'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Tom McCarthy ('Spotlight')

THR Tom McCarthy 04_Tom-McCarthy_0435 - H 2016
Austin Hargrave

THR Tom McCarthy 04_Tom-McCarthy_0435 - H 2016

"In the past month, what we've seen is how it's started to cross over and how it's really started to have a social impact," Tom McCarthy says of Spotlight — the fifth film he wrote and directed, after 2003's The Station Agent, 2008's The Visitor, 2011's Win Win and 2014's The Cobbler — as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. Indeed, the drama about the Boston Globe journalists who exposed the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal in Boston has been screened for the Pope's Vatican commission on church misconduct; it has been screened for and hailed by survivors of abuse by priests; and it has been celebrated for its celebration of the threatened industry of investigation journalism, as well. "It really puts things into perspective," McCarthy says.

(Click above to listen to this episode now or click here to access all of our episodes via iTunes. Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Lady Gaga, Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Samuel L. Jackson, Kristen Stewart, J.J. Abrams, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and Lily Tomlin.)

Over the past month or so, the 49-year-old has received widespread appreciation for his own contributions to the film. For the original screenplay that he wrote with Josh Singer, he received a Golden Globe nomination and won Writers Guild of America, BAFTA, Critics' Choice, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, National Society of Film Critics, Gotham Independent Film Awards and Hollywood Film Awards prizes. And for his direction, he received Golden Globe, Critics' Choice and Directors Guild of America nominations. Still pending: Independent Spirit Award and Academy Award nominations for his work in both categories. (The film received six Oscar noms, including best picture.)

Born and raised in New Jersey, McCarthy's path to a career as one of the brightest lights of the American indie film scene was anything but direct. While an undergraduate at Boston College, he initially declared himself a business major, then became a philosophy major and then, at the urging of this then-girlfriend, began performing in front of audiences — first with an improv group, later with a comedy troupe. "They probably changed my life more than anyone," he says of the latter lot, "just that experience of writing and performing and having an immediately and sort of really visceral response from the student body audience was incredibly impactful and completely changed my outlook on things."

After college, he pursued various forms of performance in Cape Cod, Minneapolis, London and Chicago, and then was accepted and went off to the Yale School of Drama on the acting track. (One of his classmates and friends there was Paul Giamatti, whom he would later cast in Win Win.) "But I was also writing and directing for the Yale Cabaret," he says, "which is where I started to get the writing-directing bug." (Post-graduation, he moved to New York, where he co-wrote and directed a play starring Peter Dinklage, who became a dear friend, and whom he later cast in The Station Agent.)

Before and certainly during the 13 years since The Station Agent, McCarthy also acted — primarily as a character actor, and never in his own projects. Ironically, his best known role is Scott Templeton, the crooked journalist on HBO's The Wire. His other parts have been less memorable, taken to pay the bills so that he can keep writing and directing indies, or in the hope of deriving knowledge that he can apply while doing so — hence his small parts in George Clooney (2005's Good Night, and Good Luck), Clint Eastwood (2006's Flags of Our Fathers) and Peter Jackson (2009's The Lovely Bones).

He also occasionally writes — or sometimes polishes, without credit — screenplays for other directors, the most notable example being Pixar's 2009 instant classic Up, for which he and his collaborators were nominated for the best original screenplay Oscar. "For me it's all connected," he says. "Acting, writing, directing — it's all storytelling, which is all I've ever known as a professional, really." Over the years, though, and particularly since Up, he has done less acting. "I just started thinking about things differently and started, over time, committing more and more to the writing and directing," he says, while noting that his background in acting still proves useful all the time. "Being an actor for so long and understanding actors and how they approach [work] and how they work and what's helpful and what's not — I think that certainly guides me in how I interact with actors."

The five films that McCarthy has written and directed all share a few things in common. They deal largely with male friendship, with outsiders entering a group and with the subsequent construction of artificial families. "People coming together and forming unlikely bonds," he summarizes. "That does interest me, the power of connection. It's always interested me." All of his films prior to Spotlight were also made on extremely low budgets: "I purposely kept the budgets of my first three or four films down so I could have creative control and free license when it came to things like casting and story." Spotlight certainly was his biggest budget project to date, but was still quite small considering the talent involved with the project and its production: $20 million.

Interestingly, when McCarthy was first asked to do Spotlight, by producing partners Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, he passed. He says the fact that he was born Catholic, was an altar boy as a kid, studied at Boston College and is the son of still-practicing Catholics didn't factor into the decision; rather, he was in the midst of working on Win Win and found the scale of the story "so overwhelming." McCarthy next went on to direct the pilot of of Game of Thrones, bringing Dinklage to the series. (He didn't stick with it for reasons he shares in greater depth in our conversation.) But the next year, Rocklin and Faust approached him again about Spotlight, having partnered with Anonymous Content's Steve Golin and Michael Sugar, and he reconsidered. "I had a clearer head," he says with a laugh.

For the first film that he would direct that was based on real events, McCarthy initially wanted another person to write the script under his supervision. He says he met with several candidates but was most impressed with Josh Singer, an alum of The West Wing's writers room who had just written the journalism film The Fifth Estate, and hired him. Shortly thereafter, after they took a trip together to interview the real Globe reporters and editors in Boston, McCarthy "got really excited about the project" and decided to co-write it with Singer. (Ironically, they bonded while doing a form of investigative journalism about investigative journalists who had bonded together!)

McCarthy had a blast directing "an enormous cast" — "by far the largest cast I've ever had," he says — in a true ensemble production. He recently described Michael Keaton as "our captain" and best supporting actress Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams as "our heart," while saying of best supporting actor Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo, "You won't meet a better actor or a better person," and going out of his way to praise the less famous members of the cast who came in and "killed" a scene or two. (He jokes that if he ever was going to cast himself in one of his films, this would have been it, since there were parts for "a bunch of pasty middle-aged white guys.")

No less a creative genius than Baltimore Sun journalist-turned-The Wire creator David Simon has marveled at the mastery of McCarthy's creation. He has said that he can't get over the fact that McCarthy had the guts to include an extended sequence, running for a few minutes, that shows journalists looking up names in books and then struggling to enter those names into a spreadsheet, because on the page it sounds pretty boring. The film, however, is anything but, for reasons that McCarthy thinks he understands. "Watching smart, committed, engaged professionals do their job and do it well in pursuit of not money but truth and justice? That's incredible, and I think that's what sets this story apart from a lot of other stories, and I think it's what ultimately makes heroes of some very human people, the journalists and editors involved in this story — not to mention the survivors."