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Boston Globe Reporter Sacha Pfeiffer: How Hollywood Got ‘Spotlight’ Right

No good can come from getting involved with Hollywood.

That was my firm conviction when a pair of producers approached me and my Boston Globe Spotlight team colleagues seven years ago with what seemed a fanciful proposal: that one of our past projects, on the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clergy sex abuse, could become an intriguing film.

I was highly wary. Never mind that the grim topic would likely have little appeal to mainstream audiences. Never mind that our jobs are hardly cinematic — we make phone calls, review documents, collect data — and were unlikely to be compelling on screen.

Beyond that, I feared for our personal lives, the loss of privacy, the inevitable sensationalism as reality morphed into screenplay. I envisioned fictionalized interoffice affairs — the Hollywoodization of our lives.

But my colleagues had fewer reservations, and were persuaded by Blye Faust and Nicole Rocklin’s pitch: They told us they wanted to make a movie that would celebrate journalism at a time when the newspaper industry is in great financial peril.

Peer pressure, as well as my belief that the film would never get made, led me to relent. I agreed to participate, but only because I was sure that financing hurdles and other production challenges would be insurmountable. Go ahead with your little daydream, I thought. I’ll humor you.

“I feared … the inevitable sensationalism as reality morphed into screenplay. I envisioned fictionalized interoffice affairs — the Hollywood-ization of our lives.””
@sachapfeiffer on Twitter

Then Faust and Rocklin basically disappeared for several years. In bits and pieces, we learned what was happening behind the scenes: DreamWorks signing on, then dropping out. Director Tom McCarthy being hired, then pulled away to shoot a different film. The challenge of selling a story about priests molesting kids. With every new obstacle, I secretly cheered.

Until, suddenly, McCarthy was back on the job, and had teamed up with Josh Singer to co-write the script. Beginning in September 2012, they made repeat trips to Boston to interview me and my former teammates, including Walter V. Robinson, Mike Rezendes, Matt Carroll and Ben Bradlee Jr. They recorded hours of conversation, expanding their outreach to victims, their lawyers, and other key players to confirm details and nail down facts.

In spring 2014, McCarthy and Singer gave us a draft script to scrutinize for inaccuracies. Then they tweaked as we weighed in. That summer, we got word that numerous prominent actors, including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, had joined the cast and would be reaching out to us soon. Eventually, we spent so much time in their company — during which, without us realizing it, they studied our every move — that we now consider them friends.

That fall, filming began, and we were invited to be on set as often as we could. We made multiple trips to filming sites in Boston and Toronto, sometimes getting so close to the action that we had to duck as giant cameras rolled by. All along, McCarthy and Singer continued to solicit our input, altering sets and costumes and dialog based on the feedback we gave.

In spring 2015, they showed us the final product. Once we absorbed the shock of how uncannily the actors had captured our speech and mannerisms, we were struck by what a remarkably authentic portrayal of our jobs was depicted on screen. The movie captures — somehow cinematically — the often tedious, painstaking work that reporting entails, while conveying the critical importance of investigative reporting. Without it, powerful institutions go unquestioned, and democracy can’t function as it should.

It’s also a film that’s getting audiences thinking and talking about serious social issues, and that’s giving voice to clergy sex abuse victims, who’ve been in the shadows for decades. Many survivors have told me the movie is a step in their healing process.

And, to my enormous relief, no fabricated trysts – along with no explosions, no firearms, or any of the other gimmicks movies often resort to.

Thanks, Hollywood. You did good.

Sacha Pfeiffer, a print and broadcast journalist, was a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its stories on clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

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