Santa Barbara Film Fest: 'Spotlight' Honorees Argue That Movies Can Make a Difference

The film's co-writer/director Tom McCarthy presented the fest's American Riviera Award to Michael Keaton ("our captain") and Rachel McAdams ("our heart"), while also complimenting Mark Ruffalo, who was a late cancellation.
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Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams

Three of the principal members of the Screen Actors Guild's best ensemble award winner Spotlight were honored with the Santa Barbara International Film Festival's American Riviera Award on Friday night at the city's historic Arlington Theatre. Two of them, Michael Keaton and best supporting actress Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams, were in attendance for the celebration, while the third, best supporting actor Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, was a late cancellation due to a family issue (but sent a video expressing his apologies and appreciation).

It was an emotional evening in which the thesis of all involved parties — including SBIFF executive director Roger Durling, who moderated a two-hour Q&A that preceded the presentation of the awards themselves — was that films can change the world. This was supported by the fact that Spotlight, a film about Boston's Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and the journalists who exposed it, had screened for the Vatican's commission on clerical sex abuse. Additionally, Durling revealed — for the second time this week, after penning a guest column in The Hollywood Reporter — that he himself had been molested by a Catholic priest. He told the honorees, "I'll speak for all of us survivors when I say, 'Thank you for making Spotlight.'"

Also in attendance was the film's co-writer/director Tom McCarthy, who presented Keaton and McAdams with their accolades; co-writer Josh Singer; producer Steve Golin; and the person who McAdams plays in the film, Boston Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.

McAdams, making her first appearance at the fest, was soft-spoken and talked only when necessary; Keaton, a Santa Barbara local who was also honored at the fest last year for his performance in Birdman, dominated the conversation, delivering answers that felt like jazz — all over the place, not entirely logical and yet endearing and amusing enough.

Why did the film work? Because, in Keaton's view, McCarthy, after penning a tremendously researched script with Singer, assembled a cast of actors who are not only talented, but "who happen to have a consciousness about things" and a desire to do right by journalists who, in McAdams' view, "were unsung heroes."

The evening also featured clips of and discussion about the actors' backgrounds and earlier work. McAdams credited 17 years of figure skating for her ability to do physical comedy in films such as Mean Girls, which Keaton confessed to loving, and Morning Glory ("I was a jock before I was an actress"). She called The Hot Chick her "hardest job" because "I had to become Rob Schneider" (and also because, it was implied, she does not like her looks to be the focus of a film — she said she gets bored having to be the "lovable ingenue") and described making Midnight in Paris with Woody Allen — and reuniting on that film with her Wedding Crashers co-star Owen Wilson — as a joy. Oddly, the film that made McAdams a star, The Notebook, was not touched upon at all.

Keaton has a longer filmography, so much was excluded, by necessity. But the point was noted that he has twice previously played a journalist, in The Paper and Live From Baghdad, prompting the actor, a self-described news junkie, to discuss his appreciation for the people who bring him the news, as well as his sense that actors and journalists are somewhat similar, in terms of their innate curiosity about others. Also touched upon were the films with which he is most closely associated, Mr. Mom (McAdams admitted to developing a crush on Keaton after she saw the movie as a kid), Beetlejuice and Batman.

When the conversation zeroed in on Spotlight, obvious was McAdams' reverence for fast-talking and whip-smart Pfeiffer, one of the relatively few "sympathetic characters" she has played, and Keaton's for the reporter he portrayed, Walter "Robby" Robinson. As for the accolades showered on the film, McAdams said she learned of her personal nom while alone in a Los Angeles hotel bedroom early one morning — and "couldn't stop laughing" because she was "just trying to comprehend it." Keaton, who was not recognized for his performance, said of the film's best picture Oscar nom, "I want to win it a lot" — it would be the second in a row in which he has starred, a rare feat — and added, "I don't know [how] much longer I have, but I hope I can fool people a few more times."

McCarthy, whose directorial debut The Station Agent played at SBIFF in 2003, said to Durling that he and his collaborators "applaud you for your courage" in coming out as a survivor. And, after describing his interactions with actors as his "favorite thing about what I do" as a director, he praised Ruffalo ("You won't meet a better actor or a better person"), McAdams ("She was our heart") and Keaton ("our captain ... and a hell of a lot of fun").

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