Twenty years ago, John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for his screenplay for the romantic comedy Moonstruck starring Cher and Nicolas Cage, which led to him making his directorial debut Joe Versus the Volcano, which wasn’t received quite as well, despite bringing Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan together for the first time. It’s been 18 years since Shanley directed a movie but when it came to bringing his hit Pulitzer-prize winning stageplay Doubt to the screen, there really was no one more suited to do so.
Shanley returned to New York and then a few years ago, he chose to tackle a play set in the Catholic School setting he knew far too well growing up in the Bronx. Doubt‘s life began Off-Broadway in 2004 before it quickly became a phenomenon, winning a Tony, a Drama Desk award and even a Pulitzer prize for Drama. When it came time to adapt it to the screen, both Shanley and producer Scott Rudin decided it was time for him to return to filmmaking and direct it himself.
In the movie version of the play, Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the strict and by-the-books principal of the St. Nicholas Catholic School, who suspects the church’s preacher Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman) of an impropriety with his alter boy and the school’s only black student. Like the play, the film is mainly a four-handed character drama that also stars Amy Adams as the optimistic Sister James and Viola Davis as the boy’s mother who delivers a shocking revelation late in the film. All four actors have had their names bandied about in this year’s Oscar race, as has Shanley’s screenplay and the film itself.
As strange as it might be to think of someone having a comeback at 58, certainly stranger things have happened in Hollywood, so just days before his film’s New York premiere, ComingSoon.net got on the phone for a short interview with Mr. Shanley.
(You can also check out our exclusive video interview with both Shanley and the film’s co-star Amy Adams here.)
ComingSoon.net: There’s a fascinating story behind this movie about how you brought it to the stage and then returned to filmmaking with it. Now you were a playwright before you even started in Hollywood?
John Patrick Shanley: Oh, yeah. I’ve been writing plays since the seventies and only came to moviemaking when I basically realized that I needed some money to pay the rent. I started to watch films with an eye to figuring out how to write them. I watched a bunch and then I read a bunch of screenplays, and I read this one screenplay and I thought, “Oh, I get it. I get how to do it.” It was “Scarface” and it was because it was zero distance from the material and the way that it was written. Oliver Stone would write about Tony Montana in the boat coming from Cuba, and how handsome and angry he was at all the injustice in the world. The prose was so purple, and I just laughed and I thought, “This is ridiculous writing.” Then I thought, “Not if you saw it,” you know? Something clicked and then felt I could write one of my own and then I decided to write “Five Corners,” which is the first screenplay I wrote and it got made right after I wrote it. Actually, it took a year to get made.
CS: I was really curious about the different mindset that goes into writing something specifically for a film or for the stage. Obviously, it’s a very different process for getting a film made, and it costs a lot more money than getting it on Broadway or getting some actors together to do a play. It must involve a different mindset as a writer as well.
Shanley: Right, the thing is that modern theater is different than theater was forty years ago, because there is less money in the theater than there used to be and as a result, you employ fewer actors to tell a story. The sort of new ideal is to write a play that has a Japanese bone-like simplicity to it and to tell an elaborate tale using only like three or four or five people. Certainly that’s the case with “Doubt.” There’s only four characters in the play, and that’s it. But what happens is when you take a play like that and it’s time to turn it into a film, it makes it a much tougher nut to crack initially than plays of previous years. If you take a play “Of Mice and Men” or “Stalag 17” or “A Streetcar Named Desire” or “A Miracle Worker” if you go back and look at those, there’s like twenty people in the play. So that when you go to open it up, it already has a certain scope to it, and by the time you get to the late ’80s or into the ’90s, the plays most of the time have very few characters. Most of those plays when they’re turned into films fail, because you really have to go back and break the hypnotic spell you put yourself under as a playwright to convince yourself that this was the best way to tell the story, which was to leave everybody out. (laughs) Once you break that spell, then you could go ahead and open the thing up in a meaningful way, but you really do have to re-conceive the way you thought about your film. You have to look at the story itself simply from the characters and think about, “How do I tell this story in an organic way rather than using these extreme restrictions that I work under in the theater?” This extreme artifice is now removed, and then you realize things like when you’re doing “Doubt”… “Oh, I guess you know, this kid that they’re fighting over, he has to be in the movie.” (laughs) And in the play, there’s no kids at all.
CS: I was curious about that. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen the play, so I really wasn’t able to compare the two at all.
Shanley: Yeah, well, there’s no kid in the play at all. I realized, well obviously you put the kid in and then all the kids in the classrooms these people, the teachers, so you’re gonna have classroom scenes and you’re gonna want to see how these people live in the rectory, how they live in the convent and all of that stuff. You’re gonna want to show the parishioners that the priest is talking to, and you’re gonna want to show the neighborhoods that these parishioners come from, so then it starts to organically open up.
CS: Obviously you went to Catholic school in the Bronx I guess around the same time period, in the ’60s. Was this an idea you had for a long time? You must’ve thought at some point about writing something set in a Bronx Catholic school during the ’60s.
Shanley: From time to time I would think that the Sisters of Charity was something that people didn’t really know about. That in and of itself is interesting, but it’s not enough of a reason to write something. That’s just a piece of sociology, a piece of anthropology. It’s just a slice of life kind of thing and I wasn’t interested in that. Then I started thinking about, “Well, you know, what if there was a rogue priest that these nuns were dealing with?” and I thought, “Well, that’s good, but that’s kind of on the nose, it’s kind of a ripped from the headlines thing. I don’t really want to do that.” Then I thought of the black mother, and I thought, “That’s the play that I would write.” Then it’s just hitting me from an angle that I just never dreamed of, so then I wrote the play and then later on, the film.
CS: Did you always think of it as a play? Or was there ever a point where you thought, “I’m going to go ahead and do it as a movie”?
Shanley: I thought of it as a play, I wrote it as a play, and it became a phenomenon. Scott Rudin came to me–he was one of the producers of the play–and he said, “I think it should be a film and I think you should direct it.” The funny thing is that eighteen years after I did “Joe Versus the Volcano” Scott Rudin came to me and said, “I like this movie and I’d like to do a movie with you, let’s do something.” And I said, “I don’t want to. I don’t feel like it.” I’d sort of spent ten months in a hotel fighting with Warner Brothers, and I’m not sure when the hell I would ever want to go through that again. I also felt like everybody needed to return to the theater and find out in a new way what I wanted to write about next and find my feet again. The soil I grow out of is the theater and it can then extend into film, but I kind of need that or have needed the theater to sort of find my way. Then eighteen years later Rudin comes to me again and says, “I think you should direct this movie.” And I said, “I agree. I think I should.” And it was sort of as simple as that. The time had come.
CS: It’s fascinating to me that people can sort of rediscover themselves in that kind of way. I read that the play was a 90-minute one act play and you mentioned a few things you had to show, but were you thinking of things like that while you were staging the play?
Shanley: I didn’t direct the play. A guy named Doug Hughes directed the play. He did a great job. The playwright is very active in rehearsals, but he very much directed the play. Then when it came time to do the film, Scott asked me to do the film and I agreed, and then and only then did I have to think about how I was going to do it. In fact, when I sat down to write the screenplay, it was the hardest screenplay that I ever wrote because of these things that I mentioned that it was just conceived in such a very different way that I really had to free myself from the way that I was looking at it and re-find the story in another medium. It was hugely challenging
CS: Does the movie generally start and end in the same place as the play though?
Shanley: It does start and end in the same place, but for instance, Father Flynn doesn’t have any farewell sermon, you never see him go. You just hear that he’s gone. You never see the kid, you never see him embrace this kid. You never see Sister James embrace the kid. You never see Sister James sort of freak out in her classroom and become a hardass for a minute with the kids because she’s in a moment of crisis–a lot of stuff.
CS: I was also curious about the casting. Again, not having seen the play, I’m really hoping someone taped it so that I could see how it was staged.
Shanley: It’s in the Lincoln Center of Performing Arts Library.
CS: Oh, great, because I really like Brian O’Byrne as an actor and he played a preacher in “Million Dollar Baby” and he was great in that, so I was excited to hear he played Father Flynn in your play.
Shanley: Oh, he’s great. “Million Dollar Baby” came out like right around when we were doing the play. I had seen him that way and then I went to see his movie and he shows up in the same clothes. (laughs)
CS: I was curious about casting the movie. Was there anyone from the play that you wanted to try and bring onboard or was it really important for you guys to try and get this particular cast?
Shanley: Well, it was really important for me after eighteen years to… if I was gonna do this, if I was gonna direct a film again, that it had to be an original expression. Doing an amalgam of what Doug Hughes had done onstage and then… because a lot of the choices the actors made onstage they had talked extensively with to Doug about those choices and so their performances were in part as a result of his direction. I felt I would’ve been putting my name on his work.
CS: Yeah, I understand that. Obviously Meryl and Philip are kind of no-brainers being that both have an extensive theater background and they’re amazing actors.
Shanley: When I went to cast the film, the first name was Meryl Streep, but when it came to the priest, nobody mentioned Phil Hoffman. That was somebody who I thought, “He’s just the best actor around right now, and I don’t know what he would do with this role and I know it will be good. If I don’t know what he’s going to do with the role, neither will Meryl. He’ll keep her on her toes and he’ll make her sweat.” And he did. They did a play together, they’d done Chekhov in the Park together and they were very fond of each other as actors and that shows.
CS: What was the environment on set like as opposed to when you’re rehearsing a play? You obviously have all these great dramatic actors doing all these really emotional scenes…
Shanley: Well, we had three weeks of rehearsal before we started shooting, so we developed a real ensemble during those three weeks got to know each other, got to trust each other, and that was very, very helpful. I mean, you’re doing a film that has such extended dialogue scenes and use of small props and behavior in a room. The more of that you can work out in advance, the more you can concentrate on the acting of the day. So we worked a lot of that stuff out in rehearsal, you know, “When am I going to get up and go and open the blinds? When is he going to shut the blinds? When is the phone going to ring? When is it going to stop ringing? When is the intercom going to go off?” You just work a lot of it in “When am I going to pour the tea? When do I spill it?” Just so you don’t have to think about those things. Most important of all though, is the rapport of the ensemble then when you get on the set, basically if you think, “I am directing Meryl Streep,” that’s going to cause you problems, but if you are concentrated on the objective, on the work itself, on the thing you’re doing, the scene, then you and Meryl are working. You’re not looking at each other, you’re looking at the thing, and that’s sort of how I proceed. So it was fine, because when you’re working with very talented people it makes your job easier, not harder.
CS: Did you try to shoot many of the scenes the way you might shoot a play with long takes of scenes or did you use multiple cameras while shooting any of them?
Shanley: No, no multiple cameras with Roger Deakins. You know, his work is extremely elegant and beautiful and you can’t do a multiple camera shoot and get that.
CS: But you did try to do longer takes of scenes though?
Shanley: Well, in the master, but then it’s broken down into many, many different pieces. It was a bitch, you know? (laughs) Everytime somebody glances in like the tea scene, anytime somebody glances at another person you’ve got to set the camera up to shoot that both ways just a glance. So that means you have two more lighting situations anytime somebody glances. It was a very complicated scene to shoot and shoot well.
CS: I know you went back to the Bronx to shoot it. Was it hard finding a place that had the right space and vibe for what you wanted?
Shanley: I went back to the neighborhood I grew up in. I shot the exteriors of the church school that I went to. The street with the guy playing the zither is the street that I grew up on. The rooftop that she cuts the pillow open is the rooftop that I played on. The alleyway that the kid looks out on and the title of the film comes up on, that’s the alleyway that I played in. When they go for the walk Mrs. Miller and Sister Aloysius in that housing development? That’s where I went to hang out all the time when I was a teenager. It was the next neighborhood over, so it was a tremendous amount of organic specificity.
CS: Well, they say you can’t go home, but I guess you proved them wrong. Your play received many Tonys and even the Pulitzer, but having been involved with the Oscars twenty years ago and having to do some of that for this movie, does it feel very different now?
Shanley: They didn’t do Q and A’s back then. It’s very different. (laughs) It’s like really different. Now I think it’s gotten a little crazy. I think there’s too many screenings with Q and A’s. I mean, it just seems nuts to me. I can see doing one on the East Coast and one on the West Coast, but you do ten and I think that’s a little out of control. I remember when I did “Moonstruck” I was sort of the new face, so, they did a million stories about that about this new guy and where he came from and all of that stuff. So I did a lot of press, but somehow this definitely is more. I certainly didn’t have to do a lot of press in Los Angeles back then. I did none in Los Angeles at all. In fact, Norman Jewison didn’t even want me to come to the premiere in Los Angeles. (laughs)
CS: Wow, those definitely were different times, but at least these days, the writers are getting a lot more credit and attention.
Shanley: And they have a lot to do with it. (laughs)
CS: I’m curious, after this experience, do you feel you’re ready to return to Hollywood and direct again?
Shanley: Yeah, I’d direct again. I’d direct again.
CS: Would it have to be something you’ve written?
Shanley: I don’t really know. I mean, I did the adaptation of “Alive” years ago. I adapted the book and Frank Marshall directed it, and I liked adapting that book. It’s a good book. It’s an interesting subject.