Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer on Wrangling the Story of ‘Spotlight’

Also: How did McCarthy take the critical thrashing of 'The Cobbler?'

Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer on
Courtesy of Open Road

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” is in the middle of wrapping up a whirlwind trio of festival plays in Venice, Telluride and Toronto. It emerged from Telluride as perhaps the most popular film of the fest, a satisfying deep dive into the Boston Globe’s expose on pedophilia in the Catholic Church. Set for a November 6 release, it’s in a position to become Open Road Films’ first best picture nominee to date.

I sat down with McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer in Telluride to discuss the thematic complexity of the film, difficulties in making material that is not inherently visual move at a clip and how casting these real life heroes was important to the experience. Plus: How did McCarthy take the critical thrashing of his last film, “The Cobbler?”


I want to start by talking about the pacing. It’s hard to make material this dry really move, but the two of you did an incredible job on the page with that, and in the editing, the movie just cruises along.

Josh Singer: We wrote dozens, dozens and dozens of drafts. We did a first draft very quickly and kept going at it and going at it, and Tom would always have this innate sense of, like, “No, we’re not fast enough here.” It was almost like an education, getting to sort of follow that lead. And it went all the way through to when we were on set. We did a ton of rewriting on set. I’ve never in the past understood why you would rewrite on set. But you see this thing being created and evolving around you and again, it was always Tom saying, “We don’t quite have this scene,” or, “It’s not doing what it needs to do at this point in the picture. What can we do?” We’d be arguing back and forth in the car and we’d come up with a conclusion and then we’d go spend an hour writing over a beer. It was relentless.

What were some examples of things you felt you had to tinker with on the day, maybe bigger picture stuff that you felt needed to be dialed in?

Tom McCarthy: Well keep in mind, cinematically speaking, the challenge of the script was there’s so much information. So how to continue to make that active, and at the same point we’re trying to lay out the story and the investigation in such a way that we’re transporting people back to a time when they didn’t know anything about the size or scope of this story. We’re experiencing through the reporters and their work how this story is sort of exponentially growing on them. So we were constantly rejiggering when we were letting what information be known and how.

Josh and I wrote very hard for a long time. We both went away, did other projects. I actually made “The Cobbler” and then came back to it when I was editing. So for me as a writer I had the opportunity to be in, like, editorial mode as we were doing our final rewrites. That speaks a lot to transitions and pace. We were trying to represent this as true to life as possible. We weren’t overdramatizing a lot of things. We weren’t sensationalizing or sentimentalizing. So we knew to some degree these would be talkie, dry scenes and pace and transitions were going to be really crucial to what ended up on screen.

I really appreciated the overarching theme of systemic failure, not just the Catholic Church but also the newspaper missing the story. Was that something you went into the project with or is that something that you kind of discovered about the material as you went?

McCarthy: No I think that came out of our investigation of their investigation. At the beginning of this they were our heroes. They still are our heroes. Those reporters are heroes. The work was heroic; that’s once-in-a-generation reporting. It has a world impact, that story. We’re still feeling it. But I think when the story really caught fire for us was when we realized that it was, you know, that quote that Garabedian has midway through the movie when he says, “It takes a village to raise a child. It takes a village to abuse one.” I think when we put our flag in that idea, the whole movie started to transcend, this particular case of journalists going after an institution. It became much more universal and speaks to so many other things that exist today, whether it’s Penn State or Bill Cosby or the Iraq War, the run-up and the coverage including The New York Times and all the other wonderful newspapers that covered that. How do these things exist for so long when we all sort of have some sense that something bad is happening? Why don’t we act? When we kind of landed on that I feel like we really started to find the guts of this movie.

The line you mention is also quite notable given how much Boston is identified for being a tight-knit community.

Singer: One of the things Marty Baron said to us is that Boston is one of the few eastern seaboard towns which faces in. It doesn’t face out to the harbor, right? It faces in. Really it’s all around the Common. And they call it “the hub.” He always thought that was a pretty apt metaphor for Boston. It’s got a slightly clannish feel.

Tom, when you set about casting, what was it about each of these reporters that you kind of wanted to turn out in a performance and how did that point you to the actors you settled on?

McCarthy: The casting almost starts in the writing process, in the creation. Because as writers we’re trying to get to the heart of the character, what makes that character unique. Not just to the rest of the reporters but to the world of media, right? It’s starting to zero in on essence. Robby [played by Michael Keaton] is an incredibly dynamic personality. He has a commanding presence. He can be really funny. He can be really harsh. He can be really paternal and he can be really kid-like. Sacha [Rachel McAdams] was just incredibly straightforward, incredibly relentless, inquisitive, a great listener. Mike [Mark Ruffalo] just had this energy. Just so cocksure. You could immediately feel that it was like vibrating and I think Ruffalo caught that so perfectly. With Brian d’Arcy James’ character, you just got this idea of this really grounded, centered guy who showed up, worked his ass off, did his job and went home to his family who he valued more than anybody. So with each character we’re always trying to get to like what defines this person. If you do that well in the script stage, the casting gets a lot easier because you really understand what you’re looking for in terms of fundamentals.

I’ve talked to Keaton before about his sort of closet passion for journalism in his youth. Is that something the two of you were ever interested in pursuing?

McCarthy: I always thought it was something I might do but never something that I truly considered. I always wanted to be an architect when I was younger. That was sort of my dream job, so, not in that way. I will say I’ve always been a little bit of a news junkie. I probably have to give David Simon a lot of credit because when I did “The Wire,” the fifth season, which was all about the collapse of the newspaper industry, he just educated me a lot. He really taught me a lot in his way, both through the work and just through my research and then talking with him. His viewpoints on the industry, what happened, where it’s going, what it was. David writes beautifully on the topic and also speaks beautifully.

Singer: I wrote a movie called “The Fifth Estate,” about WikiLeaks. When I went to research that movie I sort of felt, like, “My goodness. I have two movies on my hands. I have the one about Daniel Domscheit-Berg and Julian Assange, and one about the Guardian guys, specifically Nick Davies and Alan Rusbridger, David Lee and Julian. I had originally went down the path telling the first and so I put the second to the side. And I think in retrospect I was much more interested in the second, which is traditional journalism versus what Julian and some of his acolytes do now. And so when Tom came to me and said, “Are you interested in this,” I said absolutely. By portraying journalists doing well, as Tom said earlier, you know, you can portray what the vacuum is when they’re gone. They are so vital to a democracy.

Did you take any kind of stylistic cues from great newspaper dramas of the past?

McCarthy: I think probably our greatest inspiration was from the actual reporters themselves. There was something so unadorned and unsensational about the way they approached. Look at the headline on the story [“Church Allowed Abuse By Priest For Years”]. You could almost glance over the headline unless you stop and look at it and then it’s just so clear and so powerful for that reason. I feel like we were constantly talking about how to do that in such a way. We realized it was a strong stylistic choice in its simplicity, that approach. I think it started with Josh in the script stage and then continued on. Everyone that came on including Steve Carter and Wendy Chuck did a wonderful job on the wardrobe. And then of course Masanobu Takayanagi, he immediately got it and we knew when we were doing too much with the camera.

We also realized we had 12 great actors leading this ensemble of 20 some actors, right. Twelve great actors who were very comfortable in the space. And a lot of times we could allow that to play. That, as a director and as a cinematographer, that’s a great luxury. I knew if I put, you know, Liev and Michael in a scene or Liev and John [Slattery] in a scene, they would hold it because they were just those type of actors. Not all film actors can do that. So we were constantly trying to approach the material and let that aesthetic dictate us more than look. But for me it’s always Sidney’s movies that just speak to me, because I feel like he was so efficient with his camera and so emotionally accurate.

Lumet or Pollack?

Lumet. But Pollock was pretty damn good, too. I just think that Lumet for me was maybe the master of that. When the camera moved, he meant it. There’s other directors who bring a nice sloppiness to it, right? And so it feels really visceral and feels real. I feel like Ruffalo would live beautifully in that era, do you know what I mean? He would do things — like there’s one scene that didn’t make the cut so I couldn’t use it for technical reasons, but he’s chewing gum in a scene and he got up to go into Garabedian’s office and he spit the gum in his side pocket. I’m like, “That’s awesome.” It tells you everything you need to know about the guy. He doesn’t give a shit about his bag and he realizes he’s got his f***ing gum and he’s smart enough to go, “I can’t go do an interview [with gum in my mouth].” It’s such a great, weird reporter [thing] that you know he’s done 10 times.

Were you bummed out that you had to go to Toronto to shoot rather than do the whole thing in Boston?

McCarthy: I’ve got to credit Michael Bederman, one of our producers. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t have a movie. He single-handedly willed this thing into happening. 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, he’s up in Toronto scouting. Our budget kept shrinking, shrinking, shrinking. We all pretty much lost money on this movie. But he was the first one who said, “I know you’re going to freak out. Just consider it.” And after I freaked out, I considered it. What hooked me was hey, we shoot all our exteriors in Boston. Then we go up. If you broke down the script, so much happened in the newsroom, in the Spotlight room. Those are sets anyway. Who cares if we’re in Brighton or in Toronto? Let’s go build it. And that worked much to our advantage because once we got to Toronto we had these world class crews who were incredibly helpful in getting the movie done. But we were lucky enough to shoot at The Globe a lot. So we’re always marrying The Globe to our two sets, which is a little tricky, but it worked pretty well.

Something I found interesting about The Globe is that it’s so removed from the city. I’ve probably passed it on the freeway there but I’ve never really thought about it until one shot in the film kind of sets that spacial relationship to the city.

Singer: That’s actually one of the ways they became one of the preeminent papers in Boston. About 50-60 years ago — probably longer now, but 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. And The Globe had the idea of, “O.K., we’re going to make the factory outside, right on the highway,” right? So because they’re right on the highway the papers could roll out without any competition. Just get out first. And so they built this and it’s amazing because then it’s one of the rare things. I think they’ve sold the building. But, you know, the factory is connected.

McCarthy: You can walk through it. You see in it that scene were Ruffalo and them are walking down and they end up in the records room.

Singer: And they routinely have to walk through that in order to get from one place to the other. So there’s a real connection to the tangible print.

McCarthy: Being in that building is literally like being on an ocean liner. I have weird scenes where they’re just walking through a press room downstairs, down a hallway and everyone early on was like, “Cut those scenes. It’s too much walking. What are you doing?” But what I really like is, to me it visually spoke to the institutional power of The Boston Globe at that moment. It is massive. It is like a basilica. When you think of architecture colliding you think of the size of that building. And subconsciously I’ll bet no one will pick that up. But it was very important to me that that was the power of the building. What is that building, 40,000 square feet? It’s massive.

Singer: It’s enormous.

And thematically the remove is interesting, too, just because of being objective observers.

Singer: Yeah, totally. Away from the other institutions. The ironic fact is that it sits on William Morrissey Blvd. At the time Donna Morrissey was, I believe, the granddaughter of Bill Morrissey, who was a sort of fix it guy for the Kennedys. And BC High sits across the street also on Morrissey Blvd. So it gives you the sense of just how tightly wound and connected this city is.

Tom pushed us to really think about theme. “What is this movie about?” Obviously there’s the Church and the issue, which we had to really learn about. But beyond that it’s about journalism. For a long time we thought, “Oh, journalism is the central idea,” before we wound up planting our flag in institutional deference. We did a lot of reading and research and one of the things that you read by this fellow Clay Shirky, he basically pointed to the fact that one of the reasons The Globe was able to succeed in taking on the Church is because they had the resources to put journalists on this for a long, long period of time. They had an institution that could take on the Church, that would survive. Because the church thinks in centuries. And The Globe can think long term as well. There were other papers who had raised this issue, The Phoenix in particular. But they didn’t have the power that The Globe had, which is really something that was necessary. When you look at what The Globe had it speaks to what journalists need and why you need this kind of traditional investigative journalism to take on and cover these sorts of issues.

Finally, Tom, you brought up “The Cobbler” earlier and I was just curious how you took the intensely negative reaction to that film. I didn’t see it until recently myself, so by the time I came around to it, it seemed like that was a little over blown.

They definitely came after me. I love the movie. I’m very proud I made it. I’m happy I made it. I understand people expect a certain thing from me and sometimes when you switch that up they don’t agree. But look, my job is to tell stories and that’s going to happen sometimes. And I wear it as a little as a badge of honor. That said, I’m human and when you have movies that don’t connect with audiences — although I’m not sure that’s the case. It’s still very popular on Netflix but didn’t connect with critics, you know? You do feel that.

Maybe you needed to fire that warning shot, so people don’t expect one kind of thing out of you.

Yeah, I think that was it. You know it’s funny. I just went in to do this talk up here in Telluride and the woman who was doing the talk said, “I feel like I shouldn’t be talking about ‘The Cobbler.'” And I was like, “God bless you. We can talk about it.” She said, “I watched it with my husband. We were so moved. He speaks Yiddish.” And she went on this whole thing. I don’t know why people freaked out about that movie. It’s not for everyone. But in some ways it had a really strong artistic impact on me. You know what I mean? You’re going to learn from those things.