During an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air", Director Tom McCarthy said that they built a large set to depict many of the Boston Globe offices, where parts of the story take place. When the reporters depicted in the movie first visited the set, they gravitated to "their" desks, and many of them started to arrange the items on those desks the way they had been at the time.
When Michael Keaton accepted the role, he had tracked the real Walter Robinson before meeting him, and found out he actually lived near Robinson's house. He had also gotten hold of video and audio of Robinson. When Keaton first met him, he did an impression of him that was so impressive, that Robinson was scared, and said to him, "How did you know everything about me? We just met."
The one thing Michael Keaton was afraid of when he accepted the role was the Boston accent. After watching video footage of the real Walter Robinson, he was surprised that Robinson only has a slight Boston accent.
A victim asks a reporter, "Have you read Jason Berry's book?" Berry is a reporter who began covering sex abuse cover-ups in Louisiana Catholic churches for the National Catholic Reporter and the Times of Acadiana. By the time the Boston Globe broke the story of the abuse scandal in Boston, the NCR had been reporting on abuse within the church for 17 years (while other, much bigger news outlets had refused to look at it).
A study of Swiss priests published on May 12, 2003, revealed that 50% of that clergy had mistresses, similar to the report by the Spotlight team The Boston Globe published in 2002. Father Victor Kotze, a South African sociologist, surveyed Catholic priests in his country in 1991, and found that 45% had been sexually active. Over all these studies, 53% of sexually active priests surveyed were having sex with adult women, 21% with adult men, 14% with minor boys, and 12% with minor girls. These statistics caused a monumental debate in which no one challenged the reality of his numbers. Pepe Rodriguez concluded that 95% of practicing priests masturbate, 7% are sexually involved with minors, 26% have "attachments to minors," 60% have heterosexual relations, and 20% have homosexual relations and on average across the globe. Only 50% of Catholic clergy are legitimately "celibate".
When the real Walter Robinson visited the set, he was very impressed after seeing Michael Keaton sitting at an exact copy of his desk, a two-fingered typist, just like him, his lips pursed, peering through reading glasses at a 2001 Globe computer screen.
This movie won the first-ever Veritas Award for the best film based on, or inspired by, real events and people. The honor, awarded by members of the Los Angeles Press Club, is presented based on a film's fidelity to its subject matter and artistic excellence. Bridge of Spies (2015) was voted runner-up (February 2016).
A framed photo of Walter Robinson's real-life daughter, Jessica, taken in 2000, is beside Michael Keaton's desk in the film. Beside that is a framed photo of Keaton with his arm around Elena Wohl, who plays his wife, Barbara.
During an interview on National Public Radio's "Fresh Air", Tom McCarthy said many of the actors and actresses reached out to meet the reporters depicted in the movie, shortly after agreeing to make the movie, and that many of the reporters spent a considerable amount of time on-set during filming.
In real life, Patrick McSorely, who relates the details of his sexual abuse to Mike Rezendes, later went on to work with his attorney, Mitchell Garabedian, to testify against Cardinal Law and the church. He also helped support other victims, including several of his childhood friends. As depicted in the film, McSorely turned to drugs and alcohol to cope. He died of a drug overdose in 2004, at the age of 29.
Liev Schreiber also plays the title character in Ray Donovan (2013), a character from Boston. Donovan and his brother were molested by a priest, and he was a member of S.N.A.P. (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests).
It struck some viewers as anachronistic that in this movie, very soon after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, some characters were already referring to them as "9/11". However, the term "9/11" was used almost immediately after the attacks. For example, on September 13, 2001, the New York Times announced The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund, a special campaign to raise money for the victims of the attack on the World Trade Center.
Michael Keaton said about playing Walter Robinson, "He's very powerful, and very direct, but until he reaches that point, he's a really pretty easy-going guy, but very cagey about how he gets information. Not in a bad way, in a really cool way, like a bird dog. So I kind of had mannerisms I observed."
Joe Crowley died in April 2017 from chronic respiratory and heart ailments. He was 58. Upon his death, Sacha Pfeiffer wrote a tribute to Crowley for the Boston Globe titled, "It was an honor to know you, Joe Crowley." Pfeiffer said that she and Crowley had stayed in touch over the years since they first met in 2001. She also said Crowley and Michael Cyril Creighton, who played him, became friends after filming, and kept in touch afterward. Pfeiffer said Crowley's nickname for Creighton was "JC2".
Jimmy LeBlanc, who plays Patrick McSorley, was himself an actual survivor of the clerical abuse scandal, so when director Tom McCarthy first brought him in for rehearsals with Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci, he was concerned that 'revisiting' Jimmy's abusive past might be too emotionally traumatic for him. However, as McCarthy later accompanied Jimmy out after the session, he asked him if he was freaked out by his first 'acting' experience with the other actors. "Of course I'm freaked out," Jimmy said, "that was the Hulk and Batman and that guy from the devils wear prada."
Michael Keaton said about Walter Robinson's accent, and his character in the movie, "I was told by Tom McCarthy and the other guys, he told them that's one reason he just doesn't really have one. But he will fall into one when he's around people from his neighborhood or other neighborhoods. But then his r's get hard and he does 'ing' and sometimes he doesn't do 'ing.' So when I saw that I thought, 'Oh, shoot, now how do I determine when he's speaking with a Boston accent and when he's not?' So little things like that were hard. But basically, what you want to do is be true to the guy, and I don't mean protect him. I just mean be who they are, you know? Not try to make them nicer than they are or anything. You know what I mean?"
In 2016, the film was shown at the National Center for Victims of Crime, a.k.a. National Training Institute Conference, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as a training source. Attendees included victim advocates, law enforcement officers, prosecuting attorneys, lawyers, and social workers, who work with victims, and arrest and prosecute pedophiles. Eric Mac Leish, Phil Saviano, Joe Crowley, and Sacha Pfeiffer spoke to the 850 conference attendees about their stories, the pedophile priests, and the national problem of child molestation.
Matt Damon was considered for the role of Michael Rezendes, which ultimately went to Mark Ruffalo. Ruffalo was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for this film, while Damon starred in The Martian (2015), and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor the same year.
When the new Editor of the Boston Globe, Martin Baron (who is Jewish), has a personal meeting with Cardinal Bernard Law at his residence, the Cardinal hands Baron a package. When Baron goes back to his car and opens the package, it is a large copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Cardinal Law requested such a Catechism at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops in Rome in 1985, to deal with the changes wrought by Vatican II. It was completed in 1992, and it was the first universal catechism issued by the Church in over 400 years. In a February 2016 Washington Post article (titled "I'm in 'Spotlight', But It's Not Really About Me. It's About the Power of Journalism"), Marty Baron says that the copy of the Catechism used in the film is the very same one that he was really given by Cardinal Law at the end of their first meeting.
One theatrical trailer featured Lawless and Sydney Wayser's cover of the 1986 XTC song "Dear God". The song was somewhat controversial on its first release, because of what some listeners heard as criticisms of religion and the church, as well as its conflicted point-of-view about the existence of God.
A study published by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in February 2004 found that 68% of priests accused of sexual abuse were ordained between 1950 and 1979. Priests ordained before 1950 accounted for 21.3% of allegations, and priests ordained after 1979 accounted for 10.7% of allegations.
At the end of the scene where Sacha Pfeiffer talks with Phil Saviano in a neighborhood restaurant, a television mounted on the wall briefly shows a Penn State football game. In 2011, Penn State had a child abuse scandal involving former Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky.
At The Oscars (2016), Spotlight was up for six awards and won two. It won the first Oscar presented that night, for Best Original Screenplay. Then, after losing in the next four categories it was nominated in (Best Actress in a Supporting Role, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Film Editing and Best Director), it won the final Oscar of the evening for Best Picture.
In the scene where Walter meets Baron for the first time in the restaurant, Baron is reading the Dan Shaughnessy book "The Curse of the Bambino". Liev Schreiber, who plays Baron, narrated the HBO documentary Reverse of the Curse of the Bambino (2004).
The first time Michael Keaton met with Walter Robinson, just after Labor Day in the bar at the Greenwich Hotel in New York City, they shook hands and Keaton furrowed his brow and said, "You know, you really do not have that much of a Boston accent."
When Sacha Pfeiffer interviews Joe Crowley in the coffee shop, he mentions "Father Shanley". Doubt (2008), the film adaptation of John Patrick Shanley's play, centers around sexual abuse allegations against a priest.
Stanley Tucci previously appeared in Road to Perdition (2002). In that film, the main character, played by Tom Hanks, tells his son to stay away from Catholic priests. However, this is not because of pedophilia, but because the priests are in the employ of Al Capone, who has a hit contract out on Hanks' character.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
Although the movie never mentions it, the Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service for the Spotlight reporting team's articles on the church sex abuse cover-up. The prize citation read, "For its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national, and international reaction, and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church."
Defrocked Roman Catholic priest John J. Geoghan was murdered by his cellmate at the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Institution (now Massachusetts Correctional Institution - Shirley) in Shirley, Massachusetts on August 23, 2003. Because his conviction (for fondling a boy in a public swimming pool) was on appeal, and he died before the appeal had been decided, his conviction was automatically overturned. The three justices who issued the decision noted that they were following the direction of the Supreme Judicial Court, and that vacating the conviction is "customary practice of the courts in this Commonwealth under such circumstances."