Spotlight’s Real-life Sacha Pfeiffer On “How We Got The Story” & The Power of Subtext – Quendrith Johnson comments

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One thing is certain, in Oscar contender Spotlight, Rachel McAdams is well-cast as Boston Globe investigative reporter Sacha Pfeiffer. McAdams is as intense as her real-life counterpart, and jokingly credits “17 years of figure skating” for her tenacity. RacheSachaPfeiffer packs an editorial punch, and has earned her stripes as part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that cracked open the priest sex-abuse scandal and dethroned Catholic powerbroker Cardinal Law.

But in person, Sacha tilts her head to one side and leans back when introduced, as if to welcome you into her zone. Right at the moment we meet, the movie has just screened to a packed house at The Arlington Theater on a damp, cold Southern California night as part of The Santa Barbara International Film Festival. Sacha is sleek in a sleeveless dress that underscores that she is from New England, where this doesn’t qualify as remotely chilly. Whereas Rachel is gamine-like, Sacha radiates an equally potent elegant charm. QASpotlight16

The lights go up as the “Q & A” with Rachel McAdams and Michael Keaton has just wrapped. Absent Mark Ruffalo weighed in by video at the last minute for Festival Director Roger Durling, who conducts the mini-interview. In a shock-reveal, the usually aloof Durling, who is originally from Panama, admits he is “a survivor.” So the evening is charged with meaningful moments.

Director Tom McCarthy, as well as Adams, Ruffalo, and Keaton have referenced Sacha. Tom even pointed an index finger somewhere in the house under dimmed lights. As a real-life counterpart, Pfeiffer wasn’t visible on the red carpet, so you have to hunt her down. Having not seen a photograph of her, the only giveaway of Sacha Pfeiffer’s exact position is the meaningful avoid of the chin as she repeatedly leans away from being recognized. This is a star reporter, one of the rare women who made it up through the ranks that used to be all-male and all-boy, a perspective she will play down later in our chat.

We will end up talking about Boston, this film’s wild ride, and Rachel’s portrayal of her. Significantly, an aide will interrupt us to call her “to the Green Room,” which highlights the stakes for this film. It’s Oscar bait by subject matter. The performances, script, and direction have caught everybody’s eye in Hollywood. There’s a hushed respect for this film that has had a ripple effect through the various award shows. Critics’ Choice for example, almost too many to mention. Spotlight even won four EDA awards here, from The Alliance of Women’s Film Journalists.

SachRachelCCBut Best Ensemble from SAG (a bellwether) is the topper for Oscar watchers. Spotlight is also carrying a lot of potential Academy hardware, a possible six statuettes. Those are: Best Picture, Actor in a Supporting Role, Mark Ruffalo; Actress in a Supporting Role, Rachel McAdams; Directing, Tom McCarthy; Film Editing, Tom McArdle; Writing (Original Screenplay), Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy.

Accolades aside, Sacha’s bio from The Boston Globe Staff List begins with her last name only, Old School. It’s a nod to when newsrooms used to run on surnames. “Pfeiffer is a columnist and reporter covering nonprofits, philanthropy and wealth, and was on the Spotlight investigative team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its stories on clergy sex abuse. She has also been a senior reporter and host of All Things Considered and Radio Boston at WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, and a host of NPR’s nationally syndicated Here & Now. At WBUR she won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for broadcast reporting. Pfeiffer was a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and co-authored Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church.”

You get the point, as in maybe don’t ask her what designer she’s wearing to the Oscars. Or “who’s doing your hair and make-up?” And her email follows are priceless: “this is a lot of questions.” And, “remind me what outlet this is for?” Sacha’s inner steel, the same blade you meet when she sizes you up, cuts through the digital space as a reminder that it’s lazy to expect the interview subject to write the answers. The links she sent are left in, indicative of how thorough this veteran reporter is, how careful she is that you get her story right. It’s not intimidating; it’s actually kind of thrilling. Journalism really matters still. You’re almost on the verge of telling her you ran out of batteries on the in-person interview, but it’s such a kick to read the subtext that is Pulitzer Prize winner Sacha Pfeiffer’s hallmark as a brilliant reporter. Enjoy…

Q:  Rachel McAdams, was she the first one signed on to play you, or did you have participation in the process? 

As far as I know, Rachel was the first actress considered for the role. I did not play a part in the casting and did not meet her until she got the job, but I spent an extensive amount of time with her as she prepared for the role and as she filmed the role, and we continue to stay in close touch. You can read more about that process here.

And you can hear me talk about it here, among other places.

Q: Was there much resistance to women in journalism when you were coming up, and did gender play any part in making it easier or more difficult to talk to survivors who were “tough guy” males?

I’ve never encountered any resistance to women in journalism, and in my view the Globe is a very gender-balanced place. Although the movie is male-heavy, many women hold prominent reporting, editing and management positions at the paper. I was considered an equal among my male colleagues and was brought on the team because I had deep experience covering the courts and legal system. The one advantage I think I had being the only female member of the team is that I believe it was easier for many clergy sex abuse survivors to share their stories of abuse with me. Many of them were still embarrassed and ashamed by abuse that had occurred decades earlier, and I think it was easier to share those feelings and experiences with a woman than with a man.

Q: Boston is known as a fairly tough town, back to (school integration)bussing issues and the Mafia plus White Bulger, but how did the priests hiding in plain sight not get called out sooner in a town that tells it like it is?

I think (this question) is answered by the movie: institutional complicity, deference to powerful entities, willingness to look the other way rather than confront wrongdoing.

Q: The Globe is an institution, yet it has been hobbled by the digital age like every other outlet, so what was the net cost to paper of the breaking news?

​[Former Globe editor and current Washington Post executive editor] Marty Baron has made an off-the-cuff estimate that the clergy sex abuse project cost the Globe $1M, but that sounds high to me and I assume his number includes staff salaries. We don’t have an exact cost, but it’s fair to say it was a significant commitment of money, time and other resources. Still, despite its ongoing cost-cutting, the Globe has made a continuing commitment to aggressive investigative reporting, which it considers one of the most important types of journalism it can provide.

Q: More than a dozen years have passed since this scandal, so why now on the timing — did it catch you off guard too, or had you been aware of the script in development for years? Why didn’t you write the screenplay, or did you consult with Josh and Tom?

Although the movie just came out, it has been in the works for many years. We were originally approached by producers in 2008-2009, but it took a long time for them to get the financing and other necessary support, as is typical for movies. We didn’t write a screenplay because it never occurred to any of us that the story about how we got the story could be a movie, let alone an interesting one. But once the idea was proposed, we spent an extensive amount of time with director/writer Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer as they researched and wrote the script and filmed the movie, and we all spent a lot of time with our cast members.

Q: Spotlight has been cleaning up, awards-wise, do you think it will sweep at the Oscars? Or more conservatively, is it hitting the zeitgeist to the extent that the recent Vatican (screening) may help its chances of winning Oscars?

I have no idea what will happen at the Oscars. Seems like a close race and this business is entirely new to me so I have no experience in award handicapping.

Q: Somebody said Tom McCarthy does films about justice, so justice is one theme, but is it also about liberating those living in shame?

There’s no doubt that this movie is giving a voice to victimized and disenfranchised people who have been voiceless for decades, and that’s a truly wonderful thing about the film. More victims are coming forward now because of this movie, and many victims/survivors have told me this movie feels to them like an important step in the healing process. Our stories had wide reach, but the movie’s reach is even wider, and through the power of Hollywood our reporting is getting a second life around the world.

Q: You don’t actually talk that fast for a Bostonian, even though Rachel mentioned she had to slow down her speech pattern in portraying you on screen. Do you feel like a “Townie,” or that Boston is really your home since you grew up in Ohio — and what defines journalism in Boston? (Since there is a history of political wrangling and whistle blowing from the Big Dig issues to Billy Bulger to the Statehouse to local pols dating back to Mayor White.)

Boston feels like my home even though I grew up in Ohio, because my mom grew up in (South) Boston and her family lives in Boston, so I’ve been spending lots of time in Boston ever since I was a kid. Many Bostonians have no accents so the lack of accents doesn’t stand out to me and actually makes the movie seem more authentic. Boston has always been a big journalism town — multiple newspapers, aggressive reporting, lots of news since it’s such a hub of politics and academia and technology.

Q: What was your takeaway as a journalist from the Spotlight Pulitzer era, and was going into radio a reaction to the hoopla?

My departure from the Globe was unrelated to the clergy sex abuse project. I left the Globe to work in public radio in 2008 because that was a financially rough time for the paper and it was unclear whether the Globe would remain a stable place to work long-term. I then spent almost seven years working in public radio at one of the NPR member stations in Boston, WBUR, as both a reporter and a host (my old WBUR bio is here). I loved many things about radio but over time I began to miss the detailed, in-depth writing and reporting that I think are difficult to do in the broadcast realm, so I returned to the Globe in 2014 when it had been stabilized by strong local ownership committed to keeping it a robust regional paper. I now cover wealth, philanthropy and nonprofits and all the ways they overlap and intersect, and I love that beat. Among other topics, it lets me write about how people who have more money than they need try to use that money in meaningful ways, and that makes for very interesting stories.

 Q: Are there any women you know who hung in there dating back from your early career? And you mentioned being strictly a Reporter is “where the fun is” — but is the money there too? And do you think Rachel has a shot at winning, plus how has this film changed your life?

I know a lot of women who’ve had satisfying, successful, long-term careers in journalism, so I don’t think about gender distinctions in journalism much. I love being a reporter and I find it incredibly interesting and gratifying. If you’re a curious person, there’s no better job. Reporting gives you access to fascinating places and fascinating people and lets you ask questions for a living, which is the best way to satisfy curiosity. I have no idea what will happen in the award races. As far as how the movie has affected my life, this is all new to me so I’m just taking it one day at a time! SachaPfeiffer16

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Again, For the Record: Pfeiffer is a columnist and reporter covering nonprofits, philanthropy and wealth, and was on the Spotlight investigative team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its stories on clergy sex abuse. She has also been a senior reporter and host of All Things Considered and Radio Boston at WBUR, Boston’s NPR station, and a host of NPR’s nationally syndicated Here & Now. At WBUR she won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for broadcast reporting. Pfeiffer was a John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University and co-authored Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church. — The Boston Globe, Staff List


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