He had my attention. But I didn’t think I could make a film with him. We just don’t think of the pope as being available for a movie. Until one day—it was still in the first year of his papacy, the end of 2013—I got this letter with a fancy letterhead. It was from the Vatican. Would I consider talking with them about the possibility of a film involving Pope Francis? Whoa. I took a deep breath and I answered, “Yes, I would consider it. I’d like to talk with him about it”—because I needed to find out what was behind this. I couldn’t make a commissioned film produced by the Vatican. That isn’t what I do. Then I talked with them, and it turned out that was not at all what they had in mind. They just wanted to initiate the idea, probably because they realized nobody would ever think of it. They said, “If you are inclined to do this, and if you have the time in your life and a desire to do it, then we’ll make everything possible. You’ll have access to the pope and to our archives. But you’re going to have to put together an independent film. We are not going to produce this—that is not at all our intention. It has to be an independent production, and you’ll have to deal with it just like any of your other documentaries. You’ll have to write it, finance it, produce it, distribute it. We keep out of everything. We just wanted to plant the idea, the seed.” Well, that sounded good, and that’s what I did. It took a while. Even sort of writing it all, writing a concept for it. I realized this carte blanche they had given me was wonderful, but the downside was there were no parameters whatsoever. The possibilities were too wide and it was scary, and I realized there was a lot of responsibility attached to that. But they kept their word. They didn’t interfere, not even with the concept. I showed it to them eventually, and they said, “Good, we like it.” But from the beginning they said, “You do the film you want to do.” So I was left to my own devices.
I had the opportunity to meet Pope Francis four times. Each time I’d devote a good solid two hours and after that we’d pause. We were both exhausted because it was intense. Quite spontaneous and courageous on his part. There was no question he refused to answer. He was fully present. There were no mobile phones or other agendas, there was no assistant who wanted anything else. He was there alone and faced our camera.
And I also shot a little bit in Assisi. We made some reenactments from the life of St. Francis because, when I first saw Pope Francis and realized he was living up to his name, I felt I had to share that with the audience—what that name meant. And looking at all the films that have been done about St. Francis, I realized I couldn’t really quote any of them. I mean there were quite a lot—ten or so, including silent movies. The last one had Mickey Rourke as St. Francis—it was strange to see St. Francis with all these tattoos. So I realized I had to do it myself, and that was part of the concept: we filmed these little moments to represent the life of St. Francis.
MB: As I was watching this film the first time, something struck me very forcefully. Like everyone probably, I thought I already knew what Pope Francis looks like because I’ve seen so many photographs of him. And yet, watching your film, I felt as if I were seeing him for the first time, because all those images I’d seen before were still images. When you see him in the film, you see his eyes and you see his face in movement, and how expressive that face is. Later I heard you say in an interview that you decided it was the pope’s eyes that held the film together. Is that something you discovered while you were making the film, something that became part of your method, or is that something you discovered only afterwards?
WW: Well, there is what you can imagine and there is what you can realize only when it’s there. When I imagined having the privilege to be face to face with the pope, I did think, “I don’t want to have that only for myself. I want to shoot that in a way that he’s not just looking at me. I want to share that privilege [with the audience].” So I decided to shoot it in a way that allows all of you to be face to face with the pope. We shot this with a sort of reversed teleprompter thingy [an interrotron]. It didn’t show him his answers like a newscaster’s would. He saw the living question—me asking the question on a screen—and spoke to me directly. Only, I was little ways off. He saw my face on that screen and teleprompter and the camera was shooting through it, so he was answering through my eyes directly to all of you. When I explained this all to him, his only worry was “What do you see?” And I showed him my place, a little behind the camera, and he realized I was in the same situation he was in. So he liked the idea. And he was totally committed then to this situation. It was very intense. He didn’t see anyone else but me. All the crew had disappeared. But with this device I could actually share his eyes with the audience.