An interview with SPOTLIGHT director, Tom McCarthy
Writer and director Tom McCarthy’s (THE VISITOR, WIN WIN) gripping new drama SPOTLIGHT is based on the true story of the team of investigate journalists at the Boston Globe who exposed the years of child abuse at the hands of Catholic priests (not to mention the cover-up by the local Archdiocese) in the early 2000’s. The film premiered at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and has received rave reviews for its emotion and realism. It even took a runner up spot for the highly coveted People’s Choice Award.
SPOTLIGHT also takes a hard look at journalism when it is at its finest and its stellar cast (including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Live Schreiber and John Slattery) pay tribute to their real-life counterparts. Director McCarthy co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer (THE FIFTH ESTATE) and chatted with us the day after its premiere at TIFF about the project and the warm reception it received.
“I think realizing that we were telling the story of a team was the biggest challenge as a storyteller and as a filmmaker,” he says. “And not just for me, but for my whole creative team. The lead actor is the team, and the story is these reporters working together. Early on, Josh and I felt like we couldn’t conflate any of these characters – we couldn’t lose any. We really felt like we took our cue from the reporters about trying to tell it as truthfully and honestly and in a fashion that was unadorned and blunt…and risk being boring for authenticity.
“But there’s a propulsion from not knowing where we’re going and from jumping from one part of the investigation to the next,” he continues. “From someone sitting in a boring courtroom to someone rummaging around in their basement looking at a yearbook to someone at a diner late at night to someone attending a Catholic charity event…it’s all the pieces that I think are really interesting and it seems like viewers have connected with that.”
Given the subject matter, the atmosphere during filming might have been understandably intense but McCarthy praised the professionalism of his cast and crew and the on-set camaraderie it resulted in. “Rachel sent me a lovely note after we left and she said ‘you know, we had no business having that much fun on a movie that intense and that dark’,” he remembers. “And I think we did. We were prepared to make this movie and by that I mean the actors and my crew. We were ready to go…it was brutal getting to the starting line but by the time we were ready, we were rehearsed, we’d researched. And we felt like the script was in a good place, we trusted it. Those are crucial elements that very often aren’t the case. These guys are pros, and it was such a delight to go to set every day knowing they were ready and were going to deliver.”
Then there was the fact that the real-life reporters portrayed by Keaton et al. were on set with them, which served as even more motivation to get it right.
“The first day we went to film, the reporters were there,” McCarthy recalls. “We walked onto the set together and they couldn’t believe it. We had built their home in Toronto, because we shot the interior here. And they just couldn’t get over it. They went to their desks and were totally gobsmacked. It was really cool. I asked Robby (Walter Robinson, played by Keaton in the film) to say a few words to start. He gave a speech and it was just about the importance of the work and how much time they toiled in this shitty little office. They had no idea of the global impact that this reporting was going to have, but the work is what mattered to them. It was so inspirational to the cast and to the crew that it set the tone for the filming. I think we felt like we were doing something that mattered to us and maybe to some other people along the way. It made for a great spirit.”
As to the working and personal relationship that McCarthy and his crew had with Robinson and the other reporters, it was complicated.
“As with reporters, it’s a blessing and a curse when you become close to the people that you’re interviewing or investigating,” he explains. “It’s a tricky thing. I think with these guys, it’s been both. Mostly it’s been great. But there have been hard moments where we had to push and ask hard questions and know that we had to take liberties with the story and who they are…fortunately it’s all been very positive and they are in complete support of the movie. We brought them onstage at the premiere and that was an incredibly special moment. I’ll remember that forever in my career. I’ve had some good stage moments, but this was different – because it wasn’t about us. We got our applause and then we brought out those guys and it was rapturous. It was so nice because it was about them and about the bigger theme of the movie. It was just such a cool moment – the audience gave a standing ovation for those reporters for like three minutes. It was funny too, because I’ve never seen six more uncomfortable people in my life! They just had to sit there and take it. It was cool. We thought, ‘that’s what you want a movie to be about.’”
SPOTLIGHT opens in Toronto and Vancouver on Friday, November 13. It opens everywhere November 20.