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Tom McCarthy Speaks About Opening ‘Spotlight’ In Catholic Italy, How He Cast Michael Keaton, And How Journalism Is Deteriorating

Tom McCarthy’s new film “Spotlight,” about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation in 2002 into the priest pedophilia scandals and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church, is making a splash at the Venice Film Festival where it world premieres this evening after playing positively for the press this morning. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James star in the ensemble drama as the Globe’s Spotlight Team. They are assigned by a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), with investigating allegations of pedophilia. Spotlight editor is Walter “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, in his first role after “Birdman.”

You were raised Irish Catholic and you went to Boston College, so you were educated by Jesuits. How did your background play into the film?

It certainly prompted my interest. When I was approached by Blye Faust and Nicole Rocklin approached with this story and the life rights to the reporters, the first person I sat down with was my father to say: ‘I’m doing this.’ He’s a very strong Catholic. And I told him: ‘As soon as they announce it in the papers, you and mom are going to hear about it.’ And sure enough calls started coming from all their friends saying, ‘Why is he doing this?’ ‘Can’t we move on?’ But they heard me out why I wanted to do it, and they agreed.

Did you meet a lot of the Boston Globe guys?

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From day-one Josh Singer (who co-wrote the screenplay) and I went down to Boston, sat down with each of them. We started expanding and sat down with the lawyers, survivors, family members, former reporters, lawyers, editors, publishers. Anyone who would talk to us. It was just trying to get as many angles to the story as we could and really trying to understand the context of not just life at the Globe at the time, but of life in Boston.

Now the reporters text me all the time. They are completely annoying. They are relentless reporters. It’s a funny relationship because they are sometimes the trickiest people to interview. Reporters weirdly don’t like that.

Ultimately they are the heroes of our story, and I think we all owe them a debt of gratitude for the work they did. That said, they become our subjects too, so there is always that line that at one point we are going to have to tell the story, and maybe it won’t all be favorable to some degree.

Would you call the film a statement for upright old fashioned investigative journalism, which is perhaps being phased out in the Internet age?

Of course. We are all well aware what’s happened to the journalism industry in the past 10 years. But I’m not sure the general public is. I’m not sure they understand what they’ve lost. Specifically, this story is about local journalism. Yes Boston is a big city, but the Globe is a local paper. We still have very strong national syndications like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, but they are national papers and I feel like certain stories can only work on a local level. Yes, this story went on to have major national and international impact. But it started in that city with those local reporters. But I’m not sure the public understands that. I’m not sure those who will see the movie will say: ‘Wow! That barely exists anymore.’ They are not going to know that it’s too late. The ice caps have melted. These papers are gone, they’re decimated. Can citizen journalists replace them? Absolutely not.

This is a classic reality-based picture in the vein of “All The Presidents Men,” so it’s certainly a shift in type of narrative and aesthetic for you as a director, your previous films being “The Cobbler,” “Win/Win,” “The Visitor” and “The Station Agent.” Was that a challenge?

Subject always determines aesthetic on some level. I agree with you, there is a classic approach to this film. There is something unadorned about it. Something unsensational. The camera isn’t overly intrusive. We try not to manipulate. We try not to romanticise. Wittingly or not, we took our lead from the reporters and the work that they did, which is to say: ‘We got to get this right and just present the fact and those facts will have such emotional value, which they did.’ It’s also very much an ensemble movie in ways I don’t see much anymore. I had to trust my actors. They liked that. They liked being trusted with the scene. The material dictated that.

As far as the actors go. This is Micheal Keaton’s first movie after “Birdman.” How did that come about?

‘Birdman’ hadn’t been released yet. His name came up. I thought: ‘Wow! That’s really interesting.’ Immediately he sort of felt right to me. I said: ‘I’d like to see what he’s doing now just to get a sense of where he’s at as an actor.’ Someone said: ‘There’s this movie “Birdman,” so they organized a screening. I remember I had to leave the screening half way to get a flight to L.A. for a meeting about this movie. So I literally watched only half of it. I was at Searchlight. It was horrible to leave because I was so into the movie. But I realised he was at the top of his form. I remembered him from Ron Howard’s movie “The Paper,” and that turned out to be Spotlight editor Robby Robinson’s favorite movie.

Are there other similarities between them?

Both guys can be really playful and really easy; but also wear authority easy and have a swagger in them, and they can be motherfuckers if you cross them. Both can be scary. I mean that genuinely about both men. I think that’s an important element; that edge.

Was this a difficult film to finance?

It was brutal. It was dead three times. It kept falling apart. I think everyone wanted to make the movie. I think Participant Media certainly did; Anonyomous Content did; eOne did; we did. Everyone saw the potential for the movie. But it’s just so difficult right now to make movies like this. That’s the reality of it.

Are you aware of the significance of opening this film in Italy? It has Italian distribution (BIM Distribuzione), which is great. Nothing in Italy has ever put the picture of the Vatican sex-abuse scandals into focus like this.

Yes, I am aware. There are two places I wanted to take this movie. One is Italy, the other is Ireland. My heritage is Irish, I was raised Catholic. There is also a selfish part of me that just wanted to come to the Venice Film Festival. But it was not lost on me that this would be the perfect place to premiere this movie. I am very excited to see this with an Italian audience tonight, because that audience will be predominantly Catholic and even those that aren’t will certainly understand the power of the Church.

Well from the film a lot of us learned that the archbishop of Boston at the time, Bernard Francis Law, is now a cardinal priest in Rome, despite allegations that he covered up the scandal. That’s incredible!

There is a new pope now who I think is a really interesting person. I personally have been following him very closely. I am fascinated by him, and I’m very encouraged. That said, because of my experience with this movie and knowing a lot of people involved on all sides of the issues I remain a little pessimistic to how much impact he can have on the Catholic Church. They are slow to change, they are slow to do anything. Someone said: ‘What do you think the response will be?’ I guarantee you, there will be no response from the Catholic Church.

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