Spotlight is a must-see film this year. Director Tom McCarthy, whose past credits include The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, did an outstanding job telling the story of the Boston Globe reporters who broke the story of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. The movie’s also supported by an outstanding ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Screiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci. Spotlight opens today in limited release, and you can click here to find out when it will be coming to a theater near you.
Earlier this week, I had a chance to do a phone interview with McCarthy, and during our conversation we talked about why he wanted to helm Spotlight, his time on The Wire where he played a dirty reporter, how the film expects the audience to keep up, what they had to cut from the film, and more.
I really enjoyed the film a lot. It’s kind of a different film for you. Your past films have been these sort of intimate character dramas; this one is more sprawling. What made you want to direct Spotlight?
TOM MCCARTHY: Look, for every film even though there’s probably similarities and differences to all of them, but it’s just something that I connect with about the story, something that compels me, something that ‘wow, that’s really interesting, how would I approach it?’ As soon as I start asking those questions, I’m engaged, and I think this one, look at its heart there’s this story of an outsider coming to a town and having an impact. I think most of my movies in one way or another deal with an outsider, so maybe there was something about that, the kernel of that, Marty Baron arriving from Miami to the Boston Globe and having immediate, immeasurable impact not only on the paper but on the city, and subsequently the country with this story. I think I was just taken by it and I thought ‘I want to dig deeper’. I mean beyond that, I lived in Boston, I was raised Catholic, I come from an Irish-American family and there’s a lot of things I felt like I could connect to the world through and I was excited to kind of explore that, and I just thought the issue was terribly relevant on a lot of levels. Some of this maybe developed over time as we started to really dig into the story but there were just so many avenues by which to approach and tell this story that it was just exciting, it was rich material.
And how did settle on which to pursue? You’re right, there are so many different ways you can take this particular story.
MCCARTHY: Yeah, yeah. We just kind of set to the task at hand which is we really had reporters right, life rights, and we knew we wanted to focus on the investigation, so let’s start there and then let’s organically see what other themes start to develop and grow out of that work. Obviously in following the investigation, one thing you’re immediately dealing with is the abuse and cover-ups within the Catholic Church. Cover-ups may be an umbrella term for what was really happening there, I don’t know if cover-ups really, because it wasn’t like they were covering up a crime that happened there, it was probably closer to aiding and abetting a crime that was happening. So that was one thing we immediately jumped into and then as the screenplay started to develop and then the story started to develop, you come to deal with with more of these of macro themes of societal deference and complicity. It takes a village as they say to raise a child and to abuse one. I think when we landed on that idea, we really felt like we had something. I think that’s when we thought ‘wow that’s really what the movie is about’, and that everyone kind of knew something and then what took everyone so long to get there, why did it take the Globe to break the story, why did it take Marty Baron coming to Boston to push the Globe to break the story? That’s when you really start to get the compelling arena that sort of makes the teams a little bit more universal, not just to this particular story but to a lot of them.
When you talk about newspaper complicity, it reminds you were on The Wire for the fifth season, which is about the newspaper. I was wondering if you spoke with David Simon before jumping into Spotlight or anything you learned when you were making that season came into how you made this film.
MCCARTHY: I didn’t. I didn’t speak to David in terms of the project. I did around the time I was prepping the movie because I talk to David about possibly collaborating with something else that he had approached me about and I wasn’t able to do it because of my involvement in Spotlight, and I told him what I was doing and he was obviously pretty excited about the idea, but beyond that I didn’t really have many conversations with him about it. I don’t know why, because I will say being on that show and spending time with him on that show not only taught me a lot just about practically about the industry, but he really…it’s very inspiring to spend time with him, he’s just so loves the newspaper business and loves reporters and loves to work and his enthusiasm for it and his love, his passion for it is so infectious. I mean he really gave me a sense of this working man’s reporter, this blue-collar man or woman who is intensely curious and determined to get to the truth and that kind of passion and zeal, it was something that was really impactful for me, it stuck with me. When I started working on Spotlight, that really stuck with me and I think it’s quality that I really wanted to bring to the movie in these reporters, these kind of middle class superheroes who are just doing their job and working their butts off.
It definitely comes across. I think what that entails is throwing a lot of information at the audience and expecting them to keep up. During the editing process, how did you know that you were on the right track with how much or how little information to dole out?
MCCARTHY: I think we had a pretty solid screenplay. I think my editor felt that way coming in, and the scene that we were capturing due to the performances and we had enough time in prep and the work with my collaborators, my DP, Masanobu Takayanagi, and Stephen Carter, my production designer, they were just working. And Wendy Chuck, my costume designer, so brilliant. The scene just works, you can tell, they were cutting together in a way that looked good and felt right. We were all on the same page, and so the movie kind of fit together pretty well pretty early on, and then the question was…I didn’t need the audience to be with them every step of the way. In fact, it’s almost impossible with a movie like this. There’s just too many names and facts and figures and characters. So it was more a question of can we get them to land at the right spot along the way? These kind of touchstone moments that defined the investigation, and the emotional arcs of the story. So that was my concern, how do we lead the kind of intellectual narrative of it which the procedural and the investigation, and the emotional arc of not just one person but rather a team of reporters and in some cases the survivors, how to land those moments, where they kind of intersect and also where they act individually. That was the real challenge of this movie. But I could tell as we were doing early screenings, people were really locking into the movie. Yeah there were some confusion moments here and there for them, and some of those you had to clean up in the edit with some reshoots or ADR and things, but by in large it felt like they were getting the gist of it.
One of the many things I really like about this film is that it’s not a film with big, impassioned speeches. There are conflicts but it’s not a film that’s about a lot of yelling. I was wondering did you guys in your prep, did you have a lot of rehearsal to figure out what is the tone that we’re gonna go for, how do we deliver to keep this reality without having to go for melodrama?
MCCARTHY: Yes, in short, all of it. The first draft of the screenplay…look when I’m developing a screenplay, I think of how I might direct a movie. I very much infuse my sense of tone and pace in the screenplay, even when I’m collaborating with Josh [Singer], who is a wonderful collaborator and co-writer, so it starts there. And then you get to rehearsal and you start to bring those moments to life and I continued to refine the screenplay and the moments based on that. We always kind of took our lead more or less from the reporters themselves and they conduct themselves and how furious they are and how committed they are and that moment for instance when Mike throws, Mike throws sometimes, and Robby hits back and they will go at it. It’s not really Sasha’s way, it’s not really Matt’s way, it’s a team and you’ve gotta refine your players. The good part about Marty is he’s a bulldog and he’s opinionated and he’s determined and he’s stubborn as all hell, but those are some of the hard parts. The good part is he’s a great reporter and he’s someone you want on your team for all of those same qualities. I think it was really just following the narrative. And that’s an interesting moment, that moment when he blows because on some level it’s about the work, on some level it’s about egos, reporting, whose story goes first, when do we go, we got this story, I got the story, I should write it, there’s all those things that come into play in the newsroom. But more importantly it’s the emotional element of realizing just what he got which is definitive proof that the church knew and just how much it, to use Mike’s term, that it was shattering for him, that it was really shattering, and to hear a guy like that use an emotional word like that to me was, after a year and a half of talking to him, I thought ‘wow, that’s a really emotional key for me because that’s a really specific word when you’re shattered by something’. It speaks to something that goes beyond the work, speaks to something that’s affecting your heart and your soul, and for me that moment is where the story and its true tragedy really lands for him, and at that point it was a big brass ring I think which is who doesn’t want to hear a reporter go after the Catholic church? That was one of those moments where the information and the sort of intellectual properties of the script and the emotional value of the script really kind of collide.
Absolutely. That’s such a great scene. Was there a scene that you found particularly difficult to cut from the film?
MCCARTHY: I gotta be honest. Our first rough was only about two hours and eighteen minutes, the movie now is two and seven or something like that. We didn’t have to cut that many scenes. I don’t think there were any major scenes that we cut. There was one scene with Robby where we actually met his wife after he played golf with Jim Sullivan and she picks him up and he mentions the fact that Jim already knew about the investigation. It was a really neat little scene but we just felt it was a bit redundant to what we had accomplished already between those two men on the golf course, so there are moments like that. There were no major scenes where I was like ‘oh, I hate this’, and no major storylines. In fact, it was really hard to cut because we needed all of the information, we needed all of the bricks because the wall was coming together pretty nicely, so we found that when we removed things that sometimes the audience wasn’t instantly missing it and I think that speaks to the value of the screenplay on some level and maybe just a density. There weren’t a lot of big moments that we cut, I mean really none leap out at all.