In early 2002, Boston was transfixed by the trial of John Geoghan, a Roman-Catholic priest accused of molesting more than 100 young boys over several decades. But on Jan. 6, the Boston Globe published an investigative report that rocked the heavily-Catholic city and the powerful Archdiocese: Cardinal Bernard Law and others knew about Geoghan’s predatory proclivities and had covered them up, reassigning him to other parishes to prey on unsuspecting children while simultaneously paying millions in secret victim settlements.
Spotlight, then, seems like an awfully benign title for an investigative drama based on such a sordid betrayal, but writer/director Tom McCarthy’s movie’s name refers to the Globe’s courageous special-reporting group that chipped away and ultimately published hundreds of stories that exposed multiple layers of negligence and greed. In 2003, the Globe‘s Spotlight team won a Pulitzer Prize.
McCarthy and Josh Singer (The West Wing) co-wrote a script that attracted an ensemble of all-stars: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, and Stanley Tucci. The film chronicles a shameful scandal, but its spotlight is on Spotlight, the experienced reporters and editors who kept knocking on slammed doors to finally expose it.
Spotlight will debut at the Venice Film Festival (not far from Rome…) next month, and Oscar handicappers will be watching it closely even before it opens in theaters on Nov. 6. With the launch of the film’s first exclusive poster, McCarthy spoke to EW about his motivations for making the movie, his take on the current state of journalism, and the classic Boston movie that may have seeped into Spotlight.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You were raised Catholic and went to school in Boston. Was there an element of anger that went in to this story for you because of the huge betrayals committed by the Boston diocese?
TOM McCARTHY: Well, it’s a number of years later. Disbelief. Disgust. Frustration. But more importantly, I felt like because of my background, having grown up Irish-Catholic, having gone to school in Boston, having a lot of family in the Boston area, I just felt like maybe I was the right person to tell the story because I also have a lot of compassion for the people who not only were effected but are still involved with the Church. A lot of good people are involved with the Catholic Church, doing good things. So I think I had to approach this story with a sense of compassion for everybody involved.
You starred as a Baltimore Sun reporter on Season 5 of The Wire, so it seems like you might already have a certain amount of admiration for journalists, from working with David Simon and then the work of the Globe‘s Spotlight reporters. What did those insights and relationships make you want to bring to this film in terms of what it means to be a journalist in the 20th century?
Yes, I think I had it prior to being on The Wire, but I credit David Simon for not only writing a beautiful show, but in doing so, teaching me and a lot of other people about the importance of high-end journalism in this country. That show was set right as the floor was falling out [on newspapers]. [The events of Spotlight were] 2001, before the industry was really decimated by money interests and new media and other things. I think the best case we can make is to show by example what high-end, professional journalism [looks like], how important it is to our society when it’s totally funded, institutional, with editors and reporters at a very healthy newspaper. This story is a good example of what they’re capable of and how important they are as a check and balance on society. Unfortunately, it’s not the way it is anymore. Most papers, as you well know, are severely depleted and it’s a real problem. And people incorrectly think because of Huffington Post and a lot of other online news media aggregate sites, that they’re a substitute. And they’re really not. Where’s that news coming from? They don’t have the kind of boots on the ground, local reporting, which the Boston Globe Spotlight story is a perfect example of. Newspapers are depleting and that’s a scary thing for all the civilians, right? Because who’s going to keep an eye on these institutions if not reporters? It’s their job. And suddenly we’re asking them to do a lot more with a lot less, and that impacts us all.
There a scene in the trailer that really struck me, where the reporters are meeting with some bigwig who says, We’re just trying to get on the same page. With journalism so on its heels right now, I feel like those pressures are greater than ever before. What can you tell me about what the Globe reporters had to deal with in terms of getting through the gatekeepers for this story?
Look, here we are, in one of the most Irish-Catholic cities of the world, by all accounts, a city that although it’s an international city to some degree, it just feels like a small town. It’s a very unique city in that way. These reporters, they lived in this city, they loved this city. Most of them were lapsed Catholics, and it’s a tough community to penetrate, especially when you’re writing about the Catholic Church. And I think that these guys were just tireless and fearless in the pursuit of this story. I think that’s what great reporters do: they do the kind of work and spend their time in the kind of places that most of us just living our lives don’t have the time or the desire to do so. And we rely on them to do just that, to be sitting in community courthouses, to be talking to police, to be talking to shopkeepers, to be talking to lawyers, big and small, knocking on doors. And I think that what’s happened to them and that industry is just shameful. And not because I like reporters, but also because we need them. I think we have an incredibly compelling story with this investigation, and I think we had some great actors to help us tell it. But ultimately, I think it comes back to this question, and all we could do was show by example of like, “Hey, here’s an example of totally supported, professional, long-term, investigative reporting, and what more important than saving the lives of our children is a better example of than that?”
You mentioned the cast. You have an embarrassment of riches with this cast, but I did want to focus on Michael Keaton if only because I loved him so much in The Paper and to see him back in a newsroom just makes me smile. What can you tell me about what he brings to the role of Walter Robinson?
First of all, I love The Paper. It’s one of my favorite Ron Howard movies. I just thing it’s got tremendous energy. It’s crazy, exciting, and daring. The real “Robby” Robinson, when I told him I was casting Michael, he said, “[The Paper] happens to be one of my favorite movies on journalism, because I was a Metro editor, and that’s what’s it like.” So there’s that. But with Michael, what can I say, he’s just a great actor. I’m really excited for people to see him in this role, especially after the year he had with Birdman. This is so different, and he wears it so well. He’s so fully committed and invested, and he’s so human. And I think that’s what’s important about all these actors and the work they do: these characters feel so multi-dimensional and human and flawed and honest. All of them. You’re right: it is an embarrassment of riches, just a wonderful ensemble, and they all kind of dove in with that spirit, and I think it’s clear in their work. They just had a lot of fun telling a very serious story.
When you have cast of heavyweights like this, does one person automatically become the unofficial leader, the actor the others look to?
No, it felt a little more democratic than that. And maybe that’s because that’s how newspapers are set up. Sure, they have their editors, like Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), but Marty was sort of removed from the day-to-day action because he was running the newspaper and the team really functioned as a team. And it felt like these guys did that. Michael’s character had a lot of authority in the room, but good reporters push back and they’re always pushing each other. There’s a lot of that.
Your trailer evoked The Verdict to me, perhaps just because of the Boston setting and the looming Catholic Church. Were there certain movies that inspired you for the look or the style?
We actually did look at The Verdict a bit, a great movie that almost always inspires me. Sidney Lumet had such a great way of capturing the true emotion of every scene — even when they were so informationally driven as many are, as in our movie. But he did so with such visual economy. He really allowed the actors to tell the story. You never thought the camera was interfering or inappropriately pushing the audience in one direction. It was almost like you were allowed to witness it. I think that’s the way we approached this movie. I thought we had as our inspiration this sort of integrity that the reporters had when they approached this story and driven by two very good editors in Marty Baron and Ben Bradlee Jr., to tell the story in such a way that they felt like they were just letting the facts speak for themselves because the facts that they’d uncovered were obviously powerful enough.
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