Before Michael Rezendes won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism, he was a Screenwriting alumnus of the AFI Conservatory (Class of 1999). Played by Mark Ruffalo in the Oscar®-nominated SPOTLIGHT, he’s one of a group of Boston Globe reporters who, in 2002, exposed a shattering clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Known collectively as the Spotlight team, they won a Pulitzer Prize for their work. Now, nearly 15 years later, the story has gained international attention once again with the film directed by Tom McCarthy and written by Josh Singer.
AFI spoke with Rezendes about his AFI Conservatory experience, and the making of SPOTLIGHT.
You graduated from AFI Conservatory in 1999, not long before the Spotlight story that inspired the film broke in 2002. How did you transition out of screenwriting and into journalism?
I was on a leave of absence from The Boston Globe while I was at AFI. There was a job waiting for me at the Globe if I wanted it, which was terrific. After receiving an award for the best script written by an AFI Fellow, for $10,000, I was quite enthusiastic about pursuing screenwriting. I went back to the Globe to regroup financially before returning to Los Angeles, when Ben Bradlee, Jr. and Walter Robinson asked me if I wanted to work for the Spotlight team. I thought to myself, if you put me and Ben Bradlee, Jr., and Walter Robinson in the same bottle, something big is going to happen. It was one of the few times in my life when I had a premonition. Sure enough, a year later I was writing that story.
What attracted you to screenwriting?
I originally intended to be a novelist. I was an English major at Boston University. I always had artistic aspirations that were unfulfilled. I thought screenwriting would be a way to fulfill those aspirations. Cinema has replaced the novel as the preeminent narrative form of art right now, so I decided I’d try screenwriting as opposed to trying to write another novel.
How involved were you in the making of SPOTLIGHT?
All of us on the Spotlight team worked very closely with the filmmakers. Tom [McCarthy] and Josh [Singer] interviewed all of us multiple times over a period of many months. They interviewed some of the principals and attorneys who were involved, and effectively investigated our investigation. I was very impressed with the thoroughness of their work. They let us see an early draft of the script. We went over it with them line by line. Walter Robinson and I sat in a room with Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy for 11 hours here at the Globe. It’s a better screenplay and a better movie because they were willing to keep us so closely involved.
Do you feel that the film has helped spread awareness? Have we made strides as a society around this issue?
The film is coming out at a critical time. Progress has been made because of the stories we published in 2002 but that progress has gotten bogged down, especially at the Vatican. It seems that the issue has become a political football. There are factions in the Vatican fighting over it, and the pope appears to be sitting on the sidelines. The pope established a commission within the Vatican to study the issue of clergy sexual abuse and come up with new policies to prevent it (the commission is chaired by the new cardinal archbishop in Boston, Seán Patrick O’Malley) and people took that as a positive sign.
But the work of the commission has proceeded slowly and it’s now apparent that there are other factions within the Vatican seeking to undermine its work. The fact that the movie is getting so much attention now is terrific because it’s putting pressure on the Vatican to finally come to grips with this issue and take action. If the movie wins an Academy Award® — particularly Best Picture — it will have an even greater effect. There’s something profoundly real at stake here — which is the safety of Catholic children all over the world.
SPOTLIGHT is about a serious subject, and yet audiences — and the Academy — have warmly embraced the film. What do you make of this success?
Movies are works of art, or they are entertainment or both. I found SPOTLIGHT to be a very entertaining movie, and that’s the genius of it. It doesn’t hit you over the head with the issue of clergy sex abuse. It’s really a thriller that follows the journalists uncovering a conspiracy. It’s also a reflection of the genius of these actors who have conveyed those five months with an incredible amount of power. For a movie without car chases it has a tremendous sense of momentum.
As a longtime resident of Boston, what’s been the reaction to the film within your community?
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been 15 years since we published our stories and a lot of people who perhaps didn’t appreciate the work then do now. The movie has given our work a second life and has really generated a positive response. I have some friends who are Catholics who became a bit distant when we published our work. But now that the movie has come out, the response has been positive. One friend of mine wrote me a letter saying he appreciated the work and thinks that the Church will be stronger because of it.