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Real-Life ‘Spotlight’ Reporters and Editors on How the Filmmakers Nailed the Details ‘Down to a T’

Real-Life 'Spotlight' Reporters and Editors on How the Filmmakers Nailed the Details 'Down to a T'

Spotlight” remains a fascinating Oscar contender because its strengths are also its weaknesses. Distributor Open Road’s marketing team recognized early on that if writer-director Tom McCarthy opted to report and dramatize a true story as authentically as possible, they might as well bring their heroic subjects into the conversation.

And so the real-life “Spotlight” team of Boston Globe journalists has been on the road since Toronto, where an audience exploded to their feet clapping when McCarthy brought them on stage. Watching the actors create their characters was new for these sober-minded folk. And when they came to Sneak Previews, I experienced a strange dislocation, because they really are the characters on the screen. And it also helps to explain why the acting ensemble led by Michael Keaton are so passionate about campaigning together for supporting roles as an ensemble, which has cost them some awards.

When “Spotlight” picked up best feature as well as the ensemble acting award and best screenplay at the Gotham Awards, Mark Ruffalo said: “To get one actor to do one ego-subjugating performance is rare, but to get a whole bunch of actors together to do it is a miracle. It’s the people we were playing who were selfless… No man is an island and these people proved it.”

Anne Thompson: Does the Spotlight unit still exist?

Mike Rezendes: The Spotlight unit still exists. I’m still on the Spotlight team, and, unlike other papers, the Globe has fortified — they’re now a six-person team. In 2002, they were four. The Globe is still committed to investigative reporting…To this day, the Spotlight team still does investigations, and we’ll still take a year if we have to. There’s a lot of talk about how the Internet forces newspapers to abandon long-form investigative reporting, but I have a different view of it: because of the Internet and technology, we have a lot of tools that we didn’t have before. In fact, our job is easier, in a lot of ways: we go deeper, much faster. When we do finish a year-long project, we can use social media and the Internet to get the story to go viral. There’s a real upside to the Internet era, and I just think other investigative units haven’t really realized it or thought of a way to capitalize on its potential.

Ben Bradlee Jr.: 
In terms of tools, that spreadsheet that took about two months could have been done in about twenty seconds today.

Michael, you developed this at Anonymous Content. What made you think there was a
movie in it?

Michael Sugar:
We were very lucky. Nicole Rocklin, who had
produced a movie with us, brought the rights to me about five-and-a-half years
ago, and had brought it to these people a couple of years before that. So we
heard the story and have always been attracted to stories we felt were
compelling and entertaining, but also about something, so we were drawn to it

Tom, you and Josh Singer had to do your own investigate reporting,
because there’s a book about this — but it’s about the end result. You tried to
show the process. How did you interact with all these folks to get the story
out of them?

Tom McCarthy: 
That’s how it started: Josh and I got onto a train from New York to Boston and sat down with them — individually,
collectively, in pairs, however it was. We tracked them down and bothered them.
We did this probably over a year-and-a-half, two years, and each time we would
expand a bit — talking to editors, reporters, publishers at the paper past and
present. We’d talk to lawyers. Pretty much everyone you see in this film, we
talked to, with the exception of one or two characters. So it did feel a bit,
and maybe because we were telling a newspaper story, [like] conducting our own
investigation. Keep in mind, when we sat with these people, it was 2012 or
2013, and they did their work in 2001 or 2002 — and they’re busy people. So we
had to push them, to jog their memory, in many cases triangulate stories and get
to what really happened.

In Hollywood, there’s often a lot of simplifying by folding multiple people
into one character. You didn’t do that.

Look. We sat down with them, and it felt
weird to conflate them after meeting them. They were all so interesting and
unique and integral to the story, I was just immediately compelled by being as
authentic to the team and the collaboration as possible. Not just with the
writing and directing I want to do, but with the propulsion that could create.
As an audience member, you really don’t know where we’re going next, and with
who or what the investigation is going to reveal, and that creates its own
sense of tension and energy, which I think really helps.

Ben, did anything in this movie surprise you? Did you find out
things you didn’t know?

Bradlee, Jr.:
I thought I knew one version of what happened,
but it was remarkable, the extent to which Tom and Josh investigated our
investigation. They turned up some things that we, frankly, had forgotten
about, like this rather embarrassing glitch. One of the strengths of the movie
is that it doesn’t make us out to be heroes. If there are any heroes in the
movie, it’s the survivors, who had the strength to come forward and tell their
stories; we’re hoping, with the movie, there’ll be a second wave of that. One of the movie’s strengths is showing the mistakes we made along the
way. One clip shows the lawyer, that he had sent us the name of 20 priests,
which we’d forgotten about. You may not know the daily newspaper and how many
facts arrive during the day, but that’s one of 300 or 400 that fell between the
cracks — and it was rather embarrassing. It was Josh Singer who dug it out.
We’d forgotten about it. Initially, we thought, “I hope they don’t put
this in the movie.” But they did, and I’m glad they did.

What did it feel like when you saw yourself played by an

Sacha Pfeiffer:
Of all of us, I was most wary about this process.
I wasn’t sure much good could come from having the Hollywood machine
fictionalize your life. Josh and Tom visited us in Boston for hours, and the
questions could be very personal — like how it affected our marriages. I
thought they were looking for personal-life drama, and that it wouldn’t be
good. But a lot of movie and TV shows caricature and stereotype what reporters
do. This captures the reality of it, which means it can be tedious and
time-consuming, and there can be delays. But if you have time and support, you
can accomplish something powerful. The other thing we saw was how hard really
good actors worked behind the scenes to portray the people they play. In many
cases, our actors had never played a real person before, so they saw
that as a challenge. We had dinners and walks together, we got texts and emails
throughout the filming process… They
wanted to know what kinds of haircuts we had a decade ago, our family lives.
They really wanted to become us both physically and mentally, and that was a
really amazing process to witness.

In Boston, there was a lot of deference paid to the Catholic Church.

Walter V. Robinson:
Boston is interesting, because it is the most
Catholic of all of the major cities in the country, and this is
actually true throughout the country: the Church was afforded a great
deference. It was, in Boston, so iconic that nobody could imagine that it was
capable of enabling and then covering up such unimaginable crimes. This
happened in Boston, and the pressure was always there for every
institution, and it was mostly subtle, but it was that the Church was good. One
lesson we learned from this was that our responsibility, as investigative
reporters and journalists, is to hold institutions accountable, and that
includes those we wouldn’t think capable of such crimes.

Liev Schreiber plays an outsider, Marty Baron, who pushes this
forward. Do you think it’s possible that action would have been made if there
wasn’t one around?

I wouldn’t say Marty is the only one that would’ve done
that. One thing I would say — and this is made clear at the beginning of the
film — is that the Globe is a very inbred institution. Almost every reporter
came up through the Globe system. So, in that very first meeting where Marty
asks about challenging the order that seals the documents, the reaction was
kind of a collective deer-in-the-headlights look. Why would we ever think to do
that? That’s the way judges in Massachusetts did things. And Massachusetts is,
I hate to say this when it comes to public access to records, kind of the
Mississippi of the country? Marty was from Florida, which has the best
public-record system in the country. Marty was the right person at the right
time, but he was a fresh pair of eyes. It wasn’t because he wasn’t
Irish-Catholic; it was that he was a smart guy who saw something the rest of us

To reinforce that about the fresh eyes: there were two
tracks going on. We were doing everything to figure out what churches know
about bad priests, because this wasn’t just a story about priests who abuse
children, but about officials who cover up, and lawyers who try to unseal these
records. They’d been sealed for years, and it never occurred to anyone that we
could challenge that protective order, and it was embarrassing for the paper
when Marty proposed that question. You would think our instinct would be to
unseal them, but there was sort of a culture of us getting a little complacent.
It took Marty and his fresh eyes.

Mike, this was an opportunity for you to run with the ball.
You love this.

I was in favor of this project, just as the movie depicts. The movie’s
incredibly accurate: it captures both the spirit and substance of those times.
I was raised Catholic, and I’m the sort of guy who reads briefs in the papers,
and it seemed I read a lot of stories about priests who were caught abusing
children, and these stories were just starting to accumulate. I had that in the
back of my mind, so I was told Marty wanted to take a look, and I thought
there might be something, so I was all for it.

How did you interact with Mark Ruffalo?

I spent a lot of time with Mark, and we had kind of a
wonderful interaction — after I got over all the questions he was asking me. He
showed up at my house.

You got to feel what it was like to be interrogated, right?

Exactly. It was like a turning of the tables. The guy
shows up at my house, I’ve never met him before, he opens a book, pulls out a
pen, turns on his iPhone, and wants to know both how and why I do my job. I
think, “Gee, this is really intrusive here…” But then I thought about how many
times I’d done that to other people, and I relaxed into it, and we talked all
day. We walked around the neighborhood and Mark shadowed me at the Globe. He
listened to me interview people and basically took part in the investigation I
was doing, and I became very impressed with his dedication to the job, getting
it done right, and we realized we had similar interests, that we liked the same
writers. It was quite the interaction.

Bradlee Jr.:
We all were so impressed with the actors.
They’re so professional. They just didn’t show up, read their lines, get paid.
Each contacted us, wanted to get to know us, wanted to know how we got the
story, wanted to know us personally. I think we all became friends with our

After watching Michael, I felt like I was looking into
a mirror. He got my mannerisms down, he figured out that I can do four versions of a Boston accent… you know, he stole my identity.

How did that feel?

This has been a weird experience, as you can tell from
what we’ve said, but just about a month ago I got a phone call from a woman in
California, who asked me to investigate this cult; she gave me all the details.
I said, “Wait, I’m in Boston and you’re in California. Why are you calling me?”
She said, “Well, I watched the trailer for ‘Spotlight’ today and thought you’d
be the right person.” I should have given her Michael’s cell number.

I got a kick out of the analog aspects of this movie. How well
did they recreate the environment?

Bradlee Jr.:
Down to a T. The interior newsrooms were filmed in
Toronto, where they took over a warehouse, and they recreated the newsroom to
the centimeter. They photographed every reporter’s cubicle down to the minute
details; maybe the reporter had a picture of his girlfriend or wife. When I
walked onto the set, I thought I was in Boston; I couldn’t believe it. That’s
the care and detail that Tom and his crew took to this project.

They actually had the Globe maintenance department look
up old paint records, so they could find the exact paint color they were using.
They really invited us on set and asked for our opinions, which I thought would
be annoying — and they probably were annoying — but they still listened to
them. One of the things that happened in my case was that Rachel’s desk was set
up so she wouldn’t have been able to talk on the phone and type at the same
time, and that’s key to what we do — we’re talking and typing — and when I
pointed it out, they changed the set. So that was really amazing for us, for us
to watch them want to get every detail right, really authentically.

I love when your pen runs out.

My pen ran out. The Spotlight office is very crowded
and small and dingy, and I spent six years in that office. When I walked on the
set on Toronto, it was like being on a rocket back to a place I’m not sure I
wanted to go back to.

Tom, they gave you time to look at the archives and play

They pretty much gave us whatever we wanted to. It was
pretty impressive, their commitment to seeing this film made. Honestly, there
were just some really wonderful people that we got to know over time. They were
always around, and literally anything we wanted, they said, “I think we can
make it happen.” And they made it happen. We filmed up in Toronto — that was
our set — but then we shot a lot of connective bits and pieces throughout the
Globe. So you’ll see Sacha and Matt Carroll walk down the stairs, and they’re
in Boston, and they round the corner at the bottom of the stairs, and they’re
in Toronto. You’ll see the librarian push that cart down the long hallway;
that’s Boston. Then she rounds the corner and is in Toronto, so she’s been
pushing that cart for 47 hours. That was incredibly helpful, because it just helped
create a sense of reality and place. Visually, it was so important that you see
this building that’s about the size of an ocean liner, and you get this sense
of institutional power and authority, and it takes an institution to take on an
institution. This is a story of, as we’ve said, Goliath and Goliath: two big,
prominent Boston institutions going toe-to-toe. That was important to our
storytelling, and, visually, the building adds to the size of that story.

Tom, about the stairs.
This is the opening scene, and they’re eating cake, starting in Boston and
exiting in Toronto. In Boston, they had to take a picture of the cake, because
they needed to have the same amount of bites taken out of the cake when they were
in Toronto, and I thought that was amazing.

What did you need these actors to be able to do?

When you’re casting for real life, you’re not just
trying to get mimics or lookalikes. You’re trying to get people who want to
have some connection towards that character. The actors did their homework.
They did what they thought were the necessary bits and pieces, and it’s their
job to turn that into a really, fully realized character. That’s really fun to
watch. Sometimes, through that commitment — which is part craft and
part instinct — all of these wonderful things start to materialize and
crossover. It’s really fun to watch, but that’s the magic of great acting, and
we were really, really fortunate with the actors we assembled. And it was
exciting to watch, because a lot of these actors hadn’t really worked together,
with maybe a few exceptions. You could tell they were just digging it, getting
up and going to work together. It was really fun to watch, and, collectively,
they were just raising the bar.

You have a lot of listening and reacting.

Really hard to do, and, coincidentally, it’s
something both great reporters and actors do. A lot of truth is told in scenes,
and it’s not always on the line — it’s between the lines. They’re the
type of actors I like to work with, and you’ll see a lot of that in this film.
There’s that one scene where they’re talking to Richard Sipe, and they’re
pulling back the box. The reporters don’t even say much in that scene; they’re
listening to an intercom. Somehow, you can see them connecting, sharing looks,
and this and that, and it makes that beat very exciting, when they’re talking
to Sipe — who’s played by Richard Jenkins, actually.

It must have been hard to carry all those stories and all that pain.

Well, we spent over a year listening to victims and survivors tell stories that were incredibly sad, and we also became angry over what we heard, and I think it motivated us to do our very best, to get to the truth of what happened to these people whose lives had been destroyed, and why. But I think it did take a toll, and I remember after a year-and-a-half of this story, it was time to take another project, and the next project we chose was investigating corruption in charitable foundations. That was a project that involved reading tax forms. Normally it’s not a project that would thrill a reporter such as myself, and I remember being grateful that I could just sit in my office, reading documents and not having to hear any terrible stories.

Is anything in this movie completely fictional? I wonder about Ruffalo’s big blow up?

Rezendes: I’ve got to say about that scene, first —

Robinson: Of course you’d want to have the first word, because
you’re the guy who blows up.

Rezendes: That’s
exactly right, and I’ll fight for the right to go first.

Robinson: But editors have the last word.

Rezendes: Maybe. We’ll see about that. I’m trying to give some
credit here, so just relax.

McCarthy: I think you’ve made your point.

Rezendes: I just want to say that Walter deserves a lot of credit
for being able to take on a reporter with a lot of passion for a story, knowing
that some passion might spill over from time to time, and Mark Ruffalo also
deserves a lot of credit. He learned about this side of me, and I didn’t really
want him to learn about it. There was a day where he said, “I want to see you
blow up,” and I said, “No way.” It was the only time I said no to him, but with
his great reporting skills, he got enough information to create a really
fantastic scene.

Robinson: It is true that I had to apply a little pressure on him
every now and then. I want to go
back to real life: this ensemble cast is playing a team of reporters who had
our own ensemble. We had really good reporters working — sometimes objecting to
the boss — but we worked so well together, it was like having an extra brain in
the room. Because of our teamwork, our ensemble, we were able to bring this
story home.

This was financed independently. Would it have been possible to get this made at a major studio?

Sugar: It would have been possible to do it a variety of ways. There were studios that were interested in this film, and one of the ways that we really strived to do, as producers in support of Tom and his vision for the movie, was to not have to take orders from anyone. The authenticity of this was always of paramount importance to everyone. A lot of studio executives have seen this movie and said, “I wish we made that movie, and we would’ve made that movie.” So you never know. We found ourselves very fortunate to have a participant in Open Road embrace this and support it.

McCarthy: You’re right in saying that Open Road is an indie studio, but they talk and act like a studio. There’s not that much difference — trust me. I would say that, because they’re young and hungry, they really went after us on this one, and other studios who approached us were nervous about it for a lot of reasons. These guys were like, “We’re going to make this movie.” So credit to them for coming in strong and letting us make it.

Let’s open it up for questions.

Audience member: Did that blow-up scene actually happen?

Robinson: Not at that decibel level, but Mike was — and remains — one of the most passionate reporters at the paper, and that’s why they have editors. I guess that’s a no.

Audience member: How did the Church react when the story first

Bradlee Jr.: The first reaction was two days after the fact. Cardinal
Law held a press conference and apologized, and began what amounted to the
serial apology tour for the next year, before he resigned in December of 2002.
The Church never challenged the story, because how could they? We had the
documents. That was the key difference between this and earlier stories: this
was not an unfamiliar story to the Globe. We had made runs at other bad priests, and we made a real effort
there, but we came up short because we couldn’t get the internal documents and
the Church was able to cry “liberal bias” on the point of the Globe, and
Cardinal Law called down the wrath of God, incredibly, on the Globe. But
sometimes you don’t hit a home run — you hit singles, you hit doubles.

Audience member: Mr. Robinson, you sounded connected to the
community. Did you and others feel safe during this time?

Robinson: No, not at all. From the very beginning, all of us,
together, wanted this story, and we very quickly discovered that this was more
than one priest — there were many, many priests — and our anger at what we
found drove us to the story. In those first several months, we were mostly
undercover. There was never any real threat. One could say it was decades of
pressure on every institution in the community, by the Church, not to cross the
Church, but if that was true, I think we broke through that.

Audience member: Did you get the cast before or after the
studio? I would think they were attracted because of the power of the story.

McCarthy: To answer the first part: we had Open Road in place and
then we went after our cast. We had all the players in place. We assembled the
cast collaboratively, but people are always giving input and making suggestions
along the way. With a script like this, I think Mark Ruffalo put it best:
“Sometimes we do one for them and one for us, and on this one it felt like we
were doing it for us.” But we all, collectively, believed in the amazing work
these people here did. We wanted to dig into that story and tell that story. We
felt there was a real social relevance, today, to that story, and you feel very fortunate, very privileged when you come across material like this.

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