‘Black Mass,’ ‘Spotlight’ Filmmakers on Boston’s Emotional Scars

Scott Cooper, Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer discuss the city's importance to their films and how its social psychology played into their work.

'Black Mass,' 'Spotlight' Filmmakers on Boston's Emotional Scars
Courtesy of Warner Bros./Open Road

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass” and Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” — a pair of films that premiered in Venice before hustling back here for North American bows over the weekend — are intriguing not just for their shared setting of the city of Boston, but for themes that tie into the tight-knit community there.

Both films are about systemic failures in some sense. For “Spotlight,” it’s a dual consideration: the failure of the Catholic Church to keep its own house in order and that of the venerable Boston Globe to catch the story of pedophilia run rampant within the Church for so many years. For “Black Mass,” it’s about how the F.B.I. — through a diabolical “alliance” with gangster James “Whitey” Bulger — essentially allowed one of the most notorious mob bosses in U.S. history to flourish. As a result, each respective failure has left horrible emotional scars on the city.

“One of the things [former Boston Globe editor] Marty Baron said to us is that Boston is one of the few eastern seaboard towns which faces in,” says “Spotlight” co-writer Josh Singer. “It doesn’t face out to the harbor. It faces in. He always thought that was a pretty apt metaphor for Boston. It’s got a slightly clannish feel.”

Cooper says he was quite drawn to that nature, which led him to explore themes of allegiance inherent in the community.

“Boston is unlike any city I’ve been to in America,” he says. “It’s extremely tightly knit. It’s segregated, of course, because the Italians are in the North End and Irish-Americans are in Southie, and you can really feel that — not in a negative way, just for generations. And it’s a city where people feel really strongly about their convictions.”

Indeed, so much so in the case of disgraced F.B.I. agent John Connolly (played by Joel Edgerton in Cooper’s film) that rather than turn state’s evidence on childhood friend Bulger, he accepted a 40-year prison sentence. “That sense of loyalty really struck me,” Cooper says.

Equally important to both filmmakers was shooting in the city, and Cooper was fortunate to do so. “I wouldn’t have made the movie if I had to shoot it in, I don’t know, Toronto or New York,” he says. “It was such an important character, as important as Whitey Bulger or John Connolly.”

McCarthy, however, did have to settle for Toronto. But after a brief “freak-out” stage, he was sold on the concept of shooting exteriors in Boston and interiors north of the border.

“I’ve got to credit Michael Bederman, one of our producers,” McCarthy says. “When there was no money and when they were pulling the plug, he kept going to Toronto. He kept pushing on it, kept scouting. We were dead, dead, dead on the table, and he’s up in Toronto scouting. But if you broke down the script, so much happened in the newsroom. Those are sets anyway. Who cares if we’re in Brighton or in Toronto? Let’s go build it.”

Both films were shot by lenser Masanobu Takayanagi, interestingly enough. And one image in particular from “Spotlight” stands out for showcasing the fifth estate’s remove from the community it covers: The Boston Globe in the foreground along the freeway, the city skyline far off in the distance.

“That’s one of the ways they became one of the preeminent papers in Boston,” Singer says. “Several years ago there were a ton of papers and they were all downtown. So all the trucks used to compete for how to get those papers out first. The Globe had the idea of, ‘O.K., we’re going to make the factory outside, right on the highway.’ Because of that the papers could roll out without any competition and just get out first.”

Both films have drawn raves at the festivals, and speaking at least for Telluride audiences, have come away as favorites on the lineup. It will no doubt be interesting to see how the citizens of Boston take to these very intimate glimpses of their community. Cooper will know soon enough, as he’ll be heading there in a few weeks to premiere “Black Mass.”

“Given the scars and the victims’ families, I’m a bit trepidatious,” he says. “They lived with this for two decades. But the city welcomed us with open arms while shooting, so I’m excited for them to see it.”