Oscars: 'Spotlight' Producer on Taking on the Catholic Church

'Spotlight'
'Spotlight,' Courtesy of Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

Michael Sugar reveals the reward of tackling a painful topic: "It's been validating to have so many survivors of abuse come up to us and say, 'This movie has empowered us to speak.'"

This story first appeared in a special awards season issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Veteran manager-producer Michael Sugar has been through the awards season circus with such clients as Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater, but this year the Anonymous Content partner is wearing a new hat: Oscar-nominated producer. Along with Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust, Sugar produced Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's drama about the Boston Globe reporters who broke the story on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. He spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the powerful reactions he's witnessed, the church's response and why he wishes there was an acting ensemble Oscar.

Why did you feel this was a story that would work for a film?

I felt like Spotlight was a way to talk about something important, but also tell [the story] in a way that would be entertaining.

Was there anything about the true story that didn't make its way into the film that you wish had been explored more?

With stories like this that don't have a beginning, middle and end, you always wish you could keep telling the story. The reality is that what's happened — not only since [the Globe reporters] wrote the articles, but since the movie's come out — has been extraordinary. The real story is still happening. Of course, it's been my dream since I was a child to win an Oscar, but it's been validating to have so many survivors of abuse come up to us and say, "This movie has empowered us to speak." It's happened in Q&As after screenings, and it's happened on the street after awards. In many, many instances, it's the first time they've ever said [anything] out loud in public. That's the part I wish people could really see.

Was there any concern about the Catholic Church's reaction?

There was concern about a negative reaction. But we were very careful about not wanting to do an anti-church story. This is not a story that attacks the church. It's a story that attacks part of the institution that was working at cross-purposes with what is really in the best interest of humanity. And the church has surprisingly been very supportive of the film. Not as vocal as we would like them to be, but certainly not vocal at all against the film. There's been a number of parishes that have come out and published lists [of abusive priests] since the movie has come out. We still think there's plenty more to be done.

What was challenging about this film?

The biggest hurdle is getting a group of brilliant actors who will work for next to no money and really with no lead. It started with Mark Ruffalo, who was our first in and was a beacon for the rest of the cast. And then to really get the script right — to be able to tell this story and not have it feel exploitative or manipulative. We needed a script that told the story in an elegant way.

Are awards trickier with an ensemble? Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams got Oscar noms, but do you wish there was recognition for Michael Keaton?

I wish there was an Oscar for an ensemble. Because, yes, of course Michael should have been nominated. And I wish Liev Schreiber was, because I thought he did a terrific job. And Stanley Tucci, who I thought was emotionally at the center of the movie.

The film is more restrained than others in the picture category. Do you feel it's a disadvantage to be a subtler film?

I hope people recognize that the restraint and elegance with which we told this story is, in some ways, as difficult [to achieve] as a movie of great scope and scale. I hope that people will reward the story, even though the scope of it on the canvas isn't as big as other movies — the scope of its reach and impact may be bigger than any of the others.

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Vital Stats

Studio Open Road

Release date Nov. 20

Worldwide box office $48.6 million

Director Tom McCarthy

Cast Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams

Top awards and noms Globe, BAFTA, PGA best pic noms; SAG ensemble winner; Oscar noms for McCarthy and McAdams

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