On Sunday, Josh Singer and co-writer Tom McCarthy will be up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight, the riveting story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered the Archdiocese of Boston’s sex-abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up.
This isn’t the first time Josh Singer has been in the spotlight. But the kid who played Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man and Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha while growing up in Ambler, then sang with the famed Whiffenpoofs at Yale, never could’ve imagined this.
On Sunday, he and co-writer Tom McCarthy will be up for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Spotlight, the riveting story of how The Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered the Archdiocese of Boston’s sex-abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up. For the 44-year-old Singer, a graduate of Upper Dublin High, who was totally unaware of any of that while attending Harvard Law School, it’s all a bit mind-boggling.
He’s just pleased all these awards have drawn so much attention to the work. “Look, the award’s definitely exciting,” said Singer, who’s already won both the Golden Globe and Writer’s Guild award for Original Screenplay, two of the leading pre-Oscars bellwethers. “But the big thing is, it means more people are going see the movie. I don’t think about the money” Spotlight is making “at all. I think, ‘That’s butts in seats.’ The fact a lot of people have seen it, loved it and some are talking about clergy sex abuse — and talking about sex abuse more broadly — is what’s super-exciting.
“It means more people who’ve seen the movie are connecting to it and spreading the word and thinking about the messages — about journalism and the survivors and sex abuse — and what we all need to do to raise our hands to stop it from happening.”
Ironically, Singer was in Boston during much of the time events in the film are depicted — and had no idea. “The story broke in 2002,” recalled Singer, one of 141 high school students nominated nationally as a presidential scholar in 1990. “I had finished law school in 2001. I actually was not aware of the story in law school. Harvard’s in Cambridge, not in the hub of Boston. I had no idea. I was a pretty diligent student, doing a JD/MBA, which kept me very busy. It was one of those times where I was almost unaware beyond my little bubble in Cambridge.”
When the story broke, he, like everyone else, was appalled. “I couldn’t believe it and found it too upsetting,” he admitted. “For a while, I really wasn’t all that familiar with the ins and outs until they approached me three or four years ago about doing the movie. What really attracted me, though, was the reporting. I had worked on a movie about 21st-century journalism — WikiLeaks — about reporters and what they do.”
He’s referring to The Fifth Estate, the 2013 docudrama about Julian Assange. By then, Singer had established himself as a skilled writer, which meant he had scrapped his law career — a conversation with his parents he concedes went better than expected.
“They’d put me through grad school,” said Singer of his folks, Bruce, who passed away in 2012, and Rebecca, who still lives in Ambler. “When I told them, ‘I’m going to go to LA to try to write,’ you’d have thought they’d have a coronary. Instead, it was ‘Give it a shot.’ That was a very kind thing of them to do. My dad in particular was a bit of a dreamer. He was a fan of my writing. As crazy as an idea it was to come to LA after getting a JD/MBA, he was shockingly supportive.”
Singer’s interest had been piqued when he worked for the Children’s Television Workshop, then interned at Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel prior to heading to grad school. Once he decided to make the transition, it wasn’t long before he was writing for shows like The West Wing, Law and Order: SVU, Lie to Me and Fringe.
Movies were the next step. The Fifth Estate has been followed by Spotlight, which not only solidified Singer’s faith in journalism, but in his own religion. “We spent a ton of time up in Boston and I spent a week in LA with Mike Rezendes” — one of the lead reporters, played by Mark Ruffalo in the film — said Singer, who started out as lead screenwriter before he and McCarthy decided to collaborate. “We interviewed every one of the reporters up there and were really trying to understand how the business worked, how they worked and how they got their stories.
“I came out of it with a stronger belief in the importance of good journalism and even stronger concern of how little of that there is,” he continued. “Beyond that, there’s much more empathy for the survivors and much more anger towards the church and how little they’ve really done to stop this from happening. A lot of people think this happened in the past, and it did — but it’s ongoing.”
Speaking to one of the many victims, Phil Saviano, who’s heard in the film but never seen, had a profound impact on Singer. “For all of his railing, he still considers himself a Catholic,” said Singer, who became a Bar Mitzvah at Temple Sinai in Dresher, where he has fond memories of Cantor Emeritus Nathan Chaitovsky. “When I asked why, he said, ‘The church is an institution of men. Men have failings; my faith is in the eternal. That’s where I separate the two.’ That was really powerful. The other thing is that Marty Baron” — then Globe editor, now Washington Post editor — “is a hero to me; an incredibly moral and ethical guy. The idea of a Jewish guy coming into Boston and taking on the church is so incredibly brave, if you know Boston.”
As for Singer teaming with McCarthy, that turned out to be a far smoother transition than anyone expected. “Tom and I started down this path together and continued down the path throughout the shooting,” explained Singer, who will become a father in a few months with his wife, author Laura Dave.
“Originally, I was supposed to write the script on my own. But the first time we went to Boston, he just loved it. We were together all the time breaking the story out.
“After doing this a couple of months, he said, ‘This might go faster if we wrote it together.’ I sort of wanted to go on that path, too, so the two of us started writing together and ultimately worked our way through the script.”
By the time it was finished, Singer says it was difficult to tell who wrote what, which is what makes it so good. “The only thing I’d say in broad strokes is that Tom is fantastic in character,” said Singer. “There are some character moments he wrote that are extraordinary. I tend to think structurally, given my background about how something should lay out. But there’s no way I could’ve written this script. I could’ve written a version of the story, but in no way it would’ve been as good as it was. I’d like to think he’d say the same about me.”
In a couple of days odds are strong the Academy will say their combined efforts were better than anyone else in their field, which means Josh Singer may soon have a shiny new gold statue to show his new baby.
If only he could get home more often. “I really miss the East Coast,” said Singer, a passionate Phillies and Eagles fan who proudly proclaims he still “bleeds Eagles green.”
As for his newfound visibility — sure to only increase should he win the Oscar — Singer said it won’t go to his head. “I’m a writer; to me, one of the best parts of being a writer is that nobody recognizes you,” said Singer, who does most of his writing from his Santa Monica home. “It’s thrilling to see the movie gets such recognition, and it’s nice to have people see my work.
“But I’m going to stay behind the camera.”
In other words, someone else can have the spotlight.
Contact: email@example.com; 215-832-0729
UPDATE – 2/28/2016
Josh Singer, the Ambler native who decided to give up his law career to become a writer, Sunday won the Academy Award for “Best Original Screenplay,” for “Spotlight,” the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church of Boston’s sex scandal and subsequent cover-up.
The 38-year-old Singer shares the Oscar with co-writer director, Tom McCarthy. The Singer/McCarthy team had previously received both the Golden Globes and Writer’s Guild awards.