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Tom McCarthy reveals his biggest gamble in making Spotlight

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Kerry Hayes

“Journalistic thriller” doesn’t really qualify as its own movie genre. There’s All the President’s Men, of course, and The Parallax View and State of Play, to a degree. But typically, reporters and their editors are depicted as rumpled cynics, lending the profession a more comic slant when it shows up on screen, in movies like The Philadelphia Story or The Paper

Spotlight, however, will have journos and cinephiles sitting on the edge of their seats. The new film from director Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), is based on the Boston Globe investigative reporting team that published the 2002 series of articles exposing how the local Catholic Church, under the powerful Cardinal Bernard Law, had knowingly shielded scores of known pedophile priests for decades, allowing them to prey on countless children again and again. The stories were proved to be a bombshell, and the impact reverberated far beyond Boston. (Cardinal Law resigned less than a year after the news first broke.) In 2003, the Globe‘s Spotlight team was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. 

In the film, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James play the core Spotlight team, and the cast is filled out with sterling performances from Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup, among others. The film was quickly elevated to Oscar frontrunner after a rapturous reception at the Toronto Film Festival, and with it now opening in select cities, the critics are only putting more momentum behind its chances.

McCarthy, who also directed The Station Agent and Win Win, has always had a soft spot for reporters — even though he played an ethically-challenged one for The Baltimore Sun during the final season of The Wire. Consider this his penance. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You have this wonderful ensemble piece with A-list actors. The idea of an ensemble, as ideal as that sounds — was that something you had to fight for? Are there forces in this industry, whether it be studio or agents, who are like, “Yes, I know it was a team effort. But we got to build this story around one guy or just two people?”

TOM McCARTHYHappily, not with the studio that we ended up with, Open Road. There were some other studios that we sat with who expressed that as a concern, both in the making of it and then in the delivering and the marketing of it. That was obviously not the right fit for this movie. But I understood it, right? Movies like this are very difficult to make. When you have one person out front, it becomes an easier product to market. Open Road and our producers and other partners, Participant, they understood my vision. They understood the script that Josh [Singer] and I wrote. It just felt very true to everything we had heard about the investigation, everything we’d heard about the story as the result of our numerous interviews and conversations with the reporters. But you don’t know quite how it’s going to work. I feel like every movie has its inherent gambles. I always love talking to other filmmakers about movies they made, and saying, “What was your gamble here? What were you nervous about?” I think that was our one thing: How would this work? But what became pretty apparent, especially as soon as we got in the edit room, is just kind of the propulsion the movie had as a result of the ensemble. Even at the beginning, just the startup of popping from character to character provides its own narrative energy, which was very exciting. So we just decided very early on, “Let’s just commit as closely as we can to the kind of progression of the investigation and the introduction of characters through that, and then we’ll decide [cuts] when we have to make hard choices.”

I feel like I could write a profile on any one of the actors and the journalists they play. But I wanted to ask specifically about Liev, playing Marty Baron, because he’s the outsider in every possible way. Marty is the guy who can’t be buddy-buddy with the rest of the reporters. Did Liev embrace that status on set… or is that stupid journalism question about acting?

Really stupid. I’m just going to ignore it until you move on. I’m going to stare off like this… [laughs] You remind me of Pete Docter a little bit, because when I worked with Pete, he was always asking me these questions about actors because I realized at that point he had only worked in animation. Literally, we’d have these exact conversations. But it’s not stupid at all. I told him one time that before I’d shoot, I practice all my faces for the character in the mirror. And he was like, “Really?” I’d be like, “Yeah, hours. Just doing my faces. And then I would number them.” And he was like, “Reeeeaallly?” He’s the nicest guy.

But look, I think Marty is one of the things that drew me to the script: that idea of an outsider coming into a city like Boston and being so direct and so sort of unflappable and this sort of quiet power that he has. It was just such a great character, right? This was a man who was leading with his mind, and he’s very reserved and very restrained. And I was excited to see Liev go there. As his friend, I hadn’t seen him do that, quite exactly. He’s a very cerebral guy, too, and I knew if we could capture that — this quiet power to him and how we would always see his mind working. I just think it’s a beautiful performance and I think it does Marty justice. And that’s a hard person to do justice do. You know, Marty’s got such a unique quality, as he himself said in Toronto… 

“How do you portray someone who does not emote?” I think it was. 

When we showed Marty the movie, he brought a friend who was a veteran AP reporter of like 25-30 years. Right after, one of the gentleman’s first comments was, “You know, Marty’s more engaging then that. He’s a little more open than that.” And Marty looks at him and just goes, “I wasn’t then.” I think Boston was a difficult city for Marty, especially at the beginning. He didn’t feel particularly welcome. He didn’t really know many people. He didn’t know the city. He didn’t feel like a newcomer; he felt like an outsider. And he made that clear to us. But I think over time, [that changed]. Josh and I were at the Globe the day it was announced that Marty was leaving for the Washington Post. We were having dinner with the full Spotlight team that night, just by total chance. You could feel the palpable disappointment, like they had just lost their star quarterback. You could feel the other reporters around the table like, “Good day for Washington… bad day for Boston.”

The Spotlight reporters, to me, are heroes. They won a Pulitzer for this series of articles, but more importantly, they made a real positive impact that helped people. But this movie doesn’t crown anyone. There weren’t perfect. 

Eileen McNamara, who wrote the [Boston Globe] column that Marty read [and kickstarted the Spotlight coverage], when we talked to her, one of the things that she said was, “The one thing we didn’t report on was why we didn’t get it sooner.” She said, “I kind of wish we addressed that because I think it would’ve been completing the circle in a way.” And I think everyone should, right? I think that’s why papers ultimately go back and say, “Why didn’t we report the Iraq War, right? Or Bill Cosby? Well, you could say that [the Church scandal] needed a real team of reporters on it full-time to get it. Or, it needed an outside perspective. It needed Marty Baron saying, “Are we connecting the dots here?” And to me, this is where the movie just gets really compelling, because it certainly isn’t black and white. And I think it raises the specter beyond just good reporters going after a bad institution, into more of a question of societal deference and complicity toward institutional or individual power. How deferential were those reporters being to a top-down kind of, “Hey, let’s lay off the Church.” Did that exist or not? That’s certainly a question worth asking. Intellectually, Josh and I really started to engage on a whole new level when we started to tap into that.

You joked in Toronto how you got script notes from all the reporters, even as you finished the film. The Globe is not a monolith, and the Spotlight team is not a monolith. When they saw the finished film, what was the reaction? Because you have to tell the story, and it’s not going to be 100 percent anybody’s story?

I was very curious, too. Curious is one word; anxious might have been another. Someone said to me recently, “Well, you made a movie about reporters. You knew reporters were going to like it.” I was like, “Unless we didn’t do it right!” and then reporters would rip us apart. Because reporters take what they do very seriously, so we really felt like we needed to get that right and we really leaned on these reporters a lot. We were calling them all the time, and yes, they read a lot of drafts. And they were on the set. But… there still comes that moment where you have to show them the finished project. I screened the movie for them in Boston, and the movie ended, and they didn’t say anything for about five or 10 minutes. And then the conversation started and it was clear that they were very excited about it. And that we got it right, for the most part.  

The Church recently put out what almost amounts to a soft endorsement through one of its mouthpieces, and they don’t seem to be overly offended by the film. Of course, Cardinal Law went from Boston to the Vatican after he resigned in 2002, and as far as I can tell, I think he’s retired and still living in one of the Vatican residences. The idea that he’s skirted accountability, does that deflate their saying the right things about the film?

Yeah, Law will always be a bit of black marker. People are always going to have a hard time with that. Last night we screened it, and the first [post-film title slide] came up, where it says Cardinal Law resigned, and they clapped. The second one, where it says [he was reassigned to Rome] comes up, and there were audible hisses and boos. It’s tough for people to swallow that. He’s still living a very comfortable, nice life, and that’s too bad. But look, in talking with survivors groups and people who spend a lot more time on this issue than I do, there seems to be a consensus that they are still looking for more transparency and more action from the church — not just in acknowledging what happened, but doing more to prevent that it never happens again. Words are not strong enough. There’s got to be laws put in place. The big problem here is the statute of limitations. Studies show that most people don’t come forward to really deal with this until many years later, deep in their adult life, if ever. So that statute of limitations is a big problem. It’s allowing the Church to deal with this internally and not legally. People should at least know when there’s bad priests in their towns and communities. 

I was saddened to hear that the Globe recently cut staff, with layoffs and buyouts. It underscores the reality that papers aren’t getting Spotlight-like resources any more. In 2015, does this story make it to print?

Great question. Possibly, yes, at the Globe. Because they have cut staff, but I think they’ve expanded the Spotlight team by a couple of reporters. Mike Rezendes has rejoined it. So possibly, yes. Does it happen as frequently as it used to? No. Is it a great time to be in local corruption? Yes. Why? Because as you know, tens of thousands of reporters have lost their jobs, metro dailies are being shuttered across the country or greatly diminished in their ability to put experienced, professional reporters on the ground who really know how to chase down a story. Those assets are disappearing daily. What I’m becoming increasingly more confident of is the disconnect — maybe the general public doesn’t really understand what we’ve lost and what we’re losing and how important it is to our daily lives. So I hope maybe the movie raises this awareness, and people start asking, “Well, how do we replenish? What’s the solution?” 

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