In the true-life drama “Spotlight,” director/writer Tom McCarthy (“The Visitor”) tells the story of the Boston Globe investigation in the early 2000s that led a team of journalists to uncover a sex abuse scandal that reached the highest levels of the Catholic Church. McCarthy, 50, was nominated for two Academy Awards this year for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. I spoke to him this week about “Spotlight” and whether he think his film has made an impact on the way the church operates.
“Spotlight” was released on DVD and Blu-ray Feb. 23.
“Spotlight” is the first film you’ve directed that deals with real-life events. Did that put added pressure on you as a director and writer to not let people down, whether it was the victims or the journalists?
When you take on a project like this, you develop relationships with people like reporters and editors, but also some of the survivors. It does add a burden of responsibility to get the story right and to make the storytelling feel authentic.
Now that awards season is almost over and you’ve been able to process the film even more, do you think “Spotlight” can be the type of film that brings closure to this story or do you think it has drummed up past pain that people are still trying to put behind them?
Well, I don’t think it’s a question of past pain. I think this is still a problem that is playing out within the Catholic Church. The Vatican screened [“Spotlight”] just last week and the discussions were still going on there. I think that’s exactly why we made the movie, so people could understand that this was not just something we were drumming up from the past. It’s something that is very much still playing out. Hopefully this film will help continue the dialogue. We’re not condemning anyone. This happened. We all know it. What can we do to make sure it never happens again? That will come through action and transparency.
Do you think that transparency has been taking place in the Catholic Church since the scandal was revealed?
I don’t think we’ve seen enough action or transparency yet. Just last week, this council that Pope Francis put together (Vatican Commission on Sex Abuse) had two survivors on that council. One of them (Peter Saunders) had been speaking up to the press a lot saying, “Hey, we have to be more transparent and let everyone know exactly what we’re doing. We have to let the Archdiocese know if there is a bad priest in their midst.” Unfortunately, they removed [Saunders] from the council, which doesn’t really send a strong message. It speaks to the way the Catholic Church worked in the past. We’re hoping Pope Francis starts putting things into action. The church is a very big and old institution, so I think it’s going to take time.
Moving forward in your career, is “Spotlight” the kind of film you think you’ll be able to completely let go of? What I mean by that is do you feel like you have a responsibility to continue talking about the topic or are you the kind of filmmaker that wants to start a new film and put past projects to the side?
A little bit of the latter. I’m not an expert on this. I probably know more than most people because I’ve spent the last three and a half years of my life immersed in it. I take that very seriously. Certainly, many of the relationships that I’ve formed throughout I’ll continue to be involved in. But ultimately I feel like I’ve done my job in making the movie and telling the story. The movie will continue to live on and I’ve got to get on to the next project. But sometime over the course of the next couple of years if I’m asked to speak or attend fundraisers or social action campaigns, I will stay involved in that way. But I do feel like I have to get on to my next project.
“Spotlight” has been given a lot of credit for not hero-worshipping the journalist characters and turning them into saviors. How important was it for you as a storyteller to make this decision and present these characters as flawed human beings?
Just like everyone else in the film, they are authentic characters. Reporters, like all of us, are flawed. They’re human. I think we were trying to capture that. In doing so, you see how difficult high-end investigative journalism is. To really get it right, it’s very tricky and takes great commitment and support. I think, ultimately, this movie champions that. It champions investigative journalism on that level and the impact it can have. But at the same time, these are people, just like you and me, who are just doing their job and doing it at a very high level.
I come from a newspaper background, so I’m a little bias when I say that the procedural elements of the film were extra fascinating to me. What surprised you about the way journalists work on a daily basis?
I think it’s the details. I think this movie celebrates the craft of journalism. Maybe it’s all in the bits and pieces and how every little piece of information can really unlock an investigation and how detail orientated it is and how tedious it can be. Ultimately, I think what I was most fascinated by was the spirit of the journalist and their commitment to finding and revealing the truth. It’s incredibly noble and honorable in my mind.
You’ve made five feature films in the last 12 years. Do you see any kind of connective tissue between them, whether it’s thematically or stylistically?
Stylistically, I think it sort of speaks for itself. I’m trying to find humanity in the films and let them feel as authentic as possible. Thematically, it varies, but in my movies I feel like I’m dealing with some sort of outsider and the impact they can have on the community. In this particular case [in “Spotlight”] it was [editor] Marty Baron coming to the Boston Globe from Miami and on Day One setting a course for this incredible investigation. So, again, another outsider and the impact he can have. Thematically, that’s what I was interested in.