Spotlight is undoubtedly a frontrunner in the Best Picture race, but when Tom McCarthy was first approached to direct, he turned it down. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it,” he says. The procedural exploring the expose of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church by reporters at The Boston Globe has so far garnered a slew of noms and awards, among them the Critics Choice for Best Picture. With rave reviews, a star-heavy ensemble cast and a ‘based on a true story’ premise, it surely has much Oscar potential too. But a film following a bunch of print journalists making calls and trawling through piles of paperwork could easily have fallen very flat. So how did McCarthy work this magic? Once he joined Josh Singer as co-writer, the pair of them hit the road as quasi-reporters, digging up every piece of the story they could find. McCarthy explains how it all came together.

After you turned down Spotlight, what made you change your mind?

It was brought to me by Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, two of the producers, and then they approached me again about a year later, after they had teamed with Michael Sugar and Steve Golin at Anonymous, and I think they had kind of refined their idea a little bit on it, and what they pitched me was loosely how they thought the movie would open, or at least how the story started, I should say, not the movie, because the movie opened very differently from what they pitched. This idea of Marty Baron arriving at The Boston Globe–there was just something really interesting and compelling about this outsider arriving in Boston, taking over this city newspaper in a very Irish Catholic city, and asking some very straightforward but tough questions about the Catholic Church. I was immediately like, ‘yeah, that’s interesting.’

This is your first film based on real-life events–how did you and your co-writer Josh Singer tackle the research and writing process? It seems an intimidating task.

As I said, I passed the first time! That’s probably some indication of how intimidating it was. But I think, as always, with any big assignment, once you get over that initial shock and awe of how much material there was to cover, you start digging into the material and become really fascinated by and engaged with it, and we did. And yeah, it was a lot of work, but it was exciting work. It was really interesting work, parsing through details of not just the investigation, but its findings, and trying to determine what was most helpful in telling our story. I think having two brains on it was somewhat helpful too, because we could talk through it a lot. So it wasn’t just sitting alone in a room and jotting notes. We were dialoguing a lot about it. That particular collaboration did feel investigative and on some level, seemed to parallel some of the collaboration of the reporters in that investigation. So, I think there was something about our collaboration that made that initial process more palatable on some level.

“It’s no secret that Mark’s quite an activist, and specifically for social causes, social justice. I think he saw in this movie a great injustice and ultimately a great justice,” McCarthy says of Mark Ruffalo, pictured with Michael Keaton in Spotlight

The process of reporting isn’t always exciting to look at, but the pared-down visual style of the film lets the story stand out–did you always have a sort of strong sense of how you wanted the film to look?

Not always, it started to develop through the writing and it really wasn’t until I started collaborating with my cinematographer, Masanobu Takayanagi, that I started to get a really clear idea on how I wanted it to look. A lot of times I’ll resist the temptation to visually define a movie until, one, I really understand just what the movie’s about, and two, until I start talking to my cinematographer. Even when Masa came on, it wasn’t until we had talked through the movie a couple of times that we really started to talk style and tone. But ultimately, I think all of it, including every element of this production, was, in hindsight, driven by the vision that I probably did have from the beginning, which was authenticity, both in terms of the telling, in terms of the fact and spirit of the film, and the visual style and production design style. We were trying to set up a certain palate for this film that felt like people were observing these events.

You were raised Catholic, did you have personal feelings that made this even more challenging for you to take on?

It certainly made me sensitive to it, and maybe a bit more empathetic to the subject matter, and understanding that we were ultimately making a movie on many levels that deals with faith. I think when you’re dealing with faith, you want to be as responsible and sensitive to the material as you can. It also gave me some understanding of the power of the Catholic faith and the power it has over people and the power it possesses. I never felt burdened by that, but I did feel responsibility in how I dealt with it.

In The Wire you played the notoriously unscrupulous journalist Jack Templeton. Did that association raise eyebrows when you walked into The Boston Globe office?

I mean, when I walk into anywhere, I’m sure there are raised eyebrows, but yeah, people would always see me and I would see the murmurs start, ‘there’s Scott Templeton.’  You know, David did such a great job of capturing a newsroom in that particular season of the show that I know just about every person I’ve ever met is aware of it, and subsequently they’re aware of me as the questionable reporter, so yeah I definitely had a few comments when I arrived there, but people didn’t put it together that I was actually the guy directing Spotlight for a while.

Mark Ruffalo was the first cast member to sign on. What were those early conversations like and what do you think grabbed him about the project?

He’s an actor first and I think he just responded to the script. I know he wanted to work with me and I think he responded to the character. I think as an actor, that’s what you’re looking at. As a human being, it’s no secret that Mark’s quite an activist, and specifically for social causes, social justice. I think he saw in this movie a great injustice and ultimately a great justice, and he saw the opportunity to tell a story where justice was served in some regard, although there’s still work to be done, I think everyone agrees. I think he responded to that message and the audacity of the film to tell this story about this group, this team of reporters, taking on one of the most iconic institutions in the world–the Catholic Church–and I think he appreciated that.

You’ve previously said you learn something from every movie you make. What’s been your takeaway from Spotlight?

I think it’s maybe the greater theme in this one–accountability and the personal responsibility that we all can take on every issue. We all can ask the question, ‘what’s my part in this? What’s my part in the problem and what’s my part in the solution?’ I think, you know, at first blush, Spotlight is a movie about journalists going after the Catholic Church and getting the truth, and I think that’s very true. Ultimately the journalists are the heroes here. But I think there’s a larger theme here about accountability and transparency and all of our parts as civilians in finding solutions, and I think there’s something that’s really noble in that. There’s nothing divisive in that. I think that’s a really powerful and exciting idea.