The Oscar-winning director of ‘Spotlight’ is still a believer in journalism

photo illustration by ryan huddle/globe staff; photo by Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Journalism has figured prominently in Tom McCarthy’s career.

On the final season of “The Wire,” HBO’s excellent series about crime and cops in Baltimore, McCarthy played a young reporter whose ambition leads him to invent stories — fake news, you might say. Later, as the co-screenwriter and director of “Spotlight,” McCarthy deftly tackled truth in the Oscar-winning film about the Boston Globe series that uncovered sexual abuse by clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. (In between, McCarthy wrote and directed several very fine features, including “The Station Agent,” which won him the BAFTA for best original screenplay.)

Next week, McCarthy will be honored at the Nantucket Film Festival with the 2017 Screenwriters Tribute Award, an honor previously given to the likes of Nancy Meyers, Oliver Stone, David O. Russell, Paul Haggis, and Aaron Sorkin. (The film festival runs June 21-26.) The other day, we called McCarthy and talked with him about journalism and his own writing process.


Q. I watched “Spotlight” again the other night. It still holds up.

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A. [Laughs] Good to know it hasn’t aged in one year.

Q. Before we talk about Nantucket, let’s talk about journalism. Since “Spotlight,” the profession has been thrust to the fore again. Do you think there’s a compelling movie to be made about journalism in the age of Donald Trump?

A. Based on a conversation I had with two producers at lunch an hour ago, I’d say yes. Look, everyone is looking around and asking who can we rely on right now. Any logical person who’s concerned with facts would say journalists, because that’s all we have right now. They’re the north star. We need more high-level journalism and investigative journalism because there’s a lot to be done. There’s certainly a resurgence. I was having lunch with [former Boston Globe editor] Marty Baron not long ago, and he said he’d hired 12 or 16 more investigative reporters, so papers are hiring, which is encouraging. They’re like the astronauts or firemen of our day.

Q. I see you haven’t lost your enthusiasm for journalism.


A. I’ve been on this track for a while. There’s a lot of citizen journalism going on, a lot of people who’re breaking bits and pieces of stories, in some cases quite widely, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them journalists. It’s an interesting time and topic. You’re seeing journalists catapulted to the front of the story because we have a combative president and his minions who seem determined to delegitimize the media and, in some sense, our democracy in doing so.

Q. Let’s talk about the film festival. Have you spent any time on Nantucket?

A. Weirdly, I vacationed there last summer with my family. There were 24 of us over two weeks and we had an impromptu reunion. I’ve been to the festival before. I was there when [screenwriters] Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor were being honored. It was very lovely.

Q. It’s the screenwriting award you’re receiving, but you’re a triple threat: You’ve done some acting, you won the Oscar for co-writing [with Josh Singer] “Spotlight” and, of course, you’re a director. Do you consider yourself one or the other of those things first?

A. I started as an actor so it’s sort of been my dateline in the industry. But it’s always been under the umbrella of storytelling. I’ve been doing less acting for practical reasons, and I miss it and keep trying to do it, but it keeps falling through for scheduling reasons. In terms of writing, acting and character do help me understand story arc and dialogue.


Q. Tell me about your process of writing. Some people struggle. Is it something you approach with dread or is it easy?

A. Easy? No. [Laughs] Is it easy for you?

Q. No. But the last time I went to Nantucket for the festival, Aaron Sorkin was being honored, and it seems like the words just spill out of him. You’re not that guy, I guess.

A. I’m not, but Sorkin is an anomaly in a lot of ways. He’s certainly intelligent and he writes at a ferocious pace. You can write fast and write a lot, but you still have to get it right, and that’s where it gets hard. In writing scenes and dialogue, really getting it right is so tricky. It’s deep, hard work. I’m a big believer in craft and for me craft means time and persistence, not just inspiration. It’s an endurance game. When people ask me how I choose material, it has to be something that excites me because I know I’ll be with it and I know I’ll have to go back and back again because, yes, my process is slow. It just takes time for ideas. In some ways, I don’t rush it because texture and layers come with time. Patience is another word, and I think too often in Hollywood or in the news industry, it’s all about getting the story out fast and first. That’s ridiculous. Let’s do it right. Let’s take our time so we get the better, fuller story. Usually, I think, that wins the day. With time and age now, I’m learning patience and trust in the process, and I understand the value that comes from it.

Q. Do you have influences in terms of screenwriters or the scripts you admire?

A. Good question. My wife asked me the other day, out of the blue, what my favorite movie of all time is. It was so bizarre. I really don’t have one. It depends on the mood I’m in. For movies, it’s where my mind is at that time, or what I look at and say, “Wow, that’s inspiring or informative.” Not to be evasive or political, but I think it really depends on what I’m leaning into at that moment. I’ve been watching a lot of what Spielberg did early in his career, and how he played with tone and style and iconic images. I’m really appreciating the run that guy’s had cinematically, the stellar craftsmanship and consistency and how holistic his style was.

Q. Can you tell me how your life, professionally, has changed since winning the Academy Award?

A. My brother-in-law asked me that a few weeks after the Oscars, and I said, “I don’t know, we’ll find out.” Here we are a year out, and it’s still tough to gauge. My instinct is to get back to work. Because of the impact of the movie, people became a little bit more aware of me, I guess. Because of the Oscar, people are ready to say, “You obviously know what you’re doing,” and I’m like, “No, I don’t.” And it’s hard discerning what the best use of my time is because I’m not someone who’s a wonderful multi-tasker. I usually get really involved in projects I believe in.

Q. So? What is the best use of your time at the moment? Is there something we can shamelessly hype?

A. [Laughs] I usually don’t hype anything until I’m done with it. I’ve found that works better for me. But, yes, I have a number of projects in development. Two things I’m working on right now are a film for Walt Disney — it’s actually, for lack of a better term, a family movie made from a kid’s book called “Timmy Failure.” That’s something I’ve been developing for a while. Another project is a series called “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” based on the work of a reporter at New York Magazine named Gabriel Sherman dealing with Roger Ailes and his legacy at Fox News. It’s pretty interesting. The two projects couldn’t be any more different, but that’s kind of how I like it.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Mark Shanahan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan