I always had a feeling as a writer if you’re really interested in material and it’s really compelling to you, and you can find a way to convey it, it will be compelling to an audience.
The most breathtaking moment in the methodically riveting new film Spotlight comes just after the screen, at the end, goes black. The film, written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, retells the true-life story of how investigative reporters at The Boston Globe exposed widespread child sex abuse and institutional cover-ups within Boston’s beloved Catholic Archdiocese. Their 2002 exposé led to some 247 priests and brothers being publicly accused of pedophilic acts and saw its once irreproachable cardinal, Bernard Law, resign.
The story is local in many ways – Boston is a heavily Catholic big city that feels like a small town – yet the film makes it hauntingly universal, and as the screen cuts to black, plain white font lists the more than 200 other major cities worldwide (107 in the U.S. alone) since the Boston scandal to have found widespread cases of clergy pedophilia and systemic efforts by the Catholic Church to conceal it.
It takes four full screens to list them all and is a powerful culmination to the narrative.
Spotlight is not about a witch hunt, but it echoes a central theme of Arthur Miller’s classic Massachusetts allegory The Crucible; starkly bringing into relief what happens when no one in a community speaks up or asks questions. Stanley Tucci’s character, lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who fights with meager resources against the Church for victims’ justice, says it best: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one.”
McCarthy helms a cast that includes Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo as the tight knit “Spotlight” team. Liev Schreiber plays Marty Baron, the new outsider Globe editor who, immediately upon arrival, directs Spotlight chief Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) to look into old claims against the Church. The film is a paean to the Fourth Estate and its power and obligation to not just report the news, but to bend history toward justice by searching out deeply obscured objective truth.
McCarthy spoke to the Writers Guild of America West website about his reverence for the often grinding, unromantic tedium of investigative journalism, and how the thought of The Wire creator David Simon drove him during the film’s writing.
This story centers on a real-life drama about a serious, unpleasant subject matter, and it involves a lot of dry, investigative minutia. Did you have any trepidation when you approached this and what was your plan of attack to make this work?
Well, as with any screenplay, you sort of develop a plan of attack. Our initial impulse with my co-writer Josh Singer was to kind of wrap our heads around not only the amount of information, but also the approach of the investigation. It started with countless interviews with the reporters and editors involved both directly and indirectly in terms of the investigation. It was really geared around that. And then as we’re doing that, we were slowly developing a sense of how I would approach the movie.
I always had a feeling as a writer if you’re really interested in material and it’s really compelling to you, and you can find a way to convey it, it will be compelling to an audience. We just found the process here interesting – the kind of blue-collar approach to this, the sort of “roll up your sleeves and dig in.” Yes, the work is tedious. And as you said there’s a lot of minutia involved and kind of analog approach to poring over directories and old clips and that stuff. We just found the process really compelling, and we committed to both the process and craft of highly investigative journalism, which in many cases isn’t that fancy or slick or romantic. It’s just hard work.
It’s funny, Josh and I saw a lot of parallels in terms of their process and our process. I mean, clearly, we were investigating their investigation. That became clear to us, but beyond that it was just committing to it. Look, we know we’re filmmakers, it sounds glamorous. By and large it’s not that glamorous most of the time. It's just hard work – it’s really interesting hard work, but it’s hard work. And I feel very fortunate to do it for a living. But you spend a lot of time alone or researching or talking to people or just writing, writing, writing in a room. That’s how we felt about this investigation. There wasn’t anything really glamorous about it. These guys were in that crappy little office tucked away deep in the bowels of the Boston Globe for five, six months pounding away at this story, wading into some really dark waters, spending a lot of time with survivors and the families of victims. But we just really thought, “Let’s commit to that. That’s our gamble on this one.”
So did you feel a genuine kindred relationship to this process being a screenwriter and filmmaker?
I think so, yeah.
And the idea that if you as a writer genuinely identify with it, it will come through in the script?
Yes, as a writer and just as a person. One of the best things about what I do, I just get to drop into other worlds and other lives and I get to spend time with some really interesting people. Just hearing the stories of these reporters, having them recall the process in certain key moments of the investigation that we depicted in the film, they were just great stories. They were really interesting. If I was sitting next to you in a bar and told you a story of a reporter knocking on [the door of a priest] and him answering the door and him saying some of the things he said in that scene, you would be like, “Wow that’s amazing.”
And there’s something really important about that central theme of the movie – we’re championing legacy journalism, we’re championing high-level investigative journalism at a local paper and its importance. We know that it doesn’t exist by and large in the same way anymore. Tens of thousands of reporters lost their jobs, metro dailies have been shuttered, all the things that we who have some knowledge of that industry understand to be true. But that wasn’t that period, and we just thought it was worth chronicling.
At the beginning, what did you want this to be about, and at the end of the day having completed this film, what is the heart, thematically, of this tale for you?
At the beginning what I saw was a newspaper. Not so much an underdog story at all, because it was a very strong newspaper at that time, very well supported financially. These reporters had a lot of resources at their disposal, kind of two big institutions clashing – The Boston Globe and the Catholic Church. What was compelling about it at some level also was The Boston Globe had this new leader named Marty Baron and his no-nonsense, straightforward, unflinching, courageous approach to journalism. So that was really compelling. But the theme that evolved from all this was complicity and deference. At some point midway through the movie, the character Mitchell Garabedian says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
To me that’s at the heart of this movie. It’s really where two storylines, the two narratives really seriously connect – that of journalism and societal complicity and deference, and that of the survivors and the abuse. It really just raises this idea that these kinds of institutional crimes just don’t happen in a vacuum. It leaves us all hopefully asking ourselves, What did I know, what did I see, and what could I have done differently? To me, that made this film so relevant – it provided an urgency to the material.
To that point, no one really gets out alive here. I love the way the Keaton character is tied by his own complicity, however removed. There’s blood on his hands in a way, however third party. Is that an invention or based on facts?
Both. By that I mean, it’s certainly based on fact, but that was not how those events played out. What was really quite interesting [was], probably a year into our research, we sat down with Eric MacLeish, who Billy Crudup plays. At the end of our interview, MacLeish – as he does in that scene, mentions, “I sent them a list of 20 priests right after Porter, and they buried it.” Now that’s what MacLeish told us, the writers. We left that meeting and thought, No way, that doesn’t sync with our research, no one has mentioned that to us. We did what I guess in our case an amateur reporter would do and said, “Let’s go check it out.” We had at that point access to all their clips, which are now online.
Right, no more microfiche.
Right. So [Josh] went in that day and called me later and said, “You’re not going to believe this but I found the article, and it is 20 priests.” It didn’t really match our storyline or our timeline. So we reached out to Robby about it. It was a tricky call. For a very good reason we have a lot of respect for Robby and the work he’s done. That was a tricky thing to bring up, but we thought it essential. What Robby says is in that scene with Marty where he says, “I was metro editor, I don’t remember it all, but it happened on my watch,” is pretty much what Robby told us. And we just thought it was so on point to what we were getting to on our story that we included it in that scene.
What’s important about that is two things: what was the culture of The Globe at that time that caused these guys to miss it? That speaks to deference, if not complicity, certainly deference. But also it’s a little but of an occupational hazard, right? As a journalist, you just miss a lot. Things get missed a lot, and that character at that point was falling on his sword, and I think a little bit for everybody. Because it raised the question, what did everybody at the club know? There’s a lot of good reporters who were on this story before, and did a lot of good work. They didn’t get it. We have to ask the question, why? We don’t really have an answer for that, but we raised the question for sure.
How did your experience with David Simon [as an actor on The Wire] influence or help you here, if at all?
Yes, it did. Look, that show just as an actor was a tremendous experience, but maybe more relevant to this film, it was a very teachable moment for me. David’s passion, commitment and insight into the world of journalism – as far as I’m concerned, is unmatched. His love for what it means to be a journalist is so infectious, it’s so inspirational. It had a huge impact on me. I learned a lot from him when I was playing that role on that show first, in terms of journalism, but also in terms of storytelling. I love his approach. It’s very clear that his journalism completely impacts his storytelling and his approach to it. He too can be accused of taking on very dry material, very wonky, nerdy material. He did it again brilliantly in Show Me a Hero making it very compelling. Who cares about local community politics in Yonkers? Well, by the end of that series I did. So first and foremost I learned a lot about journalism. It was easy to look back at that role a lot when I took on this project, but also just as a storyteller, he’s a guy I have a lot of respect for and I learned a lot from. So he was definitely the devil on my shoulder in this one. He was the guy that I was thinking about a lot. You know, you’re always trying to push yourself, you’re looking for motivational moments and motivational things. It’s a long road, as you know, and I kept thinking, Boy, he’s going to see this one day, I better get it right because I know I’ll hear about it.
I like how he was the devil on your shoulder.
Yeah, he was the devil. He was not an angel.