Oscar Nominated Writer/ Director Tom McCarthy Talks Spotlight

Generally speaking, writer/director Tom McCarthy likes things small. The filmmaker (and occasional character actor) is best known for his quiet and intimate character pieces like The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. They’re delicate little pieces that sneak up on audiences with tremendous emotional weight and subtle humour barely visible at first due to the filmmaker’s strict adherence to small town humanism. Sure, there have been exceptions to that rule like his screenplay for Pixar’s Up or whatever the hell The Cobbler was supposed to be. But in general, McCarthy is consistent in his welcomely uncommon dedication to carefully crafting character pieces that feel ripped from early 70s New Hollywood.

Somehow, McCarthy’s latest movie can be described as sprawlingly small. On one hand, it’s a big story about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning investigation that uncovered the Catholic Church’s horrendous practice of covering up child molestations and moving the guilty priests to other parishes without legal ramification. The cast is huge to encompass as many of the real players as possible. Yet at the same time, Spotlight remains a Tom McCarthy joint thanks to how he gave each and every actor (no matter how fleeting their screen time) the care and attention necessary to feel like fully developed people. That’s a tricky balancing act to pull off in what is ultimately a procedural movie, yet McCarthy does so humanely and given the subject matter, that only adds to the immense power of the piece. 

Dork Shelf got a chance to chat with Tom McCarthy while he was in Toronto attending the premiere of Spotlight at TIFF  and were able to grill him about the unique challenges involved in making this special movie. Read on for all the dirty details about what is sure to be one of the frontrunners in this year’s film awards race. 

Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams

It was impressive how you were able to compress so much information and feature so many characters in this film. Even though there are even a few genuine stars, no one emerges as a primary character above the rest. Everyone fits together and does their job. How was it to create that puzzle and pull everyone together as part of this team?

Well that was certainly the biggest challenge as a storyteller and filmmaker. Not just for me, but for the whole creative team. The lead actor is the team of journalists. There’s a reason why the movie ends in a four shot, a wide one. That’s the story, this team. We realized early on that we couldn’t conflate any of these characters. We couldn’t lose any. There’s always temptation to gain shape by combining characters, but we never wanted to do that. I think we took our cues from the reporters about trying to tell the story as truthfully as possible in a way that was unadorned and blunt. And we were willing to risk being boring for the sake of authenticity. That was certainly the big challenge of the movie, but I think there’s also a certain propulsion from not knowing where we were going next and jumping from one scene and character to the next. It’s all the pieces that are really interesting and thankfully it seems like viewers have connected with that. 

This is obviously a pretty emotionally intense film and story. Did that affect the production at all? 

No, not really. Rachel sent me a nice note after we left saying that we had no business having that much fun making a movie that intense and dark. But we did. We were ready and prepared to make this movie. By that I mean my cast and crew were ready. It was brutal getting to the starting line, but by that time we were researched, rehearsed, and ready. The script was in a good place. We trusted it. And very often that’s not the case. These actors are pros and it was such pleasure going to work knowing they were going to deliver and then seeing it happen. Day after day there was a sense of, “Wow, that was a good scene.” There was a lot to cover. It was a fat script and we didn’t have enough days, as always, so we had to move. 

My cinematographer (Masanobu Takayanagi, who I can’t say enough good things about) and I decided early on that we just wanted to sit back and watch these scenes play out. There are a lot of one shots in this movie, where we only did it three or four times and then said, “We got it.” The reason we got it is because these guys were so good. That really helped us tell the story and as a result, there was a lot of camaraderie on set.

 The first day we came to set, the actual reporters were there and they couldn’t believe it because we had built their home in Toronto. They just couldn’t get over it and all went to their desks and were kind of gobsmacked by the detail. I was going to say something to everyone to start the day, but then I asked Robby [Robinson, the lead reporter on the case] to say something instead. Robby gave this speech about the importance of the work and how much time they spent toiling in this shitty little office with no idea of the global impact that it was going to have. The work is what mattered to them and it was so inspirational for the cast and the crew for the rest of filming. We were all doing something that mattered to us and hopefully to some other people along the way. That made for a great spirit. 

Do you think that all the time you spent researching the story, tracking everyone down, and interviewing them, helped build your appreciation for investigative journalism and being able to communicate that job clearly in the film?

Absolutely. It was very clear to [co-writer] Josh Singer and I instantly that we were reporters on this case and bad ones, probably. We happened to be interviewing good ones and constantly felt like we were being played. (Laughs) We were being schooled, really. Think about it, you’re interviewing great reporters. They’re going to tell you what they want. There was a lot of, “I don’t remember that, actually.” They remembered it. We were running all over town and we were fledging reporters working our way through what felt like a very big story. And then some things were revealed to us along the way.

 The beat about the 20 priests that was revealed at the end, that was not a part of their story. That was a part of our story because Josh and I sat down with Eric Macleish and when we kept pushing him, he went from being very accommodating to a little testy. By the end he said, “Look no one’s clean here.” We said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I sent the Globe names well before they broke the story. 20 priests, after Porter. I needed them and they weren’t there.” 

We walked out of there being Sacha and Robby at that point and thinking, “That does not sync.” So we went to the archives and he found it and not only that but Robby was the editor who didn’t investigate further. So now we had to call Robby, who we love and was our hero, and tell him about it. And what he said to us is pretty much what he says in the movie. It was hard. It was painful and it was real. But we told him that we had to include it in the story because it mattered and he got that because he’s a journalist. He didn’t necessarily love it, but he got it.

We’ve had journalists from The Globe who have come up to us after hearing about that and said, “Good. This should be on everyone.” For me, that was the seminal moment in our investigation. 

Did anything from your experience of playing a journalist on The Wire come into the making of this film?

(Laughs) Maybe karmic retribution for the evilness that I did. Well yes. David Simon educated me on what it meant to be a great journalist and what it meant to be a bad journalist and what it meant to be passionate for journalism and also the state of journalism. I wasn’t as aware and I don’t think a lot of people are. I was fortunate to work with a guy who is not only a master storyteller, but also a brilliant journalist and he schooled me on it. So I took all that information into making this movie. It doesn’t mean that I didn’t have to go back and do more research. In fact some of my research was watching some of David Simon’s talks on the state of journalism. If you haven’t done it, do it. He’s amazingly articulate and informed and he gets it. But that was definitely inspiring to a great degree. 

It also intimidated me. Oddly enough David Simon was editing his Show Me A Hero series literally down the hall from us. So I’d see him every day and think, “Ugh…he’s going to see this some day. It’s got to be right.” I could here him saying, “You used music! Why would you use music?!” Although I hear Haggis forced him into using music, which was great. I literally felt like I won a battle when that happened. But no, I mean honestly I live in fear of him seeing this movie. Something that’s been very gratifying is journalists come up to me and saying that we got it right. Josh and I decided that was our goal early on. We wanted to make it right for them and then hopefully that would make it right for other people. Or maybe not. Maybe we’ll make the most boring movie ever but journalists will say, “You got it!’ That was our goal and I think David was always on my shoulder along the way. He’s an extraordinary guy. 

Dealing with a story of child molestation, especially involving priests can be incredibly overwhelming on a film. Was part of your decision to focus mainly on the reporting a way of keeping that just slightly at arm’s length some of the time?

Well…truthfully, it was the story that was brought to me. It was the story of the investigation. Now yes, they sat down with many more victims than we portray in the movie. Through Rachel’s character we tried to portray how much door knocking and cold-calling she did. There’s one little montage where we just see her sitting. I remember I wanted that seen to be her sitting with a guy just balling and spitting his guts out and her having a hard time giving total empathy to him because how much can you take in at a certain point? It’s like doctors who deal with cancer patients. How can you live with that every day and not start to become somewhat detached from it? 

So that was the thrust of our story. We felt like they didn’t really sit with children. It was adults. So that’s why we took that approach to the movie, you don’t see that many kids. That’s why I think the Silent Night scene is so powerful, because you see all those children and then the reality really sinks in. That’s a real choir by the way just singing. That’s why you can see that some of them are bored. One kid didn’t know the lyrics. One kid was out of key. It took us an hour to find him. It was really funny. The choir woman was like, “They can all sing.” We were like, “Not that kid.” It was really funny. If you watch, one girl is even looking dead into the camera. 

Anyways, we thought that was enough. We’re adults. We know what it means. Matt Carroll talked about that a lot, dealing with this story all day and then going home to four young kids. It’s tough. We only see his kids once, just to give you a sense of it. So we felt like that was there. You can feel it. 

Having gotten so close to the actual people you were portraying in the movie, did that make it easier or harder to then have to think of them as characters in your movie? I know that Robby Robinson’s favourite movie was The Paper, so did that play a role casting Michael Keaton to play him?

Oh no, no. They didn’t have casting rights. I actually didn’t know that was Robby’s favourite movie until I emailed him to tell him about Michael. I would let them know as I was casting who was going to play them, but not until it was done, done. So I remember telling Robby about that and him saying, “Oh my god, that’s awesome. The Paper’s my favourite movie. They got it right.” 

But look, as with reporters, it’s a blessing and a curse when you get close to the people who you are investigating or interviewing. It’s a tricky thing. I think with these guys, it’s been both. Mostly, it’s been great. But we had to push and ask hard questions and know that we had to take some liberties with story and who they are. Fortunately, it’s all been very positive and they’ve been very supportive of the movie.

Last night at the premiere, we got to bring them all on stage and that was a special moment. I’ll never forget that. Because it wasn’t about us. You know, it’s great when people like you. (Laughs) And it’s great for the actors who get plenty of love and deservingly so. But it was even better last night when we brought out those guys and the applause was rapturous. It was so nice because it was about them and the bigger theme of the movie. 

That’s what we wanted the movie to be about and that’s the effect it should have. So it was so nice to see those reporters get a standing ovation for like three minutes. It was kind of funny too, because I’ve never seen six more uncomfortable people in my life. That’s not where they are supposed to be. They had to sit there and take it. That was cool. I feel like reporters are like teachers. They’re undervalued and under-payed, but they are incredibly valuable. Isn’t it a travesty how neglected our teachers are? They’re only raising our children! Let’s underpay them. Reporters are the same way.

With the way the industry is changing and tabloid journalism is taking over, this movie does kind of represent the last hurrah of investigative journalism.

I hope so. We couldn’t speak to that directly in the movie. But I hope viewers can connect the dots because people need to be made aware of that. We tried to make that explicit in the movie, but it never quite fit. We event tried to include it in the title cards at the end. But I’ve seen movies in the past where cards come up to try and impose a message on a movie that doesn’t really fit. You start to think, “Oh that’s what the movie is about? I thought it was about something else.” For instance, these reporters won the Pulitzer, should we have included that in the cards? The studio wanted to and it is awesome. But we wanted to reflect the effect that the reporting had. To their credit, the reporters all said, “Don’t put the Pulitzer there. We got the prize. We don’t need the credit. Talk about what the movie is about.” Which I thought was cool.  

It’s interesting that you don’t tell us too much about the personal lives of the journalists, you give us just enough to build those worlds for ourselves. Was that important for you?

Well, we only had so much real estate in the movie and there was so much information to cover. This investigation became their lives. We had a little bit in there at one point that ended up on the cutting room floor. Just bits and pieces. Little things that were good on their own, but once we got into the rhythm of the film, just didn’t feel necessary. We’re adults. We know they have families. If you see a guy like Mike living in an apartment, you know something is going on. We made a conscious effort to leave that stuff out because it’s not important. We did a bit with Sacha and her grandmother because of the weight that brought on her while working on the story. How do you keep going knowing what that will do to someone you love? That’s pressure. Some people might not do it at all for that reason.