John Patrick Shanley when there was no doubt he was America’s best up and coming playwright

September 2009 By Philip Berk

On the strength of Doubt you’d expect the author to be forceful, intense, but John Patrick Shanley is anything but.

His gentle charm suggests someone who might have written an Astaire Rodgers musical of the 30s rather than the highly acclaimed Pulitzer Prize winning play, originally titled Doubt, a Parable.

Although early in his career Shanley did win an Academy Award for writing Moonstruck and followed that with Joe Vs. The Volcano, his solo effort as a director, but that was the last time Hollywood came calling.

How bruising was that experience?

“I had a tough time at Warner Bros. making that picture. They kind of went to war with me while I was making the film. I had shown them in preproduction all the story boards. And I shot exactly what I said I was going to shoot, and then while we were shooting they said, ‘What’s this?’ They became very irate and concerned and intrusive. And so I had this constant push and pull with them.  But I must confess to being very much a New Yorker. I was living at the Chateau Marmont  — at the time I didn’t drive — I lived there for ten months, and when the whole thing was over, still in this sort of war of attrition with these people, I went home, and my hometown newspaper the New York Times hated the film. I’m like, ‘Jeez, I don’t want to do this again very soon.’  So it took a while to recover. I felt ungrounded. But I’m first and foremost a writer, and I wanted to write something true. I felt from being uprooted from my home and having this enormous experience making this film, I sort of lost my way. I really had to go home and find myself again.  And it took quite a while. And during that time I adopted children, I got a terrible eye disease, advanced glaucoma, and had five rounds of surgery and went blind for a while. And that went on for three or four years. The confluence of those factors all sort of added up and convinced me that I not direct another film for a long time.  Although after I did Joe, Scott Rudin (who produced Doubt) came to me and said, ‘I want to do a film with you.’ And I said No. And then after all these years he came to me again and said, ‘You know we should do this film?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think we should.”

The Meryl Streep role was played by Cherry Jones in the theatre. Why didn’t you use the original cast?

“I thought about it, but this is what I came up against. A guy named Doug Hughes directed the play, and he did a great job, and I had a great respect for him, but I felt a little weird. I felt strange taking his work and calling it my own because he had worked with these actors and helped them develop very specific interpretations that they came up with. I didn’t feel comfortable with that. I  didn’t want to go out and recapture past glory. I wanted a fresh take on this. I knew I had to put my stamp on it and be able to say, ‘This is mine and this is what I think and what I’m expressing. This is my aesthetic.’ And that’s where I was coming from.”

The one aspect of the play didn’t ring true to me was Meryl’s flood of tears at the end.

How does he justify that?

“Well, let me ask you, have you ever been in a situation where you found yourself in an argument with someone, and you are arguing forcefully and long, and then somewhere along the way you feel a certain nausea because you actually no longer believe what you’re arguing in favor of. You have an inner erosion emotionally or intellectually about your position, and you wish you could abandon it.  Sudden reversals are very real and an experience that we all share as human beings.”

Which of course explains the meaning of the play, but how about the unexpected emotional outburst at the end?

“The shock of knowing that your exterior no longer marries with your interior is an emotional epiphany that can be very upsetting.” 

Did you ever find yourself in doubt while making the film?

“Every day,” he jokes. “Each day you’re striving for excellence. You watch people in the cast doing a take, and you ask yourself, ‘Did I get this right?  Did I let it slip away?” I wrote the script, and I thought, ‘Can people talk this much in a feature film and will anybody care?’ And then I thought, ‘Well they talked a lot in Moonstruck, and that worked out.’ I’m very interested in trying to write and direct a movie that allows people to have a rich and interesting experience where they can talk in an intelligent way. My great fear is to be bored at dinner. I want to be able to sit down with people and have an interesting conversation. I don’t have to agree with them. They don’t have to agree with me.” 

Were the characters based on real people?

“They’re based on many people. When I was a kid I lived in a street corner society. I always gravitated to the person on the fringe. There would be all these people who were powerful in a group, and then there would be some boy or girl on the edge of that street corner society who was not accepted. So from an early age I had a strong interest in black people and women because I felt I shared their disenfranchisement. When you have power you become boring and stupid. But when you see the group from the outside you’re more canny. That’s one of the reasons I have a black women and a couple of white women in this film.”