Spotlight on Sugar
Michael Sugar ’95 accepts an Oscar for the film “Spotlight” which he produced
At the 88th annual Academy Awards last Sunday, Brandeis alumnus Michael Sugar ’95 stepped onto the stage at the Dolby Theater to accept the Academy Award for “Spotlight,” which won Best Picture as well as Best Screenplay that night.
“Spotlight” follows the true story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team of journalists who investigated the Boston Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. For its investigation into this scandal, the Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
The scandal was comprised of a series of criminal sex abuse cases of minors by Catholic priests in Massachusetts. In 2002, the Globe’s initial coverage of the scandal brought international attention to the Boston Archdiocese and eventually led to the uncovering of clergy sex abuse nationwide.
In an interview with the Justice, Sugar explained the film’s conception. “There were two women who came to me about seven years ago with the idea to make a movie on the subject. Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, who are also producers with me,” Sugar said. Together, they found the film’s director, Tom McCarthy, and the screenwriter Josh Singer.
Sugar elaborated on the film’s process and how it took time to get things right, especially regardingfine-tuning the script which Sugar said took several years. “Josh and Tom really, thoroughly researched the subject and met with everybody they could possibly meet with and really sort of investigated the investigation and got the script right,” Sugar said.
“Spotlight” stars an ensemble, star-studded cast, including Mark Ruffalo, who portrays Mike Rezendes, Michael Keaton, who portrays Walter Robinson, and Rachel McAdams, who portrays Sacha Pfeiffer.
“Mark Ruffalo was the first to come in,” Sugar explained. “And once Mark came in and committed to doing it, everybody else joined pretty quickly.”
“I mean, it’s hard, because in an ensemble movie everybody wants to know who else is in. So it takes someone who’s really passionate to jump in first and Mark was that guy. He was terrific.”
At the very end of the film, during the final credit scroll, all the cities where sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church have been reported are listed.
Originally, Sugar didn’t fully support this idea, but it has since become one of his proudest moments of the film. “I wanted to include that the reporters had been awarded the Pulitzer Prize for their work because I thought that would be satisfying for the audience, who have been on this journey, to know that these reporters were so rewarded,” Sugar said.
The director, Tom McCarthy, presented a different vision. “Tom said, ‘No, I don’t agree with that. I want to make it about the subject that they wrote on, not about them,’” Sugar said. “And frankly, it was the reporters themselves who decided not to have that included. They didn’t want it to be about them either, so the idea that a sort of singular focus at the end of the movie was that the change was begun by their work internationally.”
The film navigates a narrative about investigative journalism, which many believe to be a lost art.
“Without good journalism, institutions are not held accountable, and the press has always had a responsibility to do that. So the idea of deep, investigative journalism being worthwhile and sexy is everything, because that’s how we can hold institutions accountable. I hope that the film says that. That there are fruits to that labor that are sweet.”
Sugar compared his passion for the movie to the pride a parent might feel for their child. “What makes me most proud, as a producer, is what’s happened since the movie came out,” Sugar explained. “The fact that the Vatican addressed us yesterday. The fact that more survivors are speaking who have never spoken before. That’s been the most rewarding thing for all of us, I think.”
Sugar has been passionate about making an impact since his days at Brandeis. As an undergraduate student, he majored in American Studies and minored in Film Studies. In his pre-Oscar days, Sugar produced something that any Brandeis student today would recognize: the Midnight Buffet.
“That is my claim to fame. I created the Midnight Buffet. When we did it, it was just like, during finals at midnight one night we just created the biggest feast for the students so they could just blow off some steam, and they had a DJ, and it was fun. So I’m glad that still exists. That was my idea,” Sugar said. He held the first buffet in 1992.
Sugar also held student senate positions, most notably, one that he calls, “Party Czar.” He remembers, “I was Party Czar. I don’t know if that still exists. The student senate had a title that they called Party Czar. I don’t know if they still do that, but that was me, and it was the first year of the new gym and I did all [of] the concerts.”
Sugar has fond memories of Brandeis and its influence on his pursuit for film. He cites Professor Thomas Doherty (AMST) as a key figure in his film studies. Regarding film, Sugar says, “He taught me what that actually meant. He was hugely instrumental in my appreciations for what good storytelling really was.”
In an email to the Justice, Doherty reflected on Sugar’s time as a student:
“Mike was a terrific student and, more important, a fine human being — then and now. He was part of a seminar class in Film Theory and Criticism that I used to teach as a capstone in the film studies program — part of a cohort of really special and talented students — one of the most memorable classes I’ve ever taught at Brandeis — where everything and everyone just seemed to click. I’m still in touch with most of them. As I’ve said before I am thrilled at Mike’s success — and especially for such a worthy and important film. I am not in the least surprised that he was behind the podium at the Academy Awards last night being characteristically gracious and eloquent.”
Doherty also mentioned that for the film seminar’s final, Sugar and his classmates came in “full Academy-style formal wear.”
Before coming to the east coast for college, Sugar, who was raised in Los Angeles was interested in film. After Brandeis, he attended law school at Georgetown before returning to Los Angeles to start a production company with his brother. Sugar is now a partner with the production company Anonymous Content.
Sugar summarized his passion, “I’ve always been interested in telling stories about something that was really, really meaningful and had the potential to affect change in the world.”