The Toughest Scene I Wrote: Introducing a Key Character in Spotlight


Vulture is speaking to the screenwriters behind 2015's most acclaimed movies about the scenes they found most difficult to crack. Our first post of this season takes a look at Best Picture front-runner Spotlight. As screenwriter Josh Singer describes below, it was an early scene, featuring the introduction of a new character and the different perspective that he brings to the Boston Globe, that Singer and co-screenwriter/director Tom McCarthy found most challenging.

Before the real Marty Baron started at the Boston Globe in July 2001, he sat down with a number of the leaders at the paper. One of these sit-downs was with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton in the film), the head of the Spotlight team. According to Marty (Liev Schreiber), when he sat down with Robby, he had no idea what the Spotlight team was. And, having never spent much time in Boston, all he knew about the town was what he’d managed to read in books (and the Globe) in the three weeks prior. Robby, on the other hand, had gone to BC High and Northeastern, and worked for the Globe for over 20 years. Classic outsider versus insider, rife with tension and possibility. The scene should write itself, right? Wrong.

This was the last scene we shot, and we were writing up until we handed it over to Liev. It’s not an overstatement to say that we worked on this scene for three years. We wrote it. And wrote it again. We put it down, picked it back up. Thought we were done. We weren’t. Introducing a character is always hard, especially when you’re trying to also get across a lot of exposition.

True, there’s a lot of information in the movie, but there were some very specific things we wanted to establish about the state of the newspaper industry. Context that’s hard to put into an actor’s mouth without making him or her sound like an expositional tool. We were struggling with Marty’s line involving the internet cutting into the classified business right up to the very last night of the very last day. It was a pretty wonky line, but one that was important to establish the looming seismic shift on the horizon of the news business:

It's funny — in a fit of pique, one of us said that working on the line made him want to beat his brains out. Suddenly, we heard Liev say behind us: “That’s how I feel every single day.” I guess the silver lining here is, well, maybe that’s how writing is supposed to feel.