17, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.