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On the Reserved and Refined Crafts of ‘Spotlight’

The year's critics awards champ is struggling for recognition below the line, if only because it's not screaming for it.

Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” shot out of the Venice and Telluride film festival circuit like a cannon, a satisfying drama expertly paced on the page and acted with precision by an organically in-tune ensemble. Below the line, however, it has faltered in the awards race, perhaps owed to its lack of frills and manner in the face of the ornate and more overtly wrought stylings of other films this year.

But that was the intention. “For ‘Spotlight,’ the marching order was really to be true to what happened, the reality of it,” says cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who transitioned from the more baroque framing and lighting of Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” to the much more casual visual style of McCarthy’s journalism drama, which was designed to put the viewer right there on the beat with reporters breaking a landmark story.

“There was nothing I had to impose,” he continues. “It was like we could almost just bring the camera in and capture it. And when we visited the real Boston Globe, it kind of hit me. It was the first time for me to go into a newsroom where the reporters work, and it’s kind of fascinating to see them work the phones and how much information would go in, but they’re very calm.”

Takayanagi and McCarthy didn’t get bogged down in discussing the film’s visual identity with referencing and such, though they did take a look at French filmmaker Maïwenn’s 2011 film “Polisse,” about the Child Protection Unit of the Paris Police. “That was not specifically visual, though,” Takayanagi says. “It was how blunt those conversations about child abuse happen among the characters.”

Most of the early discussion centered on the emotional elements of the story, which really landed for Takayanagi when he first read the script. He was drawn to the fact that you don’t invest too much in any one character, and yet “for some reason, there was really great emotional flow in it,” he says.

One visual decision of note revolved around the use of handheld photography. The film utilized handheld considerably everywhere apart from inside the actual Spotlight office, where it would more often settle down with locked-off tripod shots. This was to establish the focused work being put into the story in that space, deep within the bowels of the Globe, and the comparative chaos of gathering the information away from those confines.

When it came to post-production, editor Tom McArdle had his work cut out for him. Keeping material this potentially dry interesting and moving is a challenge, even if a lot of the heavy lifting vis-a-vis pace happened in the script stage.

“We spent eight months editing and we spent a lot of time thinking about pace and clarity,” McArdle says. “We would have screenings every three weeks and sort of feel where things were playing well and where they might be lagging. We ended up cutting out five complete scenes and then pieces of other scenes. A lot of scenes we would just cut out a line or two of dialogue just to keep it moving, but it was definitely a concern, to keep it interesting to people.”

McArdle, who has edited each of McCarthy’s features to date, was in a position to see some added backstory for some of the characters that was ultimately dispatched, leaving a residue of a private life for each of them that is rarely plumbed by the narrative.

“Some of the scenes were scenes of the reporters’ personal lives, and it just sort of seemed later in the edit that we wanted to stay focused on the investigation and we didn’t want things to sort of throw us off that course,” he says. “On [McCarthy’s] other films there were scenes we would have had a concern about losing, but not this one.”

A lot of his work in the micro was about clarifying things. Sometimes, he says, you don’t have to trim something, you just have to make it clearer for the viewer, and then it feels tighter, “because the audience is more involved with what’s happening,” he says. But there wasn’t much of an opportunity to experiment structurally, because this was a story based quite specifically on chronology.

The end result remains one of the most critically acclaimed films of the year, one that has reaped countless awards since the start of the season and will perhaps claim quite a few more before it’s all said and done. It may be struggling for recognition outside of a best picture/best director/best screenplay framework, but if anything, “Spotlight” is a reminder of subtlety in crafts, and how being refined and reserved can serve a story brilliantly, if the story calls for it.

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