Open Road Films
Published: September 2015
About The Production
Although isolated cases of sex abuse by Catholic priests had been reported by the Boston Globe prior to the Spotlight investigation, the team’s in-depth, scrupulously fact-checked expose revealed the scope of clergy-perpetrated crimes-and the Church’s involvement in protecting their clergy from the criminal justice system-with never-before-seen precision.
Producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust spearheaded the effort to transform the dramatic story of the Boston Globe’s sex-abuse investigation into a movie. “We thought this was the most incredible thing we’d ever heard,” says Faust. “Spotlight took on this institution that had power, money and resources, and showed people that nobody is untouchable.”
Rocklin and Faust approached Anonymous Content about partnering on the feature film. “We immediately felt like we had to be involved in bringing this epic journey to the screen,” recalls Anonymous founder and CEO Steve Golin. “Spotlight is a thrilling story and at the same time, it’s about something significant.”
Spotlight’s potential to inspire real-world progress also resonated with Participant Media. “When our friends at Anonymous Content told us they were developing this story, we jumped at the chance to help bring it to the screen,” explains Jonathan King, Participant’s executive vice president of narrative film.
To write the script, Rocklin and Faust brought on acclaimed director, writer and actor Tom McCarthy, director of such acclaimed independent films as The Station Agent, Win Win and The Visitor, and Oscar-nominee for his original screenplay for 2010’s hit animated film Up. McCarthy brought on former “West Wing” scribe Josh Singer. “Tom has an incredible talent for revealing the human heart at the center of complicated stories,” says King.
McCarthy responded to the saga on multiple levels. “I thought it was fascinating to see how this outsider, Marty Baron, comes from Miami and on his first day at the Boston Globe introduces this idea of investigating a possible cover-up by the Catholic Church. A very bold move.”
Additionally, the Spotlight effort offered an opportunity to craft a cinematic love letter to long-form journalism. “I’m extremely concerned with how little high-end investigative journalism is out there right now compared to what we had 15 years ago,” McCarthy says. “I saw this movie as an opportunity to show by example: Here is the kind of impact that can happen when you have well-funded journalism done by experienced professionals. I mean, what could be more important than the fate of our children?”
McCarthy also brought a personal perspective to the story. “I was raised Catholic so I have great understanding, admiration and respect for the institution,” he explains. “This story is not about Church bashing. It’s about asking ‘How does something like this happen?’ The church performed, and in some cases continues to perform, acts of institutional evil not only as an abuser of kids but also through the cover-up of abuse. How could this abuse go on for decades without people standing up and saying something?”
In keeping with the diligence of the Spotlight team, Singer and McCarthy spent months conducting interviews with journalists, victims and others at the center of the story.
“We went up to Boston two or three times, we did multiple interviews with each of the reporters involved in the story and I thought we were done.” recalls Singer. “But verisimilitude was always key for Tom. He kept asking, ‘What about the journalists who worked on Porter? What about the lawyers?’ He wanted to understand this story from every angle. I’ve always loved research, so this was music to my ears. And, well, big surprise, it was when we reached out beyond our core group that we stumbled upon some of the most unexpected details in this story. And these are the pieces that I think really make the story feel grounded and real.”
Singer, who graduated from Harvard Law School in Boston shortly before the Spotlight investigation began, had generally avoided reading about the Church scandal. “I remember during my early days working on ‘The West Wing,’ I never wanted to read about it in the newspapers because the idea of clergy sex abuse was so upsetting to me on so many levels. What really drew me to Spotlight was that it’s a story about the reporters who uncovered this abuse. For me, that was the way in. By following these reporters, the audience gets to understand the problem in a way that’s accessible.”
THE SPOTLIGHT TEAM
Spotlight boss Walter “Robby” Robinson is portrayed in the film by Michael Keaton, who was nominated for an Oscar for his lead performance in 2014’s Birdman: Or, The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance. The actor, who grew up in a devout Catholic family, channeled the behavioral tics of his role model with unnerving accuracy, according to Robinson. “The first scene I saw was a shot with Michael Keaton, and I almost fell off my chair because he did a perfect me,” says the acclaimed investigative journalist. “Not just my voice and my semi-pseudo Boston accent but my facial expressions, my gestures. He had it all down.”
McCarthy says he pictured Keaton in the role in part because of the actor’s persuasive portrayal of a harried city desk editor in Ron Howard’s 1994 newspaper drama The Paper. “Interestingly enough, The Paper is also one of Robby Robinson’s favorite movies. Like Robby, Michael’s tough, gentle, wickedly funny and winsome-and he brings all of that to his role of this player-coach who guides the investigation.”
Working under Robinson’s direction is star reporter Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo. The actor, who was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of wrestler David Schultz in 2014’s Foxcatcher, received the Spotlight script from director McCarthy on a Friday, read it that night and agreed to take the part the following day. “I immediately felt that this would be an important movie,” recalls Ruffalo. “There are movies you do for ‘them’ and some, like Spotlight, that you do for yourself. All these poor souls are walking around out there who’ve really been wounded in a brutal and hurtful way by an institution that should know better.”
Ruffalo shadowed Rezendes for weeks to shape his interpretation of the tenacious reporter. “The first day I met Mike, he was a bit guarded, not surprisingly; here comes this actor, what’s he gonna do? We went to his apartment, then we had dinner and went for a long walk. We talked and talked and I started to get a sense of who he was through all this back and forth. Then I went to the Globe and spent five days with Mike before we started rehearsal. Once we started shooting the movie, he showed up on set quite a bit. To have him watching me work was a little unnerving because I really want to do him right.”
As he got to know Rezendes, Ruffalo discovered that he and his real-life counterpart had a lot in common. “Mike and I are both outsiders,” Ruffalo observes. “We come from a world that really didn’t give us entree into the jobs we wanted. We were rebellious, and we were both raised Catholic. Mike and I left the Church because we saw inconsistencies between the teachings and the actual manifestations in the public world.”
The first actor to sign on to Spotlight, Ruffalo brought characteristic depth to his performance. “Almost more than any other actor working today, Mark is coming from a unique place of being able to physically transform from character to character,” observes McCarthy. “He combines that with emotional work, so it was very exciting to see Mark take on the Mike Rezendes character in subtle ways, without ever being bombastic or showy.”
Where Ruffalo’s character focuses on legal aspects of the investigation, Rachel McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer specializes in interviewing the victims of clergy sex abuse. “Sacha’s a smart cookie,” says McAdams, recently lauded for her gritty turn on HBO’s “True Detective,” following crowd- pleasing performances in Sherlock Holmes and The Notebook, among others. “She and I started communicating through email, then graduated to the phone and finally I took the train from New York to Boston one weekend and spent the afternoon with her and her husband,” the actress recalls.
The marathon interview paid off. “I asked Sacha every question I could think of,” she says. “Even the tiniest things: ‘Would you wear a watch?’ Whatever it was, she’d tell me anything I wanted to know.”
McAdams’s conversations with Pfeiffer informed some of the film’s most moving sequences, as the reporter gently encourages abuse survivors to tell their stories. “I was so impressed with how Sacha honored these victims,” McAdams says. “The way she put it to me was like ‘For so many years, they had to put this trauma aside, never talked about what happened or even had it acknowledged. And here I am cold-calling them in the middle of their day out of the blue and asking them to talk about this abuse and turning their world upside-down.’ Sacha told me she didn’t feel it would be right to just do the interview, walk away, exploit that pain and disappear as quickly as she arrived. So to this day, she’s maintained relationships with a lot of the victims long after their stories were published.”
McAdams picked up on Pfeiffer’s ability to coax journalistically valuable details from her subjects. “These victims are grown men now, blue-collar men who aren’t comfortable sharing their feelings with anyone, let alone a reporter. Sacha’s an extraordinary listener and very compassionate but she also needed to ask these men to be specific in the language they used to describe their experience so that their stories wouldn’t just be distilled down to the word ‘molested.'”
McCarthy met McAdams via Skype and immediately picked up on the actresses’ down-to-earth accessibility. “There’s a directness to both Sacha and Rachel,” he says “They’re smart but never pushy, and Sacha has this ease in communicating, which Rachel has in her own right. This plays out beautifully when you see that Rachel, as Sacha, is relentless without ever being a nuisance. Rachel has a wonderful way of connecting with people.”
Liev Schreiber invests his portrayal of Boston Globe executive editor Marty Baron with a quiet resoluteness that writer Singer observed while researching the film. “When I interviewed Marty in Washington, D.C., he had a Post-It note in his office that read ‘I am not warm and fuzzy.’ Marty doesn’t care at all about who he’s going to piss off. His job is to get the story.”
Schreiber, who was recently nominated for an Emmy for his performance in the title role of Showtime’s crime drama “Ray Donovan,” instantly gravitated to the uncompromising character of Baron. “One of the film’s most exciting aspects for me came about when I got the opportunity to take the train down to Washington and meet Marty Baron,” says Schreiber. “It was a treat to spend time with him and really understand the dire straits a lot of newspapers in this country find themselves in. In fact, that’s one reason I love this script so much-it really champions newspapers and journalists.
“Marty and the other journalists in this story are heroes to me,” the actor continues. “Having spoken to Marty, one thing I realized is that his job was all-consuming. He didn’t care where the story took him. Marty likes a fight and he doesn’t back down and he was willing to take on very intimidating people and organizations to get at the truth.”
Former Globe Deputy Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr. connected easily with the actor who portrays him on screen. “When I learned John Slattery was cast to play me, I immediately thought of the rogue he played in ‘Man Men.’ I like rogues. And I like John. We spent a lot of time together. He’s a serious, and being from Boston we share an interest in the Red Sox.”
McCarthy envisioned Slattery, a longtime friend, as the perfect on-screen counterpart to Bradlee. “Like Ben, John’s gruff and frank and no BS,” McCarthy says. “He’s a guy’s guy and there’s a real cocksureness to the way he works that made John perfect to portray Ben.”
Slattery, known to millions as glib ad-agency partner Roger Sterling on the Emmy-winning AMC series, savored the role of Bradlee. “Ben’s very smart and kind of bigger-than-life, so there was a lot to work with,” says the actor. “It’s hard to over-emphasize the prominence of the Catholic Church in the city at the time. It had the country’s biggest archdiocese and the Globe readership was something like 53 percent Catholic. For Bradlee to take on the Church in Boston was huge.”
Because Slattery was a hometown boy, the film’s shooting locations fell well within his comfort zone, including the scenes filmed at Fenway Park, where his uncle worked for decades as a Red Sox employee. But as the Spotlight story unfolds, his character experiences massive anxiety. “Ben feels this added pressure as the investigation develops,” Slattery explains. “If you’re going to go this far out on a limb to report a story this big, and this emotional, and so potentially damaging to the institution of the Catholic Church, then you’d better get it right.”
Rounding out the Spotlight team is reporter Matt Carroll, portrayed by Brian d’Arcy James. “Matt’s the self-described geek of the group,” James says about Carroll, who now works as a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media. “Matt brought this passion for collating all this data about priests and incidents over a 30-year span on Excel spread sheets. Then he boiled it down to help tell the story based on what the numbers were telling him.”
Attorney Mitchell Garabedian, portrayed by Stanley Tucci, provides invaluable intel to the Spotlight team. “He’s made it his mission in life to get justice for hundreds of people,” says Tucci. The actor never met Garabedian in person but studied hours of television news conferences and other material. “If you think about the stories that Garabedian has heard, from young kids to people in their 80s who were abused when they were eight years old, I can only imagine that would take a toll on your psyche. Yet he’s indefatigable.”
THE REAL DEAL
As re-enacted in Spotlight, newly hired executive editor Marty Baron sets the wheels in motion for the groundbreaking investigation during his first day on the job. The terse newsman remembers lighting a fire under the Spotlight staff immediately after arriving from the Miami Herald. “The Globe in 2001 was somewhat insular,” says Baron, now executive editor for The Washington Post. “They’d never had an editor who didn’t grow up in Boston.”
Baron says he went to his first news meeting and asked the editors why there hadn’t been any discussion about a column that appeared the previous weekend by Eileen McNamara. “She wrote that the truth might never be known about a series of allegations involving sexual abuse by one particular priest. The church said one thing and the attorney for the plaintiff said something entirely different. I raised the question as to whether we might get at the truth.”
Walter “Robby” Robinson, currently Boston Globe editor-at-large, credits Baron with shaking up the newsroom mindset by testing the Church’s previously unchallenged ability to shield its settlements with victims of priest abuse from public scrutiny. “When Marty Baron arrived in Boston, he said we should go to court and ask for these records to be unsealed because the public had a right to know,” Robinson recalls. “We weren’t accustomed to doing that. Our job at Spotlight was typically to expose public corruption where there were records to look at and people to interview. But for this investigation, we had to really dig in and make many phone calls to get information about this one priest John Geoghan. We very quickly discovered that it wasn’t just one priest. There were a lot of priests involved. By the time we began to publish in January 2002, we had confirmed that more than 70 priests had abused children; that the church made settlements to keep that quiet; and that as part of this cover-up that had been going on for decades, priests who abused children were assigned to other parishes where they very often did it again to other children.”
Robinson looks back proudly on Spotlight’s ongoing impact. “In 2002 we published almost 600 articles about the sexual abuse of thousands of children by hundreds of priests, not just in Boston but around the country. As we all know, sadly, this is a story that literally spread around the world.”
Revisiting the Church scandal after all these years evokes a bittersweet response from Michael Rezendes, who earned a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting along with the rest of the Spotlight team. “All the awards and congratulatory articles and comments and even this film, the emotion is just a little bit muted for us,” he says. “We all still carry with us very vivid memories of the people who shared their experiences with us, so any happiness we might feel is tempered by what these victims of clergy sexual abuse had to go through.”
Rezendes, who continues to investigate corruption as part of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, debriefed co-writer Singer during dozens of hours worth of interview sessions, but nothing prepared him for watching the story take shape in front of the cameras. “Mark looks remarkably like I did back in 2001 with the short hair, the black-tie shoes, the dark polo shirts, the jeans-all of it,” he says. “He also did a great job of capturing how I spoke and walked.”
Unaccustomed to being on the other side of the interview process, Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer marveled at McAdams’ attention to detail during their pre-production conversations. “Rachel would ask me, ‘How long were your fingernails in 2001? Did you eat lunch in the Globe cafeteria or would you bring it from home? What kind of shoes did you wear? Would you change your clothes when you went for a walk? How much did you tell your family? What did your husband think? Did you ever get frustrated?'”
Pfeiffer, who returned to the Boston Globe in 2014 after six years with the local NPR news station, appreciated the actor’s rigorous preparation. “Even though most people who watch the movie would have no idea what I’m really like, Rachel wanted to be as authentic and historically accurate as possible because she and the rest of the cast were trying to create the inner lives of the people they’re playing. And when I saw Rachel being filmed as she walked down the steps of the Boston Public Library, I thought ‘That’s me.'”
RECREATING A 2001 NEWSROOM
Spotlight begins and ends in the Boston Globe offices. To recreate a major metropolitan news operation during the seismic shift from the print to web publishing era, production designer Stephen H. Carter measured the layout of the Globe’s headquarters, then used those specs to re-create 120 cubicles in a vacant Sears department store outside of Toronto. “The newsroom is one of the things we really wanted to control pretty tightly,” says Carter, who previously worked on Best Picture Oscar-winner Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).
In addition to the interiors filmed near Toronto, Carter got the opportunity to dress several scenes that were shot on the actual premises of the Boston Globe. “The presses, the library-there’s an incredible amount of production value we couldn’t have gotten any other way other than shooting there,” he says. “The people at the Globe were incredibly supportive throughout the project so it would have been foolish to not take advantage of that opportunity.”
A stickler for fact-based decor, Carter furnished executive editor Marty Baron’s office with a historically accurate pink flamingo. “I was very impressed with the accuracy of the set,” says Baron. “When I left the Miami Herald to join the Globe, the staff gave me a stuffed pink flamingo, which I installed in my Boston office. The Spotlight art department found a similar creature and carefully placed it in Liev’s office. Apparently, the splash of hot pink was a little too distracting so they tucked it behind a bookcase. The spirit was in the room, just not on the screen.”
One of the big challenges for Carter and his team came in outfitting the workplace with period-appropriate computer gear. “You don’t think of a story that took place 15 years ago as being a period piece, but offices were different then from what you see today. We had to police all kinds of potential anachronisms that you see everywhere nowadays and make sure they didn’t show up in the film.”
Conversely, he notes, today’s obsolete technologies were considered cutting edge in 2001. “The Palm Pilot, for example is something you don’t see anymore, but that’s what people used when this story took place. And flat-screen monitors were relatively new for desktop computers. They were a high-end item so the regular rank and file at the Boston Globe used these old CRT monitors.”
FOCUSING ON SPOTLIGHT
Supplementing interiors with exteriors shot on location in Boston during the fall of 2014, McCarthy pointed his entire team toward one simple goal: “We wanted to be as close to real as we could get,” he says. Hair and costume designer Wendy Chuck (Twilight, Nebraska), for example, came up with period-perfect looks that suited the reporters’ fashion-oblivious work ethic. “The mark of a great designer is when you quit noticing it,” McCarthy says.
Working with director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook), McCarthy looked to Sidney Lumet and Robert Altman as role models for Spotlight’s unfussy cinematography. “We have a fair amount of camera movement because we’re following the action, but didn’t want the shots to be intrusive because we wanted to leave space,” says McCarthy. “We trusted the screenplay and actors to win the day.”
The streamlined aesthetic allowed McCarthy to focus on the fundamentals. “I and everyone I collaborated with kept going back to the work the reporters did. The movie can’t be adorned. It has be straightforward. It has tell the story. It has to be right. So that’s what we were trying to do with the camera and all facets of the visual production elements.”
Above all, McCarthy wanted to satisfy the ultimate arbiters of authenticity, the Spotlight reporters themselves. “We tried to get everything right not only in terms of the facts and figures but also in terms of the emotional content,” McCarthy explains. “We wanted the people who lived through this experience to see this movie and say, ‘Yes, that’s how it was.'”
After seeing an advance cut of the film, the reporters portrayed in Spotlight gave the movie a collective thumbs up. “Marty sent us an email noting how important it is for people to understand that the kind of journalism you see in Spotlight is elemental to our society as Americans,” McCarthy says. “A free press keeps powerful institutions in check.”
THE SPOTLIGHT LEGACY
Spotlight might be seen as a bookend of sorts to All The President’s Men. When that movie about Woodward and Bernstein’s investigation of the Watergate scandal came out in 1976, it earned Jason Robards an Oscar for his portrayal of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, the father of Spotlight’s Ben Bradlee Jr. It also inspired a new generation of journalists to examine institutions once seen as off limits. In 2015, Spotlight celebrates the virtues of investigative reporting during a period when many fear that long-form journalism has taken a backseat to 24-hour news cycles, celebrity gossip and sensationalized Internet “click-bait.”
Over the past decade and a half, many newspapers have folded and seasoned journalists have lost their jobs, notes producer Nicole Rocklin. “With budgets slashed the way they have been, who is going to have the resources and the manpower take on stories like these? If these reporters hadn’t spent years of their lives on this, would it ever have come out? So it’s actually quite scary that investigative teams like this have disappeared from newsrooms around the country.”
McCarthy concurs: “Spotlight serves as a shining example of what professional, top-flight journalists can accomplish. I want to ring the bell about how essential this kind of journalism is, because to me, these reporters are straight-up heroes.”
Almost 14 years after its shocking revelations, the reverberations from the Boston clergy-abuse investigation continue to resonate around the globe and within the Catholic hierarchy. “The Church is now paying a lot of attention to the issues raised in our film and much of the change in the institution can be traced to the work of the Spotlight team,” says producer Michael Sugar.
Participant Media’s Jonathan King adds: “The Boston Globe Spotlight team told an urgent story that changed the world, and that aligns perfectly with our mission at Participant.” To spur further progress, the company has set up a website with information about how viewers can take action regarding issues raised by the film. To learn more, visit www.TakePart.com/Spotlight.