It’s one of the biggest breaking scandals in the history of civilized society. But the real question is, can I stay civilized when breaking down this screenplay?
Genre: Drama/True Story
Premise: The story of how a group of reporters at the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic Church pedophile scandal.
About: Can the man who directed “The Cobbler” direct an Oscar-winning film? That’s the question of the day since Tom McCarthy co-wrote and directed “Spotlight” after the Adam Sandler Netflix classic. Josh Singer co-wrote the film with McCarthy. Singer’s resume includes stints on The West Wing and Fringe, with his lone feature credit being about international narcissist Julian Assange. Spotlight is peppered with a cast that makes my man-panties drop. Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liv Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Billy Crudup, Stanley Tucci. I just want to lick those names, they look so yummy. You can lick them too, on November 6th.
Writers: Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy
Details: June 5th, 2013 draft (132 pages)
I suppose it’s appropriate that we’re warming up for Oscar season since it was freaking 99 DEGREES OUT TODAY. Dammit-to-Tinley-Park. Holy hell. I’ve seen cooler days inside of a Chicago pizza oven.
Despite the heat, I’m always lukewarm this time of year. Because let’s be honest. Half the Oscar wannabes believe the key to getting nominated is to put a bunch of serious-looking men in rooms talking about serious things.
They forget that the number 1 ingredient to a good movie is to ENTERTAIN. I’m reminded of Zero Dark Thirty a couple of years back. It was the prototypical, “Serious-looking men in rooms talking about serious things” film. I’m not sure anybody working on that film ever asked, “Hey, do you think people are going to enjoy this?”
And Spotlight is the prototype for “Serious men talking about serious things” films. I ain’t hatin on you, Spotlight. But dude. You gonna need to add some color to your wardrobe if you want audiences to let you into their apartment.
Whether you have a noble message or not, nobody cares unless they’re entertained. Let’s see how well Spotlight achieves this.
Spotlight’s fifteen thousand protagonists are led by two in particular, Mike and Robby. The two worked for the Boston Globe back in 2001, and start investigating a rumor that there are pedophile priests in the Catholic Church.
Their research is encouraged by the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron, a Jewish man who just took over the job from a stalwart Catholic.
Mike and Robby are joined by many other journalists including Matty and Sacha and Ben. Our only hope of remembering who’s who lies in the fact that Sacha is a woman. That leaves us with a fighting chance to distinguish the remaining four.
Through his research, Mike finds out a local lawyer used to help the church settle a lot of pedophilia matters behind closed doors – as in, the state wasn’t even involved. This was the first sign to Mike that something big was up.
After putting out some feelers, Mike learns that priests raping children isn’t the only part of this scandal. It turns out the head of the Catholic Church KNEW this was going on, and actively created a system to deal with these matters, which amounted to sending the offending priests to other churches, where they would just abuse more boys.
Mike’s main challenge is to find the public record that will ‘smoking gun’ this story. Because if it’s just a bunch of conjecture, the church will say it’s a lie and the nation will believe them. You have to remember, they have the man who created the universe on their side. That’s pretty persuasive.
Somehow, Mike finds out about a lone public record file that confirms everything. The question is, can he get it before the church finds it first? Because if he doesn’t, the story is dead and gone forever.
While reading Spotlight, I found myself asking a very specific question: “Can a great story survive bad writing?” Because this scandal is, without question, a great story. You have a gigantic institution covering up a huge scandal. You have hypocrisy on the highest level. You have thousands of child victims. This kind of story writes itself.
Unless, that is, the writing is so bad that the amazing story gets buried. And that’s what happened here. I don’t even know where to begin. I guess we’ll start with the character count.
There were probably 60 characters introduced in this script. That’s 1 every 2 pages. This made it impossible to keep track of what was going on. Our characters would be flabbergasted on page 60 by the actions of a character that hadn’t been mentioned since page 15. Every time a name came up, you were saying, “Wait, who is that again?”
And I get that this isn’t a problem onscreen when you can see faces. But the laziness in which characters were introduced here was so bad, it felt like they weren’t even trying. Robby, for example, is introduced in a bland setting with the description: He’s a “Boston everyman.” WTF DOES THAT MEAN? How does that tell me ANYTHING about who he is?? I didn’t even know he was a reporter until I saw him working at the Globe 20 pages later.
Mike was introduced the same way. His big introductory scene is walking into a slummy apartment. What is this supposed to mean, exactly?? What does this tell me about Mike?? I didn’t know if Mike was an out-of-towner who just moved into this apartment, if he’d been kicked out of his house by his wife and had to stay here in the meantime. I didn’t know what he did for a living.
That’s what really bothered me. When you write characters, good writers know that the first thing you do – ESPECIALLY in a script with a ton of characters where it’s easy for the reader to get lost – is to introduce that character in a setting that tells us WHO THEY ARE. Look at how Jules and Vincent are introduced in Pulp Fiction. You know exactly what those characters do and who they are after that first scene.
There wasn’t even the tiniest attempt to clue us into who these people were when we met them. This forced me to make educated guesses throughout and only later put the pieces together on who this person was in relation to the story, well after key plot points regarding that character were mentioned, forcing me to mentally rewind and try to remember what those plot points were, now that I knew they were relevant.
Ironically, introducing any characters here was pointless. Because there are no characters in Spotlight. Oh sure, there are people who are pulling us through the story, but there are no CHARACTERS. Spotlight is one big investigation where we don’t know the difference between ANYONE.
I couldn’t mention one quality that was different between Mike and Robby. They were the same person – two reporters investigating a story. This extended to all the characters throughout Spotlight. They were all bland automatons trying to get a story for the Globe.
Why is this a big deal? Well, one, we don’t care about people we don’t know anything about. But the thing with character is, the more you know about a person, the more you can use that to connect plot and character.
For example, why don’t we have a single reporter here who is a diehard member of the Catholic Church??? That would’ve made them infinitely more interesting. Of course a character with no connection to the church is going to go after it. But if a reporter had, for example, an extremely religious wife? If their family went to church every Sunday? That person is going to be much more conflicted when it comes to investigating this story. That’s how you connect character and plot. But no attempts like that were ever made here.
And believe me, they had plenty of opportunities. The new editor of the Globe is Jewish. That was ripe for all sorts of conflict. Do the hardcore Catholics point to this editor as having an agenda? Do they pin all these accusations on that agenda? Does that begin to test the investigation? Does the editor start to back off as a result?
No. We don’t get anything like that. In fact, there is so little conflict in a story that might be the most conflict-filled of the past 20 years, you wonder if McCarthy even knows what conflict is.
There’s not even a real villain here. There’s this guy Cardinal Law, who’s mentioned a lot and who we see briefly a few times. But it’s always from afar. This guy could’ve infused this story with a shot of heroin if he started pressuring the paper to back off. We get none of that!
Why didn’t someone from the paper have a child who went to church? Who was directly in the line of fire. It’s as if the church and the paper lived on two completely different planets. Which was SO the wrong approach to take here. Connect your damn stories. Create more complexity between your elements. Why is this investigation so easy for everyone doing it???????
I don’t know how this movie’s going to play out at the box office. The real life story it’s based on is so good that I’m sure people will want to see it. I just think you’re going to have audiences leaving this film and feeling empty, not because it isn’t delivering an important message, but because after you leave the theater, you’ll realize you never knew a single character in the film.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Find something everybody hates, then give us the worst version of that for your antagonist. You know something everyone hates? Bullies. “Spotlight” puts the spotlight on the biggest bully you can imagine, the Catholic Church – an institution that allows its employees to rape your children and then cover it up. No matter which way you look at it, that’s going to get people riled up and wanting to see that antagonist go down. And beyond making your hero succeed, that’s the other side of the equation you want to get right – making sure the audience wants to see your antagonist go down.