The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team are the investigative journalists who uncovered the stunning story of widespread sexual abuse by members of the clergy in the Catholic Church.
Director Tom McCarthy and writer Josh Singer spent hours talking to the actual members of the Spotlight team as they pieced the story together for the film. In the second installment of Through The Lens… I sat down with Singer to talk about three key scenes in the film. Singer discusses the challenges he faced, in terms of themes and narrative structure, as he narrates us through these moments and talks about the integral importance of each scene.
Spotlight is nominated for six Oscars including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture.
Marty and Robby meet for the first time.
“It’s interesting because Marty got the job and three weeks later started at the paper. He had never lived in Boston. He didn’t know anything about Boston. So, he started reading books about Boston, which tells you a fair amount about Marty that he’s trying to learn about Boston by reading about it in a book. He was a total newcomer to the city; the city called him an outsider. We’re trying to establish that he’s somewhat unfamiliar with the city. We thought a lot about outsiders and insiders so this is a big scene for us. We’re introducing Marty, who’s probably one of our most important characters. We’ve met Robby, but we’re really in action here. We’re really talking about outsiders and insiders in this movie and how you really need outsiders to break this story, but you also need insiders. [Robby] is the one insider who’s going to be most responsible for getting the story done.
I like to think about how there are three movements in the Marty/Robby of it all. There’s this scene where they meet, which is really awkward; there’s the scene where we see them later at the Catholic charities gala where they clearly have become friendly and certainly respect each other in a bigger way and they also know that they are pursuing this story in the face of this massive institution, they have become collaborators and brothers in arms, if you will; then there’s the final scene, at the end of the movie, which is the scene where Robby tells the group that they missed this story in a big way. Then Marty is the one who gives this benediction and basically says it was reported in the dark. I think, there’s sort of a lovely arc to this relationship and it starts here.
To be honest, we struggled a lot with this scene because it’s the beginning of the arc and we’re trying to introduce a character and introduce a relationship, and we’ve got a lot of exposition to get across and yet we’re trying to make the scene active. There’s some basics at the top: Marty’s reading a book about Boston and The Curse of the Bambino, and that interchange is an opportunity both to show you this is how Marty’s getting to know the city and when Robby says, “We have tickets to the game.” Marty then says, “To be honest I’m not much of a baseball fan.” It immediately sets these guys up as different guys. Robby’s a guy who’s a constant insider and loves baseball and loves the Sox and Marty’s a guy who doesn’t even like baseball and he’s trying to learn about Boston by reading a book about the Red Sox. It automatically established these guys as very different. We sort of tried to hit on, throughout the scene, in a number of moments which are tough for both of them. Robby says it’s a local paper and Marty says, “Does that change when you sold to the [New York] Times?” It’s something that in the Yankees/Red Sox, New York/Boston rivalry, the fact that the paper is now owned by The Times is a little bit of a sore spot and Marty goes right at it.
We don’t overdo the language. No, I don’t think that had a big impact, but certainly you can see Michael [Keaton] playing with that discomfort. Then, Marty moves on and asks him about Spotlight and now Robby’s on territory he’s familiar with and he’s excited to talk about it so he asks, “Are you familiar with Spotlight” and Marty’s not. Robby has a tough front so he says, “Everybody knows Spotlight in Boston.”
It was pretty amazing; Marty maintains in multiple interviews to us he said “I didn’t know what the Spotlight team was.” Given how much he was trying to inhale at the time, it’s quite possible that is true. When we talk to Robby and Mike they’re like, “Oh, that’s impossible, he would have known.” But Marty maintains he didn’t know what the Spotlight team was. I think that’s actually a really interesting moment there, again, showing how awkward it is and it allows us to get across some exposition about what the Spotlight team does and get into the fact that this is one of the rare investigative teams that spends months and months on a case or investigation.
Moreover, when Robby says that, we see Marty sort of taking that in because that is somewhat unusual to have four people spending all these months on one investigation. That shows you that this, even back in 2001, is somewhat unusual and gets us into this conversation about the context of the paper. This was probably the hardest bit of exposition we wanted to get across, which is already that the Internet is cutting into classified business. It’s tougher to have a newspaper these days, and this is before Google and before the real downturn in the newspaper business, but they’re already feeling the pressure of the Internet. We talked a lot about this with Marty, we think maybe he had the slightest sense that they were in for a rough ride, but I don’t think he knew how rough. We wanted to hit at that because that’s important context for this story we’re telling because this kind of investigative journalism is much more rare now than it was then. That’s a real problem and that’s something we subtly want to make the audience think about.
There’s a line where Marty says, “From what I understand, readership is down, the Internet is cutting into the classified business and I think I’m going to have to take a hard look at things.” That line, we probably struggled for hours over. In fact, we were, literally on the day of shooting, we were literally working and working and working trying to get that line right because we were having real trouble making that work in Liev’s mouth. It’s very expositional and yet it was exposition that we thought was incredibly important. So, this scene was a real dogfight the whole way along just because there was so much work we were trying to do and its a line between doing too much and it just feels like expositional garbage and you’re not getting character across or you do not enough and you focus too much on the character and then you don’t have the vital exposition you need to make the story roll forward. Again, the most important thing is this: are we getting across who these two men are. It was a really challenging scene and a scene where I think the writing got us a good part of the way there, but really I think Liev and Michael working with Tom brought it home.
Frankly, if Liev is not performing at the top of his game and Michael is not performing at the top of his game, in the hands of lesser actors, this scene falls flat. I think there are moments in this movie where the actors were helped by the script and there were moments where the script was helped by the actors, I’d like to think there weren’t so many of those [laughs]. I think this was definitely one where the actors elevated what was on the page and really found everything they were going for. One of the wonderful things about working with Tom is that he rehearses with these actors well in advance.
We had three days of rehearsal in New York and then two days of rehearsal in Boston before we really started shooting and so we were able to go through most of these scenes. For writers, we were able to hear the actors say the words so we had a sense of “okay, this was better this way on the page and this would work better this way in the scene,” we were able to get a real read and input and feedback. From the very beginning, we knew this scene wasn’t quite all the way there and we started getting input and feedback on in early September in those rehearsals and we continued to work on the scene throughout September, October, November and we were working on it the last night we shot at the end of November. It was definitely a scene that was a real collaboration with our actors as well as Tom [McCarthy] and me. I’d say that’s true for any number of the scenes.
Again, thematically, I think Boston is very much a city of insiders and outsiders. I think it’s one of the few cities that is still like that. Maybe not one of the few, but one of the cities that is still very much like that in this country. I think New York is not really like that because it’s a different kind of place. LA is not necessarily like that, sure there are insiders and outsiders in the entertainment industry that’s for sure [laughs]. It’s a success based thing as opposed to anything else and there’s such a feeling that anyone can do anything here. It’s not based on ethnic or social class per say. Whereas, Boston’s really an insider/outsider city and I think this scene helps establish that theme.
The Spotlight team confer and first learn that the scandal had in fact been brought to the Globe’s attention five years earlier.
We can start with what I think is the end to this Robby/Marty arc, which to me is one of my favorite moments. I think it’s because sometimes its easy to forget that we spend most of our time fumbling around in the dark then suddenly there’s a fair share of blame to go around which is basically the first quarter of Marty’s speech there. That is pure Marty Baron. Literally, I asked him early on about why didn’t the Globe get this earlier and I put the question to him and that is what he said to me. If not verbatim, something pretty close to it. It really struck me as very powerful and it was with a shrug of the shoulders basically saying “this is the business; sometimes you get it and sometimes you get it later.”
It was such a powerful image, stumbling around in the dark, and it’s basically what we’ve been seeing the whole movie. There’s something about him saying that and the way Liev delivers it so beautifully. I always refer to this speech as the benediction after confession. The moment right before that is Robby basically confessing his sins, “I got this article, I don’t remember it, but we should have got it sooner.” It’s a moment of him saying, “yeah, that was me. I had just taken over and I don’t remember at all.” He’s confessing. Marty takes it in and then gives this benediction which, if it doesn’t make him feel better, necessarily entirely, it at least allows him to move forward. He’s like, “I can’t speak to what’s happened before I arrived, but all of you have done some very good reporting here. And, if you need a moment, you’ve earned it, but I will need you back here Monday morning focused and ready to do your job.”
There was a specter when we were working on this speech of the great speech at the end of All the President’s Men. I purposefully didn’t listen to it so it wasn’t strong in my memory and I didn’t watch it because I was afraid of it. I would say that Marty’s words, without fumbling around in the dark, were sort of my guiding light, in the way that we try to make it Robby’s guiding light. To me, that speech is one that we spent a lot of time on and I think is a pretty important one.
A big part of this scene, and the part of the scene that nobody remembers, is just a lot of basics which we had to trim. It’s like here are all the things they do as they’re getting ready to go to press: they talk about putting stuff in the article, they’re getting the quote from the church which is a non-quote, but they’re putting it in which is sort of funny, we’re setting up that they think there’s going to be protests and phone calls. We’re setting up the moment to come. A lot of it is pretty workman like, this is the exposition we need to get out for the end work [laughs]. And it’s work coming to light also in terms of the journalists; this is what they need to do before they go forward with the story. It’s not until we talk about how do we bring this around to this question of, “should we have known earlier,” and the moment is we basically ask Robby about about a story and he says “we’ve got it because I went and got Sullivan to confirm and we start pushing on that source.”
There’s then a debate about that plan and if Sullivan is a bad guy or good guy. That’s a fundamental debate with a lot of people in the movie: are they bad guys or good guys. Like these lawyers that we just doing their job, but didn’t say anything. That’s when Robbie turns and says, “What about us.” This story of the 20 priests that Robby missed is a story that I think we’ve already talked about, it’s one that we found probably a year in to the process. From the very beginning of our working on this script, we’d heard plenty of rumors that the Globe should have gotten this earlier.
Eileen McNamara wrote the very first opinion piece, and said it in no uncertain terms, “I always thought, why didn’t we get it in ’93 when we covered [James] Porter? How did we miss it? There was this huge story in Fall River, this big priest, like how did we miss the fact that we had dozens and dozens of priests right here in Boston. How did we not get that?” We were always writing towards that complicity and deference, and we had other stories that we’d heard of complicity and deference at the Globe that we were using as, we didn’t think of them as this at the time, but ultimately they turned out to be placeholders because once we went and talked to Eric MacLeish he told us that right after the Porter story, he’s sent them this letter about 20 priests in Boston. We didn’t believe him and we looked it up and found it was true and they had buried it. We emailed Robby about it and Robby basically said to us what Michael [Keaton] says in the movie. He said, “I had just taken over, I don’t remember it all, but that was me.” He sort of nobly falls on his sword there and basically owns it.
The way Robby wrote that to us in the email, we thought that was really powerful. Here’s a guy we’ve grown to love, who has been the primary source for all of this and he’s basically falling on his sword and saying, “yeah, I was complicit as well.” Tom’s immediate reactions was “how can we put that in the movie?” and my immediate reaction was, “How can we NOT put that in the movie?” We debated it for a little while because on the one hand, we’re throwing Robby under the bus and Robby is just one of many who didn’t catch it and just looked the other way.
Moreover, from what Robby says, he didn’t even knowingly do this, he just sort of missed it. My instinct, dramatically, was “you’ve gotta go and put this at Robby’s feet because Robby and Michael and Sacha and Mat, are our ‘everymen.'” They’re our real way into the movie. You have to feel through them this question of how did they miss this. When Robby says that even he missed it, you as the audience are suddenly saying to yourself “how did we miss it? We’re like Robby, if he missed it maybe I missed it.” That’s what we’re driving at.
We wrote it out and it just worked so beautifully in part because it puts it on Robby — and, again, we’d always been going for what I jokingly called the Schindler’s moment. It’s the moment at the end of Schindler’s List, “I could have done more, I should have more.” We’d always been driving towards that for Robby at the end, but we’d been using things that didn’t quite turn directly on Robby and once we found this article, that he had knowingly or unknowingly buried when he had just become metro editor, it felt like the only thing we could put there. It would be the only thing that would actually bring it home. “I could have done more.” Well, actually he could have and he missed it and shouldn’t we all have done more.
This is essentially what Schindler is saying; Schindler’s our hero, we’re with Schindler. How did we let this happen? That’s the question. To me, it brings Robby’s arc full circle and brings Marty and Robby’s arc full circle. From this moment at the top where they’re so awkward with each other and in such different places to the moment in the middle where they are compatriots in arms, to this moment where Marty is probably the only one who can take Robbie’s confession and, if not make him feel better, at least let him go on. It’s like, “say three Hail Mary’s and come back to work on Monday.” [laughs] Because you got to get back to work.
Oddly, while it was much harder to get to the bottom line and to get to this story, we didn’t get to it until late in the game, this scene was much easier to write once we had that. Before we had that, it was a little tougher, but once we had that piece, this scene was much easier to write. We played a bunch with Marty’s speech and Liev’s, we had some back and forth with him over that speech which was really good and productive, once you hear him say it sounds a little different and you want to play with it. This scene was much easier to write than the Marty/Robby scene at the top. In retrospect, I think it’s kind of interesting, with some scripts it’s easier to write the closing scene and some scripts its easier to write the beginning scene and this one, I think because we were so clear about what we we’re driving towards and, frankly, that original scene was pretty challenging.
Rezendes wants to break the news ASAP and there’s conflict between Marty and Robby.
So this Marty/Robby conflict, which is I think is destined to be the scene we will continue to see most at all the awards shows because people love showing that clip of Mike losing his shit, is pretty much the only real extreme moment of losing one’s shit. I can’t talk about this scene without talking about the letters that come before that we see in the cab montage. It was very important to both Tom and me that — the letters from Margaret Gallant and Bishop D’Arcy — that you see the words. From the very first time we sat with Mike who was talking about the letters, it was all we heard from these guys. Those two letters were so powerful, the language, and they made such an impact both on the reporters and then, when they were run on January sixth of 2002, the importance of those letters felt like it could not be overstated.
We wanted to have a way in which you really sat and listened to that language and we bat around like 100 different ideas; I had an idea of flashing back to Gallant writing her letter and flashing back to Bishop D’Arcy writing his while you would hear the letters, we had Tom push for this cab montage just to let the words hang over Boston which I thought was brilliant, at some point we actually thought flashing to Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci and there was a cut where we flashed to a bunch of our players as the words rang out and, in the end, the only player you see as the cab is rolling through is Patrick McSorely and his kid. Tom made that choice because it felt like it was too much and he really wanted to focus on the words. The idea there is hopefully the words and those shots of Boston propel you into the next scene where you feel the power of those words.
First, we’re just with the different reporters reacting to those words and then we get into this question of “well, do we run it now?” This, to us, was a huge question of research because we were very precise about tracking when every moment happened and because we had emails between these guys and because we had talked to everybody multiple times, including Phil Saviano and Joe Crowley. We literally see on Tom’s white board a date-to-date of like, “okay Marty starts July 30th.” We literally pulled up a calendar of July, August, September to December 2002 so we can look at the days of the weeks and the dates. We saw the date Marty started and knew from emails that they talked to Phil on the 7th of August, we knew from another email that Robby had already talked to one of the people that makes up the composite of Jim Sullivan, like three days after he sat with Marty, and we knew he had an email from Marty on the 24th about a meeting on the 23rd where he said, “I don’t care so much about the individual priests, I want to go after the system as we discussed in our meeting yesterday.”
We had all these very specific dates and we knew that Mike had the scene at the courthouse where Stanley [Tucci] tells Mark [Ruffalo] about this lead, that there are these documents that are public. We knew that had happened and had the date of like September 6th or something like that. First, the question to Mike was like, “why didn’t you get those documents before 9/11?” And he’s like, “well, I had to go to John Albano, our lawyer, and request that the documents be filed again and then the judge made me go and look to make sure the documents weren’t actually there and there was a lot of rigmarole and then 9/11 happened and everybody got taken off.”
My very first conversation with Mike and I’m like, “When did you get back from 9/11?” and he’s said,”Oh, probably like 4-6 weeks so it was like mid-October.” I was like, “You must have gotten these documents in like mid- to late-October.” He told me, “Yeah, probably like October 25th.” So, I replied, “But you didn’t put up the story until January! And, moreover, that first story in January is just about these documents!”
At this point, I’m losing my mind and, like, how is it possible that you were sitting on these documents and you know they’re public and you’re not putting them out! Mike said, “Yeah, that’s when I stopped sleeping.”
What’s interesting is that reporters like asking questions as opposed to answering them and so Mike sort of shied away, was like “we’re Spotlight, we take a long time and there might have been a little back and forth whether this story should be first or the 70 priests story which ultimately went around later.” We literally kept going at these guys because it inconceivable to us that they literally sat on these documents for two and a half months; it didn’t make any sense. Certainly in today’s day and age, it makes no sense at all.
Ultimately, we got to the sense that there was definitely a little bit of there was a camp that thought they should run the letters first and there was a camp that thought they should do the 70 priests first, and this was a bit of friction and that, to some degree, there was a decision made that they were going to hold the letters and continue working on the 70 priests until — as we show in the movie — when Judge Sweeney ruled actually to unseal the documents that forces their hand. Once the documents are all public, then they have no advantage. This great advantage was Mike thought because he got these documents that might never be unsealed, now everybody is going to know about it. The question is, if another paper tries to cover this, we’ve done all this research and done the homework, we’re the only ones who are going to have the backing to actually tell this story the right way. That’s why when Sweeney unseals the documents, it creates a whole new thing and that’s when Robby has to tell Marty about it and then they make a decision.
This initial moment when Mike has these letters, he’s got his motor running already, you’ve heard the letters, you’ve got your motor running as the audience, and Robby says to hold. It was a moment that we, in our research, butted up against and so when we got the sense there was some friction there we wrote towards it. Not to mention the fact that there’s been a lot of people talking about the value of a newsroom and why its a real problem when this kind of investigative journalism disappears, specifically at newspapers, and it’s as much about printing the story as it is as holding the story.
I think David said something when we all sat together in DC or maybe he said it in an article he wrote, which I thought was really lovely: “Some of the best stories were made because they were held.” That’s very much what’s happening here. Marty initially could run with the 50 priests right after they get that from Macleish, but Marty doesn’t want to do that. He wants to hold. And then they could run with these letters, but now Robby wants to hold. Ultimately these letters ran on January 6th and three weeks later Robby ran the story of at least 70 priests in Boston because that’s when he has the backup.
I think it is the one-two punch of that story that really changed everything. The letters’ story shows that cardinal law is negligent, but it’s only about one priest so they let that play out and then moments later they have not one priest, but 70. Now you’re like, “oh my God.” If they don’t have both those stories in tandem and very close to each other, I think this does not have the impact that it ultimately did. I think this story maybe stays local, maybe doesn’t spread across the country, maybe doesn’t go worldwide. To me, it’s those moments where they hold that are so important.
This fight, I think it’s really important beyond emotionally, it is important intellectually when you’re thinking about what is it that makes a newspaper great and what is it that makes journalism great and what is great journalism. I think you’re saying something really powerful about what is great journalism and I think that it’s only because of the earlier hold by Marty and then this hold by Robby that they ultimately get a story that really spreads like wildfire. Any time you’re a storyteller and you see friction, that’s very exciting because it’s fun to write to. After all the restraint in the movie to have a moment where Mike loses it, and Mike is they kind of guy who’s super tightly wound and who can lose it and I’ve had him lose it on me a couple of times and it’s scary. It’s something that we both thought we wanted to experience and specifically to express the outrage. You have these letters and that should get your motor running as an audience and you need a release. For Mike to say “it’s time they knew and they let it happen to kids, it could have been you, it could have been me or any one of us. We got to nail these scumbags and show people that no one can get away with this. Not a priest or a cardinal or a pope.”
To me, that moment is the moment that the whole audience should be feeling. You should be with Mike and feel angry at Robby. Yet, ultimately, you should realize that Robby made a good call. That anger, though, is really important to let out and specifically this idea that it could have been you or me. That is something that not enough people felt and not enough people understood how widespread it was.