Cinematographer César Charlone ABC SCU on shooting Netflix’s ‘The Two Popes’

From the Academy Award-nominated director and cinematographer of City of God (2002), Fernando Meirelles and César Charlone ABC SCU, comes the story of one of the most dramatic transitions of power in the last 2,000 years.

By James Cunningham.


Frustrated with the direction of the Church, Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) requests permission from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) to retire in 2012.

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Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict in ‘The Two Popes’ – DOP César Charlone ABC SCU, PHOTO Peter Mountain, COURTESY of Netflix

An exploration of the pressures and responsibilities of power, the moral struggles of leadership, and how one man’s legacy might be changed by his chosen successor, The Two Popes follows the imagined conversations between two very different men — one a traditionalist, the other a progressive — about the role of the Church in a changing world. Behind Vatican walls, a struggle commences between both tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, as these two very different men confront elements from their pasts in order to find common ground and forge a future for a billion followers around the world.

Shot entirely on location in Argentina and Rome, it was a trip to Rome that inspired screenwriter Anthony McCarten to write The Two Popes. While Pope Francis conducted a service in St. Peter’s Square, his face magnified on a large screen in front of the crowd, the previous Pope, Benedict, was walking in a small convent nearby. McCarten was struck by the fact that this was the first time in over 500 years that two popes were alive at the same time.

In finding the right director to helm the film, producer Jonathan Eirich only ever talked about Fernando Meirelles. The Brazilian director immediately sought out his long-time collaborator, Uruguay-born Brazilian cinematographer César Charlone ABC SCU. Meirelles and Charlone have worked together on films including City of God (2002), The Constant Gardener (2005) and Blindness (2008). “We have a long partnership, since somewhere around 1985,” says Charlone. “Meirelles sent me the script and asked me what my thoughts were. I told him that I would love to do it because I admire Pope Francis very much. I think it’s beautiful what he is doing and has already done for us… as a human race.

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Cinematographer César Charlone ABC SCU behind the camera on ‘The Two Popes’ – PHOTO Supplied, COURTESY of Netflix

There were many creative discussions between Meirelles and Charlone during pre-production. “We talked about how we might approach the film; it’s a dialogue driven film and we were going to have two amazing actors in Hopkins and Pryce,” explains Charlone. “We decided on a simple approach. The cameras should be lightweight and easy to manoeuvre in front of the actors to favour their faces and expressions as much as possible. We were looking for almost a documentary style.

Working with production designer Mark Tildesley (Phantom Thread) was a privilege for the cinematographer. “He’s such a talented artist and we work together very well, says Charlone.

From the very beginning we assumed we would have the Sistine Chapel, along with paintings and Michelangelo’s pallet, for our guide,” explains Charlone. “We moved around that direction in the art.” As Charlone had scenes with a lot of dialogue, he didn’t want to make the actors wait while they decided what angles to shoot, so he ‘photo-boarded’ instead of storyboarding. “This is a way that I have of working with Meirelles. I take pictures of dummies that I put where the actors will be. We take hundreds of pictures and choose the best ones to print into our photo-board. I do this with the Artemis Pro app that gives me the exact lens, angle and position. This is shared with the crew so everybody knows where we are going.

The Two Popes began a fifty-day shoot in November of 2017 in Buenos Aires and Córdoba, Argentina, followed by a second tranche in April and May 2018 in and around Rome. Meirelles was keen to make a visual distinction between the Argentinian flashback sequences and the present day scenes at the Vatican. After discussions Charlone, it was agreed the flashbacks, which were set in the 1950s and 1970s, would be shot on zooms. Similar to how films were shot at the time, while the 2012 scenes would be shot on handheld to bring an energy and edge to the world that Bergoglio was living in. In contrast, the scenes in Rome cannot be more stark. Here, Meirelles and Charlone created a composed, more elegant world.

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Jonathan Pryce as Cardinal Bergoglio in ‘The Two Popes’ – DOP César Charlone ABC SCU, PHOTO Peter Mountain, COURTESY of Netflix

Charlone had the brilliant idea of using the Sistine Chapel frescoes as a reference for the film’s lighting. “Frescos are very low contrast,” explains Meirelles, the film’s director. “The tones are very soft; the palette is very soft. The result is that for the whole film there’s no shadow, it’s all flat, very elegant. It’s a very different way of photographing the world of the Church, which usually uses old oil paintings with their hard contrasts as a visual reference. When the actors are standing in the middle of the Sistine Chapel, they look like part of that world because it’s all lit like a fresco.

This made lighting a bigger challenge. “If you’re not using contrast to create lines or shapes, you have to use colours,” says Charlone. “This makes the scenes feel very real because the actors are always lit, you see their faces and expressions, and they are not hidden in shadows. Because the film is really about the performances, this lighting means every little movement, every little thought they have is completely visible.

Their most impressive feat was recreating the Sistine Chapel, where the most dialogue-heavy scenes were set. A life-size replica was created, without the ceiling. This would be added in post-production as a visual effect. The set allowed Charlone the flexibility to shoot 360 degrees. This enormous project alone took ten weeks to build at a studio in Rome. “We preferred the lighting to be as natural and realistic as possible,” says Charlone. “We did lighting that imitated the natural lighting of the Sistine Chapel, which I had visited many times.

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Cinematographer César Charlone ABC SCU behind the camera on location with ‘The Two Popes’ – PHOTO Supplied, COURTESY of Netflix

The producers then found locations around the Eternal City that could double for the Vatican. The magnificent Royal Palace of Caserta, one of the biggest in Europe and built in the 18th century just north of Naples, has many features similar to the Vatican, making it an ideal stand-in. The first meeting between Bergoglio and Pope Benedict was filmed in the garden at the Villa Farnese, standing in for the Pope’s summer residence Castel Gandolfo.

From the beginning the film tended to show more of Pope Francis’ point-of-view,” explains Charlone. “We knew we were doing a film not about religion, but about tolerance, listening, respect and friendship.” Charlone jokes that this could be done with two Popes, with two soccer players from opposing teams or could be done with two politicians from different parties. “The principal issue is how these two men start on opposite sides and yet find a way toward understanding. To harmonise, to listen to each other, to tolerate, to compromise. That’s where we saw the film going.

Charlone had to consider coverage as much as possible. “We didn’t want to lose any of our two actors’ expressions,” he says. “It was very important to capture every wrinkle around their eyes, every little movement of their mouth, to understand what they were feeling. At the same time, it was equally important to hear what they were saying, so my coverage was in favour of them. That’s why there are so many very tight close-ups.

Much of the Argentinean section of The Two Popes was shot in the very places Bergoglio himself had been to. Charlone and the filmmakers were lucky enough to be able to shoot in one of the rooms he lived in, a kitchen he would cook in every weekend for the priests, and in Vieja 21 where he served as Bishop. Shooting there really helped Charlone understand where Pope Francis came from and what his world was like.

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Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) and Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) in ‘The Two Popes’ – DOP César Charlone ABC SCU, PHOTO Peter Mountain, COURTESY of Netflix

The cinematographer likes to work with local crews as much as possible, so Charlone worked with an Argentine crew in Argentina and an Italian crew in Italy. “I was very happy with this,” he says. “The Argentine crew was amazing, beautiful! I love them and since I’m from neighbouring Uruguay I felt very much at home. Working with the Italian crew was also a huge gift, because they were so good, professional and well prepared that I felt I was in filmic paradise!

I always try to operate camera myself because I find my photography through the camera, says Charlone. “Operating while the actors are performing gives me ideas of things I can do better, improve or change from shot to shot. I always like to operate myself.

Charlone describes himself as a ‘post-production dependent’ cinematographer. “Since my early start I always worked intensely with film laboratories, retouching and tweaking my images,” he says. The cinematographer did numerous tests with colourist Javier Hick before he started filming. “We worked with Hick initially to establish the look and kept it this way all through the filming. During post-production I had the privilege of working with Jean Clement Soret at Technicolor before Alex Gascoigne did the final touches.

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Cinematographer César Charlone ABC SCU behind the camera on ‘The Two Popes’ – PHOTO Supplied, COURTESY of Netflix

Director Fernando Meirelles says it was Pope Francis himself that made him want to do the film, and Charlone echoes his sentiments. “The world at the moment is a very odd place,” says Mierelles. “We’re destroying the planet and so many countries are trying to build walls. Pope Francis is trying to unite countries, all continents, all religions, all races. He is one of the few who is really thinking globally in the right way; trying to include everybody, trying to build bridges.”

Charlone considers himself lucky being in such a beautiful profession that makes crews around the world work so much as a team. “Cinema is a collaborative beast and it’s beautiful how we begin to create things and at the end you don’t know who was responsible for creating it because it’s a compilation of everyone’s ideas,” he says. “Making films is a team sport.


César Charlone ABC SCU is a film director and cinematographer. He was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and now lives in Brazil. In 2003, he was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on the highly acclaimed film ‘City of God’ (2002).

James Cunningham is the Editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.

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