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How DreamWorks Nearly Derailed ‘Spotlight’: “No One Wants to Watch a Priest Molesting a Kid”

In 2001, four Boston reporters uncovered a secret that rocked the Catholic Church. But not everybody was comfortable bringing their story to the screen.

This story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Last fall, in an abandoned Sears warehouse on the outskirts of Toronto, director Tom McCarthy resurrected a lost world. A place so archaic and obsolete — a fossil from a prehistoric era — it could now exist only at the movies.

He created a fully staffed newspaper.

These days, as dailies continue downsizing (yet another round of pink slips is expected any minute at the Los Angeles Times), it’s a rare thing to find a crowded newsroom — except on a film set. The one constructed in the Sears warehouse was for Spotlight, Open Road’s ambitious ensemble drama (that nearly was derailed when DreamWorks pulled out of the project mid-development). Michael Keaton stars as real-life editor Walter Robinson, who headed The Boston Globe‘s crackerjack investigative task force — named Spotlight — which, in 2001 and 2002, rocked the Catholic Church with a yearlong series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles uncovering the pedophilia cover-up inside the Boston Archdiocese that soon mushroomed into a global scandal, touching off scores of class action suits (and ultimately prompting an apology by the pope himself). Mark Ruffalo portrays dogged journalist Michael Rezendes; Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, the Spotlight member who interviewed abuse survivors; and stage actor Brian d’Arcy James plays Matt Carroll, the group’s data analyst. “Investigative reporting can be tedious,” says McCarthy, 49. “It can be endless. But it can also be exciting. And that’s the drama we’re trying to capture in this movie.”

McAdams shooting on location in Boston.

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Ruffalo, 47, an actor most famous for playing a hulking green crime fighter, sees Spotlight as an action movie — the Avengers in polo shirts and pleated khakis. “Journalists fight for the little guy,” he says. “They’re our last defense against tyranny, our last defense against atrocity.” At least that’s how they’re portrayed in Spotlight, the most flattering big-screen close-up of the profession since 1976, when Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman turned Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into matinee idols with All the President’s Men.

There have, of course, been other movies about sexual abuse in the church (Showtime’s Our Fathers tackled the subject a decade ago) as well as several documentaries (like Amy Berg’s Academy Award-nominated Deliver Us From Evil in 2006). But by focusing on the reporters who investigated the crimes, following along with them as they uncover a trail of clues (like sealed court documents and firsthand survivor accounts), Spotlight‘s filmmakers hope they’ve found a way to tell a difficult story without chasing the audience away. As Ruffalo succinctly explains, the challenge behind making a movie about this particular subject matter is that “no one wants to watch a priest molesting a kid. That’s very hard for an audience to watch.”

Director McCarthy on location in Boston. “[We asked] what was the look of reporters then? What was the cut of the clothes? We’ve gone a long way in bringing back the pleated chino. Every reporter has that on at some point.”

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In 2008, Producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust were thinking of making a light political satire. The two friends had just set up a production company together — Rocklin/Faust — and were discussing with author David Mizner a big-screen adaptation of his book Hartsburg, USA, a novel about a cutthroat school board election in a small Ohio town. But during one of their meetings, Mizner veered from his own pitch and started talking about some friends at The Boston Globe who were on the Spotlight team that broke the church scandal. “He was like, ‘I know these guys and what they did, and I think there might be an incredible story here,’ ” recalls Faust, 39.

Keaton (right) talked on set to the man his character is based on: Robinson, the real-life head of the Spotlight team. Most of the actors interviewed their real-life counterparts. “I thought Slattery put a little more swagger on me than I deserve,” says former Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. Slattery disagrees: “He has a lot of swagger.”

The producers agreed — “All the President’s Men is a favorite movie for both of us,” says Rocklin, 36 — and booked a flight to Boston to meet the reporters and secure their life rights. “We were surprised Scott Rudin hadn’t got there first,” says Rocklin. “But no one had written a book about the subject and there hadn’t been a large Vanity Fair-type article that told the world the story.” Once they collected the rights, the producers spent a year looking for a screenwriter, but straightaway they could tell it was going to be a rough road. “Let’s put it this way,” says Rocklin, “we got a lot of nos. We have really good relationships, but we got a lot of nos.” Including, for instance, one from Eric Roth, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Forrest Gump. “He sent a lovely email about how wonderful the material was,” says Rocklin of his pass. “Those are the kinds of responses we were getting. No one ever denied how wonderful the material was — it was more of, ‘Hmmm, do we really want to go there?’ “

Faust puts it a bit more bluntly: “People were not responding to the story the way we thought they would. They were a little bit scared.”

The real front-page headline with which Spotlight broke the story of the scandal at the Boston Archdiocese. “This film has its thrilling aspects, but all investigations are made up of a lot of blue-collar hard work, boots-on-the-ground journalism,” says McCarthy.

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The duo had better luck finding a director — possibly because there really was only one Rocklin would consider. “I had seen The Visitor — even made my mother go see it on Mother’s Day — and I got it in my head that Tom McCarthy had to direct this movie,” she says. “I became obsessed, a little stalker-ish.” McCarthy (who also made 2003’s The Station Agent, the film that put Peter Dinklage on the map) met with Rocklin and Faust in 2011 in L.A. and all but signed up on the spot. “It made an immediate impact on me,” he says. McCarthy also solved the screenwriter problem; he brought in Josh Singer, who wrote Bill Condon’s Julian Assange thriller The Fifth Estate (while Singer’s management firm, Anonymous Content, financed the script’s development). The two began batting around ideas for the script and started conducting hundreds of hours of interviews with the actual reporters from the Globe‘s Spotlight team. “Journalists, by and large, don’t like to be interviewed,” says McCarthy. “They like asking the questions. So it was pushing against their nature.”

Keaton (left), McCarthy and actor Jamey Sheridan (red shirt), who plays an attorney in the movie, in a scene on a golf course.

From left: McAdams, Ruffalo and James, who before being cast in Spotlight played Shrek on Broadway. “I was cast late,” says James. “And [Boston Globe reporter Carroll] was waiting to find out who was going to play him. He knew that Michael Keaton was playing Robby and Mark Ruffalo was playing Mike, so he was saying, ‘Who am I going to get?’ When my name came up, he did a quick Google search. He said, ‘Oh great, I get the guy who plays Shrek!’ “

But as the two started tapping out the screenplay — they did a dozen drafts by the end — Spotlight hit a snag. DreamWorks, which had enlisted Participant Media to co-finance the movie’s $15 million budget, pulled out. “We never knew why,” says Rocklin. “They never told us. But I can speculate. It’s a movie about pedophilia in the Catholic Church.” Whatever the reason, it put the production on hold long enough for McCarthy to get another job — in 2013, he went off to shoot the Adam Sandler indie The Cobbler. The completed Spotlight screenplay, meanwhile, went on to make The Black List, the best unproduced scripts of the year. “Every movie goes through the point where you’re not sure if it’s going to get made,” says Anonymous’ Michael Sugar (who, along with Anonymous head Steve Golin, also has a producing credit).

McAdams on the set with Pfeiffer, the reporter she portrays on the screen. Pfeiffer wrote a recent article for the Globe on being played by a movie star: “Rachel [McAdams] has asked me how long I kept my fingernails. What size Post-it Notes I preferred.”

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Ultimately, Participant decided to foot DreamWorks‘ part of the Spotlight bill, with Open Road distributing, but it wasn’t until summer 2014, when Ruffalo came on board, that the project really came back to life. “Mark had a lot going on at the time — the Avengers and Now You See Me franchises,” says Participant’s Jonathan King. “But he wedged Spotlight [into his schedule]. Like the Hulk, he just pushed his arms out and said, ‘This time is sacred.’ ” Keaton still was a few months away from his Birdman comeback, but he did have experience with newsroom dramas (20 years earlier, he starred in Ron Howard’s The Paper); he signed on soon after Ruffalo, followed by McAdams, Liev Schreiber (who plays Globe executive editor Marty Baron), John Slattery (as deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the famed Washington Post editor) and Stanley Tucci (as Boston lawyer Mitchell Garabedian). With The Cobbler finished and McCarthy once again free to direct, shooting finally was set to begin in late 2014, exteriors in Boston and interiors inside that old Sears warehouse.

A doorway on the Toronto set’s re-creation of the Globe in 2001-2002.

To re-create the Globe‘s newsroom from 14 years ago, production designer Stephen Carter (the guy who designed Keaton’s dressing room in Birdman) studied archival photographs of Globe birthday parties and other events. “This is the first period project I’ve done when I was actually alive during the period,” says Carter, who scored 100 outdated cubicles from Toronto’s hometown daily, the Globe and Mail, which, in an ironic twist, was undergoing its own downsizing (it let them go for a mere $5,000). When the real-life Globe reporters traveled to Canada to visit the sets, they were dumbstruck. “It was surreal,” recalls Bradlee of walking through his past. “They re-created the newsroom to a T, scrupulously authentic, exactly the way it was.”

And, in some ways, still is. A few of the Spotlight team — including Rezendes and Pfeiffer — are still at The Boston Globe, still fighting crime in polo shirts and pleated khakis.

Additional reporting by Tatiana Siegel.