As co-writer of the Tom McCarthy-directed Spotlight, which scored a PGA Awards nom Tuesday, Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate, The West Wing) had his work cut out for him. While the real-life Boston Globe reporters behind the story had an incredible tale to tell–how they blew the lid off sexual abuse in the Catholic priesthood–their methods entailed a lot of sifting through endless paper trails pre-internet, which might not have made riveting viewing. So how did Singer and co-writer McCarthy create a procedural that lights up the screen? The answer is by investigating the story almost as deeply as the original reporters did. Singer says, “in 2012, Tom and I basically spent the whole fall Amtraking up and down to Boston interviewing and interviewing and interviewing and walking around saying, ‘what’s the theme? What’s this about?’ I sat down with (Boston Globe reporter) Mike Rezendes and spent a week with him in LA. I took him to lunch every day, and at the end of the week I had a 55-page notes bible.” Following many months of research, the resulting screenplay has garnered Globe and Independent Spirit noms for Singer and McCarthy, alongside a slew of others for McCarthy and the cast, and some very loud Best Picture Oscar buzz.

It’s almost like you and Tom McCarthy were investigating the investigation. You became reporters of sorts to get this done

Yeah. I mean we didn’t have primary sources. That’s a lot to Tom’s credit. I love true-life stories and I love doing research. Tom wanted this to be as authentic as possible. In some ways, it’s probably good that we didn’t have any source material. All we had were the reporters–we basically just had to interview those guys. By the end of that week I knew we had more story than we would need, even just covering from the day Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) starts until when they put the first story out. I knew we had more story than we knew what to do with. I’ve been fortunate enough to work in procedural television a little bit and I just knew there was a great procedural there. And Tom, I sent him this notes document, and really quickly the two of us knew when this procedural engine gets started it’s going to drive. It reads like a detective story.

Spotlight
“The script is nontraditional in that way. It’s really a true ensemble and that’s not your typical Hollywood movie,” Singer says of the cast, pictured (L to R): Rachel McAdams; Mark Ruffalo; Brian D’Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery
Open Road Films

How tough was it to cater to such a strong ensemble cast?

When Tom first said, ‘we’re not going to have two protagonists, we’re going to have six,’ I think I had two worries. One is, are we going to be able to write and keep alive six different characters? Because if you think about it, the script is nontraditional in that way. It’s really a true ensemble and that’s not your typical Hollywood movie. So I was worried about, are we going to be able to do that? That’s going to be a challenge. In fact, there were definitely drafts where we had to focus on each and every one of the individuals in the cast in terms of the primary six, just to make sure they all had enough there to make their characters work on screen, but also had enough there to attract actors. That was my secondary concern. Without a true lead, is he going to be able to attract lead actors? I think fortunately for us, Mark (Ruffalo) signed onboard and that was the first piece. One thing that’s great is that Tom is a fantastic director and can attract people like Mark. Stanley (Tucci) signed on pretty quickly. Then Michael (Keaton) signed on pretty quickly. Then once we had all those guys, Rachel (McAdams) jumped on. It sort of snowballed, but definitely it took us a little while until Mark signed onboard. It’s definitely nerve-wracking I would say. Moreover, here’s the other thing: these performances aren’t your typical flashy performances. For my money, I think any one of our actors, I would hold them up against any other performance this year. I think every one of our actors was wonderful. The performances are restrained as opposed to loud. I think Michael’s performance is as good, if not better than his performance in Birdman, and in some ways is harder to do.

What grabbed you most about this story personally?

Beyond just the journalism and sort of being infatuated with journalism when I was presented the thumbnail sketch of what this was, the second thing that I found very interesting was this notion of complicity and deference. To me, one of the things that was clear pretty early on was that we know that this has been going on for a long time, and a lot of people involved knew a little bit. In fact, I sat down with a good friend of mine, a guy I respect, a writer who grew up in Dorchester. I said, ‘I’m thinking about this new movie,’ and he’s like, ‘that’s not a story. Everybody knew about it.’ I sort of walked away from that conversation and I was like, ‘exactly. That’s what’s interesting.’