Bringing Boston abuse scandal to big screen in Spotlight

Spotlight brings the Boston Globe's expose of the Catholic Church's abuse cover-up to the big screen, and it's proving a hot favourite this awards season. Susan Griffin talks to the film's director, acclaimed cast, and the real-life journalists they portray, about tackling such sensitive subject matter

Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James in Spotlight
Susan Griffin

IN the summer of 2001, Marty Baron began his first day as editor of the Boston Globe.

Within hours, he'd asked the boss of the paper's investigative team, Spotlight, to look closer into a column about a local priest accused of sexually abusing dozens of young parishioners over a three-decade period.

Cut to January 2002, and despite staunch resistance from Church officials, the journalists, including senior Spotlight journalist Walter 'Robby' Robinson, reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes and researcher Matt Carroll, shook the world by exposing the Catholic Church's systematic cover-up of paedophilia perpetrated by more than 70 priests in the city.

Now a film, entitled Spotlight – which has been nominated for six Oscars, three Golden Globes and three Baftas – tells how the Pulitzer-Prize-winning team conferred with the victims' lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, interviewed the adult survivors and pursued the release of sealed court records to uncover the truth.

Although isolated cases of sexual abuse by Catholic priests had been reported prior to the Spotlight investigation, the team exposed the sheer scope of the crime being perpetrated, and the Church's involvement in protecting their clergy from the criminal justice system.

"Spotlight took on the institution that had power, money and resources and showed people that nobody is untouchable," notes the film's co-producer Blye Pagon Faust.

At the movie's helm is Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the script.

"There was a moment where I was just going to have Josh [Singer], my co-writer, write it, but very quickly I changed my mind," reveals the 49-year-old director. "These people were too interesting, the story was too interesting, so I called Josh and said, 'If you don't mind, I'm going to jump on and write it with you'. He was very game for that and we never looked back."

McCarthy wouldn't say he was nervous about tackling the subject matter. "As a storyteller, you understand when you're taking on sensitive material and you feel a certain responsibility to try and get it right," says the New Jersey-born film-maker.

He insists that he and Singer had the journalists' co-operation from day one. "They had committed their life's rights so we could have access to them, but it's one thing to agree to that and another thing to really understand what that means," he highlights.

"And I think they were a little surprised at how much time Josh and I spent with them, but just like a reporter would, we'd go back and back and back and get a little deeper, and get them to open up and maybe push them beyond their comfort zone of what they wanted to share with us."

The cast includes Michael Keaton as Robinson, Mark Ruffalo as Rezendes, Rachel McAdams as Pfeiffer, Liev Schriber as Baron and Stanley Tucci as Garabedian. "It's an amazing cast," McCarthy acknowledges, "but that actually came together quite easily. I think they just responded to the script."

He feels very fortunate that actors of this calibre were so keen to sign onto a project like this – "which is very difficult to pull off for a lot of reasons, namely the market's shrinking, and to make adult films like this is tricky".

On hearing that people were interested in making a film based on their work, Robinson admits his initial reaction was: "Are you kidding me?! Why would anyone be interested?

"What we didn't bargain on was Tom McCarthy and his ability to tell a story in a compelling way," he adds. "And then to have some of the best actors in the land play us, we were just delighted."

The first time Robinson saw Keaton portraying him, he says he "almost fell off my chair".

"He did a perfect me," the acclaimed journalist explains, laughing. "Not just my voice and my semi-pseudo Boston accent, but my facial expressions, my gestures. He had it all down."

Keaton, who was nominated for an Oscar last year for 2014's Birdman (Eddie Redmayne took the gong, for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory Of Everything), admits it's "somewhat" tense to see the person you're playing on set.

"But then you get so busy working, you kind of forget all of that," adds the 64-year-old. "You've got the task in hand. You're going to make the movie and play the role, but it was really handy to have him around."

Robinson credits Baron, who has since gone on to helm The Washington Post, for shaking up the Globe's newsroom.

"Marty came in with a fresh eye. He came from Florida, where everything is public and he came into Boston and he said, 'What's this about all these records that are sealed?' and we all gave him this look like deer in headlights. We weren't accustomed to doing that. Our job at Spotlight was typically to expose public corruption, where there were records to look at."

Asked whether he regrets that the truth took so long to be revealed, he says: "In every major newsroom in the United States there are regrets, and not just on this story but many stories. We often missed clues."

"And not only newsrooms, if you think what people really miss," adds Keaton. "In your mind, you might mentally file that [particular fact] and forget the file; it's complex. I find it noble what Robbie did, extraordinary."

Like Robinson, Rezendes was initially uncertain of the story's potential as a film. "I sit at my desk, I read documents and answer the phone. Is that an exciting movie? I didn't really think so, but the producers had an idea of how to present it that would be interesting to people – and it was the importance of journalism."

He was "thrilled" to hear that Ruffalo, who has subsequently received an Oscar nomination for the role, would be playing him. That said, he and the actor both laugh as they recall their first meeting.

"I was a little put off at first, but Mark spent the whole day and a good part of the night at my house, and we had a wonderful time. I discovered we had a lot of things in common," Rezendes reveals.

Ruffalo confesses he felt nervous about tackling the role, "because Mike's a master at what he does and he basically changed the world with this story".

It was a big responsibility. "These are big shoes to fill," he adds.

The 48-year-old has said that there are movies you make for "them" and some, like Spotlight, that you do "for yourself". Is he referring to the big comic book movies, in which he stars as the Hulk?

"Yeah, to some degree," Ruffalo confides. "There are entertainment movies, and then there are the movies that are more issue-orientated, and maybe a little quirky and a little less mainstream.

"Those are probably the ones for me."

:: Spotlight is in cinemas from today.


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