Fast chat with ‘Doubt' writer-director John Patrick Shanley

by Lewis Beale

Newsday (MCT)

19 December 2008


John Patrick Shanley is one of the fortunate few who has won the entertainment industry’s equivalent of a trifecta: the Oscar for his 1987 “Moonstruck” screenplay, an Emmy for co-writing the 2002 HBO movie “Live From Baghdad” and a Tony for his 2004 play “Doubt: A Parable” (which also won a Pulitzer).

The 58-year-old Bronx native and Marine Corps veteran also has directed several plays and one feature film, Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in “Joe vs. the Volcano” (1990). That experience proved so contentious, Shanley didn’t direct another film until this year, when he decided to undertake the screen version of “Doubt,” starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams, about a nun who is convinced, on little evidence, that a priest is guilty of child molestation. Lewis Beale interviewed Shanley about his latest challenge.

Q. I was surprised to read that one basis for the play was your feelings about the war in Iraq, and what you felt was the Bush administration’s certainty about its intelligence information, which it wouldn’t share with anyone.

A. There was a touch of that. But it’s also about learning to live with uncertainty, like we do in our lives. And in 1964 (when the play is set), we were on the cusp of great change, and now we’re in another time of great change, and it’s good to look back during those moments.

Q. The play is set in the Bronx, and there are exterior shots of the Catholic school you attended. When you were a student, did you feel that things were changing?

A. I was more of a receptacle for impressions. I did have a sense that the place I was in, which seemed eternal, was going to be swept away. I knew it was all going away, it was the cultural hurricane of the ‘60s that was going to sweep everything before it. Within three years, the Mass was in English, the neighborhood was flooded with drugs, and parts of the Bronx would burn down.

Q. An interesting aspect of the play is its look at the hierarchical aspects of the church, particularly how the nuns are subservient to the priests.

A. There’s a lot about distinctions between the way the nuns and priests lived, and the chain of command, which is similar to the military. I went into the Marine Corps right after school, and I was struck with how comfortable I was.

Q. You haven’t directed a film in 18 years. What do you think you’ve learned about filmmaking in that time?

A. I knew as much when I made “Joe vs. the Volcano” as I do today. But I’m different, I’m older, and you have longer to look back and reflect on your life and think about things you took for granted, like the life of service these nuns engaged in. They lived a life of poverty and chastity, and took care of the sick and the old. I thought these are substantial people, and God knows society needs them. That change in perspective made a difference in how I direct. I’m more serious now, and I can hunker down to make a serious subject what it needs to be.

Q. So what happened on “Joe vs. the Volcano”? In past interviews, you’ve said how difficult it was to make that film.

A. There were some great things, like the people who produced it, and Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. But Warner Bros., who I told what I was going to do, and I shot exactly what I was going to shoot, they seemed amazed and frightened, and tried to take control of the shoot. They threatened to pull the plug, and I said I wasn’t going to make some “by order” film.

Q. What kinds of influences did you have as a kid?

A. I’m the youngest of five, and we all read a lot. And we read anything, the Ian Fleming books, “Crime and Punishment.” I saw my first play at Cardinal Spellman High, “Cyrano de Bergerac,” and it blew me away. It’s enormously theatrical, and a poet was a hero, and I was a poet. And he had a sword, and everybody was afraid of him. The play kind of has everything, everything that was going to be interesting to me, and it set me on a lifelong mission to bring major language to modern life. And the message I got in my daily life was you can’t do that, you can’t talk in an elevated way, and I went ahead and did that.

Q. Speaking of elevated language, “Moonstruck” has a lot of that poetic quality. What did winning the Oscar for best screenplay mean to your career?

A. It was transformational. It opened the door to me as a screenwriter, as a director, it meant I could get more plays produced. It’s enjoyable to win an Oscar, and then at a certain point, when 20 years later people say, “‘Moonstruck’ is one of my favorite movies,” you say, “thanks,” and feel like you’re dead. So it was great to have “Doubt,” because I got to hit another one out of the park.

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