Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
There’s a movie that opens in limited release that doesn’t feature guns, explosions, sex or violence. That film is SPOTLIGHT, co-writer/ director Tom McCarthy’s masterful drama about an elite squad of Boston Globe investigative journalists who broke one of the biggest stories of our modern times on widespread abuse in the Catholic church. Their ace team – comprised of editor Walter “Robbie” Robertson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – were able to shine a light in the darkest of places, exposing a scandal of astounding proportions.
At the film’s recent press day, co-writer Josh Singer, McCarthy, James and Spotlight’s real reporters chatted about everything from the surreal path their lives have taken, to the state of journalism, to filming in Red Sox turf, to how they captured the flavor of Boston.
7. SPOTLIGHT is an engrossing procedural and love letter to journalism. It would seem an impossible task for the film to be both and yet here we are. Singer states, “It was very quickly apparent the story was fascinating. The way they broke this story was a great procedural. The way they go from A, to B, to C, then back to A, then forward to D, then back to D. You never have time in an hour long television show to do a procedural of this intricacy. Tom had a clear picture of authenticity. [There were] scenes that challenge a viewer to keep up.” The challenge was making the minutia engrossing, “What they do isn’t exciting – they hang around and are patient. These reporters are such rich characters. Yare with these reporters who are delightful. Even though it’s a tough subject, it’s entertaining and a great ride. Moreover, instead of it being depressing, it’s inspiring.”
6. The actors had a few days rehearsal to get into the skin of their characters. James elucidates, “We had a very luxurious four day rehearsal process. Making a movie, you don’t always get any time at all. For me that was very helpful for two reasons. The first two days, most of which was sitting across the table from Michael Keaton saying, ‘That’s Michael Keaton!’ I missed a good two days of rehearsal just by being gobsmacked. Any kind of team building that occurred, the chemistry between us, perhaps the reason is we were so humbled by getting to know the people we’re playing. We were grateful for their trust in doing it. We all felt compelled to do our best. That led to a little bit of selflessness in order to be coherent.”
5. Being approached for their life rights was a surreal concept for the journalists. Robinson states that most of them didn’t quite understand what selling their life rights would entail. “We were kind of stunned. The stories we did had great impact but we didn’t think anyone would be interested in a film about how we made the sausage so we were a little incredulous.” Pfeiffer adds, “I don’t think any of us ever thought this was movie material – that it could make interesting movie material. They are such skilled filmmakers. What’s in real life often tedious, drudgery, slow work and they made it engrossing.” Former Globe Deputy Managing Editor Bill Bradlee Jr. says, “We had some concerns initially because who knows about the quality of the direction or the script – this is before we’d read the script. They could have taken the movie in different directions and gone down detours but they did such a fantastic job. All the time Tom and Josh spent with us, we knew we were at ease with quality group.” Rezendes adds, “I think it was their sincerity [producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust] about the story which was a story about the importance of investigative reporting at a time when investigative reporting is really under siege.” Pfieffer, “A lot of times movies and TV is caricature of what they think we do. That rings hollow to us. This movie rings true to what a day in the life of a reporter is and what you can accomplish when you have the time and resources.”
4. There are no sweeping shots of Boston, but it captures the city perfectly. McCarthy says, “I was actually being leaned on to get swooping shots. It looks good. I like them and their aesthetically pleasing. For me, this was a movie about the inside out really. That scared some studio people because they want the movie to feel big. Just know that was a discussion we had. My DP and I had a talk about it. It didn’t feel like…They never seemed essential to the story at hand.”
3. SPOTLIGHT serves as a tribute to something that’s slipping away and as a reminder to support local papers. Print journalism is something that’s slowly disappearing in our tech-driven, online world. Papers are crumbling and along with that good reporters are put out of their jobs – jobs that are important to check and balances. McCarthy states, “The industry has taken such a hit. There has to be some new invention – some new model – that keeps at the local level, the high level investigative journalism functioning. People should pay for their news. Something that good shouldn’t be free. I don’t want free sushi. We need to pay for that news.” Singer says, “If you don’t have the fourth estate keeping people accountable, who’s going to do it? We wanted people to – at the very least – go buy their local paper.”
2. There’s one more story one reporter on the Spotlight team thinks could make a great big screen feature. Though Rezendes says, “We never thought this was going to make a great movie,” Pfieffer mentions there was one story she thought would be good. “We did what we thought was a great project about private/ charitable foundations. They ostensibly exist to do philanthropic work. We did a project about what it’s really a great way to do is put your kids on the payroll, write off fancy cars, write off an airplane, pay elderly trustees who do no work a lot of money. It’s a real abuse of the tax code and spirit of philanthropy. We read a lot of tax documents. I tell you that’s not a good movie but maybe Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer could turn it into a riveting journalism story.” Singer states, “This kind of journalism should be lauded. I’ve often wonder why there’s not, if not another movie, a great television show about a group of investigative reporters.”
1. Mark Ruffalo’s Red Sox game scene was interrupted a few times by a fan. McCarthy spills the beans on this anecdote, “Keep in mind we couldn’t control that game. It took nine innings to get a page and a half scene. We shot with some long lenses – some 40 feet from the action, shooting through the crowd. Some people didn’t even see us. Suddenly I’d see someone standing right in front of the camera, saying, ‘Hey! It’s Mark Ruffalo! Hey man! Can I get you a beer?’ Mark, being the nicest guy on the planet said, ‘No. It’s okay.’ The guy was like, ‘What are you drinking?’ He said, dropping out of the scene, ‘It’s non-alcoholic.’ He’s like [mimics dumbfounded fan], ‘Non-alcoholic?!’ Didn’t go over well at Fenway. He eventually moved on. I still don’t think he realized he walking into the scene, but four innings later, this guy shows back up. Says, ‘Hey Ruffalo! Non-alcoholic!’ The whole section clapped. I was looking at my DP like, ‘Oh boy. We’re gonna be here all night.’ The other funny thing was the Red Sox had been horrible that year and the whole scene was about how they can’t get a hit. Of course they won on a 12 run explosion in one inning. So everyone was cheering and we had to sit and wait for them to stop scoring. As a Yankee fan, I took that personal.”
SPOTLIGHT opens in New York, Los Angeles and Boston today. It opens wider within the next coming weeks. For where/ when to find it playing, go here.