Spotlight: Interview with Director Tom McCarthy on his Investigative Journalism Drama

spotlight_1Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which is about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the priest pedophilia scandals and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church, world premiered at the 2015 Venice Film Fest.

Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James star in the ensemble drama as the Globe’s Spotlight Team. They are assigned by a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), to investigate allegations of pedophilia. Spotlight editor is Walter “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, in his first role after Birdman.

Like its role model, the far superior All the President’s Men, the film is straightforward, hard-hitting, and factually and dramatically compelling.  But despite the distinctive subject, it comes across as too much of a generic item–the investigative-journalism film, neglecting  to add a fresh take, an angle that will make it different and novel rather than significant and familiar.

How did your Irish Catholic background influence the film?

It certainly prompted my interest. When I was approached by Blye Faust and Nicole Rocklin with this story and the rights to the reporters, the first person I sat down with was my father. I said: ‘I’m doing this.’ He’s a very strong Catholic. And I told him: ‘As soon as they announce it in the papers, you and mom are going to hear about it.’ And sure enough calls started coming from all their friends saying, ‘Why is he doing this?’ ‘Can’t we move on?’ But they heard me out why I wanted to do it, and they agreed.

Meeting the Boston Globe Reporters

From day-one, Josh Singer, who co-wrote the screenplay, and I went down to Boston, sat down with each of them. We started expanding and sat down with the lawyers, survivors, family members, former reporters, lawyers, editors, publishers. Anyone who would talk to us. We were just trying to get as many angles to the story as we could and really trying to understand the context of not just life at the Globe at the time, but of life in Boston.

Now the reporters text me all the time. They are completely annoying. They are relentless reporters. It’s a funny relationship because they are sometimes the trickiest people to interview. Reporters weirdly don’t like that.

Ultimately they are the heroes of our story, and I think we all owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they did. That said, they become our subjects too, so there is always that line that at one point we are going to have to tell the story, and maybe it won’t all be favorable to some degree.

The film as statement for old fashioned investigative journalism?

We are all well aware what’s happened to the journalism industry in the past 10 years. But I’m not sure the general public is. I’m not sure they understand what they’ve lost. Specifically, this story is about local journalism. Boston is a big city, but the Globe is a local paper. We still have very strong national syndications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but they are national papers and I feel like certain stories can only work on a local level. This story went on to have major national and international impact. But it started in that city with those local reporters. But I’m not sure the public understands that. I’m not sure those who will see the movie will say: ‘Wow! That barely exists anymore.’ They are not going to know that it’s too late. The ice caps have melted. These papers are gone, they’re decimated. Can citizen journalists replace them? Absolutely not.

Reality-based picture in the vein of All The President’s Men

The subject always determines the aesthetics on some level. There is a classic approach to this film. There is something unadorned about it,  something unsensational. The camera isn’t overly intrusive. We try not to manipulate. We try not to romanticize. Wittingly or not, we took our lead from the reporters and the work that they did, which is to say: ‘We got to get this right and just present the fact and those facts will have such emotional value, which they did.’ It’s also very much an ensemble movie in ways I don’t see much anymore. I had to trust my actors. They liked being trusted with the scene. The material dictated that.

Michael Keaton’s First Movie after Birdman

‘Birdman’ hadn’t been released yet. His name came up. I thought: ‘Wow! That’s really interesting.’ Immediately he sort of felt right to me. I said: ‘I’d like to see what he’s doing now just to get a sense of where he’s at as an actor.’ Someone said: ‘There’s this movie “Birdman,” so they organized a screening. I remember I had to leave the screening half way to get a flight to L.A. for a meeting about this movie. So I literally watched only half of it. I was at Searchlight. It was horrible to leave because I was so into the movie. But I realized he was at the top of his form. I remembered him from Ron Howard’s movie, “The Paper,” and that turned out to be Spotlight editor Robby Robinson’s favorite movie.

Other similarities?

Both guys can be really playful and really easy, but also wear authority easy and have a swagger in them, and they can be motherfuckers if you cross them. Both can be scary. I mean that genuinely about both men. I think that’s an important element; that edge.

Difficulties to finance?

It was brutal. It was dead three times. It kept falling apart. I think everyone wanted to make the movie. I think Participant Media certainly did; Anonymous Content did; eOne did; we did. Everyone saw the potential for the movie. But it’s just so difficult right now to make movies like this. That’s the reality of it.

Significance of opening the film in Italy?

There are two places I wanted to take this movie. One is Italy, the other is Ireland. My heritage is Irish, I was raised Catholic. There is also a selfish part of me that just wanted to come to the Venice Film Festival. But it was not lost on me that this would be the perfect place to premiere this movie. I was very excited to see this with an Italian audience, because that audience will be predominantly Catholic and even those that aren’t will certainly understand the power of the Church.

Response from the Catholic Church?

There is a new pope now who I think is a really interesting person. I have been following him very closely. I am fascinated by him, and I’m very encouraged. That said, because of my experience with this movie and knowing a lot of people involved on all sides of the issues, I remain a little pessimistic to how much impact he can have on the Catholic Church. They are slow to change, they are slow to do anything. Someone said: ‘What do you think the response will be?’ I guarantee you, there will be no response from the Catholic Church.