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'Spotlight' Producers Nicole Rocklin and Jonathan King on How a Local Story Can Make a Global Impact

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Sometimes it's the local news stories that carry the most weight.

The movie "Spotlight" portrays an investigative reporting team in Boston who dug up the secrets of their local Catholic archdiocese. The efforts of the Boston Globe's "Spotlight" crew didn't just shake up the church in Boston, it triggered a domino effect that hit cities across the globe as the public learned about widespread child molestation and rape accusations against priests and church efforts to cover up the crimes.

Directed by Tom McCarthy ("Win Win," "The Visitor") -- and with a star-studded ensemble cast that includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams -- "Spotlight" has already made a splash on the festival circuit.

While the newsroom drama won't hit theaters until early November, KCET subscribers had the chance to attend a screening at Sherman Oak's Arclight Theater on October 20 for the launch of KCET Cinema Series' winter series. Sponsored by the E. Hofert Dailey Trust and the James and Paula Coburn Foundation, this edition of the film series features eight weeks of new films, plus a classic James Coburn film, that include Q/A sessions moderated by Deadline reporter Pete Hammond.

For the screening of "Spotlight," Hammond was joined by producer Nicole Rocklin and executive producer Jonathan King, who discussed the insularity of Boston and the themes of journalism and power.

The following is a condensed and edited version of their conversation.

 

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On what drew the producers to the subject matter

Nicole Rocklin: My partner, Blye Faust and I had another project with a guy named David, and in conversations with him about our other project, he mentioned this story to us. That was the initial stages of it. We knew right away that this could be incredible and we flew out to Boston and met with all the journalists and spent time with them and ended up getting rights to the story.

" I think that's what drew us to the story: the abuse of power.

On convincing real people to support a movie about their work

Nicole Rocklin: I think if you're honest with them, which is what we were, you tell them that the likelihood of it getting made is slim-to-none and you bring their expectations down and you tell them that we're not going to turn them, if it's a gentleman, you're not going to turn them into a woman. You know, you're really there to protect their image. It wasn't hard. Initially, they were looking at me and were looking for someone older, because we had the rights eight years ago.

At the time I was 28. I'm 36 now. When you look young and you're sitting down with Martin Baron, executive editor of the Boston Globe, who is now the executive editor of Washington Post, once you start talking to them and they know that you're intentions are good and that you want to honor them, which is what we set out to do from day one was to honor them, it honestly wasn't that hard.

On Participant Media's interest in the film

Jonathan King: We make narrative feature films like this and documentary films that are, in some way grappling with contemporary social issues and we try to get our audience engaged in issues that are affecting us in the world today and then become active in those issues. Jeff Skoll who is the founder of our company and our chairman and funds the company, he believes, and says it again and again, that a story well-told can change the world. So, we believe that about movies, and then finding a movie that also has that as its subject matter, that this group of people told a story, they told it so well, that it did, in fact, change the world. It sort of proves our thesis in a way to find a movie about that, about something that was important then, is still important now, started small, started as a very local story, but then became national and then international and still is resonating around the world. It was sort of, for us, the Holy Grail.

On filming in Boston

Jonathan King: As the movie shows, and we all know, Boston is a very tight-knit, insular city and somewhat suspicious of outsiders. So, even though a lot of us had a lot of experience in Boston, everyone was still a little wary. What are these guys doing? What is the story they're telling? And once they understood what our approach was, that we wanted to be fair and complete in the story we were telling, we got a lot of really good support, I think, from the city of Boston, certainly from the Globe and from the other institutions. Like I said, we didn't ask a lot from the church. They were aware we were there and you can't walk through Boston without being aware that the church is everywhere, but it was fine.

 

Pete Hammond interviews 'Spotlight' producers Nicole Rocklin and Jonathan King at Sherman Oaks' ArcLight Theater for KCET Cinema Series. | Photo: Liz Ohanesian

 

On the themes of the film

Jonathan King: For me, it's always sort of been about collective responsibility.

I mean, we're people who are able to go out to a movie screening on a weeknight in a nice movie theater and appear at a screening series. We're people with power in society, but I think we have a duty to look out for people who do not have power and, what this movie, to me, has always been about is powerful institutions, not just the church, but the legal community, the Globe itself, the police, everybody sort of ignoring their obligation in society, our obligation in society, to protect people without power, which, in this case, was the kids.

On casting

Nicole Rocklin: We started talking about Michael before we had even seen Birdman. I think we, Anonymous Content, our partners, actually happen to manage him as well. Michael Keaton is obviously such a fantastic actor that we would be so lucky to have him playing Robby. Initially, he seemed like such a natural fit, if we could get him. At the time, he was so busy.

I think once Ruffalo, once Mark, if you know Mike Rezendes, who he plays, all those little, like the twitching, those are the little things Mike does. He has the whole twitches down and Sacha Pfieffer, who Rachel McAdams plays, she jokes, Rachel was joking that she studied her gait and followed her around. The real reporters actually spent a lot of time on set and they'd become a second family to us.

Jonathan King: Putting together an ensemble like this is a really difficult. A lot of movies get made when one movie star signs up, when Tom Hanks signs up or Will Smith signs up, Jennifer Lawrence signs up. With movies like this, it's scheduling, clearing all the schedules, and it becomes really hard. Ruffalo signed up first and he cleared space between two big franchises-- he was finishing shooting "The Avengers" and he was supposed to go to "Now You See Me 2." He cleared about eight weeks, literally walled it off, and said to his agents and managers, I'm doing this movie, I'm doing Spotlight in this time and you need to make those other movies clear out, move, basically. He is so passionate and so committed, he's the kind of actor that other actors love working with, so when you start there, all of a sudden, Michael Keaton who, like Nicole said, we had been pursuing, said I want in. Then you've got Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton and you've got your dates, everyone, they have a little bit of, people like Rachel and Liev, they have a little bit of power to move their own schedules around to clear out those eight weeks around it. At some point, you have to decide and say, this is when we're going. Mark was the one who would not let us wait for him.

On the importance of local journalism

Jonathan King: Part of the reason that I was attracted to this story as a person and for our company is that we believe in the virtues of supporting journalists to reveal stories, to hold all powerful institutions as accountable and, us, as a society, accountable for what's happening in the world. Often, they do start small. They start local. This was a local story that became big. I wish Marty Baron were here. No one talks more eloquently about this than the real life Marty Baron about the importance of supporting local journalists who are investigating the life of cities because the world is made up of a collection of cities and investigating the life of a city will reveal the life of the world.


Stay tuned for next week's edition of Cinema Series, featuring "Brooklyn" with a Q&A with director John Crowley and actor Saoirse Ronan.

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