“Spotlight” is in theaters now, and it’s difficult to find a negative word about it among the many reviews. It’s based on the true story of the investigation by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team that uncovered years of high-level cover-up in the Catholic Church’s approach to its pedophile priest problem in the Greater Boston area. One of the most engaging aspects of the movie is how it demonstrates the process of primary-source and data-driven reporting. The journalists used the Catholic Church's own directories that track the whereabouts of priests and made spreadsheets of all those said to be on “sick leave” or “reassigned,” ultimately matching those priests with victims. Good old-fashioned reporting.
When a feature film gets a lot of buzz, it can sometimes be a let-down to see it after the hype. But the current hit “Spotlight” does not disappoint on any level. The storytelling, the ensemble cast, and even the movie poster tagline (“read between the lies”) all look like “Best Picture” material.
That is why I was excited when Kate Churchill, one of the film’s producers, agreed to talk with Carousel Films about her experience. Kate and I overlapped at WGBH when she was a documentary producer. Now, she has made a huge leap into the feature film world.
LG: Kate, congratulations! I hope you are enjoying the success of the film. What does it feel like to have such a high-profile hit on your hands after transitioning from documentaries to feature films?
KC: It could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience to have a movie so unanimously well-received. But, I should tell you that this is the second feature film I worked on. [Spotlight director and screenwriter] Tom McCarthy and I had the opposite experience on our first venture together. We made the movie “The Cobbler,” starring Adam Sandler, and the film basically went straight to video! A year ago, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and it got horrific reviews, and the audience hated it. Precisely a year later, we premiered “Spotlight” at the same festival, and look what’s happened. In a short period of time, I’ve felt both the lows and the highs of the feature film industry.
LG: What are some examples of things you did as a producer on “Spotlight?”
KC: Basically, I did anything Tom McCarthy needed me to do. I was a creative producer, and so, for example, I assembled notebooks of material, study guides if you will, on the real-life characters that each actor would be playing. I went through the script and made a grid for each character that indicated which Boston neighborhood they were from and which accents the actors would need to use. I say which “accents,” plural, because the grid had to take into account the story situation. You know, I’m from Boston, but I’m not generally perceived as having a Boston accent. If I’m dealing with the Teamsters, though, I have a Boston accent. What else? On the Sunday after Thanksgiving last year we needed to get a shot of [reporter] Rezendes [played by Mark Ruffalo] in a taxi near the Globe offices on Morrissey Boulevard after he finally gets the court documents. It took me five days to coordinate the shoot. I worked with state troopers, local police officers, we closed roads—I did all the stuff you would expect to do. Five solid days worth of work around the clock, and it turned into 10 seconds of screen time. But it was an important shot, a pivotal moment in the movie.
LG: The movie is getting kudos for its authenticity, and I wondered if you played a role in that since you have a documentary background.
KC: Everyone wanted to get it right, especially the real-life reporters. At one point, when we had built the Spotlight office replica in an abandoned warehouse in Toronto, we flew the reporters up to look at it. We had interviewed all the reporters about what pictures they had on their desks at the time and where they kept things. At first, the reporters were shocked at how real the set looked.
But within a matter of minutes, they were re-arranging things on “their” desks, saying stuff like, “Nope, my Post-Its are always on the other side.” That sort of thing. We paid a great deal of attention to detail at every level.
LG: I’ve read that Rachel McAdams, who played the Spotlight journalist Sacha Pfeiffer, complained that her movie wardrobe—filled with “journalist clothes”—was ugly. Baggy pants, no jewelry, sensible shoes. That was my wardrobe in journalism grad school, so mission accomplished on the authenticity! And Kate, we all look forward to watching you at the Oscars. I hope “Spotlight” grabs a bunch of awards. Good luck. And don’t wear “journalist clothes” to the ceremony.
Photo credit for Movie Poster: First Look Media, Participant Media, Warner Brothers