Structure in “Spotlight”

Study “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture in 2015. This film is a perfect example of a well-structured screenplay where every character changes somehow in the end. In case you don’t know anything about “Spotlight,” it’s about how the Boston Globe exposed the Catholic church’s cover-up of child molestation cases over the years by multiple priests. The heroes are the Boston Globe spotlight team that covers interesting stories.

The spotlight team consists of four people and every one of those four people change in the course of the story. There’s a woman who’s Catholic and goes to church with her grandmother, but the more she’s afraid to tell her grandmother about the child molestation cover up because her grandmother goes to church three times a week.

There’s a man who leads the spotlight team, who had originally received information about the child molestation scandal years ago and let the story die. By finally running the story now, he makes up for his previous mistake.

There’s another man who discovers one of the pedophile priests lives just a few doors from his own house. He warns his own children not to go near that house and he finally gets revenge against the priest in that house when the story breaks on the front page of the Boston Globe and he places the newspaper, with its child molestation headline clearly visible, on the priest’s door step.

By having every major character change as a result of the story, “Spotlight” makes us understand the effect it has on the main characters. This helps us see the main characters as real people and not just puppets to move the plot along.

Watch every scene in “Spotlight” and you’ll see that it echoes the overall story. Since the story is about the Catholic church covering up child abuse for decades, the opening scene talks about a Boston Globe worker retiring while a new person from Miami is coming in to take his place. One of the main characters joking asks the retiring worker, “Do you know something we don’t know?” in reference to the new editor. That’s basically the theme of the entire story and the cover up by the church.

The structure of the movie keeps the main characters focused on pursuing a goal:

  • 1-15 minutes: The spotlight team is looking for a story to cover and when the new editor arrives, he suggests they look into the stories about child molestation by Catholic priests.
  • 15-30: The spotlight team thinks they’re uncovering a story about one priest, but soon realize the problem is far more widespread than they originally thought. This sets them off on a new goal to learn how many priests may be involved.
  • 30-45: The spotlight team finds evidence that 13 priests are involved, but when taking to a former priest who has dealt with pedophile priests before, they learn that statistically there should be up to 90 priests involved. When they do further research, they uncover 87 suspicious cases of priests being mysteriously reassigned.
  • 45-60: Now that they know how many priests are involved, the spotlight team realizes that the story’s not just about exposing the priests but about uncovering how the church was knowingly involved in covering up the problem.
  • 60-75: The spotlight team learns of evidence that can prove that the church knew about the problem and covered it up. Unfortunately, the church has removed this public evidence from the court records.
  • 75-90: The spotlight team learns that the documents they’re looking for already exist with a lawyer who tells them they need to file a motion to have him present the documents again so they’ll be on the public record once more. The spotlight team gets this information but then 9/11 occurs and all reporting on the church coverup scandal ceases.
  • 90-105: The spotlight team gets back on the coverup scandal and has their story. They need to convince a lawyer, who has helped the church cover up the story, to verify that the story is true. This lawyer finally agrees to help the spotlight team.
  • 105-120: The spotlight team tries to release the story but the editor asks that they collect more information to prove that the church knew about this scandal. When the spotlight team gets all this information, they release the story and realize it’s not just limited to Boston but a systematic problem throughout the world.

Every 15 minutes, the spotlight team pursues a new goal and all the main characters deal with their own problems and obstacles at the same time until the entire story comes together in the end. If you’re looking for visual effects and gunfire, you won’t find that in “Spotlight.” Instead, “Spotlight” has to replace special effects and explosions with foreshadowing and constant pursuit of a goal.

Since the story is about child molestation, every scene constantly reminds us of this. There’s a scene where a lawyer tells one main character that if it takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to molest one. That’s a hint that more than one person is involved in the cover up.

“Spotlight” is unique in that there’s no central villain constantly threatening the main characters. Instead, there are constant minor villains trying to thwart the spotlight team form succeeding in their mission. Yet in the background the main villain is the church itself that has covered up this scandal for so long.

“Spotlight” has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the least profitable Best Picture winners in a long time since “The Hurt Locker.” Yet it’s a perfect example of how to structure a story without relying on guns, explosions, or people having sex. Study each scene and you’ll see how each scene constantly includes conflict of some kind and foreshadows something that will be revealed in a future scene.

The key to “Spotlight” is how each scene is interesting in itself, yet fits the overall theme and mood of the story. By clearly explaining what the main characters are pursuing and letting us see them struggle to achieve each minor goal, the multiple scenes in “Spotlight” grab and hold our attention from start to finish.

“Spotlight” deserves its Best Picture distinction, which means it’s an excellent movie to study to learn how to better structure your own screenplays.

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