The Parq bar at the Montage Hotel is buzzing. It’s lunch time, it’s Awards Season. Josh Singer sits down and we start talking about his latest film, Spotlight. He’s curious to know how I found the film and my reaction to it, as someone who was raised Catholic. I tell him, I certainly didn’t see it as an attack on religion, but rather saw it as a movie that highlighted the importance of investigating to arrive at the truth. I found it a wonderful film that highlights the importance of investigative journalism.
Josh Singer: That’s the thing, we’re not going after the religion. The most seminal moment in terms of how to think about the religion versus the institution came in the very first week I started working on the film. Tom had hired me; at that point he was just going to direct the film. I was out in LA, I had just finished The Fifth Estate, it was August 2012 and Mike Rezendes, who Mark Ruffalo plays, happened to be out here. I took him to lunch every day. I took him to Langer’s Deli, The Lazy Ox and other places. We talked for a few hours, and at the end of that we went to La Jolla to sit with Richard Sipe. Richard Jenkins plays him in the movie. He’s a former priest who married a nun. He’s a religious wise man. He left the seminary and realized what was going on after hearing things in confession, and what he says is a bit on the controversial edge, but he’s studied this for a long time. In the late 60’s and early 70’s he realized that 50% of the clergy was having sex, and everybody knew about it, and mostly it’s adult sex, but it’s still a secret because of the adult celibacy rule, so everybody is leading this double life. There’s this weird culture that evolves where everybody has a secret, and you want to protect these secrets, but then suddenly you find a pedophile in your midst. The instant response is to protect and hide, rather than expose. He left the church because he saw this. He was struggling with how to address it, so he studied it full time and has been fighting to expose the system for fifty years. So sitting and talking to him was powerful.
Beyond his story being powerful. His theory is powerful. I asked him if he still considered himself a Catholic, and realize he’s still a religious man. He said he doesn’t go to church much because he’s not really welcome, but he still considers himself a Catholic. He made this vision that we have him make in the film that it’s an institution of men, men are human, they have failings. He said, “The institution is passive. My faith is in the eternal and I try to separate the two.” I heard that and got chills.
I called Tom and told him it was the most amazing thing, and for a while we thought about calling the film, The Passing for that reason. Tom’s Catholic, he was raised Catholic and so were his parents.
AD: Are you Catholic?
JS: I’m Jewish. I’m a quarter Catholic. My mother was raised going to Catholic School. She was well versed in that. She converted because her father was Jewish. I was raised Jewish and I was raised within religion. I consider myself a Jew and consider myself to have faith. I love the religion and traditions. What I know of Catholic traditions, the rituals seem lovely. Both Tom and I weren’t going after religion.
AD: You absolutely don’t.
JS: To me it’s a film about journalism and I think it’s a great ride. I’m hoping people see it that way and hence go see the movie. I’m hoping that Catholics are interested and will go to the theatre. It’s interesting when you study the issue, the percentage of clergy that’s gay is very high. For them to take a hard line on homosexuality, you hear talk from insiders that [pope] Benedict had his gorgeous [Archbishop] George. It’s an open secret that they were lovers.
AD: But he’s never going to come out, I mean imagine what would happen if he did.
JS: Again, it’s this very odd separation based on this law that was made in the Middle Ages to avoid primogeniture, and to keep land and money. It’s a shame because the ritual, the moral code is a lot like Judaism. It gets corrupted by this other thing.
AD: I saw the film is getting distributed in Italy, and that’s very interesting.
JS: The first premiere was at the Venice Film Festival. Apparently the reaction was amazing. Talk to Tom or Mark. Apparently you could hear a pin drop. There’s a lot of laughter in the film which is nice, but in Venice there wasn’t. Hopefully this provokes conversation.
There are three dreams for this movie. People don’t quite understand how hard journalism has been hit, maybe they do. Tom and I talk about it a lot. People say they get their information online, but the value of local investigative journalism isn’t valued enough.
AD: I think that’s something that’s great about the movie, is that ultimately it does show you the value of that. It takes you back to that, and how much work goes into breaking a story.
JS: Right. When you don’t have that at the local level, it’s a problem. The LA Times used to have 19 people covering the legislature up in Sacramento, now they have 4. That’s got to be a problem. So, the hope is that people start buying their local paper and people understand that we don’t let this die out. Secondly, that it would be great if there was conversation within the church about the church and this issue. Cardinal O’Malley was supportive of the film. He was pleased about the investigation that brought this to life and talks about the issue as if it’s something in the past. There’s more action that needs to be taken by the church. In terms of stopping this from happening, protecting kids, and also in terms of transparency. He says in his statement that “We have a list on our website of all the accused priests” — which they do. They’re one of only 31 dioceses in a country of 178 dioceses that has that list up, let alone the rest of the world and so more needs to be done. There’s a lot the church needs to do. I love Pope Francis and I love a lot of his initiatives, but I wish he’d clean up his own house. Thirdly, Tom and I knew the church was the bad actor here, but there are a lot of bad actors around the church that enable this. Whether it’s cops or prosecutors or politicians who turned a blind eye. Maybe they didn’t know the whole story, but they knew a bit about the story, and nobody said anything. That’s not unusual, it’s the same thing that happened at Penn State, with Jimmy Saville at the BBC, and it’s the same thing that happened with Bill Cosby. You have this good institution, and there’s a reason to protect that institution because the institution does do good, it makes money, and yet when it does something that’s horrible, you need to hold that institution accountable. Yet, there’s a question of look the other way when we do turn our heads.
Why did he miss it? Robby (Michael Keaton) is more a symbol, but why didn’t the paper get this? They were the first paper to get this, but why didn’t they get it earlier. Why didn’t The Globe get it earlier? Why didn’t any other paper get it earlier? Why did we look the other way? I think for all of us to think about that and stop it from happening again is the third conversation I’d like all of us to have.
AD: I really loved the scene when they’re downstairs with the directories.
JS: With the montage? I feel that’s what reporting is in a lot of ways. It’s super intensive labor. You have this idea that it might yield something, but you don’t actually know, so you spend three weeks of four individuals, full time working all these hours working on this project. That’s what it takes. What newspaper funds 850 people hours against that task on a hunch? That points to how hard this work is, and the investment necessary to break this story.
AD: But you had difficulty getting this film made.
JS: I’d like to hope there’s enough chatter that they take away and talk about the film enough that they tell their parents and friends to see it. I think it’s a great ride, as we said. On the surface, it’s a movie about clergy sex abuse. So, are people going to want to see that? Two, the crafting of this was not mainstream at all. We had six protagonists, not one. He made me watch this French film called Police which has fourteen protagonists. I thought to myself, are we doing ensemble? As we were breaking it, I was getting nervous. Casting those roles wasn’t going to be easy because movie stars want to the star, and moreover, even if you can cast all those roles, it’s challenging material, and then there’s the subject matter. There was a lot of skittishness around the story-telling mode and subject matter.
AD: You got the balance just right, there wasn’t an overwhelming feeling of too much information.
JS: Tip of the hat to Tom. It’s the greatest thing as a writer to write moments in a scene with another guy who you know has the ability to make those moments work on screen. He’s incredible where he can get actors to pull off those moments. He’s a great actor’s director. Tom is relentless in writing. We started researching in 2012. I went East and we met with all these guys in Boston, we organically started working together. It was a team of reporters who broke the story, and we felt like we were a team, replicating what they had done, trying to figure out what the story was.
In January 2013, we worked for five or six months. We had a lot of interest in that draft. A year later, Tom wanted to attack the draft again. We made it deeper and we worked on it. Tom’s still pushing on the draft in the prep, and that prep continued all the way through production, through the shoot.
It wasn’t that it wasn’t there, it just wasn’t at the level of everything else. I’d never done that kind of push before. Tom was great like that and in being relentless, and operating at that high level paid off.
Steve Jobs used to carry around The Beatles session tapes of Strawberry Fields, apparently they did 21 sessions before they were happy. Jobs used to say, if you listen to the first 12 cuts, it’s good, but it’s not life changing. Then he says something happens on track 14 and 15, but by the time you reach the 21st cut, it’s this great song. Jobs used to say that is true genius, and if it took them 21 times, it’s certainly going to take mere mortals like us at least that many.
AD: On top of that, you also have a great cast.
JS: It’s easy to point to those performances by Keaton, Tucci, Liev and they’re all great, we know them. But to me, it’s also about those performers you don’t know. Neal is wonderful; he’s a New York stage actor. Billy Crudup is a casting move I never would have made. I’ve seen him on stage, he’s truly wonderful and talented, and we wanted to give him more. I thought he would have been perfect for Saviano, but again he placed in the role, and he was great.
The movie stars disappear into the roles, Keaton, Rachel and Ruffalo. You’re not watching Michael Keaton, nor Rachel McAdams. But these other guys all stand up in their performances against those guys we do know.
AD: Talk to me about how hard it was to get the movie made.
JS: The movie came together and fell apart a few times. Dreamworks were on board and then they weren’t on board, which was for the best. Stacey Snider is terrific. She said the movie needs to be made the way it needs to be made, and that’s probably not as a Disney/Dreamworks movie, and she was right. She did us a huge service. As tough as it was at the time, she made a great call. That was tough. Who’s going to jump on board? There were a lot of different suitors but the only one ready to do it was Open Road. Tom said they were a relatively new player, and a little bit of an unknown, but they were all fantastic. The guys are all pros, they’ve done this movie and had done it before. Look at what they did with Nightcrawler and that’s a great movie, what they did with it was extraordinary. They were the perfect match for this movie. Their belief kept Spotlight alive and passion wins the day. We’ll see how it does at the box office. There were a lot of hurdles, but people along the way were hellbent on getting the movie made.
AD: So, how do you get your news?
JS: Both. As I continue to do movies on journalism I’m reading more. I’m always reading The Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer. I had to read The Guardian. I read the Globe, the Washington Post. Most I read online, but I do have subscriptions to the Times, the Post and The Globe.