is not only a veteran actor—he was the young Baltimore Sun reporter in Season 5 of “The Wire”—but a gifted writer-director. “Spotlight
” is rare for several reasons: it’s an original script about real people devoted to their jobs who remind us of what great journalism is supposed to be. Like Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (depicted in the 1976 Alan Pakula classic “All the President’s Men”), the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative staff of four (an editor and three reporters) brought to light an ongoing crime that had been hidden for decades. It’s hard to remember where we were before this Pulitzer-prize-winning team exposed this story.
McCarthy and Singer dug deep into the research and deliver a smart emotional drama that is free of the usual formulas of Hollywood studio filmmaking. Of course that means they had to raise independent backing; indie veteran Tom Ortenberg’s Open Road is releasing the movie and after its rousing reception at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, the film should play for critics, audiences and awards voters alike.
McCarthy’s first two films, “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” were followed by another smart relationship film, “Win Win” (Q & A here), and McCarthy put in some time with the Pixar brain trust on “Up,” for which he shared an original screenplay Oscar nomination. While McCarthy’s actors admit that he’s tough, he aways pulls superb performances from them—although few folks went to see his last, “The Cobbler,” starring Adam Sandler. He has quickly been redeemed, as “Birdman” star Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber all shine in this intense and emotional investigative drama.
I interviewed McCarthy and Singer in Telluride, below.
Anne Thompson: One reason the movie is very good is the screenplay. Tell me where you started, how long it took, what was the process?
Tom McCarthy: Well, with my co-writer, Josh Singer, we started this probably in 2012. We started with just sitting with the reporters — going up to Boston.
Was there a book?
No. They had published one at that point, but it was about everything that transpired in the investigation — so it was everything after our movie ends. Our script was much more concerned with the investigation, the genesis, and how it evolved. So that wasn’t much help. It’s an interesting read; it’s kind of the “result of.” It picks up where we left off. Sadly, there was no book. It really was a story that was culled from what probably turned out to be hundreds of hours of conversation — not just with reporters, but lawyers, some of the reporters past and present, former editors, former publishers. Anyone we can talk to, so it quickly turned into our investigation of their investigation.
It reminds me a little of “Zero Dark Thirty” in that way, except that you’re dealing with the past. It’s not breaking news.
It was, and so, therefore, it took a little more time. You’ve got to go back to someone three or four times before you really put the pieces together, and we were cobbling it together from a number of perspectives, including Marty Baron at “The Washington Post,” tracking different reporters down who were so keenly involved. When Marty saw the movie — which he very much liked —
Which must have been a relief. He’s an imposing guy.
A big relief. He was so happy with the spirit, and how it captured these investigations. One thing he said was, he actually learned something, because of course he wasn’t privy to a lot of this. He didn’t know what people were saying; he could feel it. And he would know what was happening in the investigation. He was kept up to date. It was fascinating to see it from another perspective.
I like that you put in all the church spires.
We ended up taking some out. My editor was like, “One montage when there’s probably four of them,” because they were just everywhere! Some we removed digitally; some, we just didn’t use the shot.
But you did it on purpose. You showed school buses —
Well, we were shooting to show that that architecture is key to the power of church and understanding it in Boston. In fact, I think it was Richard Sipe —you know who plays him? Richard Jenkins —he said, “when a church started to lose its power, and when it had to pay up, it would lose its real estate.” And as churches started to shutter — which they have all over Boston — more and more victims see that as a weakness, and they would come forward to speak out. That’s exactly what happened.
How did you boil it all down, because you have to follow these characters, get their point of view, make all the details clear, get the drama going, and not overwhelm us?
That was always our goal: “Let’s make this for the journalists, and the lay people won’t always know exactly what’s happening, but they’ll catch up, and we’ll find our points where we need them to check in and stay with the story.” When I was initially screening this, people said, “I was definitely losing this for a while, and then I caught up again.” I feel like, ultimately, smart audiences appreciate that, because they feel like you’re not taking the time to underline every idea. And, quite honestly, Josh and I had so much material to get through, we couldn’t afford that. We didn’t have the real estate for it; we didn’t have the time for it. We had to stay with the story, and it gave us a great appreciation for the amount of information these reporters made their way through, and it’s really impressive.
Josh Singer: Tom had this vision of verisimilitude, getting it right, and not being interested in the standard collapsing of characters — letting it be as messy as it was — combined with the fact that we didn’t have any source material, we had to spend so much time interviewing other reporters, other folks at the Globe. Going back to the Fall River case, in ’93, we talked to some reporters who covered that. We tried to get into the community, to get into the fabric of the story.
You took the time to show us many visual details, while you have voiceovers as you reveal information— like showing all the research files. Doing the period — that must have been fun.
Singer: That was a fun night shooting, because we went to the library of the Globe, and we were just rooting around, getting the clips of the moment, picking out photos.
McCarthy: That is the Globe library. We didn’t have to dress it. We just said, “Can you do the microfiche for us?” And they said, “Do you want me to print it?” They gave us an appreciation of how analog this process was, and how important that is.
It’s a lot like “All the President’s Men.” That must have given you something to think about.
McCarthy: Well, it’s a seminal movie, and I think all journalism movies live in the shadow of that great film and [director Alan Pakula], but we tried to have our own take on it. We obviously stopped watching it a long time ago, because, you know…
Singer: We talked a lot about how they had a book for “All the President’s Men,” because Bernstein wrote a book. Whereas we didn’t, and one of the things to Tom’s credit is that his vision was always about verisimilitude: let’s get this right. It’s important to get right what these guys do because, from early on, we were both stepped in journalism and what’s happened in the world of journalism over the last ten years, which I think has been sort of tough — especially with investigative journalism.
Which you showed in “The Wire.” You must have learned a little from that. Did you talk to David Simon?
McCarthy: Yeah, exactly. I talked to him a little bit, but I read a lot about it, and I read a lot of David, who writes and speaks so clearly and beautifully on this. For me, it was incredibly informative and inspirational. Being on the show, I learned a lot.
You can feel it. But you also didn’t glamorize it. Thank you for Mark Ruffalo. How much like the real guy is he?
Singer: A lot.
McCarthy: Mark spent a lot of time with Mike Rezendes. Pound for pound, the work he’s doing physically, emotionally, he’s just at the top of his game and the top of his field; every character is so complete. It was wonderful watching these actors work; they’re all so good and have such a communal experience. I think, collectively, they raise the bar. I think they can look around the room and realize everyone was doing high-level work, and you start to feel an ensemble raise their game like that.
How did you shoot it? You got a lot of reaction shots, silence, Michael Keaton reacting.
McCarthy: Well, this was a little unique in that way: we had five or six people sitting around and listening. Which is difficult to do, and so you have to rely on people who remain active and remain very connective. That means your actors have to understand not only what’s happening in every scene, but what it means to every moment past and present and future; they have to understand where they are in their investigation.
For instance, there’s one scene — which is one of my favorite scenes — when Jenkins is telling them, over the intercom, how they’re reacting within that scene, to each other, you can tell they really understand when new information’s come in. Rachel and Mark, specifically, in that scene, are so wonderful. Those, to me, that’s when you realize you’re working with great actors. It’s almost easier when you are talking in a scene, because you have something to ride — you have a wave. When you don’t, you have to remain really connected to it, and I think great actors are great listeners.
How easy was it to make this film, without chase scenes or romance, in Hollywood today?
McCarthy: Horrible. This movie was dead three times — I mean, dead on the table. Flatlining. Even with this cast and what I think was quite a strong script, a movie that all of our producers and even studios felt passionate about, still the equation for putting it together in today’s culture was very difficult. I was just saying this to Josh or someone recently, was that Michael Bederman, who was our line producer on this, was just relentless to make sure this movie got made. There were many times when this movie was dead and I’d say, “What are you doing?” He’d say, “I’m flying up to Toronto.” I said, “We’re dead,” and he said, “I know, but I’m doing to scout and you should come meet me.” You need people like that to believe the movie’s going to get made. He was putting things on his own credit card; he was deeply in debt by the time we got some money coming in. He just… I couldn’t thank that guy enough.
Singer: I totally agree, but I would also point to Tom. He was cutting “The Cobbler,” and we were nowhere. We had nothing; we didn’t have anybody attached. We had had financing and it had fallen apart. He said, “Okay, I’m in California and we’re going to spend,” on a script that, by the way, all sorts of people thought was pretty good to begin with. He said, “We’ve got to get it better.” And we spent three or four weeks starting to pound, before Mark signed onboard.
Did you add the money scene where Mark can completely unleash? You built up to it so beautifully.
McCarthy: There was probably always some element of it in there. Yeah. That scene, for me, was always really important. These guys are much like us: they have a lot of ego and a lot of competition, and it’s actually very healthy, to some degree, because it pushes them to a better product. But there comes a point, as we know, in our processes where that can become disruptive, and there comes a point where that can lead to conflict, which isn’t always in the best interest of the project. But I think that scene was a little bit about that, and a lot more about the emotional state of Mark — what he was experiencing after having read those letters. How deeply those resonated to his core, and forced him to feel something he wasn’t even aware existed in him, which was some deep-seeded connection to the Catholic Church that he had long denied on an intellectual level, but was still emotionally very connected.
To me, that was always so powerful. He speaks about it in the scene afterwards with Rachel, that scene on the back porch. I think that movie speaks to a lot of Catholics right now. I know very good Catholics who are frustrated with the church, but they still want to raise their children in the Catholic church. They want a base for their spirituality, but they’re so completely, if not disgusted, very frustrated with the institution.
We were raising our daughter in the Catholic Church around the time all this stuff started to come out. I gave up on attending; I couldn’t do it. But we’ve got a good Pope now.
McCarthy: Very common. This guy is very interesting. As you know, we premiered this in Venice, and it went really well. There was a lot of talk about the Pope; a lot of talk about what I thought, what they thought. By and large, I think everyone is encouraged by him, and some people are maybe a bit more optimistic about just how effectively he can actually cause change within the church. At the end of the day, even as we saw with Obama, he walks into the White House and he gets hit with the reality that is the U.S. government. This Pope has a lot of great ideas. I love the way he talks; I love the way he reduces things. But that is a big ship, the Catholic Church.
You were raised Catholic? And did you see Alex Gibney’s movie at some point in this process?
McCarthy: Yes, so powerful and so disturbing. I probably didn’t see that until we were kind of into it. You know, there’s that one scene between Rachel and Father Ronald Paquin that was so disturbing. A lot of people say, “Is that real? Do people really talk like that?” And you see there’s such a disconnect.