Interview: Tom McCarthy Talks ‘Spotlight,’ State Of Journalism, ‘The Wire’ & More

Interview: Tom McCarthy Talks 'Spotlight,' State Of Journalism, 'The Wire' & More
Interview: Tom McCarthy Talks 'Spotlight,' State Of Journalism, 'The Wire' & More

After its rapturous reception on the fall festival circuit, Tom McCarthy‘s “Spotlight” became the presumptive Best Picture favorite, and it’s stayed that way ever since (read our review). But for an awards-season heavyweight, it’s deceptively modest, not unlike its heroes, the Boston Globe reporters who documented the Catholic Church’s massive, decades-long effort to protect pedophile priests. Like a good newspaper journalist, McCarthy downplays his own influence and lets the story appear to tell itself, emphasizing the tedious grunt work of investigative journalism rather than inventing stagy confrontations but never losing the sense of urgency behind what turned out to be a Pulitzer-winning, city-shaking series of articles. Considering that a year ago McCarthy was getting the worst reviews of his career for the bizarre Adam Sandler fable “The Cobbler,” the acclaim for “Spotlight” represents an astonishing turnaround, and with daily papers around the country continuing to slash jobs, it’s a tribute to the vital importance of old-school journalism couldn’t be more timely.

“Spotlight” been compared to “All the President’s Men” since its very first screening, but it’s a much less glamorous portrayal of investigative reporting. Instead of meeting Deep Throat in dark parking garage, the Globe reporters in your movie are working up Excel spreadsheets.

You say that like it’s not sexy [laughs]. That was a different movie, kind of a paranoid thriller — and a great movie. It’s great to even be mentioned in the same breath as it. But we were very committed to being as true to the work these reporters do as possible. We put our money on [the idea that] committing to that process, albeit analog and dated, was just going to be compelling, in the sense that there’s no substitute for roll-up-your-sleeves blue collar journalism. It was essential that we portray that as accurately as possible and not try to glamorize it or romanticize it or sensationalize it in any way. We found the work really exciting, Josh [Singer] and I as writers, and the actors that came on, and we found the environs that they were working in really interesting, the library and these shitty offices, buried deep in the bowels of this massive ocean liner of an institution. There are not many buildings that exist like that anymore. I always felt like it was interesting enough that we didn’t need to push it in design in any specific way. But we needed to capture it, and we were collectively betting that if we did capture it really authentically, and we got the performances we needed from the actors, that was going to be enough. It was going to engaged audiences and be a fun, engaging ride. That’s always your gamble with a movie.

Did you have a particular interest in or knowledge of journalism before playing a reporter for David Simon on “The Wire,” or can we draw a straight line from that to “Spotlight”?

I’m a pretty well-read person. I read my paper every morning. I care about it. I probably had a healthy respect for good journalism up to that point. But being on that show taught me a lot. The passion and knowledge of journalism as storytelling is incredibly infectious. It was definitely a teachable moment for me, being on that show. That said, I didn’t leave “The Wire” and think, “I’ve got to tell a journalism story some day.” It’s just that when this story came up, I think I responded to it first as a story, and then I would talk to my colleagues, specifically Josh, about things that came up in that season — not only what I learned in terms of the profession, but in terms of storytelling. I think [Simon] did some things very well, and very smartly. I like to think that you’re constantly moving on and learning and taking things with you, so it’s hard to be a part of show that good and that expertly executed and not be impacted by it.

The fifth season of “The Wire” deals with the increasing pressures put on print journalism by the internet, the loss of jobs and the stretching of resources, and the push towards sensationalism. Those are forces that are beginning to be felt in “Spotlight” — as you underline by prominently including an AOL billboard in one scene.

I don’t think we really address it in the story. We allude to it. It’s 2001, so there’s some smoke, but no one has a sense of the fire that’s coming. Craigslist was eating into classifieds, that was no small thing for the local papers, the internet had yet to really blossom into the tool it is now. Josh and I would have loved a way to include it into the story more, really give people a sense what’s happening. Now, having spent three or four years immersed in it, I think there’s a little bit of a disconnect between the public’s knowledge of journalism and its value and what we’ve lost as a society. I don’t think they fully understand it, because it’s complex. There’s so much information out there, and it gets confusing. Just talking to people, there’s not a great awareness of how dire that situation is. We didn’t feel like there was really a place to address that within the movie. It was more let’s show by example — a really great example of high-level investigative journalism, specifically local journalism, which is what we were dealing with, and then we would connect the dots in talking about it. I had a lot of people say, “Yeah, newspapers are closing, but there’s so much information on the internet.” You ask, “Well, yeah, where is that information coming from?” and then you see their interest dry up a little bit. I’m not sure that discussion is happening.

You have the reporters pulling 20-year-old clips from the Globe and going down to the archives, past the printing presses, to pull old priesthood directories, which really demonstrates the importance of that institutional knowledge.

It demonstrates the institution. Visually, I think you’re right on. We built the main newsroom, and we recreated the Spotlight offices — a beautiful set. But we did shoot all over the Globe. That’s their library; those are the hallways; that’s their printing press. The reason I was really insistent on shooting there is I wanted people to feel that this is a sort of Goliath vs. Goliath. This is a very healthy, powerful institution, the Boston Globe, taking on another powerful institution — possibly the biggest of all — the Catholic Church. I wanted to say, “This is a big newspaper, and they have the financial support to enable these journalists in the very best way.” I had more than one journalist tell me, “It’s not that long ago, but it made me nostalgic for a different time.”

“Spotlight” is open in limited release today, Friday November 6th and will expand in the weeks ahead.

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