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Interview: Director Thomas McCarthy and Actor Liev Schrieber on Spotlight

Since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight has been gaining some serious Oscar buzz. The film follows a group of Boston Globe journalists as they uncover the sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church. In addition to awards buzz, the film has been compared to All The President’s Men and is being hailed by many as one of the best films about journalism to date. Director Thomas McCarthy has had quite an interesting career. In addition to working as an actor, the filmmaker has written and directed such beloved films as The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. We sat down with McCarthy following the premiere to discuss his experience making the film and the state of investigative journalism. Following our discussion with McCarthy, we spoke to actor Liev Schrieber who plays editor Marty Baron in the film. Schrieber has previously appeared in the Scream films, The Manchurian Candidate, and is currently starring in as Showtime’s Ray Donovan.

Scene Creek: You played journalist Scott Templeton on The Wire. Did you bring anything from that role into the making of this film?

Thomas McCarthy: Karmic retribution for the evilness (laughs). Yes. David Simon educated me on what it meant to be a great journalist and what it meant to be a bad journalist and what it meant to be passionate for journalism. He also taught me about the state of journalism, I wasn’t as aware. I don’t think a lot of people are. I was fortunate enough to work with a guy who happened to be not only a master of storytelling but also a real life wonderful journalist. He schooled me on it. So I took all that information when making this movie. It doesn’t mean I had to go back and do research. Part of my research was Googling David Simon and watching a bunch of his talks on the state of journalism. He’s amazingly articulate and is a wonderful speaker. He gets it. That inspired me to a great degree, but it also intimidated me. Weirdly enough David Simon was editing his new series Show Me a Hero – which I haven’t seen yet but have heard is great – literally down the hall. So I would see David every day and be like “Heeeey” (cringes). He’s gonna see this some day, it’s gotta be right. I could her him yelling, “You used music! Why did you use music?” I hear Paul Haggis forced him into using music, which is great (laughs). I literally felt like I won a battle when that happened. Honestly though, I leave in fear of him seeing this movie because he’s a journalist. There’s been a good response to the movie, particularly for me just sitting with audiences. Something that has been gratifying is people coming up to me who are journalists who are not wanting to talk to me as critics to the movie, but just to say “We feel like you got it right.” That was what we wanted to do. If it was right for them, it should work for other people, right? Maybe not. Maybe we’ll make the most boring movie ever. But journalists will be like “You got it!” That was our goal, so I think David was always on my shoulder along the way.

SC: Was it easier or more difficult to make the film after meeting the real-life reporters?

TM: Look, as with reporters, it’s a blessing and a curse when you become close to the people that you’re interviewing or investigating. It’s a tricky thing. I think with these guys it has been both. Mostly it’s been great, but there have been hard moments where we had to push and ask hard questions and know that we had to take liberties with story and who they are. Fortunately it has all been very positive and they’re completely supportive of the movie. At the premiere we brought them on stage and that was an incredible special moment. I’ll remember that forever in my career. I’ve had some good stage moments, but that was big. It’s because it wasn’t about us. It’s great when people like you, and I know when they don’t, that’s not great. Last night, we got our applause and then we brought out those guys and it was rapturous. It was about them and the bigger theme of the movie. The audience gave a standing ovation for three minutes. It was funny because I’ve never seen six more uncomfortable people in my life. They just had to stand there and take it. It was cool.

SC: The film avoids delving into the personal lives of these journalists. Why did you choose this approach?

TM: We only had so much real estate, and there was so much information and work to cover. This investigation became their lives. We had a little bit that we left on the floor, bits and pieces, sometimes just tiny bits like Mike trying to call his estranged wife and connect. Things like this were good, but as we got into the rhythm of it we didn’t need it. We felt like you knew that they had families or don’t have families. You see a guy like Mike living alone in an apartment and you know that something is going on, that he’s in some sort of transition. It’s funny; the movie just let us know. We made a conscious effort that it wasn’t the type of movie where we would go home and see them. We do it with Nana because that was important. That was about pressure. That was about how you tell a story that you know is going to cripple someone you love and possibly take something out of their lives, i.e. their faith or love, that they lean on. Sacha knew that she was removing a leg of her grandmother’s table. She knew she had to let her grandmother read that story. That’s pressure. Some people might not do it for that reason.

SC: There are some similarities to your role in this film to your role in Ray Donovan. Were you conscious of this during production?

Liev Schrieber: It’s only now that this has dawned on me. I had done a lot of research for Ray Donovan on the Catholic Church scandal, perhaps that is why i perceived Tom’s thing to be about investigative journalism. I’m only now realizing that as an actor I’m servicing one of my characters, and that’s kind of fantastic.

SC: Did you get to meet with Marty Baron before making the film?

LS: Yeah. Marty graciously invited me down to Washington to meet with him about two weeks before we started production. We sat together in his office for a couple hours. It was terrific.

SC: How did that help you build the character?

LS: Well I heard all these things about Marty when I started to explore him. First of all, he’s got an incredible resume and his accolades and achievements are really remarkable. So that king of makes him an intimidating person. I’d also heard that he was inscrutable and unemotional and intense. For the most part I found all of that not to be the case. I think that because the work had already been done by Tom and Josh in terms of compiling the information and the research and then building this beautifully structured script, all I really had to do was try to find an angle on the character that would support their architecture. Their architecture was basically the notion that it took an outsider, to some degree, to crack this case. For me, I was interested in what it felt like to be somebody who was forced upon them by the New York Times, a Jewish guy who represented the other side, who had to go in there and pursue this story. Marty was incredibly matter-of-fact about it. He said, “My job was that I was asked to be the editor of this local newspaper, and so what I had to look for was content that would be essential to their readership, which was the Boston community.” So ironically, you have an outsider who is trying to figure out this community that is completely foreign to him. He reads Eileen McNamara’s column a day before his first staff meeting and goes, “it seemed absolutely essential to this community that those documents be revealed.” I think coming from Miami where there is great legislature that allows them to access files and court documents, he was fully expecting that in Boston. Of course in Boston the culture was “no, you don’t have access to anything you want and there are certain things that we keep private.” To Marty that was unacceptable. I think if you were to ask Marty if it was important that he was an outsider, he would say no. The only thing that was important to him was that he did his job in serving that local community. I think that’s part of what makes him such a remarkable editor.

SC: Why is this an important movie to see?

LS: I think that we all need to be reminded of the role that the press plays in our democracy and our society. I think that Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer have pulled that off in an extremely entertaining way through the structure of a thriller. They have managed to articulate the craft of investigative journalism, and also the courage and the emotional sacrifice and the integrity and tenacity that defines the victims of sexual abuse and the reporters who doggedly pursue the story.

Matt Hoffman

Matthew Hoffman is a Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films and actresses over the age of 50; including but not limited to: Isabelle Huppert, Meryl Streep, and Jacki Weaver.