Think how often we hear a filmmaker say, “I just wanted to tell their story.” Usually this is at some sort of question and answer session in front of people who might potentially vote to award that filmmaker one of countless trophies. And then that filmmaker tells that same story to Jimmy Fallon later that week, then probably Charlie Rose the week after. This is all usually accompanied by a clip from that filmmaker’s new movie — probably a scene in which the protagonist looks triumphant as the music swells. Or maybe our main character is yelling. He’s probably yelling about something righteous. This is an “Oscar” scene. This is an “Oscar” movie. And this is all the usual garbage we have to put up with while that filmmaker makes his or her play for that Oscar.
Cynicism aside, filmmakers often have a problem with falling in love with their subjects, especially if that subject is still living and breathing. It’s human nature to trust that the person they’re making a movie about is telling the whole story… this isn’t journalism. But what happens when a filmmaking team doesn’t just take its protagonists’ word for it? What happens when these filmmakers dig deeper than the word of a group of journalists responsible for one of the greatest reported stories of the 21st century? Surely, if anyone were going to give you the full story, it would be this group, right?
That’s what makes Spotlight so remarkable.
I met Josh Singer — one half of Spotlight’s screenwriting team (director Tom McCarthy makes up the other half) — for coffee in Manhattan’s East Village. It’s a brisk evening and we have difficulty finding a coffee shop that isn’t packed. We settle on one, but Singer isn’t happy. He likes the coffee at the location we just left, but my fears of only hearing “crowd noise” on my recorder win the argument. Singer is quite tall and, when he gets going, kind of sounds like Adam Carolla, which makes him look a little bit like Carolla, too. Adding to this, Singer has a tendency to stop mid-sentence and proclaim, “Look, here’s the thing…”
Spotlight premiered in September at the Venice Film Festival, then ran the gauntlet through the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto Film Festival, picking up almost unparalleled praise at each stop. Singer has taken this festival route once before – with 2013’s Julian Assange biopic, The Fifth Estate — but that experience had, let’s say, a lot more turbulence.
“Two years before, we had the same location for the party for The Fifth Estate,” Singer is talking about Toronto’s Soho House, which hosted the premiere party for both The Fifth Estate in 2013 and Spotlight in 2015. “There were a lot more people who wanted to talk to me at this year’s party.”
Spotlight is the story of The Boston Globe’s landmark story about abuse by Catholic priests against children and the Church’s systematic cover-up of these abuses. It’s a landmark story, one of this century’s defining pieces of journalism. As a film, though, it presented some logistic problems, namely how to cram the story of six separate journalists into one two-hour film and do everyone involved justice.
Singer’s initial idea involved “collapsing” characters into one another, something that happens quite often in biopics. In last year’s The Theory of Everything — which won Eddie Redmayne an Oscar – Stephen Hawking had a roommate named Brian. Instead of creating multiple characters to play Stephen Hawking’s Cambridge classmates, “Brian” was created to just represent all of them. Sometimes this is necessary, but as Singer remembers, McCarthy wasn’t having it.
“I was like, ‘How are we going to make four reporters work? Clearly we’re going to have to collapse a couple of characters,’” recalls Singer. “Tom was like, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”
McCarthy concurs with that telling, adding, “I think, early on, I just had an instinct that if we could pull it off and really committed to the true ensemble nature of the investigation, as relayed to us, it would make this movie feel original and provide a compelling energy to it.”