The Real Reporters Behind “Spotlight” On Reliving The Facts And Accepting The Fiction

The former Boston Globe team discuss working with director Tom McCarthy and writer Josh Singer to recreate events from over a decade ago.

The Real Reporters Behind “Spotlight” On Reliving The Facts And Accepting The Fiction
[Photo: Kerry Hayes, Courtesy of Open Road Films]

Of all the praise that has been heaped on the film Spotlight–and there’s been a lot; it’s considered an Oscar frontrunner–perhaps the greatest compliment is that journalists unanimously agree that it accurately captures what they do. From the drab newsroom decor of the Boston Globe newsroom to Rachel McAdams (as Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer) schlepping around in baggy khaki’s, director Tom McCarthy‘s film pays homage to the supremely unglamorous world of newspaper reporting while at the same time holding up the profession as one of the most noble in the land.


Pfeiffer and her former cohorts on the Globe‘s elite, investigative Spotlight team, of course, blew open the story of rampant child molestation by Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese. The series of stories that the paper published beginning in January of 2002 led to a Pulitzer Prize, the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law, then the Archbishop of Boston, and billions of dollars’ worth of settlements to victims.

That Spotlight rings true to reporters is no accident. McCarthy and his co-writer, Josh Singer, approached their research almost as doggedly as their subjects went after the Archdiocese. “They investigated our investigation, is essentially what they did,” says Ben Bradlee, Jr. the Globe‘s former deputy managing editor (played in the film by Mad Men alum John Slattery). Rather than go the typical Hollywood route and attack the script like a creative fiction exercise, McCarthy and Singer spent months extensively interviewing the former Spotlight reporters (Pfeiffer, Matt Carroll, and Mike Rezendes); the team’s editor, Walter “Robbie” Robinson; as well as other key characters in the film, such as Bradlee and former Globe editor Martin Baron. The real Spotlight reporters were then given the finished script to look over and point out anything that didn’t ring true, down to turns of phrase and dialogue details. The filmmakers even created an exact replica of the Globe newsroom in an old warehouse in Toronto.

“The set designer had the Globe maintenance department look up paint records so they could recreate the Globe newsroom with the exact paint colors,” says Pfeiffer.

“When I walked in there,” says Bradlee, “my knees buckled.”

In the end, though, Spotlight is a “based on” film. Meaning that at times McCarthy and Singer rewrote things in order to best serve the cinematic medium. So, for instance, certain scenes that actually took place over email are presented in the film as a meeting or golf outing. And a key scene in which Pfeiffer confronts a priest on his doorstep didn’t quite happen that way–in fact, she and another reporter met with the priest on two separate occasions, once in his living room. But none of these tweaks altered the nature of how the actual Spotlight research unfolded. Pfeiffer, a hard-nosed truth-seeker who is back at the Globe after several years–she left to do a Knight Fellowship at Stanford and work at NPR–praises the filmmakers for making only “appropriate” changes to the storyline. The result is a film that is extremely faithful to its source and that fictionalizes with judicious restraint. That that kind of approach to a subject that isn’t exactly teeming with sexiness (or even sex, of which there is none in the film) delivered one of the season’s most dramatically satisfying films is a feat, one that even the former Spotlight reporters marvel out.

“We all thought, good luck with your movie, because it’s not that what we do is boring, but it’s not cinematic,” says Pfeiffer. “We talk on the phone. We do data entry. We review documents. How do you make a movie about that?”


Pfeiffer, Bradlee, Carroll (portrayed by Tony Award winner Brian d’Arcy James), Rezendes (portrayed by Mark Ruffalo) and Robinson (portrayed by Michael Keaton) recently shared their thoughts on how the filmmakers did it.


Long before cameras started rolling, McCarthy and Singer embarked on their own investigation of how, exactly, the Spotlight research unfolded. It was an arduous process that proved to the reporters that their story was not being taken lightly, and that the filmmakers had a strong desire to present the truth.

Mike Rezendes: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy they spent weeks with us. Coincidentally, I was in Los Angeles periodically back in 2012, when Josh and Tom came onboard with Anonymous Content. I had several long lunches with Josh. And we’d literally just talk for hours and hours. I would explain to him how this story happened, how the investigation unfolded. Then I met with Tom in New York, we also had a very long lunch. Then Josh and Tom also spent lots of time with all the members of Spotlight team. I mean lots of time. Like, many, many lunches, walks, that sort of thing. I spent time driving Tom and Josh around Boston, I wanted to show them the neighborhoods where John Geoghan was preying on children. These blue collar neighborhoods in Boston. And I showed them the cathedral, downtown cathedral, where Cardinal Seán O’Malley now lives. I took them out to Boston, what’s now Boston College, to see the mansion where Cardinal Law lived. So I gave them the tour of all the relevant sites. And then Tom and Josh, in addition, we had collective meetings where all of us would go out to big dinner. Lots and lots of, more than I could ever count, long, detailed, one-on-one conversations. In addition to that, Tom and Josh did their own research. They went out interviewed victims and lawyers, themselves.

Josh, in particular, scoured the archives. Josh has a law degree from Harvard, and a lot of this story involves some fairly complicated legal machinations. Like the scene on the park bench where Mitch Garabedian telling me about the sealed docs he was able to put in to the public file. That was really complicated. Fortunately, I still have all the documents, so I was able to sit down with Josh and not only explain to him how explosive documents under a confidentiality seal could be made public, but I could show him the actual documents. So we could follow the train of filings, follow the train of legal events.

Walter Robinson: It was pretty clear early on, when Josh Singer started to make regular pilgrimages to Boston, that they were really intent on almost re-reporting what we had reported. To get as much detail as they possibly could. One example is, and you’d call me, like, the still 20th century technophobe, but I had happened to preserve pretty much all the emails from 2001. I should have charged them for them. That was a treasure trove for a couple reasons. Number one, it allowed them to very precisely place events in time when they actually occurred as opposed to when we, our memories, we’re now talking 10 years later, what we actually remembered. So that was number one. Number two, a couple of the emails were actually the basis for scenes. To give you one example, there’s a very important scene in the film where Marty [Baron] is meeting with all of us, and he’s saying, ‘This isn’t just about one priest, we have to get at the practice and policy. Was this coming from the top?’ It was sort of this instruction. Now that’s a fictionalized scene. That meeting never happened. However, the words that come out of Liev Shreiber’s mouth on screen are drawn pretty much verbatim from emails that Marty sent to Ben and I in August of 2001.

Sacha Pfeiffer: (Looking over the finished script) we felt like if it was dialogue a reporter wouldn’t use, we would speak up. Or I think that scene where Ben Bradlee, Jr. shows up at Mike’s apartment with a pizza? I think he originally had a bottle of Jameson’s, or something that people think reporters would drink. I think they changed it to be a beer or whatever. Little things like that. Either factual things that needed tweaking or things that didn’t ring true. And I think that’s why the movie feels really true and authentic to us, they involved us so much in the process that we could at any moment say, ‘That doesn’t go with reality.’


We were on the set tons. We made several trips to Toronto. They did about 25% of the filming in Boston. A lot of exterior shots that couldn’t be replicated. Fenway, the Globe library, the Globe parking deck. Then they did 3/4 in Toronto. I remember thinking when we first went up (to Toronto) that we were going to have to stay way on the edges, be an annoyance. But there were times we were literally in rooms ducking as the cameras went by. They let us be so close and so near, it was amazing how much they invited us in.


The actors who portray the reporters were just as diligent as the writers when it came to studying their subjects. Each was given a copy of the transcripts of the conversations that Singer and McCarthy had with the reporters and editors, and then spent a considerable amount of time with the individual they were playing.

Matt Carroll: So Brian d’Arcy James, who plays me, he’s a Broadway guy, and he was hired late in the process. I can’t remember what play he was in at the time, but he was in some kind of Broadway production. His availability was pretty limited so he couldn’t get up to Boston. So I happened to be going down to New York for business, so we had a long supper. It was great. He’s just a really nice guy, we talked for a long time. He’d say, ‘How do you pronounce this word? How do you pronounce that word? How do you pronounce ‘horror’?’ ‘I’m like ‘harrah.’ He’s like, ‘Say it, again.’ ‘HARRAH.’ Like six times. I was like, Jesus, Brian, how many times do I have to say it?’ I easily have the thickest Boston accent. I’m from Dedham, right outside of Boston.

He didn’t shadow me. I was at a new job, it would have been a little awkward, to be perfectly honest. I’m at the MIT Media Lab now. But he picked up a lot of small stuff, which was kind of cool. Like, I wear glasses on a string around my neck. And that’s there all the time. And I’m a huge coffee drinker, so in every scene I think there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cup on my desk. It’s little stuff that no one except me, frankly, would notice, and my wife. But it’s that kind of stuff that’s kind of cool. They worked so hard to be authentic. Honestly, like, the clothes we wear? I was like, wow, everyone’s dressed really shitty! It was great, because that’s how we dress. I mean, I get my clothes at Costco. You know those baggy khakis you get for $19? And the dress shirts and stuff. I was like, That’s what I wear.

Mike Rezendes: Mark Ruffalo came to my home, we spent all day talking and walking around my neighborhood. We talked deep into the night. And then he shadowed me at the Globe, sat next to me at my desk, watched me interview people. I was in the middle of a big investigation into some deaths of some mental health patients at a state prison. I had video of one of the inmates, a botched rescue attempt. It was a man who had been strapped down to a bed by his wrists and ankles for a year and a half. And so I had this video of the attempt to rescue him. He started to complain of severe pain in his back. The video was of very poor quality. I was looking at it, trying to see if I could identify anything that had gone wrong. Mark was sitting next to me, and he basically took over, grabbed the mouse from me so that he could go back and forth over these particular bits of video that we thought were important. He just totally, not only immersed himself in the movie, he immersed himself in the work I was doing. He also interviewed my colleagues about me. Mark is a very open, generous, warm, friendly guy, he’d talk to anyone, take a Selfie with anyone. So he would go around the newsroom doing that, but at the same time he was talking to people about me. He was gathering information. I got to say, he’s not only the greatest actor I know, but he’s an incredible reporter.

Sacha Pfeiffer: My relationship with Rachel McAdams began with an email, and then there was an hour and half phone call and then a lot of meetings, a lot of walks, lot of dinners. Then when they began filming, she would sometimes call or text in the middle of the day when I was at work. A text would pop up from her saying, ‘Now, if you were doing this type of interview, would you be writing in a notebook or would you be typing at your computer? And if you were in the office, would you have tennis shoes or would you have heels on? And how high would the heel be if it was the heel? And was your bag brown or black? What are the kinds of things you would carry in your bag?’


They built a replica of the Globe newsroom in an abandoned Sears building in Toronto. It was this massive, big, cavernous newsroom. Then they built a smaller Spotlight office. The first time we walked into that room we were all speechless, because we felt like we were back in Boston. I remember on Rachel’s desk they had set it up so she would not have been able to talk on the phone and type at the same time. Of course, you have to be able to do that. And when I brought that up, they brought in the set crew and moved the location of the phone so she would actually be able to do that. And I remember Rachel asking, I had told her that I survived on Post-it notes. Whenever I wrote a note to myself I’d write it on a Post-it note. She wanted to know what size Post-it note.


Spotlight portrays the five months leading up to the first in a series of stories that the Globe published on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. In fact, the investigation went on for nearly two more years. To condense the story, the filmmakers made creative decisions, in one case turning two conversations with a priest into one incredibly dramatic one, where Pfeiffer confronts Father Ronald H. Paquin on his front porch. Notebook in hand, she bluntly asks him if he’s ever molested children. He immediately confesses, but protests that he “never felt gratified myself.”

Another key scene, where Robinson is reminded of a story about abusive priests that was all but buried in the paper years earlier when he was Metro Editor, was entirely created by the filmmakers, who found out about the old story–and Robinson’s role at the time–through their own reporting. The scene adds an unexpected dramatic twist to the film and gives Robinson a human element. He’s a hero, but he’s got flaws. It also nods to former generations at the Globe and the institutional deference that was traditionally paid to the church.

Walter Robinson: So Josh met with Eric MacLeish (a Boston attorney who represented several abuse victims), and MacLeish told him (about the story), and Josh went and found the Globe story from ’93. Now this is in 2012. So Josh asked me about it, showed it to me, and I had zero memory of it and I volunteered to him that, geez, I was the Metro editor in ’93, in fact I’d just taken the job about two weeks earlier. So technically that story happened on my watch. So they then turned it into the scene, which is actually a powerful scene, where (Michael) Keaton ‘fesses up, says, ‘Jesus, I don’t remember it.’ And you’re kind of left hanging. Was it a piece of evidence that the Globe turned a blind eye towards? Who knows. But it’s in the film and what I would say, and I’ve said this in Tom McCarthy’s presence, and I don’t think he’s contradicted me, is that Michael Keaton is playing two roles in the film. He’s playing me, but he’s also in a number of scenes, including that one, he’s playing, through me, a generation of Globe editors who were too deferential to the church. Unwilling to believe. This was true at every major paper. Who could believe that the Catholic Church was enabling abuse by hundreds and hundreds of priests against thousands and thousands of children and covering it up? So that scene is intended to convey the extent to which people were not, they were kind of clueless. In fact we did miss clues early on. I remember a story from, another story from the early ’90s that should have logically prompted editors to sit down and say, is something bigger going on here? So it’s accurate and it’s not.

It’s a film, and in important ways it does in fact tell the truth about the Globe and other papers and other institutions that gave the church too much of a break. I don’t remember raising a big stink about it. I grumble about it every now and then, but look, I think frankly in some ways all of us come out of the film looking better than we did. Nobody thinks I look like a horrible journalist.

Ben Bradlee, Jr.: They use me and Robinson early on as examples of the insiders who are perhaps overly skeptical of the new guy. I think it’s overdrawn. My character is portrayed as kind of holding back more than I really was. These guys, the Spotlight guys, very quickly were getting great stuff, and I was all in. Quite quickly. I was concerned, I shut down the (James) Porter story (an earlier priest abuse case that the Globe ran a story on in the early ’90s) because I hit a wall. You don’t hit a home run all the time. You hit singles, doubles. But I was concerned that you can’t just keep writing the story if you’re out of gas.


When Baron came in, he suggested we take a run at this other bad priest. I initially recalled all the work we’d done on the Porter case, and was concerned maybe about overkill unless we had it right. But soon we were getting this terrific stuff. And Baron does deserve enormous credit for giving us the idea. it was his idea. Sometimes it does take a fresh eye.

Frankly, we weren’t really sure where (the filmmakers) were going. They did show us the script, but I think that’s just dramatic tension. Dramatic license. And you know, I didn’t fight it. It’s something that Josh Singer and I have talked about informally after the fact, that, yeah, they were going for that insider-outsider dynamic.

Sacha Pfeiffer: The scene of me talking to the priest, in real life two of us interviewed that priest separately. It was me and a guy who joined our team in Jan of 2002. Steve Kurkjian. As you remember, the movie ends when we published our first story. It immediately becomes clear that the story was going to be so enormous that we needed reinforcements. So we brought in extra reporters. He and I both interviewed that priest. Tom and Josh wanted an interaction with a priest but because there hadn’t been one in 2001, they took dramatic license to pull one back in time by a month, and because that other reporter wasn’t involved in our reporting yet, they gave me the whole scene. So in reality, it was two separate conversations that they blended into one conversation on that doorstep.

The way it actually took place “was me showing up on the doorstep, and then the other reporter going back later and sitting down in the living rom. The other thing I should note is, the other reporter and I, I think I interviewed Pacquin first. Because we’re going back 14 years, we’re not sure who got there first. But basically we both interviewed him. I at the doorstep, the other reporter in the living room.

No, Paquin didn’t actually sort of blurt out like that. It was (a) more gradual (confession).


Seeing the finished film for the first time brought up a well of conflicted emotions for the reporters. Their investigation was a career triumph, a reminder of why all of them had gotten into journalism in the first place, a demanding-beyond-all-imagination challenge that had been met. But it had also been a difficult time, both in terms of their relentless work load and the burden of hearing so many traumatic stories from victims.


Mike Rezendes: We saw a rough cut in May. It was really emotional. So many different reactions to it that I literally couldn’t speak. And normally I’m not shy about that. And Tom and Josh wanted our reaction, we were all sort of thunderstruck. Eventually we all sent them, I sent them very long, detailed response that was very appreciative of their work, their talent, their commitment. It was pretty overwhelming. That was not the happiest time of my life, frankly.

I mean, there were things from that time I’d rather forget, to tell you the truth. So it was so not the joyful experience it might have been if someone were making a movie about a different project. First of all, the stories we heard, we literally heard scores of them, were so sad, so devastating. It became kind of, it just weighed us down. Also it was an incredible amount of work. I didn’t know I was capable of working that hard. I would get up early in the morning, go to court, pick up some documents, get to the Globe, write a page-one story, be at the Globe until 9 o’clock answering questions from editors, go home, have a drink and quick dinner, and that was about it. There was a period when we wrote a book called Betrayal. So Saturday and Sunday would come around I’d work on the book. It was just a phenomenal amount of work. I remember, I didn’t take care of my house or anything. it was just a lot of work. So being rocketed back to that time was not a bowl of cherries, really.

Matt Carroll: We were working seven days a week, 15-hour hour days. And I was talking to my younger daughter, and she was probably 8 years old at the time, she said, I’m so glad I saw the movie because it explained to me where you were. Because I just didn’t know where you were for a whole year. But you’re talking to these people and the stories were so sad and so brutal. And Robbie’s wife is a nurse and she said she thought we all went through a little bit of PTSD after a while. And I definitely remember talking to some poor bastard who, some guy had been molesting when he was 12 years old, the same story, the altar boy, the priest, the whole thing. And halfway through this interview, I’m like, I don’t want to talk to this guy anymore. I’m sick of talking to these people. I felt horrible about it, but I’m like, I’m just kind of burning out on this stuff. We’d been doing it for months at that point. I had a lot more empathy for social workers after going through this whole experience.

Sacha Pfeiffer: The story basically became a gigantic, competitive daily story. Which is not usually what happens with Spotlight. Usually you’re doing your own unique story, no one could possibly catch up, you’ve got too much depth and detail. And all of a sudden like the New York Times was on it. It was just like, suddenly we couldn’t let ourselves get beat so we found ourselves in a competitive daily situation. I call it tentacle-ing, suddenly these many larger issues needed to be written about. Like the settlement negotiations with victims. The Archdiocese on the brink of bankruptcy. Cardinal Law resigning. You know, the psychology of abusive priests. Why did there seem to be more boy than girl victims. Other issues and questions were coming up and there was just a massive amount of writing and reporting to do. So it was, I mean, the movie covers five months, which is how long it took us to publish our first story. What the movie doesn’t show is that we wrote for another year, year and a half, pretty much constantly, daily stories. So it was a very heavy workload.

It takes you back to what was a very hard work, but it was also pretty satisfying. Because it was a great reporting challenge. Because the church, it’s not like it’s a public agency where you can send a public records request, it’s not like it’s a company or a nonprofit that has to file tax returns, so as a reporter, how to do you penetrate a nearly impenetrable institution? So it reminded us of the satisfaction and the reporting challenge. And I think also, what it really makes us glad about is that this issue is on the forefront. It makes people stay vigilant. It makes the church make sure that it’s still being vigilant. It might empower other victims who might not have come forward yet to come forward. I think it also, it’s reminding people how important newspapers and in particular investigative teams are. It’s such an endangered species and the print journalism is in such dire, financial straits that this movie is a moment to remind people of being vigilant, questioning higher institutions, supporting your local paper, your local investigative team.


About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based senior writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety