Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Rezendes visited Stony Brook University Tuesday night to talk about the story behind the Academy Award-winning movie, “Spotlight.”
The film, starring Mark Ruffalo as Rezendes, follows the team of reporters from The Boston Globe who worked to uncover child sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church and the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic clergy of Boston.
“I’d like to say, to all the people who think journalism is a dying business, watch this movie and take that!” Rezendes said with a smile to the crowd of nearly 300 gathered in the Sidney Gelber Auditorium.
After praising the film for its accuracy, Rezendes went on to explain that before the story became a blockbuster Hollywood production, it was only four hardworking reporters trying to uncover the truth.
The Globe’s editor at the time, Marty Baron, got the idea for the story after reading a column journalist Eileen McNamara wrote for the Globe on a series of lawsuits filed by the victims of John Geoghan, a priest in the Archdiocese of Boston.
“Marty Baron believed that it’s the job of a journalist to find the truth, and to communicate that truth to readers,” Rezendes said.
Sophomore journalism major Jasmin Suknanan said Rezendes’ talk inspired her but left her with no illusions about the work.
“We understand that we have a duty to report on the best available version of the truth, yet there are sometimes people who stand in our way of that — unknowingly or not,” she said. “That means we have to work harder to uncover facts”
One of Rezendes’ key responsibilities in the Globe’s investigation was speaking with Mitch Garabedian, the attorney for a few of the abuse survivors.
“I needed to win the guy’s trust,” Rezendes said. “I knew that he knew a lot about the Archdiocese. He had been battling alone against the Church for many years and I needed to find out what he knew.”
Rezendes sought to gain Garabedian’s trust by speaking with his clients. Once Garabedian saw that Rezendes was serious, he helped him gain access to court documents that were previously seen as unattainable. What happened after that is history.
“These stories were based on the Church’s own internal records,” Rezendes said. “And that made the stories bulletproof.”
Shortly after it broke, the story began to spread like wildfire.
“Back then there was no social media … but people were using the Internet,” Rezendes said. “People could read our stories and then go to the actual documents we were describing and see that we were recording the truth… I think that had a profound impact on our readers and also it allowed the story to go viral.”
Although the story was able to quickly grab international attention, the transition from real life to blockbuster film didn’t happen overnight.
“Years went by, nothing happened and we weren’t surprised because we never thought it would be a movie,” Rezendes said.
Even before a screenplay came into the works, novelist David Mizner wrote a narrative of the Spotlight team’s story for a case study at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
“[Mizner] said to me, ‘This would make a great movie,’ and I said, ‘You’re crazy. All the big moments come when I’m sitting at my desk reading documents!’ ” Rezendes said.
Despite his initial reaction, he and his fellow reporters agreed to give the rights to their story to two young producers, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust.
Several more years went by before anyone picked up the film. Eventually a screenplay was written, but the project remained stagnant for a while longer until Mark Ruffalo stumbled upon it and finally got the ball rolling.
In the end, the film company Participant Media took what was once just a promising idea and turned it into a reality. Rezendes noted that the cast and crew worked very closely alongside him and his colleagues.
“They wanted our input all along the way,” he said.
The attention to accuracy and detail payed off in the end, because after seeing the first draft of the film, Rezendes and his colleagues were stunned into silence.
“It was such an emotional experience to see ourselves portrayed on screen,” he said. “This was a very tough time in our lives, and the work was very grueling. We didn’t really want to go all the way back, but this took us all the way back.”
While the Spotlight team loved the movie, Rezendes said, the best part was the response from the abuse survivors.
“The survivors are people who were ignored for decades by the Church and felt ashamed of their experiences,” he said. “Our work liberated tens of thousands of survivors… and the movie just amplified that.”
Rezendes said he was happy that the film was able to prompt victims of sexual abuse to speak up, but he mentioned another group he hoped would draw inspiration from “Spotlight”: young journalists.
“These are troubling times. I can’t guarantee that you’ll make much of a living if you go into journalism right now,” Rezendes said. “But what I can guarantee you is if you take up the cause of investigative reporting, you may find yourself leading a life of meaning and purpose. And I think that’s worth a lot.”