Already a frontrunner in the Oscar race, Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” is based on the true story of the controversial Catholic Church sex abuse scandal broken by the real life Spotlight team at The Boston Globe: Walter Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer, Mike Rezendes and Matt Caroll. Played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James, respectively, McCarthy and fellow screenwriter Josh Singer were faced with the challenging prospect of representing the real-life reporters behind the story while remaining true to the film.
Making a point to work closely with each member of the Spotlight team, McCarthy guaranteed that Marty Baron, the editor of the Globe during the investigation (played by Liev Schreiber in the film), would be heavily involved in all aspects of the film’s production. (Baron is now the executive editor of The Washington Post.) Ann Hornaday recently sat down with “Spotlight” producer Steve Golin and Baron at the Middleburg Film Festival to talk about his role in the film’s making, the scene that still gets him emotional and how well the film tells the true story.
“Spotlight” Largely Gets it Right
The first question to be asked of any film purporting to be based in truth is how well it represents the story underneath its fictional wrapping, and Baron seems a better person than anyone else to comment on the film’s accuracy. “The whole story comports pretty well,” he confirmed.
“It gets pretty well how the story unfolds, how the research was done, and certainly the impact on us and the rest of the world. It’s not a documentary, it can’t incorporate everything, but it certainly captures the thrust of what we did. To me, the question is, does it get important fundamental issues wrong? Because if it does, that’s a problem,” Baron said. “But if it’s a matter of smaller details, I don’t think that impacts the story too much. I don’t think you could make the movie without literary license.”
Sometimes He Can’t Help But Get Emotional
Though at its core a newsroom procedural, “Spotlight’s” emotional center is unmistakable. “I get emotional watching,” Baron shared. “The most emotional point for me is where Sacha’s mother is reading the story and she pauses and asks for a glass of water. I get teary-eyed when I see it because it shows the impact of the work.”
“We always want the work that we do to have impact and it can have a dramatic impact on ordinary individuals. And the other reason is that the people who were most affected by this story were the most faithful members of the church. The people who were the victims were the most faithful members of the church — single mothers, poor families who were looking for a male figure in the lives of their kids.”
He Was Impressed by How Thorough the Research Was
“The amount of research that Josh [Singer] and Tom [McCarthy] did is amazing to me. They know more about what happened at The Boston Globe than I do,” Baron laughed. “Keep in mind that I was the editor on the story, so I wasn’t getting daily reports on what the other reporters were working on. As it was, sometimes they didn’t even tell me about important developments in the stories. But Josh and Tom interviewed lots of people in the newsroom, including the librarians, they interviewed plenty of people in the community and they looked through a lot of emails.”
To be commended by one of the Spotlight team members for your commitment to research is high praise to say the least, but it’s no surprise considering how deeply McCarthy and Singer dug. A pivotal scene in the film finds the team uncovering new information that changes the direction of the story, but what you might not know is how that information was uncovered by the screenwriters, not the Spotlight reporters.
“Robby [Walter Robinson, played by Keaton] saves a lot of stuff and he had saved my emails. He saved those emails and lots of other pertinent emails. He was able to show them to Josh, and they used them to construct the film. They initially had not interviewed the police and Tom said, ‘We should go interview them,’ and when they did, he told them about that early story about the abuse. And they incorporated that finding in the film to great effect,” Baron said. “It pays to be a reporter, to do your homework, when you’re working on a movie. And they talked to so many people. You just don’t know unless you ask.”
“Spotlight” Doesn’t Make Him Look Perfect
The film is being lauded particularly for its unglamorous look at the often down and dirty world of journalism, which Baron also appreciated.
“I think one of the things that adds credibility to the film is that it shows how flawed journalism is. It adds credibility because we do these stories, but we have our own imperfections. If this movie had portrayed us as pure heroes, it would not have been as good a movie,” Baron said. “To show the issues, even within ourselves, was important to the film.”
The Filmmakers Encouraged His Involvement
Working on any project that is so heavily based in fact, the job falls upon the screenwriters to do their research, and research they did. “First of all, they interviewed us a lot. Hours upon hours of interviews. In fact, at one point Josh came back to me for an interview and I had to tell him, ‘Look, Josh I don’t know anything more than what you already have. You’ve sucked me dry,'” Baron admitted.
“I only went up for one day of filming, the day when my character meets Robby for the first time. I think they must have done two dozen takes on it, and it’s really interesting to watch how a change in expression can so fundamentally change the scene. So I watched it and it was fascinating. But that’s the only time. My former colleagues went up a lot to watch one of the actors,” Baron said. “They were very inclusive. I really appreciated that.”
“Spotlight” is now playing in select theaters.