This has been a pretty strange year for writer-director Tom McCarthy. In March, his maligned Adam Sandler vehicle "The Cobbler" hit theaters with a resounding thud, earning a dismal 9% rating on Rotten Tomatoes (it didn’t fare much better on Criticwire) and only pulling in about $24,000 in its opening weekend (an opening so bad that the The Telegraph wondered if the film was Sandler’s "biggest flop yet").
Just eight months later, McCarthy’s biggest film yet, the star-packed "Spotlight," is set to hit theaters amid a growing chorus of awards buzz fostered following screenings in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. The fact-based story of the Boston Globe reporting team that uncovered the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early aughts stars Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and many more. It is already a consider a major contender in the Oscar race. Needless to say, "The Cobbler" it is not.
Indiewire recently met up with McCarthy, who is well-aware of the disparity between his two 2015 releases, but still believes it was a major part of the success of "Spotlight."
Your screenwriter, Josh Singer, talked a lot about the idea that you approached the film like you were putting together a championship team. There were a lot of sports metaphors.
God, he will not let that go, he keeps painting me into that freaking corner. I’m gonna kill him.
Are you getting this all the time?
I had one reporter come up and say, "Let’s talk about the team!," and I was like,"What is this guy talking about?" So Josh threw that one out there somewhere else. Yeah, go on, I’m just laughing. He’s a dear friend, I make fun of him wherever I can.
It’s an interesting idea, because it does apply both to making movies in general and in the story you’re telling here in particular.
I think it started because I once said to Josh, "We’ve got a really deep bench on this team," meaning the quality of actors. On a sports team, you have your starting five and you have everyone else and you’re as good as that, because the starting five can’t do it all. So I was thinking, "Man, we’re so deep in this movie," because after the four main reporters and two editors, we have Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup and Paul Guilfoyle and Jamey Sheridan and Neal Huff, and it’s just a really deep bench, and that was one thing.
Looking at the Spotlight team that Robby assembled — [him] being the sort of player-coach, he really assembled his team. He took Sacha from the courts, he took Matt for his technical skills, Matt was kind of the group nerd, as he liked to call himself. And then he took Rezendes because he was just a bulldog reporter. He’s that guy you want on your team who’s going to do whatever it takes. And that wasn’t their only defining quality. Sacha turned out for this particular thing to have an amazing aptitude at listening to these stories and taking them in, and as you know as a journalist ,not every journalist does that so well.
Is that something you’ve encountered a lot over the years?
A lot of journalists sit down with an agenda…Just me as a subject, not me as a filmmaker. And I think some journalists do that with their subjects. Sacha’s one of those people who has an amazing aptitude at listening to people and letting them steer the conversation, and in doing that, [she] understands a lot more. So I would say Robby built his team and it’s true about our deep bench.
The film itself is about journalism, but it feels like you also had to do journalism to get it onto the page.
Look, as a writer you’re always doing research. Writing is writing. The flip side of that is talking with the journalists a lot we realized — wow, our approaches, our crafts aren’t that different. That makes sense, of course, we’re both writers. One in journalism, two in screenwriting, but how they talked about their process was very similar to how we talked about ours at times. Knowing when to go with a story, put the script out there, knowing when to be patient and revise, counting on good editorial support, getting to the point of the story.
This investigation happened 12 years prior to us chatting with these reporters, so some of it was just what you would do interviewing someone about something in the past, and then sort of triangulating and cross-referencing, putting all the pieces together…then going back to her and getting them together, we did a lot of that. It was an endless series of interviews and meetings.
It seems like that first trip you made to Boston together was a big turning point in the making of the screenplay.
I will say, that first weekend Josh and I went to Boston, at that point I had hired him to write the screenplay, and I said, "I’m going to go up with you just to do the introductions." We both talked to these people a little bit individually, Josh with Rezendes in LA, and I had sat down with Mike in New York one afternoon. It was just really exciting, filling in holes, collecting our data. We had a great time digging into the investigation and anthropologically going back and excavating the story and saying, "What do we have here?"
Were you concerned about making a film that could come across as too much of a "message" movie about the state of modern journalism?
We felt like the best thing we could do was show by example. Here’s what institutionally supported professional journalists can do at the top of their game. It’s craft like anything else, and I think there is a huge misconception among some people who say "new media" and "citizen journalists" and everyone who’s tweeting that this is somehow news, and I think it’s because this whole technological boom. We’re still figuring that out. We’re wading through the volumes of information until we realize, "Hold it, this is a little bit of smoke and mirrors." Who’s generating the content? Ninety percent of it is still coming from legacy media. There are some examples of investigative websites — The Marshall Project, ProPublica — and some of these are really good, so I don’t mean to diminish them. I just don’t think they’re the answer.
What do you think is the answer?
On a local level, where a journalist’s best resource is his connections, his sources, there’s years and years of building those up and knowing people. You see this playing out in "Spotlight": who people know and certain courthouses and they’re always like, "remind me what was that." Because as a group they’re really effective, their tentacles are just everywhere in that city. I really hope this movie connects with a wider audience for that reason, because I think it’s important to refresh and remind that we really need professionals to do this job just like we need professional firefighters and doctors. We need professionals. I think that’s really important.
Do you think there’s hope in the next generation?
I sat down with a college roundtable in D.C. recently and I loved it. You get all the university students with their papers, and I think that’s really cool. I have to couch myself from asking them too many questions because I’m interested to see where their heads are at. One guy was saying, "This is really inspiring to to us, this feels like our movie, it’s about truth and justice and it’s about why we’re doing this." I said, "Well, that’s all great, and I’m really happy about that, but unfortunately there was another thing you need to inspire — which is that you need to crack the code. What’s the new model? How does this exist? Because we’re never going back to that, forget about it, you’re never going to walk into a newsroom 160-strong, it’s just not going to happen."
I think that’s what we need from this new generation: innovators who say, "Here’s how we can marry some of the new technology and maintain what’s great about legacy journalism." I know that kid’s out there…we just need to inspire them to come forth.
Although this is the first film you’ve done that chronicles actual events, "Spotlight" features a lot of the kinds of honest, believable characters you’ve put on screen before. Was that attractive for you?
I feel that’s accurate. I mean, I’m very interested in trying to get to that as much as possible. Filmmakers who have inspired this are varied, but I think it’s a sort of authentic human quality, real multi-dimensional characters, and letting the movie to be a little loose, a little sloppy, even allow some space and some silence, and trust that that can still be infinitely compelling because it’s actually more true.
My dialogue isn’t always super-snappy or super-shiny…I think I’m always trying to get to that honesty, and I hope everything was leading up to this movie. I mean that sincerely. I think that’s the idea with making movies. You get better hopefully, and you keep learning.
But I can tell you I’ve taken something from each movie. Even "The Cobbler" — which, as you know, wasn’t very critically well-received — I loved that movie. I know "Spotlight" is better for me having made that movie, because it’s the first time I made movies back to back. So I was rolling right into "Spotlight" and I was taking all these lessons, not from the result because you don’t learn from the result, but from the process: What did I not do in pre-production, what did I not do in production, what did I do in post and editing. I was rewriting "Spotlight" while I was editing "The Cobbler" and just kind of constantly thinking about it filmically. I knew I could get out of this scene here, I don’t need this because I know where I’m going next, and it just makes you sharper.
I could see why some filmmakers really try to string some films together, because it’s just like anything else — if you’re going to the gym more often you’re more agile.
It is funny that "Spotlight" and "The Cobbler" will technically come out in the same year, and the critical divide between the two could not be more vast.
I don’t know how to explain it…you just smiled and laughed. That’s how I feel. You do this because you love it, you’re never sure what’s going to happen with your career, and you love it. I loved acting, and then acting led to writing, and writing led to directing, and directing lead to five movies and I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. So yeah, is it hard when a movie like "The Cobbler" doesn’t connect critically. I’d never had that experience. But even when I was going through it, I had to have a good perspective about things, and sometimes in those situations I have the ability to go, "Wow, this is really interesting. This has never happened, and it’s a really intense feeling."
That seems like a pretty healthy perspective.
And keep in mind I was in pre-production for "Spotlight," arguably my biggest movie to date. So I was like, "This is really a lot to process." Thank God I have a wonderful wife who does a great job of just being there and talking through these things. She’s a very curious person, too, and we have a very healthy ability to break these things down and not let them bog us down. Maybe that’s a survival quality for a person whose job is very public. It’s a very public profession and I accept that, the good and the bad of it.
Some people shy around "The Cobbler." "The Cobbler" will always be a very special film to me. I’ve had a lot of wonderful response from "The Cobbler." I’m not here to defend any of the movies I make, but I can always speak very honestly that will never be diminished by anyone’s perspective on it.
"Spotlight" opens in theaters this Friday, November 6.
READ MORE: Review: How Michael Keaton Saves ‘Spotlight’