Spotlight Director Tom McCarthy on the Investigative Journalism Drama


Filmmaker Tom McCarthy talks with about his investigative journalism drama, Spotlight, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams

When long-time character actor Tom McCarthy made his transition into filmmaking by writing and directing his first feature, 2003’s The Station Agent, he established himself with his penchant for original character dramedies where people from different walks of life interacted. Its 2007 follow-up, The Visitor, continued that tradition, while scoring the first nomination for fellow character actor Richard Jenkins. McCarthy’s next two films, Win Win and The Cobbler (starring Adam Sandler), were more comedic, but McCarthy has taken a different path with his latest film Spotlight, which is very likely to get him back into the Oscar conversation. 

Spotlight looks at the 2001 investigation by the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism team into the growing epidemic of pedophile priests, which is being conveniently covered up by the Catholic archdiocese. The “Spotlight” team, made up of Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), are assigned by the paper’s new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to look into it after reading about a case that was buried in the newspaper, and they soon learn that few people want to help you when you’re going after the Catholic Church in a city that’s predominantly Catholic.

It’s an impressive film that’s already been aggregating praise on the fall festival circuit due to the timeliness and relevance of the subject – despite having taken place nearly 15 years ago. It also might be McCarthy’s best film to date due to the time and care spent into getting facts right from its screenplay (which McCarthy co-wrote with former “The West Wing” writer, Josh Singer). McCarthy has also populated the ensemble cast with some of the best from the four main roles down to the supporting characters, some who only appear for one or two scenes, which keeps one riveted to the team’s investigation and how things play out. sat down with McCarthy last week to talk about his departure into serious drama based on real events. What originally got you interested in doing this? When I spoke to you for The Cobbler, and asked about this, it seemed like such a departure from everything you’d done before.

Tom McCarthy: Look, every project I pick or dive into, it’s always just what grabs me, you know? I guess you never know what that’s going to be, and possibly being open to slightly new dynamics. In this case particularly, it was a true-life story based on real events, which was new to me. But I just found the material–what I like to call the barstool pitch–when I sat with Nicole and Blye, two of our producers, the first time, they were just like, “You’ve got this outsider Marty Baron, a Jew from Miami coming up to Boston and taking over the Boston Globe two years after The New York Times famously bought the Globe. He comes in on the first day, he sits in that 10:30 meeting and he picks up on an article that Eileen McNamara had written about Mitchell Garabedian and Geoghan and the possible church knowing about what happened.” It’s just so compelling. So the hook had me, right?

Then it was like, “Okay, where do we go and what does it look like?” As I sort of spent some time sitting with the story after our first meeting with them and sort of thinking about it, I thought, “I think I can figure out a way to tell this.” Then I went back and said, “Look, I can figure out a way, but I want to bring in a writer to work with me because it’s so much information.” We went on a long search and eventually found Josh (Singer), who just seemed like the right guy at the right time. He was very passionate about it. He was really pushing for the project and he’d just come off “The Fifth Estate,” and I felt like his background was right, and he also went to Harvard and he had a law degree, which was, as you know, there’s a very legal aspect to this screenplay and had really just been immersed in the world of journalism. It was just a really exciting fit and we just liked each other.

So that was it, really. It was that kind of initial hook of the story. Look, my wife actually said this the other day. It was really interesting because she’d heard an answer similar to this. She goes, “You know, if you think about it, all of your movies sort of deal with outsiders coming in or dealing with something new.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s really true.” She goes, “So it’s not surprising that this Marty Baron character appealed to you, and then the rest of the world of Boston.” Also, I was raised Irish Catholic. I’m very aware of this crisis and of the power of it, and maybe of the tragedy of it, and not just to the people who are the most obvious ones, the survivors and the families and victims that are first and foremost, the people who have suffered most because of this, but all of the wonderful Catholics, including a large percentage of my family, who are practicing Catholics and how they’ve had to wrestle with this. I had a woman come up to me after a screening last night and she goes, “Look, I’m a practicing Catholic and it’s just so nice to see this story, because it is so hard for us right now. It’s been really painful and to navigate this and to have it out in the open and feel like it’s not a dark secret and it’s certainly a black spot, but can we start to move beyond it?”

CS: When I spoke to Josh, I mentioned that I thought the Pope’s recent U.S. visit was partially to help with that.

McCarthy: I think so. I think it is. I mean, I think a lot remains to be seen, right? He seems to be a forward-thinking person in a lot of ways, but he really needs to take on this issue and address it. I was just reading yesterday in “The Times” about the Synod that was three weeks in the Vatican, everything they talked about, and there was barely a mention of child abuse, I mean, barely a mention. Truthfully, I care more of that than whether divorced people can go to mass again or can be reentered. I really don’t care about that because 60 percent of the population is divorced. I care more about, are we protecting our children? I think until everyone feels like the church is doing everything within their power, not “We’re getting better and we’re making progress, we’re addressing it,” but doing everything immediately to protect kids, it leaves me uneasy.

CS: The whole thing was so scary because of the way they were being protected from the law. With your other movies, you’ve always created original characters, but while this is still an original script, it’s based on real people who were involved in the story. Josh told me how you met with everyone, but also, that it was important to you to keep all the characters, however many, rather than combining them as is often the case. You ended up with a rich and diverse cast of characters, so can you talk about that decision?

McCarthy: We felt that was essential. I mean, I did early on. Something Josh and I talked about, and I vividly remember we were on a ride coming back from Cambridge, and he was asking me how I felt about kind of conflating characters. I felt very strongly that after having met the reporters at this point, that there was no way we should do that. He quickly agreed, I think, that it just felt like, there’s just an impulse you get, and some of that is a reaction to meeting these people. Also, look, the story at some level is all about factual accuracy and getting the story right, and it didn’t feel like we wanted to start on that, and we really wanted to be as honest and authentic to this story as possible, again, taking our inspiration from their reporting, which was incredibly direct. I really think that, even at that early stage, was what was inspiring us to go get this story.

Then, creating characters is creating characters, so I can meet you or a reporter or anyone else. I’ve still got to figure it out in terms of the screenplay. It’s not starting from scratch, but there’s still a great deal to be done. It’s similar to construction, just in a different way, and how to incorporate that. For us, it was always how this team fits together, and how what they each bring to the case and how we accent that without overplaying it, I think sometimes teams get oversimplified, you know, kind of like this guy’s this and this is that. We’re trying not to be too black and white about this, but these were middle-class people coming to work every day in a job that for them was more of a calling than a profession and working their butts off because they cared. You meet them now and you spend 10 minutes talking to any of these reporters and they are just incredibly passionate, curious people who care. They cared about Boston. They cared about their readership. I just think that’s what we were trying to capture. That’s why there’s very little real estate devoted to their personal lives, except when we felt it really kind of connected to or impacted the central theme of deference and complicity on some level.

CS: But all the characters had some kind of a connection to Catholicism in some ways, right?

McCarthy: Right, so and because our actors are so good and because we are all adults and we know everyone has a life outside this, we don’t all know all the specifics and the relationship with their children and their wives and the conversations, we just didn’t feel that was as important to this story. It felt like they were defining themselves at this point by their work and as a team.


CS: I wanted to talk about casting. I’m not sure how many of the actors you knew beforehand, but for the core “Spotlight” team, it didn’t feel like you needed actors who could do impressions of them because they wouldn’t be so well known. I assume it wasn’t a concern that they looked or sounded like the real people.

McCarthy: No, it’s more like an essence. Yeah, we wanted it ballpark-y, but for instance, John Slattery, he doesn’t really look like Ben Bradlee Jr. There’s probably actors out there (who do) – but John’s quality was so right and John’s from Cambridge and Johnnie has that kind of macho swagger and he’s still smart and he’s a guy’s guy, but you know there’s a lot going on in there, so he talks baseball in this. But the guy will throw down on just about any topic. So that’s an example of that. A lot of the others, it was just like, they were all kind of in the world, you know? Some of them end up looking a lot like their characters, but it’s really their commitment to kind of building these characters from the inside out that matters most for us, because let’s be honest, most people don’t know what Walter Robinson looks like and Michael Rezendes. So we’re not really tied to that. It’s not like a biopic, in that way, you know?

CS: I was also really impressed by the casting of the supporting characters, like the survivors and also Jamey Sheridan who played the lawyer defending the Catholic priests.

McCarthy: Jamey Sheridan? A great character actor. Paul Guilfoyle, Neal Huff, who plays Saviano, Billy Crudup, who plays Eric MacLeish. This is when I talk about having a very deep bench on this movie, and it became really clear that we were just getting the right people for the jobs and attaching a very high quality of actor. But look, movies like this, we knew our top six, top eight actors, including maybe you throw Stanley and Billy into that top six or eight roles, but we felt like the movies like this live or die on all the supporting roles because you can’t drop the ball at any point. If you do with all the other actors, who are so good, you will feel it. So you really need to be—and I’ve never cast a movie this large. It was endless. Every night, I would go home and have to cast five more roles.

CS: I feel like “The Cobbler” was kind of a stepping stone for this in some ways, because once you did that, you could go, “Okay, I can go even bigger now.”

McCarthy: Exactly. You know what? It’s really more true than you think, and someone asked me earlier, “Do you think all your films are leading to this?” I was like, “Yeah, they all do. It is all part of a process.” Every film brings some new challenge that you are learning. There’s no filmmaker who’s complete. The one that is, let me know, and I’ll probably have something to say about his movies. It’s a process and it’s a public process, but it’s a process. But I think you’re right. With this cast, man, it was really trying to get—we had a lot of balancing to do. A lot of those actors are Boston actors who you haven’t seen in a lot of things. James LeBlanc, who plays Patrick McSorley, who’s in that incredible scene with Mark and Stanley, where he’s being interviews, and that kid kills it. He really hasn’t done that much. That’s sort of my job, to see how can I integrate these different actors? How can I balance it, so as you’re watching it as an audience, it’s seamless? I think we did good work there.

CS: And you didn’t go overboard on the Boston accents, which is always a danger, when you set a movie in Boston, that there’s always that danger of just how far do you go?

McCarthy: Well, we got a little lucky there because in our research, not everyone had them. So Sacha doesn’t have one, Mike doesn’t have one, Brian has one. He can do a very good one because he’s lived there. Then a lot of the actors we brought in from Southie had them, but then we’re using guys who live there. So it was good luck, and I think it was smart casting. Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee did my casting out of New York and then oversaw the Boston and Toronto casting. But you know, that’s another thing. You’re right. You can really overplay that, but we felt like we didn’t have to. Also, in Boston, accent, in many cases, is a status thing and we deal with the “upstairs, downstairs” in this movie a little bit. In the upstairs, they tend to flatten out a little bit. They don’t hold onto them quite as much.

CS: Josh gave up your secret weapon, Richard Jenkins, as the former preacher who gets on the phone with Mike. I was listening to it thinking, “Who is that actor? I know he sounds really familiar.” He gives an amazing performance. I don’t know if there are awards for phone performances.

McCarthy: Then you have to say that and write that because it’s funny, my editor and I were sitting around and I’m like, “We need someone who’s kind of folksy, but can be serious but not too serious, who doesn’t overplay the kind of drama of it.” They were like, “What about Jenkins?” My editor was like, “Yeah.” So I called Richard and he’s like, “Well, I’ll do it, but I’m horrible at it and you’ll replace me.” I said, “Let me worry about that.” He came in. It was like maybe an hour in the sound room.

CS: Did you give him the script to read beforehand?

McCarthy: Yeah, and asked a couple of questions and then said, “All right, I got it.” He was just great. You know, it’s Richard Jenkins, so he came in and killed it and yeah, that’s just a friend doing me a favor.

CS: Sure, but he ends up giving voice to the guy who really breaks the story for the team.

McCarthy: It’s just a great relationship, right? I mean, talk about a source. You could just see Mike, who was just spending hours every time he wasn’t with Garabedian just on the phone with this guy.


CS: There’s something in the zeitgeist this year with a lot of movies involving journalism for some reason. “The End of the Tour” was one and “True Story” and “Truth.”

McCarthy: I liked “End of the Tour” actually.

CS: When you make a movie about journalism, journalists will generally love it…

McCarthy: Well, let me interrupt. I think journalists are going to love it if you get it right. I think journalists will be the first ones to tell you if you get it wrong. They have no problem doing that. I think when you’re stepping into their backyard, you better get it right, because they’re going to say, “That’s not how we do it. That’s not how we dress. That’s not what we drive. That’s now where,” you know?

CS: Yes, that is true.

McCarthy: In the same way, if someone made a movie about filmmakers, and I’d be like, “Well, yeah, but I don’t know a filmmaker who does that.” You know? So I will say that much, but go on.

CS: I have colleagues who have walked out of the movie thinking, “Boy, I need to be a better journalist rather than vying for quotes on some upcoming movie project. I feel like I should do something more important.”

McCarthy: That’s cool.

CS: It’s nice that a bunch of actors who often have to deal with journalists–and in some cases, may be the bane of their existence–can make a movie like this and really inspire journalists.

McCarthy: I think it also inspired the actors. It certainly inspired Josh and I. Yeah, we were never journalists. I mean, to really get a sense of who these people are and how hard they worked and how smart they are and how much they care, it’s infectious and it is inspiring to be around people like that. You’re like, “Wow, I’m glad people like this are out there.”

CS: Did you have to change any of the names or was there any inclination to do so? The survivors, I would assume so, but what about the priests?

McCarthy: I think more or less the priests who were covered, because they were all on the record, and the people who are on the record, the public record, we were good. There were one or two lawyers’ names that we had to change that represented priests because there was some just clearance things, but by and large, our names are all pretty intact.

CS: I was curious about that. Also, have you gotten any pushback from the Catholic Church?

McCarthy: No one has responded. I just read something the other day in a press release at Crux. You can check it out, but it was like, there were some favorable mentions of the movie on Vatican Radio, which then, they translated and put into the press. I’m not sure Crux is some Catholic news organization or something. It might even be out of Boston, but I’d have to fact check that.

CS: What about your own personal experiences, either at screenings or festivals?

McCarthy: Not yet. We did have a reach out from the Chicago Archdiocese. They held a press conference anticipating that this movie might raise some whatever, basically saying, “Hey, we’re Chicago. We handled it differently. We’re not Boston.” They also felt like they wanted to make sure we were representing all of the good the church was doing, and that we were aware and understood that and we appreciate the reach out. But nothing senior to that.

CS: Have you actually screened the movie in Boston yet? What’s been the reaction?

McCarthy: Wednesday night. We have screened it for some of the newspaper folks at “The Boston Globe,” some survivors who were depicted in the movie and a couple of organizations that deal with this, and the response was all very, very favorable.

CS: I’m sure they’re eager to talk to you about this, if they haven’t already.

McCarthy: Yeah, I think it’ll be really interesting to go into Boston, because that’s going to be a real Boston home crowd audience. I think as tough as it was, that this story was told, and investigated and revealed here, I think it says a lot about that city, that in fact, it wasn’t covered there. It’s a lot about their strength and character, although, look, this happened all over. We know it happened in cities all over the country, but I think it speaks a lot to the people of Boston that they were able to own up to this and start to move forward and deal with it.

Spotlight opens in select cities on Friday, October 6 and then nationwide on October 20. Look for our interview with Tom’s co-writer Josh Singer sometime soon.

(Photo credit: KIKA/



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