Writer/director Tom McCarthy became involved with Spotlight – the true story of the high-profile investigation by the Boston Globe that uncovered the child abuse scandal within the local Catholic Archdiocese – when producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust came to him with a “thumbnail” version of what they felt the movie was about. “They knew it was going to be a journalism story and they knew there was a lot to it,” said McCarthy.
The producers had an idea for an opening with Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) coming from Miami to take over the reigns of the Globe in the largely Irish Catholic Boston and on his first day asking pointed questions about the Catholic Church. “I just thought it was incredibly compelling,” stated McCarthy. “My next question was what happens next. When you have a beginning of a story like that, then you have something.”
Although he is also a writer, McCarthy signed on to direct and Josh Singer was brought on to write the screenplay. Together they traveled to Boston to sit with the journalists. It was such an interesting couple of days, that McCarthy put aside his other project to write the script with Singer. It took over two years to get the research-intensive story on the page.
“There was a lot of information. I don’t think that I could have accomplished that without Josh. It would have taken me four years and probably would not have been as good,” shared McCarthy. “We hit it off collaboratively.”
The film is very much a performance piece that depends upon a great cast. As the script was being written and McCarthy began to really understand the characters both physically and in terms of “who they are,” the cast came more and more to mind. By the time he had a solid draft, the director had a good idea of whom he wanted to cast.
McCarthy noted that he got the performers that he wanted, saying, “We were very lucky. Not only did we get them, but they came to the table pretty quickly.”
“Mark [Ruffalo] was first in. I sent him an email and almost the next day I heard back that he wanted to do it,” remembered McCarthy. “Then it fell into place quickly. I think they responded to the script. I think some were interested in working with me and I expressed a great interest in working with them. It just happened.”
The film had four casting directors to put together the ensemble cast – Kerry Barden, John Buchan, Jason Knight and Paul Schnee. McCarthy had done all his movies with Barden and Schnee, who he considered his lead casting directors. Although he regularly talks to his casting directors to get feedback on casting ideas, as an actor himself, the director admits he has a good sense of whom he wants. Beyond the six or seven main roles, there also were around a hundred speaking parts – “an enormous casting job.” The company was constantly communicating with Boston and Toronto about what they were looking to cast locally because it was important to McCarthy to have “the flavor” of the specific city in order to represent the people there.
“In the opening of the movie there are three actors that flashback. They are all from Boston,” revealed McCarthy. “A lot of the people who work at the Globe, we felt needed to sound like they were from Boston. It’s always a balancing act when you are putting together a cast like this. It was quite an undertaking. I feel like I am still casting it some days. This one was a great challenge and a lot of fun putting all the pieces together.”
Spotlight is McCarthy’s first collaboration with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who had just finished shooting Black Mass. McCarthy was familiar with his work and thought it was fortuitous to have someone who really knew Boston on his team.
The visual style for the film came from the story. “He had such diversity in what he shoots and how he shoots. He is an amazingly versatile cinematographer,” commented McCarthy. “He is one of those guys who always starts with story. He never thinks of a style until he understands the story.”
In developing the look of the film with both Takayangi and production designer Stephen Carter, the team went for realism, especially in the newsroom where much of the film takes place. They worked hard to find a location that they could build into instead of constructing a set on a lot because they wanted the natural light, the depth and a feeling of institutional power.
“Masa and Steve worked quite a bit with how they were going to light it, with what kind of lights they were going to use. Masa relied a lot on practicals, the actual fluorescents, so that we could move around the newsroomand see the world when we wanted to. Those two really worked beautifully together,” said McCarthy. “That was an incredible set. Steve Carter, I can’t stay enough about the work he did on it.”
In contrast to the practical reality of the newsroom, were the archdiocese buildings with their rich, wood-paneled walls that visually portrayed the power of the church. The company took a tour of the Cardinal’s residence, now owned by Boston College, but they were unable to film there. Nevertheless they got a sense of the ornate opulence and the lavish lifestyle of the church leaders and were able to capture it for the film.
“There were so many different looks in this movie. We were moving around a lot because the reporters were going to various locations,” explained McCarthy. “We were constantly trying to almost color code the film. What makes these locations different? We were trying to depict the upstairs, downstairs of this society.”
Spotlight is the first collaboration between McCarthy and costume designer Wendy Chuck, who has done most of Alexander Payne’s films. The director is a fan of her work because he thinks that she dresses real people like real people. It can be tricky doing a “period” drama from 10 or 15 years ago, but the costume designer does extensive research and understands what she wants.
“Every class was represented in this story in such a simple and nuanced way that it is almost easy to overlook,” stated McCarthy. “But that’s the best kind of work. It doesn’t point to itself. It just tells the story.”
Tom McArdle, who is up for an Oscar for his editing on the film, has worked with McCarthy on five films. The filmmakers knew they had a great script, strong performances and a lot of good material, but McCarthy feels they finished the movie in the edit room. According to the director, McArdle is good at finding pace and rhythm while keeping the tone consistent. The editor has a great eye. There is never a false moment in the film. It is a story well told with an authentic, genuine feel.
“Tom makes it look easy. I think the mark of a great editor is that you’re not even conscious of the editing. It’s just happening,” said McCarthy. “There is all this time and all these bits and pieces from the investigation. He pulled it together and had it all make sense. He creates this tension through the movie that once it takes hold, you’re hooked until the end of the film. It doesn’t let up.”
Although there are always changes, the differences from the page to the screen were mostly small changes. The director and editor focused on the details, trimming internally within scenes, finding moments that were more efficient, more compelling, more dramatic, or that made the complex story clearer. McArdle used all the tools at his disposal, early on playing with sound and music in an inventive way. All the time the goal was to move the story forward.
McCarthy added. “I think he has a severe case of OCD. He is a workhorse. He is just relentless. He has got to get it right and he won’t let go until he does. That is the kind of work ethic you want from people you collaborate with.”
McCarthy felt like they were telling a classic story so Howard Shore seemed like the perfect composer for the film. Music supervisor Mary Ramos came up with the idea to work with Shore. According to McCarthy they “hit it off.” The veteran composer has been creating music for a long time and knows his process. He came onto the film fairly early and fed themes and cues to editorial to try out against the picture.
“He’s another guy who likes to talk about the movie a lot before we even discussed the music. The first thing he does is find themes that he felt worked for the film, not score the movie. It’s the first time I worked like that and I found it really interesting,” revealed McCarthy. “It felt very organic, very true. It evolved.”
McCarthy wanted to give a shout out to first assistant director Walter Gasparovic who “managed the set so well” and line producer Michael Bederman who figured out a way to do the movie without sacrificing creativity. “He literally saved the film with his ingenuity. As everyone was trying to figure out the business side, he was making it happen.”