The Wrap: When Journalism met hollywood

The Wrap
Published: December 23, 2015

Four decades after All The President’s Men, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight has put newspaper reporting back on screen

The Boston Globe’s investigation into pedophile priests in the Catholic Church in 2002 is the subject of Spotlight, an ambitious drama that brings together a high-powered cast led by Michael Keaton and a high-risk topic involving power, religion and sexual abuse. Editor-in-chief Sharon Waxman sat down with the film’s co-writer and director, Tom McCarthy, and with Marty Baron, editor at the Boston Globe at the time of the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative series, and now executive editor at The Washington Post.

Tom, you’ve done so many different kinds of movies as a writer, actor, director. You’ve contributed the story to Up, you did Win Win—this seems really off your beaten path. Tell us why you became interested in this story to begin with.

TOM McCARTHY I self-generate most of my projects, especially the ones I write and direct. But this particular story was brought to me by two producers, Nicole Roklin and Blye Faust, who had tracked down the idea and got the life rights to the reporters and the editors. There was something at first blush that was so compelling about this story that it was tough to resist. The idea of Marty Baron coming from the Miami Herald to Boston, and then on day one igniting conversation about what they had or hadn’t done in terms of their investigation into the Catholic Church. Who would ever think reporters and editors would have their life rights bought? It’s a beautiful day.

MARTY BARON I discovered my life isn’t worth that much actually and depreciated over time, by the way. [Laughs]

Most stories about newspaper journalists are the opposite of exciting. It’s basically people sitting at typewriters or computers or on their phones. So isn’t that the challenge? How do you make it into a narrative story that you can show on screen?

McCARTHY Probably. It’s funny—I felt somewhat immune to that when we were starting this project, and maybe that’s because we had a sense of how rich the material was. By that I mean the actual investigation, the process, the Catholic Church, the cover-up. There was just so many elements to it that we thought, “Wow what’s our in?”

And our in was obviously through the eyes of the reporter. And then we had the good fortune to spend a lot of time with these guys, who were very generous in that way. We had to sit with them and interview and piece this investigation together and in doing so, we just became charged with the idea of committing to the procedure and the craft of journalism. I think that was our gamble. If we find it exciting, if we commit to it as faithfully as possible, as authentically as possible, hopefully our audience will also connect with it.

Marty, there’s a line in the movie in which you’re described as an unmarried guy of the Jewish faith who hates baseball—not meant as a compliment, clearly. Were you aware that you would be regarded so thoroughly as an outsider?

BARON I was aware of the fact I would be perceived as an outsider in Boston. This city, a wonderful city, had a reputation of being insular in many different ways, and after I arrived it was clear people perceived me to be an outsider, and in fact they used that very term. Coming in from the outside, it did give me a fresh perspective. I was looking at a story as if I’d never seen it before. In fact, I had not seen it before when I first became aware of this. I was kind of stunned: Here was this priest who was accused of abusing as many as 80 kids, and yet I hadn’t heard of this story in Miami. And so I was really curious about it, and then I raised the question about whether we couldn’t seek confidential court documents that had been kept under seal. And I was surprised, frankly, that the Globe and no other media outlet in Boston had actually sought to have those documents made public.

One of the things that is so striking about the story is the pressure that’s brought to bear on editors and others who are Catholic or have deeper ties through school. Was that going on?

BARON It’s hard for me to say, because I didn’t know anybody at the paper, really. I didn’t know anybody in town, and I didn’t really have any sources on the staff, actually. It’s an unusual circumstance for an editor to have essentially no one who would tell you what’s really going on.

So you were an outsider in the Globe and in the city.

BARON Inside the Globe and inside the city as well. Absolutely.

That sounds kind of lonely.

BARON To be honest, it was lonely. It was a very tense time. There were people on the staff who wanted the job I was given, they reported directly to me, and we had launched this very serious investigation.

Six weeks after I arrived there were the attacks of 9/11, the first real attack on our country since Pearl Harbor. And then we had the anthrax scare, if you remember that. So it was not a time full of mirth. Someone on the staff had told the Boston Phoenix anonymously that my time at the Globe should be known as the joyless pursuit of excellence. Which I always thought was better than the joyful pursuit of mediocrity. Nonetheless, it was sort of an assessment.

At any point did it occur to you to maybe 
ease into the job without taking on the Catholic Church?

BARON Not really. I viewed it in very workmanlike terms. The question I raised during my very first meeting of my very first day was: We have one side saying the Cardinal himself knew of this abuse and yet repeatedly reassigned this priest from one parish to the next without any notification to anybody. And then you had the lawyers for the church saying that this was absolutely untrue, these were baseless and false and irresponsible charges. And in this column written the day before I started by Eileen McNamara, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, she said the truth may never be known because these documents are under seal.

To me, a statement like that should be chum to journalists. We should be going after that. I said, “We have an opportunity here to find out what really happened. Have we thought of actually going to court to unseal the documents?” I wasn’t really so much thinking, “OK, I want to take on the Catholic Church.” This is what journalists do.

It seems to me the film is more about journalism than 
about the Church scandal. You take us in a very authentic way through the process of investigative journalism, 
which is slow, expensive, painstaking and often thankless. Talk a little bit about the unique interaction you had 
with the journalists to be able to learn about their process and then tell the story.

McCARTHY It felt like we had almost unlimited time with these people. They were incredibly generous. They’re all very busy, as we know. They were really not just supportive but collaborative in an effort to tell the story and tell it right.

This happened 14 years ago from when we started researching it. So sitting with them and hearing their different sides to the story, we had to triangulate and re-create as best as we could. I think that access that we had really started to rub off on us. [Co-writer] Josh [Singer] and I and then the rest of my creative team really grew to respect the hard work these people do, and you’re right, in most cases it’s completely anonymous and selfless.

BARON It took seven months from the time we launched until the first story ran on January 6, 2002. And then we investigated over the course of the following year and even beyond that. We published 600 stories in the first year, several hundred more the year after that. I calculated conservatively that it cost us over a million dollars to do that investigation when you look at staff, legal expenses, all of that. But well worth it.

The investigative team had the goods on 80 or 90 priests, but you wanted to wait until you could prove it was something that was permitted to continue by the institution itself.

BARON What I wanted us to show was in fact there was a policy and practice within the Church that they knew about abuse and then reassigned priests from one parish to the next where these priests were then allowed to abuse again and again. This would represent a violation of the core responsibility that any institution would have—particularly an institution like the Church, which is supposed to be a refuge. That was the bigger story. And that in fact is what we were able to prove.

You were really just on the cusp on the age of digital journalism in 2002. The Boston Globe must’ve had a website at that time.

BARON It was a big deal that it was going up on the web. It was one thing for a journalist to describe a document. It’s another thing for readers to read the actual document and see in that instance how insensitive the church was in dealing with the families. Particularly with mothers. It was shocking to read that language. I think that alone had a huge effect on people.

McCARTHY As a screenwriter, just a week after signing on these huge binders started showing up at my office. Not only the records, but also the articles. Reading through them, it’s incredibly disturbing to see the back and forth between the Archdiocese and some of these victims, survivors or the families of victims. It’s heartbreaking. It really had an impact on me.

What did Marty say when he saw the movie the first time?

McCARTHY We showed it to Marty and his friend, and his friend had two comments. He said, “First of all, I think you got reporting right,” and that was a big “phew.” Secondly, he said, “Marty is a much happier guy than that. He comes across very serious. He’s much more pleasant to spend time with.” And Marty just looked at him and said, “I wasn’t then.” And we felt like, “Well all right, we got that right.”

What was your reaction, Marty?

BARON I thought it was great. It’s remarkable to see a film about something that happened 14 years before that you thought people had pretty much forgotten about. It was tremendously gratifying to see a film bring out these issues. It was a testament to investigative reporting, to the need to hold powerful institutions and individuals accountable. It was a movie with a lot of nuance, which I really appreciated, because it did not turn us into superheroes. It showed that we are fallible, and we certainly are.

Our profession is highly imperfect, and I thought it brought that out, but notwithstanding the imperfections we performed a very important role in society. And I think the movie makes clear that had we not done that, these kinds of cover-ups would continue, whether it’s in the Church or some other institution.

They had a real seriousness of purpose. Any concerns we might’ve had at the beginning that we or the investigation or the Church would be turned into a caricature were not warranted. They did a tremendous job, and my reaction was one of really profound gratitude.

***

Real to Reel Spotlight
Actors one on one with the reporters they play

MICHAEL KEATON: There is a huge element of trust here. I’m going to be on a giant screen being you, and you never met me—that’s a fairly big leap, even though we got to know each other pretty quickly. And then there’s the really practical aspect of how am I going to be portrayed? How I act, what my mannerisms are like. I know that’s a shallow aspect of it, but it would be hard not to think about that. So what was that like?

WALTER “ROBBY” ROBINSON: I felt like I hit the lottery. First of all, another former altar boy, someone who studied journalism. And you didn’t realize it at the time in 1994, but we bonded because you were in The Paper, you played the metro editor. And I was the metro editor of the Globe at the time. And then you show up and get my accent, and then you go on set and you got the frowns down, the mannerisms, the gestures. And all my friends are calling me up and they say, “By the way, we liked the movie, but this guy nailed you.” And I said, “Uh oh, I’m in trouble.”

***

BEN BRADLEE JR: I was of course flattered to entertain all your questions. They were, 
“How’d you get the story?” It probably helped the story was a familiar landscape to you, having grown up in Boston and being a lapsed Catholic.

JOHN SLATTERY: Yeah. There were priests who 
would just disappear from my high school, and it was a small high school, too. The headmaster, he went away.

BRADLEE: 
Did people know why?

SLATTERY: 
It was speculation. 
We never really heard any specific rumors about anybody in any kind of abusive situation, but there were several priests who just didn’t show up for school one day and never came back.

***

MIKE REZENDES: I wondered how you got to become such a good reporter, because there are things that I would not share with you, if you recall. I got pretty comfortable with you, but I remember there was a day you found out with no help from me that I can be a little bit, say, excitable. And then there was a day you came to me and said, “I wanna see you blow up.” [Laughs] And I said, “No way. This cannot be good for me if this ends up in a movie.” And you said, “Well, let me just tell you something: I have gathered evidence that you yell at your bosses—generally speaking, they don’t like it and it’s not good for your career, OK?” So how’d you get it?

MARK RUFFALO: I think after all the gathering of information that I had done up until that point, there was nowhere else to go but to that level. You know? I knew your relationship to the Church growing up. I knew how important you see reporting and investigative journalism. I knew the pressure that you’re under. I knew how much you cared about those kids. I knew that you were passionate about the story. And so when you put all that into the pot and turn up the heat a little bit, something is gonna blow, you know?

***

SACHA PFEIFFER: I remember our first phone call lasted an hour and a half. And I remember being amazed that you wanted to know everything, physical and psychological. It wasn’t just, “What did you wear, what was your haircut like?” But, “What was your family like, and what did you think, and did you cook dinner with your husband?” I mean, it was everything.

RACHEL McADAMS: And you were so open about everything. I remember calling Tom right before I called you, and I was really nervous, and I said, “Is there anything I shouldn’t ask or anything that’s off limits?” And he said, “No, just go for it.”

PFEIFFER: After I saw the movie for the first time, I realized that all that time we spent together, which I just thought of as dinner with Rachel or walking through Boston with Rachel—for you it was kind of research. Because I realized on screen that you were replicating mannerisms that in some cases I didn’t even know I had.

***

BRIAN D’ARCY JAMES: So, Matt Carroll, how many times has your life been turned into a movie?

MATT CARROLL: (Laughs) Hm, let me think about this for a minute. Once that I know of. And it’s been totally fascinating. So many people have had an opportunity to see it and I’ve gotten emails and tweets and phone calls from so many people I haven’t seen in such a long time.

JAMES: 
That’s the thing about this movie that’s really cool. It has such an impact. Obviously people can be reminded of all the great work you guys did. But the people who maybe experienced abuse or know people who have, and can experience this story in a way that sheds new light or allows them to have a chance to heal—all these things are possible outcomes of this film, which I think is an extraordinary thing.

© 2015 The Wrap | Written by Sharon Waxman | No copyright infringment intended.

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