How ‘Spotlight’ Screenwriter Josh Singer Recovered From ‘The Fifth Estate’ With Another Journalism Film

How 'Spotlight' Screenwriter Josh Singer Recovered From 'The Fifth Estate' With Another Journalism Film
How 'Spotlight' Screenwriter Josh Singer Recovered From 'The Fifth Estate' With Another Journalism Film

READ MORE: Why Michael Keaton ‘Doesn’t Want Your F*cking Opinion’ In the News

Although his first feature film, “The Fifth Estate,” didn’t meet screenwriter Josh Singer’s expectations — a fact he readily admits — it did help pave the way for his latest film, Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight.”

Singer came to feature films from a television-centric background, including turns at both “The West Wing” and “Fringe.” When he wrote the Julian Assange biopic “The Fifth Estate,” he wanted to provide a deeper look at the functionality of journalism itself. That goal is readily apparent in “Spotlight,” the true story of the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in the early aughts.

Complete with a star-studded cast, including Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and many more, “Spotlight” is already getting plenty of awards chatter, but that’s not the only reason why Singer is so pleased with the final product. It’s also the salute to journalism that he’s always wanted to make.

Indiewire recently got on the phone with Singer, who doubled down on why “The Fifth Estate” didn’t really work for him, the joys of utilizing a “championship team” when it comes to movie-making and why he’s glad that the film has awards buzz.

Your resume isn’t the typical resume of a screenwriter — a high school spent working on the newspaper and singing a cappella, a graduate career in both law and business, working for McKinsey & Company. How did you decide to become a screenwriter?

The short answer is — there is no short answer. I worked in consulting right out of college. I sang a lot in college and had this great creative outlet. And then in consulting, I had none. And I didn’t want to sing anymore, and I was looking for a way to be creative, and I had a roommate who said, “Creativity happens when you’re sitting at your desk.” So I started writing. I ended up working at Children’s Television Workshop, which is what Sesame Workshop used to be called.

You worked for Sesame Workshop?

I worked for them for like three or four months before going to grad school, and then I started doing internships. I did an internship for Nickelodeon in New York and I did an internship out for Disney Channel out in L.A. I actually worked for Roy Price at Disney TV Animation for like four or five weeks, which was a blast. When I was working for these places, I kept getting more interested in the script and the writing. I kept wanting to get closer to actually making stuff, as opposed to being an executive of some sort. I’d been trying to write all the way along. Right around this time that I was finishing up grad school, a show called “The West Wing” came on the air.

And then you wrote for “The West Wing” in its later years?

I never got the chance to work with Aaron [Sorkin]. I worked for the last three years of that show under John Wells, who was a terrific boss, and I learned a ton for him. I always say I worked for the last three years of that show because I think the show we did is a very different show from the show Aaron did. I think the show we did was a great show, but the magic of the second season of “The West Wing,” to me — it’s one of the greatest 22 episodes: “17 People,” “Two Cathedrals” and “The Shadow of Two Gunmen,” those episodes are amazing.

When did you start watching the show?

I actually started watching on the third season but then went back. I was just captivated. I was captivated by the writing, but I was also captivated by the fact that Aaron was having a dialogue with a lot of people about issues. He was literally talking about issues in a bigger way and talking about government in a bigger way and in a positive way and inspiring. You know, if I had a nickel for everybody who I’ve met in the Obama administration who said, “I was inspired in part by ‘The West Wing.'” They’re not talking about my “West Wing.” They’re talking about Aaron’s. And that inspired me, too.

I wrote a spec feature, which broke me out of television and gave me the opportunity to write the Wikileaks movie, which didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped, but I was trying to write about something. And it was my great good fortune that as that movie was in the process of getting made, this movie came along. So I could work on this and in some ways use what I had learned studying and researching for “The Fifth Estate” and put that to even better use with Tom’s great film that is hopefully provocative on a couple of different levels.
How did your research on “The Fifth Estate” inform the writing process for “Spotlight”?

Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust were the first ones to go get the rights from the six reporters and they were the ones trying to tell this story for years. They kept saying, “There’s a great story here.” And they brought on Anonymous Content — Michael Sugar and Steve Golin — who happen to be my managers, and those guys hired Tom because they thought Tom would be a great guy to direct this. He wanted to direct it, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to write it, and so he was looking for a writer. I had just written “The Fifth Estate,” and I think my managers and I think the producers were fans of the script, and they knew I’d been studying journalism for two years and really thinking about what’s happened to journalism over the last 15 years.

So Tom and I had a Skype call, which was incredibly nerve-wracking because I’m a huge fan of Tom’s other movies and I was very intrigued by the project.

Why do you think “The Fifth Estate” didn’t work?

don’t know if you’ve seen it and I don’t necessarily want to spend too
long talking about it [laughs], not because I’m not proud of the work.
I just think it wasn’t quite as successful in getting across what I wanted to get across as I think [“Spotlight”] is. Part of that was about where the locus of the storytelling was. Dreamworks had optioned Daniel Domscheit-Berg’s book, as well as The Guardian book, and I pitched them that. This is the story of Daniel and Julian, which winds up involving The Guardian. It’s a coming-of-age story around Daniel. I went abroad to research that project. I spent four days with Daniel in Germany and I spent three days with The Guardian guys in England, and I came back and I had this incredible crisis about whether to center the movie on Daniel or on the Guardian. For two weeks I walked around in circles. My wife kept saying, “Just write the movie you pitched them.”
Ultimately, I decided, “Well, the movie about Daniel is more universal and will get a bigger audience,” which was clearly wrong. But the idea was that that’s more universal. For Dreamworks and Disney, that’s the right movie to write for those guys. But I was always a little bit torn, and moreover, I really felt sad that I couldn’t write the movie that’s just about the journalists and the old school journalists in the beginning and see what they do and how they do it.

So that’s “Spotlight.”

When this came along, I thought, “Okay, there are two ways to try to talk about what’s happened in journalism. One is, you can talk about it, which is what we do in ‘The Fifth Estate,’ or you can do it,” which what we do in “Spotlight.” And really by showing what these journalists have done, you get to show the importance and power of the journalist.

Fortunately, Tom hired me, and then we got to work. I was supposed to write it on my own, and I did a week’s worth of research with Michael Rezendes, who Mark Ruffalo plays in the movie. With my Sony digital recorder out, I was literally like, “Walk me through the investigation, getting the basic spine of the story.” I walked away with a 54-page document from Mike, and then I came east to meet with the other reporters from the Globe, and I said, “Tom, do you want to come with?” The more involved he is, the more excited he is, the more likely it is that he’ll actually make the movie. And he came.

How many times did you go to Boston?

What was amazing was not only was he intrigued, but he was like, “Let’s keep going back.” He pushed us. I would’ve gone back one or two more times, but he pushed us to go back a good half-dozen times and pushed us to interview people I wouldn’t have gone after. Just about everyone on screen, we’ve talked to. From the very early stages, Tom’s vision was, “Let’s get it right, let’s really get it right.”

He’d never done anything like this before, fictionalizing a true story. But even in his work before this, he’s all about verisimilitude and real human emotions. What’s so wonderful about “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent” is that they’re real. There’s such a slice of life reality that is funny and sad and charming. I think his mantra was “let’s make this as accurate as possible.”

How did your collaboration evolve?

I started to work on an outline, and immediately he was diving in. We started in 2012 and then he turned to me in December and said, “You know, I definitely want to make this one of my next movies, and I think it would go quicker and better if we just did it together.” It was natural, sort of organic. We basically had a first draft by June 2013. And he went off to do “The Cobbler” and I went off to do a movie I owed for Fox. In 2014, we started writing again, and basically we didn’t stop writing until the last day of production. 

Were you still writing on set, too? 

Yeah, we did a lot of rewriting on set. I think if you had told me beforehand how much rewriting on set we were going to do, I probably would have fainted and maybe gone home and cried for a solid 24 hours. But Tom is relentless when it comes to scene-work. It’s one of the things he’s so good at. He just doesn’t stop until it is just right.

The film is a prime example of a feature that works because it’s a real ensemble piece with so many interesting characters.

Michael Rezendes is such a bulldog and such a true believer,  so writing that character was always very clear, as opposed to Robby, who is much more the consummate insider and very charming and politically astute and able to talk to the fanciest guy in Boston…and he could talk to anybody. He was totally charming. Both of those skills are incredibly useful and necessary, and you see them in the movie. Only Mike would have the persistence to stay there long enough to get that tip to figure out, right? And only Robby would have the connections to find Jim Sullivan, who happens to be a guy who represents a ton of priests and who can confirm the other side, and who would have the entre to talk to Eric MacLeish, who wound up settling these cases. So you see those two roles.

Then you also have Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer.

On the one hand, you can see how she’s the emotional center because she talks to the victims. You can see how this falls into, “Oh, that’s the female role.” But the way she thinks is actually incredibly analytical and smart. It’s not standard at all. She’s a very specific individual, and she’s almost clinical in how she thinks about story and how she thinks about this issue. She immediately said to us, “I wanted to show that ‘molest’ was not a four letter word.” And she’s very clinical about what actually happened and how it happened. That clinical, analytical skill, when paired with the emotional ability to listen the way she does, that is really is something.

I hope people get how good Rachel is in this part. It was something that frankly I wasn’t sure about. I don’t really see Rachel McAdams do stuff with this kind of nuance and this kind of depth. She’s straddling emotion and searing intellect in a way that’s pretty great.

The film’s sets also look very real, that just adds to the sense that we’re watching actual events play out.

People who walked into that Boston Globe — I can’t tell you, when the reporters walked into that Spotlight room, it was amazing. Robby gave a speech. He was like, “I wouldn’t give a speech, but it’s my office, clearly.” That Spotlight office was an exact replica. And even though the main newsroom couldn’t be an exact replica because of constraints of the building we were in, it’s close enough that we were like, they can’t tell what we shot in the Globe and what wasn’t. That to me is pretty exciting, when that team comes together.

I think championship teams was a big focus. Tom’s idea for the get-go is that this movie isn’t about any one of the reporters. It’s about the Spotlight team, it’s about the Globe. It’s about how a group of reporters come together to break a local story that becomes a national story that becomes an international story, and why we need team reporters like this in every city in the country.

A lot of people view the media with hostility, and “Spotlight” may work against that perception. 

This is why I’m glad that there’s awards chatter. It’s certainly gratifying, but I hope a lot of people go see this movie. And it’s because to me it’s so important for people to walk away with that, for people to understand when I say or when you say a dozen dailies have gone out of business in the last 15 years and tens of thousands of reporters have lost their jobs and up in Sacramento, instead of having 19 people cover the state legislature for The Los Angeles Times, we now have four. People need to understand that’s a problem and why it’s a problem.

Obviously, the clergy sex abuse is a whole other kettle of fish. People think about that as something in the past that’s not in the past at all. It’s a big issue in the present. Moreover, if you think about what happened at Penn State or what happened at BBC with Jimmy Savile or even Bill Cosby, those are all the same story. It’s the same story of looking the other way. Tom and I always talked about this being a Trojan horse for a conversation about journalism…Because you see exactly what good journalism is and why these people are so necessary.

But it’s not so easy to make a compelling film about that.

It’s funny — one of the other fellows I worked with on “The West Wing,” Lawrence O’Donnell, who’s a fantastic MSNBC talking head these days, said to me, “How are you going to make that exciting? Good journalism is not what you see in the movies. It’s just people sitting around, having patience and waiting for people to tell them the right stuff at the right time. I don’t know how that’s a movie.” I literally turned to him and said, “Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly what the movie is, and we’re going to make it exciting.”

“Spotlight” opens in theaters this Friday, November 6.

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