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How They Edited ‘Spotlight’ as a Thrilling Journo Procedural

How They Edited 'Spotlight' as a Thrilling Journo Procedural

Tom McCarthy certainly made the right decision to make the buzzy Oscar contender “Spotlight” a procedural. It turned out to be the most authentic and involving way to explore the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic sex abuse scandal by the Boston Globe’s special investigative unit. But such structural complexity required clarity to navigate the web of conflict and deception. That’s where Tom McArdle’s invaluable editing skills elevated “Spotlight,” the duo’s fifth collaboration.

“We tried to stay focused on the investigation,” McArdle recalled. “We felt it was important to keep the film moving, to keep the scenes tight, and to make sure things were clear for the audience. We had screenings every three weeks and tried to track what information people were following and what they were missing. We would then make adjustments to the cut to help with clarity.

READ MORE: “Director Tom McCarthy Puts ‘Spotlight’ on Sexually Predatory Catholic Priests”

“After taking numerous passes through the film, we ended up dropping five scenes from the movie. Also, fragments of other scenes were cut. In some scenes, we would just cut out a line or two of dialogue, just to make the scene a little bit tighter.” 

At least the investigative objective was clear from the outset: to prove that widespread sexual abuse was the object of a systematic cover-up by the Catholic Church. “It was important to get the details right, to make their work seem real on the screen,” added McArdle. “In the middle of the edit, we dropped a few scenes about the reporters’ personal lives. The reason was that we wanted to keep things focused on the investigation.”

The challenge was juggling shifting points of view between Michael Keaton’s editor and his three Spotlight reporters played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy. But even so, a protagonist with a character arc must emerge.

READ MORE: “Arthouse Audit: Oscar Contenders “Spotlight’ and ‘Brooklyn’ Rule”

“It’s an ensemble drama and shifting between the four [members] kept things fresh, and kept things moving,” McArdle explained. “And it was true to the investigation. This was boots-on-the-ground reporting and four hard-working journalists chasing after the truth. Robby (Keaton) was the most experienced and he had some influential contacts in Boston who ultimately became key players. Toward the end, Robby had to choose to ruin some close friendships in order to get the information he needed to complete this story.”

Ultimately, “Spotlight” turns on two key outsiders that take on the Church: editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who shifted the paper’s focus from international to local investigative coverage, and attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented the victims.

“It took an outsider to effect change, since the Globe and long-time Bostonians may have been more than a little wary of taking on the Church,” McArdle suggested. “Liev gives a great performance in the film as the low-key intellectual Baron. Editorially, I often let him have an extra beat or two before he spoke. So, even in his speaking rhythm he is an outsider. Others in the film may talk fast or overlap each other. Baron does not. He does not rush his words.

“The scene outside the courthouse [between Ruffalo and Tucci] is one of the longer scenes in the script. It is complex in terms of having lots of information and some tricky legal concepts. But Tucci is a real acting powerhouse here and he delivers a lot of dialogue quickly and effectively. It’s very compelling, I think. It would have been a riskier scene with a lesser actor.We ultimately trimmed a few lines from the scene just to keep it manageable.”

And McArdle’s takeaway about McCarthy’s ambitious and compassionate approach?

“As a director, Tom is great with actors and tone. He has also always been a humanist filmmaker. His films have always had a lot of feeling and warmth and a lot of empathy for outsiders and those who have been mistreated. I think the film is a celebration of good work.”

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