Spotlight filmmakers retell the first 'viral' story

By Helen Barlow

Filmmakers took on a huge story, writes Helen Barlow.
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in Spotlight.
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in Spotlight.

Spotlight was a difficult film to finance and it's been a difficult film to market - a movie about child abuse by Catholic priests.

Yet when a real life story is as well told as this - think All The President's Men - and with a stellar cast playing the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of Boston Globe reporters who pursued the 2002 investigation, audiences are flocking to see it and critics deem it an Oscar favourite.

The film's director, Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win) wrote the screenplay with former West Wing scribe and Harvard-trained lawyer Josh Singer. What the film captures is only the start of how the Globe story went global.

"The reporters told us to keep in mind that this was one of the first stories ever that went viral," McCarthy explains, noting how the discoveries soon caught on in other countries, including New Zealand. "They described it like opening a kitchen cupboard and realising it's actually more of a storeroom, 'Oh this thing's a f**k'n warehouse!' and it just kept expanding.

"One of our biggest challenges as both writers and storytellers was to transport people back to a time before it was recognised as a huge problem.

"There's a great moment when John Slattery's character Ben Bradlee Jr says '90 f**king priests!' and the audience just connects with that incredulousness.

"The reporters talked a lot about their mutual excitement and horror where, on the one hand, it was like, 'Holy shit, this is a big story', and as filmmakers we're all looking for big stories too. But at what expense? They had to wade through these dark waters and talk to survivors and victims for many years. It took a toll."

The key to the Spotlight team's discovery came with the arrival of the Globe's new editor Marty Baron, who, as played by Liev Schreiber, calmly and firmly insists on the unsealing of the Catholic Church's records of its settlements with victims of abuse by priests.

"I knew fairly early on that I was dealing with a remarkable person who has spent the majority of his life really trying to stay on the right side of things," Schreiber recalls.

"I don't think Marty spent too much time worrying about other people's perceptions of him or what he had to do. And that for me was my inroad to the character."

Of course a premise of Schreiber's hit series, Ray Donovan, is that the troubled Boston-born Hollywood fixer was abused by Catholic priests in his childhood.

"It's a total coincidence," the native New Yorker says with a smile. "When Tom sent me the screenplay it was like, 'Oh, right, I'm playing the only person who's not from Boston'."

In terms of awards nominations the film has presented a challenge as the story has engendered exceptional work from the actors - Michael Keaton as team leader Walter 'Robby' Robinson who was nominated for an individual Pulitzer and is still a Globe editor; Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, currently a political writer at the Globe; Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer; seasoned Broadway actor Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll; Schreiber as Baron, current editor of The Washington Post; and Mad Men's Slattery as Bradlee, who after 25 years at the Globe went on to become a bestselling author.

A scene from the movie Spotlight.
A scene from the movie Spotlight.

"It's a collective of very talented journalists and it was intentional on the film-makers' part to push Marty back a little [in the story]," Schreiber continues.

"He spearheads this whole investigation but I thought it was intelligent of them to show how a newsroom works and to do that methodically, paying attention to the minutiae.

"It took a tremendous amount of labour; hours, months and years go into developing a story like this."

Interestingly McCarthy, also an accomplished actor, had played a newspaper reporter in the final season of The Wire, created by David Simon.

"David had a huge impact on me in that he educated and inspired me regarding what great journalism's all about," McCarthy notes.

"I didn't know that before. He just lives and breathes it. He comes from a second or third generation of journalists and you can feel his passion. I learnt a lot on that show that I took with me into this film."

What: Spotlight
When: In cinemas next Thursday

- TimeOut

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