"It Takes a Village": How Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer created Spotlight
As a cinematic city, Boston has taken on a life of its own, as often filled with noir-ish violence and seedy corruption as cockamamie accents and sports jokes. The latest installation in the Boston-set movie canon is appropriately none of these, instead being defined by obsessive realism and a removed, objective critique of the town. Spotlight, which is slated for a November 6 release after a successful run on the festival circuit, recounts the story of the Boston Globe's investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church in 2001. It presents this history while examining the essence of its city, including its strengths and its faults.
It is appropriate that I met Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer in Georgetown, the most Boston-y of D.C.'s neighborhoods. In between the Italian restaurants, beautiful parks and cobblestone alleys that inspire this connection, we sat for a roundtable discussion with other college media at the Bourbon Steakhouse in the Four Seasons Hotel, the type of joint with silhouettes of pigs on the menu and jazz music playing over the clack of high heels in the lobby. They were still spruced up from a television interview that morning. McCarthy ordered a cappuccino, Singer had nothing.
McCarthy directed Spotlight, which he and Singer penned, to make a film that could pride itself on factual accuracy, as it is about reporters who live and die with this type of integrity. Part of that integrity on the part of the writer/director duo was capturing Boston, which in spite of its size maintains the aura of a small town. "It's a tough city to get right," he said. "It's been done wrong a lot and I felt like we needed to get it right."
He and Singer were in D.C. for the new Double-Exposure Investigative Film Festival, sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, to highlight the film's place in telling important stories. Most of the features were investigative documentaries, but the opening presentation was Spotlight.
Ironically, the weekend festival was held only days after Pope Francis's highly publicized visit.
During his promotional tour for Spotlight, McCarthy has repeatedly criticised the Church and the Pope, saying that the sins of the past are not totally in the past. "Things really haven't changed. I think Francis is a really exciting guy, his visit was really exciting but he really didn't do anything differently, just talked about it differently," McCarthy said. "Talk's not gonna fix this problem, right? At this point it's just talk."
He and Singer came to write the film because they identified a story that people need to be reminded about, and found a thread in it that most people do not know. That is, as Singer said, people may know the result of the story, but have never heard the details of the investigation by the Boston Globe reporters, "which we thought was a great story in itself."
Those reporters made up the Globe's Spotlight Team for which the movie is named. Spotlight is the paper's long-term investigative arm that delves very deep into research for months before breaking stories. Several times throughout the movie, when characters were grappling with how the paper could have ignored the Church's wrongdoing for so long, they reminded each other, "this story needed Spotlight," as if no other unit could have accomplished what they did, because of their time, resources and talent.
The value of an effective team of journalists is at the heart of Spotlight. McCarthy, who is also an actor and played a Baltimore Sun reporter on HBO's "The Wire," stressed how much journalism has changed since the events of the film. They even tried working into the cards at the end of the movie (text commentary on what has happened since is very common in true-story films) how many regional and local daily newspapers have closed shop in the last fifteen years. McCarthy articulated his concerns about the changing world of journalism with apparent academic distance. Singer was more passionate. "When you don't have those reporters on the front lines covering stuff, specifically in smaller municipalities, corruption just happens," he said.
Marty Baron, the current Editor-in-Chief of the Washington Post, was in charge at the Boston Globe in 2001 and was among the many real-life figures who worked closely with McCarthy and Singer to ensure authenticity in the film. (He is played by Liev Schreiber, who is made up to bear a shocking resemblance to the real man.) Baron said that the power of the press represented in this story is a great example of the value of intimate rather than broad journalism. Singer said that Baron directly evoked Watergate, another fundamentally local story.
The screenwriter said, "Watergate was a local story. That was two metro reporters going after a break-in. And it turned out to be a national story. [Spotlight's] was a local story; it was going after, is this local archbishop lying? And it turned out to be an international story with huge ramifications. This [movie says], we need more of this, not less."
Singer and Baron are not the only ones to make a connection between the events of Spotlight and the Washington Post's historic Watergate coverage. The film has drawn comparison, both in structure and content, to the 1976 film All the President's Men, which similarly retold the Watergate investigation and was a massive commercial and critical success. The Washington Post was closely involved in helping filmmakers adapt Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein's story, and in this case, with the help of the Baron connection, the paper was interested in Spotlight as well.
The night before our conversation, the film was screened for about 300 Post reporters, whom McCarthy was thrilled to say gave it their stamp of approval.
McCarthy has only a few directing credits to his name, most notably The Station Agent and The Visitor but most recently the critically pilloried The Cobbler. He is more recognizable as an actor appearing in works as varied as Fox's "Boston Public" and the effects-film 2012. He prefers not to go around touting his degree from the Yale School of Drama, but when Singer managed to bring it up, he joked, "I've got the card in my wallet."
It made perfect sense that he chose to dedicate more time to writing and directing, and his appreciation of journalism became clearer as well when he said, "Storytelling was what I wanted to do, in one form or the other."
It's interesting to listen to a director with an acting background talk about the relationship between directors and performers. McCarthy recounted anecdotes about how the actors learned to mimic their real-life counterparts, including Michael Keaton, who McCarthy said treated every meeting with the real former Spotlight editor Walter Robinson as a mini acting class. He said that he loves when his actors offer ideas and perform organically, especially if they aren't "precious" with those ideas.
Being overseen by showrunner David Simon on "The Wire" gave McCarthy a sense of adoration as an actor for the director. He mentioned Simon twice in the conversation even though he was never asked a question about Simon or "The Wire." First, he commented on how cynical Simon is about the future of journalism. Then, with the very last thing he said, he commented about how nervous he was to show him the finished product: "For me, David Simon seeing the movie was keeping me up for the past year and a half."
His background played a key role in the development of Spotlight. A New Jerseyan, he studied as an undergraduate at Boston College. His access to actors in Boston and New York helped fill the ensemble that drives the film. "As you're building an ensemble that's so strong, you can sort of get lost if certain roles don't live up to it," he said. "The small roles can really derail a moment."
Most of Spotlight's lead roles are played by bona fide movie stars. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci and more recognizable faces fill the scenes. You know a movie qualifies as star-studded when someone as talented and recognizable as Billy Crudup plays a character with only three scenes, and a Hollywood icon like Richard Jenkins (Oscar-nominated for his last work with McCarthy on The Visitor) has a voice-only role.
From these stars, McCarthy drew great performances. Because of some inevitable face recognition, it can be difficult for actors who are famous to lose themselves in their roles, but in Spotlight these ones spent time observing the real people they play and committed themselves fully. "There's something incredibly brave and vulnerable about that, in their work. And you watch it, these are grown men and women, like, really diving in,” McCarthy said.
When filling in the cast, local actors were employed to genuinely seem like they were from Boston, because many of them were. Paul Guilfoyle, a veteran character actor, is a graduate of BC High School, which plays a part in the movie. His and McCarthy's knowledge of Boston's Jesuit education offerings contributed to the authenticity. At Boston College and BC High, it is traditional to toast and say "For Boston," which Guilfoyle's character does on screen because the actor suggested it on set. McCarthy asked for permission to shoot a scene on Boston College property that was owned by the Archdiocese in 2001, but was denied because the school wanted to avoid an implied association to the Church's cruelty. "I'm like, 'what do you mean, we're all friends, I went here, you guys like me.' 'We do, but no, can't do it'," McCarthy recounted.
Boston College wasn't the only organization to give them trouble. For a scene shot at Fenway Park, the visiting New York Yankees refused any part of production and suggested the Boston Red Sox follow suit. They didn't. (Red Sox principal owner John Henry also owns a large stake in the Boston Globe.) "They doubled-down on helping us. They basically gave us the stadium, it was amazing." McCarthy also said that overall, they received a lot of support in Boston.
Singer is from the Philadelphia area but was inspired by McCarthy's desire to be as accurate about Boston as possible. "So we went up to Boston three or four times, and I'm like, 'Great, we're ready to write the outline.' He's like, 'No, we're going back'," he remembers.
Josh Singer is solely a writer by trade, and has written about investigative media before. He wrote the screenplay for the 2013 WikiLeaks thriller The Fifth Estate. He is also a passionate reader of journalism, and was excited to list some of his favorite new media journalists whose essays he reads for inspiration. He drew comparisons between the Spotlight story and contemporary sexual abuse stories. The Penn State football scandal, for example, was broken by a 28-year-old beat reporter from a local paper, he told us. "It takes a village to raise a child," a character says in what Singer claims is one of the most important lines in Spotlight, "and it takes a village to abuse one."
That line is essentially the film's thesis. The abuse in the Church was not merely covered up by the institution, but actively given the benefit of a blind eye by the whole city. Spotlight is dazzlingly paced and has traditional filmmaking craft that is executed at the highest level.
The comparisons to All the President's Men are apt. Both have a laser-sharp focus on their protagonist reporters' investigations, be it of corruption in presidential politics or the Church, with serious attention paid to setting. Newsroom scenes in that classic were shot at the Washington Post office, and many in Spotlight were filmed in the Boston Globe's. Some of the most compelling dialogue happens with the camera in motion as characters pace around halls of that building on Morrissey Boulevard.
In its festival tour, which has sent Spotlight all over the world (Singer said he is more than ready for a nap), critics have applauded its formal elements and consider it a front-runner for year-end awards.
Funny that a middle-budget film about such a niche interest and with so many inherent enemies seems bound for such incredible success. McCarthy joked, "I'm gonna tell a journalism story about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. That does not scream Box-Office, right?"