Denied access to the real Sistine Chapel by the Vatican, Netflix decided to build its own version of the sacred, Catholic sanctuary for its new film the ‘Two Popes’.
Several scenes in the movie released in November use Michelangelo’s frescoed walls as a backdrop for the dramatic dialogue between the movie’s stars, Anthony Hopkins as Benedict XVI and Jonathan Pryce, playing the current Pope Francis.
The film imagines the two pontiffs in a number of conversations that may have had in 2012, months before a transfer of power from Benedict to Francis, his successor. But the film creators ran into trouble because the Vatican refuses any narrative filming in the chapel.
Documentaries are sometimes approved but only on a case by case basis. Daily visitors are generally restricted in number, and photography is forbidden, reports the LA Times.
That’s why the film team relocated to Rome’s Cinecitta Studios, where they recreated the entirety of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in under 10 weeks.
‘Ours is actually one or two inches bigger than the original, so we can technically say that we made the bigger Sistine Chapel,’ production designer Mark Tildesley told the Times.
Directed by Fernando Meirelles, the Two Popes was released to rave reviews.
The two popes were very much different in their approach to leading the Catholic church, but in the narrative are able to find commonalities in the chapel, consecrated in 1843.
Netflix still had to make a convincing facsimile, including all of Michelangelo’s 16th-century tableaus, which adorn the chapel’s walls and ceiling.
Recreating the entirety of the fresco by hand would have taken too long and to simply print the scenes on paper would fail to convey the artistry of the room.
‘The Sistine Chapel has been refurbished — the artwork was darkened by hundreds of years of candle wax, which was cleaned — so its colors are as effervescent and glorious as it must have been originally’, said Tildesley.
‘We wanted to make sure we captured that somehow, because it’s so strong and powerful in person.
‘Also, this is a story about honesty, essentially,’ he added, ‘so we felt a duty to be as true to the real thing as possible’.
Art director Stefano Maria Ortolani previously used a ‘tattoo wall’ technique, similar to temporary tattoos that are applied with water, and relied on a similar method for the recreated chapel.
The process involves printing an image on onto a film, then transferring to a surface and finally covering it with a substance that sucks the paint into the plaster.
The team relied on pictures from the chapel’s cleaning from about a decade ago, and hired local artists to paint some of the tableaus at 1/3rd their actual size, the Times reports.
Pictures were then taken of the paintings that were enlarged so they could be applied in the tattooing process.
‘It had to be the highest possible quality because we knew there would be close-ups,’ particularly of the famous fresco ‘The Last Judgment’, Tildesley told the Times.
The popes, in the film, discuss the tableau, which depicts humanity’s fate between heaven and hell.
‘It’s a fitting image for our story’, Tildesley explained, ‘because our central quandary is people seeking forgiveness from each other’.
The chapel’s floor was done recreated with print, that was cut and laid like mosaic tile, the Times reports. The ceiling was added with digital footage during post-production, because the studio wasn’t as tall as the real chapel.
‘When we finished and first revealed it to our director, I lit a little bit of incense and played some music’, Ortolani told the Times.
‘It really makes you feel like you’re in the real place’.
The papal conversation in the movie continues on in the ‘Room of Tears’, where a new pope gets to try on his holy garbs for the first time, and which Netflix was allowed to enter and photograph with cell phones, not actual film cameras.
The images were still good enough for the film production. ‘We reproduced it exactly as it is’, Meirelles said.
The room isn’t conducive for eating, but Meirelles said he still wanted to ‘add something special’, so the whole scene was ‘intimate and personal and universal’.
‘I thought pizza, ‘Pizza — everyone will relate”, referring to why the two popes share a slice, after they forgive and pray for each other.
The recreated chapel was taken down after the film wrapped.
‘Unfortunately it had to come down, since the studio was needed for another project,’ Tildesley lamented.
‘But we cut it down into bite-size fragments, and there are sections of it in the offices and homes of various producers and members of the crew — anyone who were strong enough to carry some of it away’.
The production designer saved a piece of the set for his home in Italy.
Ortolani kept a sample of the mosaic floor.
The director, however, kept nothing, admitting he would have had to bring home a hulking piece of plaster.
‘I knew the piece I wanted, but it was too heavy. I had to let it go’.