‘Spotlight’: The Story Behind Tom McCarthy’s ‘Love Letter to Investigative Journalism’

Spotlight Movie Michael Keaton Tom McCarthy
Robert Maxwell for Variety

COVER STORY: For more than a decade, America’s daily newspapers have faced their own mortality.

Print circulation has plummeted nearly 50%. Ad revenue has plunged to less than half its one-time high. Two in five newsroom employees have been handed pink slips, forcing many to seek work in precincts outside the Fourth Estate.

Robert Maxwell for Variety; Grooming: Amy Komorowski at Art Department (Keaton); Asia Geiger at Art Department (Robinson and McCarthy); On set styling: Seth Howard

That doesn’t exactly make a newspaper an obvious backdrop for a movie — or a ripe setting for praiseworthy endeavors. Yet “Spotlight” places journalists and the printed word shamelessly front and center, celebrating a quiet kind of heroism. No wonder preview and festival audiences are chock-full of ink-stained wretches swelling with pride and affirmation.

But it’s not mere nostalgia that has put director Tom McCarthy’s fifth film prominently in the conversation for best picture and multiple other potential honors this awards season. What’s making “Spotlight” the “it” movie of the moment, even prior to its Nov. 6 theatrical debut, is that it has pre-release audiences talking not just about journalism and freedom of the press, but about the Catholic Church, Pope Francis’ stance on the plague of sexual abuse by priests and even about the bounds of faith.

With an ensemble cast led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber, the movie tells the real-life story of the Boston Globe’s four-member investigative reporting team (aka Spotlight) which uncovered the scandal and massive cover-up of child molestation within the local Catholic Archdiocese beginning in 2001.

A throwback in more than just its setting (the Globe newsroom), the production (backed by Open Road Films) evokes filmmaking of another era. The story is notable for eschewing the building blocks of today’s most popular movies — CGI pyrotechnics, comic-book superheroes, sex and violence.

Instead, the script, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, advances character and plot gradually and assuredly. “Spotlight” is a slow burn. The investigation gets sidetracked. The journalists are flawed. But they are the only ones in a position to hold a powerful institution accountable for its greatest failing. With a monolithic adversary and children as the victims, the filmmakers establish a powerful rooting interest among the audience.

“Ultimately, we decided we didn’t have the time or real estate” to focus on the struggles of newspapers, McCarthy says. “It would have been too editorial. We really wanted the story to play on its own merits.”

“Kids’ lives, their welfare, are still very much at stake. This problem is not going away. You do not get over a problem that has existed for hundreds of years in just 10 years.” – Tom McCarthy on tackling the story of sex abuse by priests in “Spotlight”. Robert Maxwell for Variety.

Adds Singer: “The best way to show the continuing importance of journalism is to just show great local journalism. And, by the way, both this story and Watergate started as great local journalism.”

“Spotlight’s” realistic evocation of high-stakes investigative reporting has drawn comparisons to “All the President’s Men.” Director Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 award-winning classic about the Watergate scandal celebrated how two young reporters from the Washington Post, Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), helped bring down a corrupt president.

In the four decades that have followed, journalists have often been portrayed as ethically or morally challenged, as in 1987’s “Broadcast News” and 2014’s “Nightcrawler.” The profession has fared better when it has been pitted against powerful, and powerfully corrupt, institutions. Michael Mann’s “The
Insider” (1999) embraced a television producer’s expose on Big Tobacco, while George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) celebrated Edward R. Murrow’s take-down of red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

Yet, with few exceptions, journalism films have failed to break out at the box office. Nearly four decades after its release, “All the President’s Men” remains the leader in the genre, with a $70 million domestic take, which 1981’s “Broadcast News” ($51 million) and 1994’s “The Paper” ($39 million) couldn’t come close to matching. Despite critical acclaim, “The Insider” limped to $29 million in the U.S. on a production budget of $90 million.

“Spotlight’s” subject matter could have been off-putting. But the journalist-sleuths create an avenue for audiences to understand an unsettling subculture of rape and abused authority. More than a dozen years after the Globe’s revelations, the public has come to understand that higher-ups in the Catholic Church condoned, and even enabled, the wrongdoing.

Coincidentally, the film will land three weeks after “Truth,” another much-anticipated journalism procedural built around a big news story. But that picture, starring Cate Blanchett as CBS producer Mary Mapes and Robert Redford as anchorman Dan Rather, has the additional challenge of treading on a decade-old story that still remains raw. The CBS duo gets a highly sympathetic hearing in “Truth” (based on Mapes’ book) while asking moviegoers to forgive, or at least understand, how the pair used unverified documents to challenge then-President George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard. Blowback is inevitable.

JOURNALISM CHIC: Rachel McAdams, Tom McCarthy, Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo work amid a re-creation of the Boston Globe newsroom in “Spotlight.”

“Spotlight’s” McCarthy, 49, who has earned acclaim for directing films like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” got a taste of the rich possibilities in journalism as subject matter when he played a corrupt reporter in the fifth season of HBO crime series “The Wire.” McCarthy says that the show’s creator, David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, “imbued me with a feeling for the importance of that kind of blue-collar approach, that roll-up-your-sleeves quality, that insatiable desire to get to the truth that great journalists have.”

Novelist and freelance journalist David Mizner pitched the Spotlight concept to producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust in 2011. They then teamed with Michael Sugar and Steve Golin of Anonymous Content, and the group hired McCarthy who, in turn, brought on fellow writer Singer (who penned the Julian Assange biopic “The Fifth Estate”). The film also got a strong push and financial backing from Participant Media, which has focused on journalism films like “Good Night and Good Luck” (2005) and last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Feature Documentary, “Citizenfour.”

The filmmakers took the lead for “Spotlight’s” narrative structure from their subjects. There would be no star, but rather an ensemble — reporters Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), led by Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton). They would be set on their path, and inspired, by a new editor, Martin “Marty” Baron (Schreiber), who from his first day on the job asked a simple question: Why hadn’t the Globe focused its full attention on years of reports about sexually abusive priests?

“After sitting with all of these really interesting people,” McCarthy recalls, “Josh and I committed: ‘Let’s just trust the story’— how layered, how compelling and how textured it was.”

The filmmakers morphed into something like their subjects in the months preceding the shoot. They pored over accounts about troubles in the newspaper business, reviewed the more than 600 Globe stories on the abuse scandal, and plowed into court files and correspondence.

HARD TO BE EASY: Says Keaton of Walter “Robby” Robinson, the Spotlight team editor the actor portays: “He’s … easygoing. But when he needs to drop the hammer, he doesn’t hesitate.”
Robert Maxwell for Variety

Two weeks prior to shooting, McCarthy and Singer sat down with journalists Robinson and Rezendes, and spent more than six hours dissecting every line in the script to purge any false notes. When McCarthy felt the journalists were agreeing to some language to be polite, he pressed them to give him the actual words they would have used.

Journalists will recognize much of their world in “Spotlight”: reporters scarfing down junk food on the run, massaging sources who cringe at even the sight of a notebook, fighting with an editor about when a story needs to run. The narrative is the rare journalism story that shows reporters actually caring about their subjects. And it may be one of the first films to feature scribes doing the tedious work of inputting information into a computer to build a data base. Who knew that kind of work could be cinematic?

The actors spent hours with their subjects — Keaton picking up Robinson’s fleeting Boston accent; McAdams finding a certain way that reporter Pfeiffer held her hands; Ruffalo mastering the half-cough tick of the kinetic Rezendes. Veteran data journalist Carroll was tickled that the production designers, led by Stephen H. Carter, nailed down every kitschy detail of the scruffy Spotlight newsroom, right down to the paper Dunkin’ Donuts cup ever perched on his desk.

For Keaton, the part of stalwart but low-key newshound Robinson could have been a comedown a year after his turn as the tormented, over-the-hill movie star in “Birdman,” which earned him a best actor Oscar nomination. “What I was fearful about after doing ‘Birdman’ — which was a tightrope walk every day, and nerve-wracking and unbelievably exciting every minute — was that I would find more traditional moviemaking dull,” Keaton says. “The good news is that that didn’t happen at all.”

Keaton — who had played a New York City tabloid editor in Ron Howard’s “The Paper” — became close with Robinson, the two a pair of lapsed Catholics (like McCarthy and other members of the real-life Spotlight team), who had a passion for sports, politics and brisk conversation. The actor’s Robby is all good cheer and gentle cajoling, until his adversaries need to see he will not bend.

“He’s the guy who is easygoing, and gives everybody in the room a lot of space to do what they need to do,” Keaton says. “But when he needs to drop the hammer, he doesn’t hesitate to say: ‘I am not asking you. I am telling you.’ ”

“What I was fearful about after doing ‘Birdman’ was that I would find more traditional moviemaking dull. The good news is that that didn’t happen at all.”
Michael Keaton

Keaton’s steel-fist-in-a-velvet-glove performance is receiving supporting actor attention. But awards recognition is also likely for Schreiber, as the powerful but relentlessly understated Baron, and Ruffalo, who personifies “Spotlight’s” moral outrage as the tightly wound, workaholic Rezendes.

A decade ago, Showtime took a swing at the same story, with the TV movie “Our Fathers.” But that effort was panned as superficial and emotionally hollow. The Globe journalists recall being so disappointed by the made-for in 2005 that a viewing party they held folded early.

“You have a lot of reservations when you give somebody license to fictionalize your life,” says Pfeiffer, a Globe journalist again after an absence to work at NPR. “But, for the most part, our lives aren’t really even fictionalized. And our work is not fictionalized. They just captured what it was really like.”

Baron, now one of the most celebrated editors in America as leader of the Washington Post, says he is “thrilled” with “Spotlight.” “I think it’s a love letter to investigative journalism and to local journalism,” he notes. “It speaks to the impact we can have if we devote the energy and resources to difficult work. It’s kind of a reminder of our highest and most important mission.”

The larger journalistic community seems to agree. At a the end of a screening at the inaugural Investigative Film Festival in Washington, D.C., late last month, 300 journalists stood and cheered. At a panel discussion afterward, acclaimed showrunner Simon said the film was like “nostalgic porn” for an old newspaperman.

“It’s the kind of film that doesn’t get told enough, because it lacks all the things that the entertainment industry thinks is currency,” Simon, whose most recent project was “Show Me a Hero” for HBO, told the gathering. “There’s not a lot of sex in it, not a lot of violence, but there’s a lot of paper, and there are a lot of ideas and a lot of humanity.”

Despite the Globe’s expose — and investigations that followed at other newspapers around the country — the “Spotlight” filmmakers and their journalistic muses all believe that the Catholic Church has not adequately confronted sexual abuse by clergy. They were troubled that, during his recent visit to America, Pope Francis initially praised bishops for their response to the scandal.

“I think (those comments) make a majority of people think, ‘Well, the church is changing and we can lower our vigilance,’ ” McCarthy says. “And what does that mean, in reality? Kids lives, their welfare, are still very much at stake. This problem is not going away. You do not get over a problem that has existed for hundreds of years in just 10 years.”

Walter “Robby” Robinson Robert Maxwell for Variety

While the movie holds the church primarily culpable, part of the elegance of the “Spotlight” story is that no individual or institution shoulders all the blame. McCarthy and Singer’s script reveals how inertia and deference to authority allowed countless children to be abused, even though many people had at least an inkling of what was going on. A subtext in the film follows who, inside the newspaper, could have done more.

“This was going on in every archdiocese in the country,” says Robinson, now editor at large at the Globe. “And in every archdiocese, there was a major newspaper. And everybody missed it, partly because the church is the most iconic institution in any city. To think that the Church around the world is covering up the sexual crimes of thousands of priests, I mean, that’s just unimaginable.”

Or, as the lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, played by Stanley Tucci, says in the film: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Robinson, a Boston native like his Spotlight comrades, has had a long and celebrated career, covering everything from politics to crime, and leading the Globe’s metro desk in the 1990s. He once drove a Massachusetts gubernatorial candidate out of the race by exposing resume fraud. Another project revealed how museums possessed art stolen by the Nazis. But Robinson calls the priest sex expose “far and away the most important story the Globe has ever done.” An untold number of incidents of potential child abuse were undoubtedly prevented by forcing the church to drum out problem priests.

Even as the real-life Spotlight members make the festival and screening circuit with their screen doubles, all is not well back at the Globe newsroom. A new round of job cuts will bring the staff to something just over 300, down from a peak of more than 500. Insiders describe themselves as heartsick at more packing and sheet-cake farewells, even as a movie will be touting the Globe’s power.

But journalists at the paper and in other newsrooms hope that “Spotlight” has an impact not unlike that of “All the President’s Men” 39 years ago. Maybe it will sell a few newspapers, or at least some online subscriptions. Journalism schools will doubtless be lining up to show students how a handful of people with passion can make a difference.

“To me, this film shows that there are so many injustices in the world that nobody knows about,” Robinson says. “And young journalists out there can find them and expose them and cause change for the better.”

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