The Importance of Getting it Right
by: John Stanton
Tom McCarthy is no stranger to awards. The 51-year-old actor, writer and director has appeared in two films nominated for a best-picture Oscar: “Michael Clayton” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Three actors in films he directed were nominated for best actor, or best supporting actor, Oscars: Richard Jenkins (“The Visitor”), Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (“Spotlight”). And he walked away from the 2016 Academy Awards with Oscars for both best picture and best original screenplay for “Spotlight.”
He will be at the 22nd Nantucket Film Festival to accept its screenwriter’s tribute.
“I’ll take Nantucket over Hollywood any day of the week,” he said. “You know what they say: location, location, location. I was at that festival a couple of years in the past. I was there when David O. Russell was honored. It’s just a wonderful festival. I like what it’s about and the focus on writers.”
McCarthy is perhaps best known as an actor for his recurring role in the HBO series “The Wire,” where he played a Baltimore Sun reporter of dubious ethics.
“I really enjoyed acting and still do,” he said. “But ‘The Station Agent’ really changed everything for me. It was really not so much a decision as the evolution of a career. I really enjoy the process of writing and directing a film.”
In “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” and even in “Spotlight,” McCarthy creates characters walking a path through the scorns of every day life in search of a small but meaningful moment of grace. In the end of his films nothing changes but everything changes.
“The Station Agent” (2003) began as an attempt to see if he could write a movie script. McCarthy had just gotten out of Yale drama school. Graduate school had introduced him to a lot of European, Japanese and Latin American movies, he said.
“It started as an exercise in writing. Then it got to where I could really see it as a movie. But I didn’t know it would launch a whole career for me. That wasn’t my ambition. My ambition then was to be an actor and even that seemed a reach at the time,” he said.
“The Station Agent” stars Peter Dinklage – perhaps better known as Tyrion Lannister in the HBO series “Game of Thrones” – as a man obsessed with trains, who works in a model-train store, and who finds himself living in a beautifully worn-down old railroad station.
Bobby Cannavale and Patricia Clarkson round out an unlikely trio – a dwarf, the proprietor of a food truck who talks non-stop, and a woman leaving a bad marriage – feeling their way through the emotional fog that can sometimes mute life. Somehow the film is filled with funny moments.
“The initial thing was seeing that depot and riffing off that and thinking about it and researching what depots meant to small towns around the country,” McCarthy said.
In a New York Times review, Elvis Mitchell said McCarthy, “has such an appreciation for quiet that it occupies the same space as a character in this film, a delicate, thoughtful and often hilarious take on loneliness.”
The main character in McCarthy’s 2007 film “The Visitor” sleepwalks through his life. Richard Jenkins plays an economist, a widower and professor at Connecticut College, named Walter. On his way to deliver a paper at a conference in New York, he stops by an apartment he hardly ever uses only to find out it has been sublet to a couple: a Syrian man and a Senegalese woman, Tarek a drummer and Zainab a maker of jewelry she sells at flea markets. The couple are played by Haaz Sleiman and Danai Gurira.
Tarek, in the county illegally, eventually ends up in a detention center. A.O. Scott, writing in The New York Times, acknowledged that in the hands of another director, the film’s set-up might have led to a maudlin, unsurprising take on post9/11 immigration policies.
“Indeed, it’s nearly impossible to imagine it any other way,” Scott wrote. “And yet, astonishingly enough, Mr. McCarthy has. Much as ‘The Station Agent’ nimbly evaded the obstacles of cuteness and willful eccentricity it had strewn in its own path, so does ‘The Visitor,’ with impressive grace and understatement, resist potential triteness and phony uplift.”
Talk to McCarthy about the film, however, and he mentions his fascination with detention centers.
“At that point it was very much ahead of its time,” he said. “People weren’t really aware of detention facilities. They sort of exist under the cloak of darkness in how we treat undocumented people.”
McCarthy films hinge on character, in all its definitions.
“I was interested in a transplanted character, like Tarek,” he said. “He was like a lot of artists I meet in New York City and I thought I’d really want to see him on the screen. The best part of my job is digging into a story and researching. I always find that part interesting.”
McCarthy’s fascination with research has put his stories on solid ground, but it is clear that it is what he knows about human nature that informs his characters.
Mike Flaherty is one of those characters, a smalltown lawyer and high-school wrestling coach played by Paul Giamatti as a man as worn down as any old train depot, in “Win Win” (2011).
“You get to the point where you’re just excited about your work,” McCarthy said. “I talk to my wife and friends about it all the time. It’s the same process with every movie.”
Giamatti’s character convinces a judge to make him the caretaker of his client, an elderly man named Leo, in the first stages of dementia, with no family around to care for him, who wants to keep living in his own house. He puts the man in an assisted-living facility and pockets the monthly stipend.
Despite how that last sentence reads, this is a funny movie. Not the set-up/punch line kind of funny, but in the way real life can be kind of sadly funny.
“I began ‘Win-Win’ as a wrestling movie, but the banking crisis had happened and I thought about the personal regulation and ethics in society and what that might mean,” McCarthy said. “Can we be left alone to regulate ourselves? With every movie there are themes that I really have fun exploring.”
A wrestling movie, of course, requires actors who can actually wrestle. McCarthy, who wrestled in high school but has said he was not very good, wrote the story with his childhood friend and wrestling teammate Joe Tiboni. Like Giamatti’s character, Tiboni is an elder-care lawyer.
When Leo’s grandson shows up, running from a bad home life, his skills as an Ohio state-champion wrestler give the film another dimension. McCarthy decided that instead of finding an actor and teaching him to wrestle, he needed to find somebody who was a wrestler first and an actor maybe. He finally found Alex Shaffer, a talented high-school wrestler who he hoped could learn to act.
“Finding that kid took a huge search,” he said. “It was a needle in a haystack search. The character had to really be able to wrestle. We took a chance he could learn to act and it paid off. You do yourself a great disservice if you miscast. You need to get things right or the audience will know.”
The importance of getting the story right was on McCarthy’s mind from the very beginning of his most famous film, “Spotlight.” It is the true story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team, called the Spotlight Team, broke the story of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child abuse by priests.
It is a story where getting it right was paramount, all those little details that describe the relationship between the city of Boston, the Catholic Church and The Boston Globe. A triad so accepted and powerful that it took the hiring
of a Jewish editor from Florida to get the Globe to begin pulling the threads of the story together.
“Whenever you take a story on like that you feel a great sense of responsibility,” McCarthy said. “You have to get it right, with any story but especially a story like this. If you don’t people will know. They’ll know. If the Globe reporters did not get that story right it would not have had the impact it did. I think we’re all shooting for the same things, the same target.”
Since the film premiered in 2016, people on both sides of the story have reached out to him, including some priests, to say it was a story that needed telling, McCarthy said. Telling the story in a narrative film, a Hollywood movie as opposed to a documentary film, or even as opposed to the actual Globe stories, also makes a case for the power of cinema.
“I think the fact people are having that conversation and in some cases pointing to ‘Spotlight’ as inspiration for that is gratifying and humbling,” McCarthy said. “Joe Crowley passed away yesterday (on Easter, he was 58 and a victim of abuse by a priest whose story is told in the film). I got a note from a priest, who passed on a note from Joe, thanking me for telling their (the survivors’) story. You feel like you do your small part and are thrilled when you have an impact.”
Among the things the film gets right is every newspaper reporter’s understanding of what it feels like to try to interview somebody who does not want to be interviewed, that moment when you might get a door slammed in your face or you might get somebody to talk.
Getting small moments right is important, because McCarthy’s films explore everyday life in all its awful, sometimes funny, sometimes lonely, sometimes barely able to stay afloat, glory.
“It took a fair degree of work to get it right (in ‘Spotlight’), but honestly you feel that with every movie,” he said. “You’re trying to get it right and whatever the scope of that story is, that’s what you’re trying to do. In many ways the job remains the same no matter what story you’re working on. You care and care a lot. In my case it’s the only thing you care about when you’re working on it.” ///
John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker living on Nantucket. He is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.