There are news stories that people talk about for years after they were published that often, cause people to think and change. The 2002 Boston Globe Spotlight team exposed the systematic cover up of sex abuse by priests in the Catholic Church, and while that story itself could easily be a Hollywood film, in Spotlight, the main story is the reporters, the newsroom, and the culture of Boston itself. There is no Hollywood glitz and glamour here, despite an all star cast of Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James, reporters are shown in true investigative form and Boston is shown for who it is- it’s people.
I recently got a chance to sit down with director and co-writer Tom McCarthy to talk about Spotlight- the story, the direction and dealing with Red Sox fans while shooting.
How did you come across this story about this group of journalists and start working on it?
It first came to me when I was working on Win Win, and I had to pass because I didn’t have the brain capacity for it. It was offered again to me, years later, and I was like- how did I pass on this? I feel like I was the right person to tell this story, both personal and professional, so I did something I had never done before. I said look, I’m writing something else write now, so why don’t I start, I’ll sign on as a director and we’ll hire a writer and I will oversee the writing of it, and I will direct it. I mean, I’ll do a pass on it if I need to and we hired Josh Singer shortly thereafter.
Josh’s first trip up to Boston, I tagged along because I wanted to be there for the first introductions and I was instantly taken with the people, and the story and right after that, I called Josh and said I’m going to jump on this with you- I’m not gonna wait for a draft, I want to be involved from the ground up.
What has the telling of this story taught you about journalism and journalists?
That we need reporters, we need boots on the ground. These aggregate sites, they aren’t enough- they’re good, they’re helpful but um, but we need a new model. The one thing we know is that people need to pay for their news, something that good shouldn’t be free. I don’t free sushi, you know? I want to pay and I want to pay good for it, but we need to pay for our news.
Most “crime” films show the crime being committed, which we don’t see in the film. Why is that?
The closest we come is the opening. I mean, this isn’t a murder so we didn’t feel that we needed to show the abuse. The reason we opened with that scene is because we think that speaks to the greater theme of the movie, which is a culture and a society, of not only secret but complicity indifference, which are central themes. I think that makes it more universal than just a story of reporters going after a big institution like the Catholic church. That is the reason we had the scene at the beginning cause you know there was newspapers, priests, lawyers, parents, and everyone had an idea of what was going on but nobody did anything. Why? Those are the big questions that we want to rise with this film. That’s the greater theme in the movie.
Boston is very much a character in the film, but unlike most films where the city is a character, there was no large swooping city shots- why is that?
I was actually being leaned on to get swooping shots. It looks good. I like them and their aesthetically pleasing. For me, this was a movie about the inside out really. That scared some studio people because they want the movie to feel big. Just know that was a discussion we had. My DP and I had a talk about it. It didn’t feel like…They never seemed essential to the story at hand
The scene where they’re at the Red Sox game, was their any instances where the audience got a little out of hand or hard to control?
We shot with some long lenses – some 40 feet from the action, shooting through the crowd. Some people didn’t even see us. Suddenly I’d see someone standing right in front of the camera, saying, ‘Hey! It’s Mark Ruffalo! Hey man! Can I get you a beer?’ Mark, being the nicest guy on the planet said, ‘No. It’s okay.’ The guy was like, ‘What are you drinking?’ He said, dropping out of the scene, ‘It’s non-alcoholic.’ He’s like [mimics dumbfounded fan], ‘Non-alcoholic?!’ Didn’t go over well at Fenway. He eventually moved on. I still don’t think he realized he walking into the scene, but four innings later, this guy shows back up. Says, ‘Hey Ruffalo! Non-alcoholic!’ The whole section clapped. I was looking at my DP like, ‘Oh boy. We’re gonna be here all night.’ The other funny thing was the Red Sox had been horrible that year and the whole scene was about how they can’t get a hit. Of course they won on a 12 run explosion in one inning. So everyone was cheering and we had to sit and wait for them to stop scoring. As a Yankee fan, I took that personal.
Spotlight is open in theaters and is rated R.