5 Boston film big shots on Spotlight’s guts, Black Mass’s hero problem, and the city’s unwritten scripts

A roundtable discussion, just in time for the Academy Awards. February 24, 2016 | 9:20 AM

Boston isn’t the center of the universe, but sometimes it feels like it. Two of the biggest movies of 2015—Spotlight and Black Mass—are true tales based in our fair city. The former scored awards season nominations left and right; the latter was largely overlooked. Ahead of the Academy Awards, we got five of Boston’s industry insiders together in one room to share their insights on the past and future of Tinsel-meets-Beantown. (This discussion has been edited and condensed.)

THE PANELISTS
(From left to right in the image above)
Peter Keough, The Boston Globe correspondent and former The Boston Phoenix film editor
Erica McDermott, Boston area actress
Manny Basanese, Emerson College screenwriting professor and TV writer
Wes Hazard, Boston-based stand-up comedian
Brian Tamm, executive director of the Independent Film Festival Boston

Where do you think Spotlight ranks among quintessential Boston movies?

Brian Tamm: High. It really gets into what Boston is about. I think Gone Baby Gone is a movie that’s really good at this. It understands the Boston dynamic. There’s a sense of secrecy and a lot of staying within your own.

Peter Keough: I think it’s going to show audiences that there’s more to Boston than the Red Sox and Whitey Bulger.

Wes Hazard: Something I hadn’t seen in Boston films was faith. Boston—it’s waned over the past few decades—[has a] deeply, deeply Catholic count. It was interesting to watch a movie about a whole city that has to grapple with [that]. I thought that was pretty innovative.

Manny Basanese: Because it’s taking on the Catholic Church, it makes it not a provincial thing; it gives it a worldwide scope that a lot of people are going to be paying attention to.

Erica McDermott: I loved seeing both sides of it. I loved seeing what happened [at the Globe], how serious it was, and how nervous [the Spotlight team was] to take on that type of a task.

Keough: I liked the acknowledgement of The Boston Phoenix as one of the first papers to break the story.

Tamm: You needed somebody with the weight of the Globe to go against somebody with the weight of the Catholic Church to really be able to say, “We’re really going to dig in after this.”

Keough: It was a new editor, [Marty Baron]. It seems like the Globe, before the change of editor, was at least somewhat beholden to the Church. But when they changed leadership, [Baron] wasn’t cowed by Cardinal [Law]—who is a very scary figure in this movie.

I think Spotlight is going to show audiences that there’s more to Boston than the Red Sox and Whitey Bulger.

Basanese: That’s one thing the film does really well: presenting Boston as this place that’s very much insider. When you weave that with the Catholic Church, that’s a fortress. Those reporters had their work cut out for them.

Hazard: I enjoyed how [the film] really didn’t gloss over the fact that the Globe as an institution was somewhat complicit. [Characters] talk about how they had this information for so long and just sat on it. While the reporters on the Spotlight team—you’re certainly rooting for them—they, by virtue of working for the Globe, are somewhat complicit.

Keough: I went to BC High, and it was a [few] years after I graduated that the guy that they found was abusing students was teaching. And the film also captures the exclusivity, the closed doors. All of these institutions that are ironclad throughout Boston’s history. Part of the city, it’s at its most intense and exaggerated when you’re dealing with the gangsters. But the gangster attitude—people who are maintaining power like a tight-knit society—is true to other institutions in the city.

Ryan Breslin / Boston.com

Basanese: I think the performances in Spotlight and the movie itself had this sort of direct, no-nonsense, stripped-away feel to it. Which I think is very much like Boston. We get the job done, it’s sort of smart, no-nonsense.

Hazard: I thought the way they shot it is very accurate in terms of how that story came about. Because you get that newspaper when they finally bombshell 70 priests. It started off as: Here’s an email, here’s a letter we sent five years ago. To work through from that was a tedious, unsexy process.

Tamm: At different points, it starts to dawn on them what they’re actually dealing with.

Basanese: At the end, they showed the victims and all the cities, and how far it spread.

Tamm: I saw that in an industry screening in Toronto. When those cards came up, by the second and third one, people were just gasping. It stays with you.

I have the same exact question for Black Mass: Where does that movie rank among the best Boston movies?

McDermott: We’re talking about two real stories here that happened. Spotlight, we know that happened. It’s fact, it’s truth, there’s papers, there’s documents, there’s verbal testimony. With Black Mass, you’re dealing with gangsters, liars, and cheats. I don’t think we’re ever going to know the real story.

Basanese: I thought Johnny Depp’s performance was kind of showy, but it was spectacular. It was nice to see him as a real person instead of a pirate or Willy Wonka. The problem, too, is a movie like Spotlight has much more clear-cut heroes to root for than gangsters and corrupt FBI. With a movie like Black Mass, you need to elevate the genre like Goodfellas and The Godfather [did]. When I saw it, I was like, “This was pretty good.” But when I put it against those other films, I was like, “Yeah, no.”

Ryan Breslin / Boston.com

McDermott: I can tell you firsthand, seeing Johnny Depp in person for the first time in character was one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen in my life. My first day working with him was the dining room scene when I was hosting Christmas dinner. [Editor’s note: McDermott played Mary Bulger, Billy Bulger’s wife.] We sat at the table waiting for him to arrive on set. When he arrived, he changed the energy in that room more than any person—not actor—any person I’ve been around ever. He walked in and everybody stopped talking. Everybody sat up straight. Everybody. He looked so much like Whitey Bulger in person. Growing up here, seeing [Bulger] on the news, watching documentaries, reading about him in the paper. Then to see Johnny Depp, who has done all these other characters, walk in. It was chilling. So he came in, sat down at the dining room, and I said, in my head, “Nobody’s going to introduce me to him. I’m just going to have to do this scene. This is really weird. OK, this how we’re going to do it.” So the cameras start rolling, I wasn’t paying attention to him, and then next thing I knew, he was right here [motioned to her right shoulder]. He said, “I’m so happy to meet you. This is great.” Every hair on the back of my neck stood up. During the next break that we had, I said, “I have to sit with you for a while. This is so unreal. I have to hang out with you for a little while in order to be able to do this.”

Tamm: I think, though, like, he is so good in this movie. To me, the film doesn’t hold up to his performance.

Basanese: It doesn’t.

Hazard: But when I saw Depp, like, in the scene when he goes up to the FBI agent’s wife’s bedroom, my thought then was, ‘Wow, Johnny Depp is acting the hell out of this scene. This is amazing.’ Whereas in Spotlight, when Mark Ruffalo’s at the courthouse, my thought was, ‘[This journalist is] really good at his job.’ That’s the difference. You just watch them disappear.

Basanese: It was movie star acting versus procedural, word for word.

Keough: And [the Spotlight cast] won the ensemble prize at the SAG Awards.

Hazard: Well deserved.

I want to direct the conversation to the Oscars a bit. The movies that we just talked about, they don’t have too many people of color in them. I want to open up the conversation to talk about the diversity issue with the Oscars and in Hollywood and how that issue [relates to] these Boston movies.

Tamm: The Coen brothers were just asked about this, and they said, [“Diversity’s important. The Oscars are not that important.”] I just feel like the Oscars are this thing everybody talks about, but ultimately they don’t matter. I would hate for a really important issue to be hijacked by what’s basically like a fashion show.

Hazard: The Oscars at an artistic level might not be particularly relevant, but they are a symbol of excellence. The films that get nominated are the standard by which film excellence is going to be judged now, and when they’re trivia questions 20 years from now. If there’s a lack of representation, then that means something. While the award may or may not matter itself, just the prestige and the acknowledgement, that’s what the world’s idea of good quality movies is. So on one hand, I know my favorite movies are rarely the Oscars movies. At the same time, it’s not entirely cosmetic. I don’t think we can dismiss it.

I can tell you firsthand, seeing Johnny Depp in person for the first time in character was one of the most chilling things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Basanese: And sometimes an Oscar can translate to dollars and to power. Denzel [Washington], when he won the Oscar, that did elevate him some. I get what you’re saying: It’s like a pony show, we can’t remember who won last year and all that. But it doesn’t make it right when something like Straight Outta Compton, which just seemed like it checked all the boxes—it did extremely well at the box office, it was critically acclaimed, it was based on a true story like The Social Network — and yet it doesn’t get a nomination.

Keough: Creed is another.

Tamm: Creed was totally robbed. I think that’s an amazing film.

Hazard: [Sylvester] Stallone got nominated.

Tamm: You’re right. I tend to dismiss the Oscars out of hand just in general because what they show is a narrow band of what is perceived as good. In the film festival world, there’s not this gatekeeper of somebody who’s at Paramount [that] has to be OK with your film and will show it if Eddie Redmayne is in it. Again, fixing the Academy is one thing, but who’s heading the studios? Who’s on the boards? Who’s making the decisions to greenlight things? It’s harder because you can be a white dude, screw up and get chance after chance after chance, but it feels like the bar is so much higher [for people of color]. “Oh we tried this with a black dude, and it didn’t work so we’re not going to try that again.”

Hazard: What was particularly galling, this was the second year in a row that this has happened, and I’m not the first to acknowledge this: We had more people of color nominated for Oscars acting awards in 1939 than we had in the last two years. I mean, what do you say to that?

Ryan Breslin / Boston.com

Basanese: I think everything comes down to money and dollars. A thing like Creed really demonstrated that diverse casting is what reenergized the whole [Rocky] franchise. I think if they had cast a young boxer with a white guy, it wouldn’t have worked.

Tamm: Straight Outta Compton made a ton of money.

Hazard: Motion pictures don’t have to be exactly accurate to real life. But Boston films based on true events—Black Mass, there are three black people in that movie, and two of them got beat up with a wrench. On the other hand, it’s Southie in the ‘80s. But a movie like Her was set in L.A. a couple decades in the future, and there were maybe three people of color. Well, one, that’s disconcerting and worrisome, but on the other hand, that movie couldn’t get made [otherwise] because this country is so conditioned to see black films [as] either street-level gangster pics, or [as] slave [films], or [as films about] people who are utterly remarkable, like Martin Luther King, Malcom X.

Tamm: To put it in from the independent film world: When we talk about Boston films, we are talking about the bigger ones that get on the national radar, but people [are] making films in Roxbury, in JP, in Allston. The Boston story isn’t just white people from Southie or from Harvard Square. There are people of color all over Boston. Do they need to get their chance to direct a Marvel movie? Maybe, but they are definitely people getting seen at the festival level and maybe the local level. Finding ways to get them to break out more is something we all can take part in.

Hazard: Another place where something exciting happened [this year] was the exact opposite of the independent film awards. The biggest movie of the year [was] Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you’re just talking box office gross, people of color are killing it this year. You had a dynamic, skilled, really strong black lead and female lead. It also wasn’t like, “We’re going to tell the story of the first black Storm Trooper.” It was just, “This is a Storm Trooper. This is what he’s doing.”

I want to talk a bit about Boston movies over the course of history. What, in your opinion, is the best one and why?

McDermott: [For me] it was The Departed until The Fighter. The Fighter was a story that I wasn’t really familiar with, but I was involved with the movie, and what I really loved about it [was that] The Fighter was based on truth. It wasn’t an old story. The family was very involved, and it was tricky to tell the story through the director’s eyes, the writer’s eyes, and to have the family there. I thought it was just so authentic. I think that the writing was beautiful. The story itself, it had a beginning, middle, and end. You’re just left there feeling satisfied.

We had more people of color nominated for Oscars acting awards in 1939 than we had in the last two years. I mean, what do you say to that?

Keough: I would say Friends of Eddie Coyle. First of all, Robert [Mitchum] has the best Boston accent. It just captured the whole ambiance of that period from a certain perspective, which was a lower-class, semi-gangster ambiance.

Hazard: For me, the most emotionally resonant is Good Will Hunting. The dialogue is fantastic, and I love how it ends. The movie I’m going to pull down off the shelf to watch the most—I’ll preface by saying I do not follow hockey at all—is Slap Shot. The soundtrack is great, Paul Newman is funny. It’s just this little slice of Charlestown.

Basanese: I’m a big fan of a movie that came out in the late ‘70s called Starting Over. I think Boston is always being portrayed as this gritty town with crime and corruption, but there’s also a romanticism to Boston, and I think that movie captures it, sort of like Woody Allen’s Manhattan with the sweeping cityscapes and all of that.

Tamm: I’m a big fan of Gone Baby Gone. Casey Affleck feels like he’s got the edge because Ed Harris comes from somewhere else. Ed Harris basically says, “Well I’ve been living here since before you were born so who really belongs to the town?” That represents what it is to be in Boston and when you can claim you’re a Bostonian.

Hazard: The best Boston movie is Seth Meyers’s Boston Accent .

Basanese: Or even, the worst Boston movie.

Tamm: Well, I would say when it comes to Ted, I believe more in talking bears than it being that easy to get a parking space in Back Bay. Preposterous!

Correction 2/26/2016 10:28 a.m.: In a previous version of this story, Peter Keough misidentified Cardinal Law as Cardinal O’Malley. This has been updated.

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