Dressing for the Spotlight

Tom McCarthy on shaping Spotlight.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, star Brian d'Arcy James, screenwriter Josh Singer
Spotlight director Tom McCarthy, star Brian d'Arcy James, screenwriter Josh Singer Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Tom McCarthy's astutely paced newsroom thriller stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d'Arcy James as The Boston Globe Spotlight team, with Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Jamey Sheridan, Michael Cyril Creighton and Jimmy LeBlanc. Spotlight is edited rigorously by longtime collaborator Tom McArdle (The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win), while Josh Singer wrote the script. Wendy Chuck, Alexander Payne's costume designer for Nebraska, The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt and Election, was added to the mix.

Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron:
Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron: "You have someone with an objective eye ..."

McCarthy told me of the role producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust played, what motivated Marty Baron, and dressing for Spotlight at the dinner organised by Peggy Siegal.

The opening scene of Spotlight sets the tone. Boston, 1976, at the District 11 police station. We hear of an assistant district attorney, an arrangement, little boys in a room are making crayon drawings, two priests leave the station house and enter into the back of a car that drives away quickly on the icy streets.

Fast forward to 2001 and The Boston Globe is expecting a new editor-in-chief to arrive from the outside. The former Miami Herald executive editor Marty Baron (Schreiber) enters without much introduction or fanfare to take over. He has an informal chat with deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (Slattery) and chooses the Spotlight team to move forward on tackling the intricate cover-up system in place to hide the child abuse committed by Catholic priests over many years.

Spotlight team leader Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Keaton) and Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) calmly team up to take on prominent lawyer Eric Macleish (Crudup), an immaculately dressed Mephistopheles, all pride and carefully hidden despair. Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), a man in constant motion, grapples with Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), a lawyer who is not-well connected, but committed to seeing his clients get justice through the court system. Matt Carroll (d'Arcy James) goes door-to-door searching for victims who will come forward.

Costume designer Wendy Chuck:
Costume designer Wendy Chuck: "I was a fan of hers from Alexander Payne's movies." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Costume designer Wendy Chuck, the unrivaled master of khaki pants nuance, dresses people in a way that explains something to us about the fleeting nature of clothes as well as the stamp they put on us. Michael Keaton's khakis, more golden in hue than those of an old school alum, influential lawyer Jim Sullivan (Sheridan) and his watch just a little bigger and shinier, go with the rubber soles on his shoes and mark him as comparatively nouveau riche.

Rachel McAdams gets to wear the clothes of a woman deeply uncomfortable with her body. The black tops Sacha prefers, are there for her to hide in and blend in. She is on a mission and McAdams portrays her fearlessly and without a false note.

The question: "What took you so long?" is at the core of Spotlight. The time of looking away from something that needs to be addressed adds up.

Anne-Katrin Titze: What took you so long?

Tom McCarthy: That's a good question.

AKT: It's the film's central question.

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery dressed for Spotlight
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery dressed for Spotlight

TMC: I know. Honestly, it shows you how easy it is to miss a story, I think, as a lot of good reporters will tell you. This was brought to me, probably about four years ago and the first time I respectfully passed. I was working on another project, I think I was editing Win Win and I just couldn't wrap my head around it. Then luckily, two of the producers, Nicole [Rocklin] and Blye [Pagon Faust], came back to me a year later and said, "we really think you're the right guy to tell this story for a lot of reasons."

I had a clearer mind and I looked at it and thank goodness I did. Because it turned out to be a really tremendous experience. I think it shows that you got to be in the right frame of mind to connect to the story. At first people were saying, this happened 12, 13, 14 years ago - why tell it now? But I think everyone is getting a sense of just how relevant the subject is on a lot of levels. Certainly, how it's connecting with audiences, I think, is an indication of that. It's exciting.

AKT: Did you know right away that you wanted to eliminate flashbacks?

TMC: Pretty soon. We flirted with one during one sequence and it just didn't feel like our movie. Certainly, as we got deeper into the writing it was very clear that we were really trying to lean into the realistic and authentic approach to journalism, as much as we could. Those types of tropes, although they can be very useful and successful in telling movies, it didn't feel right for this particular film.

Circo Spotlight dinner
Circo Spotlight dinner Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I like that you throw us into confusion at the beginning. As an audience we don't know what we are witnessing and what is going on. Did you want the audience to feel that maybe this is none of our business, so we find ourselves in a similar position as the people there?

TMC: A little bit. A little bit on the outside, having some of the information, having a sense that something was wrong and not knowing quite how to approach it. I think it speaks to the much broader theme of the movie of - as a society how complicit are we? How deferential are we towards these institutional abuses? Whether it's the Catholic Church or any other institution and what's our role in it?

AKT: And that it always takes an outsider to not be intimidated?

TMC: I think it certainly helps. Not to say change can't come from within. I think maybe in some ways it's more difficult. But I think, when you have an outsider, you have someone with an objective eye, someone who maybe doesn't fall prey to some of the other trappings of a tight-knit community. In this particular case, I think, that's what motivated Marty Baron.

AKT: You have been working with the unrivaled master of the khaki pants, Wendy Chuck.

Wendy Chuck's choices transcend the movies while being an integral part, something only the best achieve.

TMC: The khaki pants have gotten a lot of attention. What makes it most exciting is that Wendy Chuck is getting a lot of attention and she should.

Tom McCarthy with Win Win and The Station Agent star Bobby Cannavale
Tom McCarthy with Win Win and The Station Agent star Bobby Cannavale Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: I was featuring her four years ago.

TMC: That's why I hired her. I was a fan of hers from Alexander Payne's movies. I had dinner with Alexander Payne last night and we were both chatting about just how immensely talented she is. She is so good, that it's easy to overlook her work. It's like a great actor - they make it look so easy, it's easy to overlook just what tremendous craftspeople they are. Almost every reporter remarks on how accurately she got their wardrobe and that says something.

AKT: That's why you don't need any flashbacks. We know something about them. We know that woman played by Rachel McAdams.

TMC: Terrific, right?

AKT: Yes. We know something of her state of mind by the clothes she chooses.

TMC: Yes, Yes. You understand that it's their uniform. It's their approach. It speaks volumes not only to the time and the period and the culture, but also the profession and the motivation of these reporters and how they dress and the worlds they have to straddle. She's an artist [Wendy Chuck] and I hope she gets the attention she deserves.

AKT: I hope so too. Thank you.

TMC: Thank you so much. Great to chat.

Read what Spotlight screenwriter Josh Singer, star Brian d'Arcy James and Bobby Cannavale told me at Circo.

Spotlight is in theatres in the US and will open in the UK on January 29, 2016.

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