Interview: John Patrick Shanley from Doubt

We had the honor of sitting down with John Patrick Shanley, the writer and director of Doubt (On Blu-ray and DVD on April 7, 2009). Here’s what he had to say:

Mr. Shanley, you directed your first movie in 1990 (Joe Versus the Volcano) and after a long hiatus you returned with Doubt last year. Why so long? In the meanwhile, did you prefer working on theatre?

John Patrick Shanley: After the long shoot of Joe vs. the Volcano I just wanted to go home and get back to my roots as a playwright. I adopted two children, which took much of my time, and dealt with advanced glaucoma in both eyes, which caused intermittent blindness and required multiple surgeries. The play Doubt was a phenomenon and there was the opportunity to turn it into the film, with Scott Rudin, so we went with that.

Considering that the movie is based on a play, what were the challenges of staging something that had already been staged?

John Patrick Shanley: The first great challenge was turning the play into a screenplay, because the play only had 4 characters. Turning modern plays into films is quite challenging. Much has changed since the days of Inherit the Wind. What at first seemed a difficulty, with the paucity of characters, turned out to be the answer, which was that it was unnatural to leave so many characters out. As a film it made sense to include the children they were arguing about, the congregation and the working class neighborhood.

What do you find so fascinating about doubt and uncertainty?

John Patrick Shanley: Doubt is an open door; certainty is a closed door. I’m interested in the open door.

Were the plot of the film (and the play) inspired by true events, given the fact that you attended parochial schools and you are familiar with that environment?

John Patrick Shanley: The background of the story is utterly accurate to my experience as a child. The foreground is made of whole cloth, or is fiction.

Is there a particular reason why you set the story in 1964, right after John F. Kennedy was killed?

John Patrick Shanley: The story is set in 1964 because it was a time of great change, of certainty crashing into the 60s.

I’m quite interested in the way a playwriter works his own work and tries to give it a cinematical treatment. Where did you look for ideas? Which is the scene in the film, new and not in the play, you’re more proud of?

John Patrick Shanley: There are a number of scenes not in the play–there are only four characters in the play. All the scenes with the children are new. Scenes in the rectory or convent or classroom were not in the play. The film is sculpted around the performance of the actors. Rather than the actors having to conform to a set notion of how a scene should be shot, Roger Deakins and I worked around the performances. That seemed to be the way to tell the story.

Talk about working with the amazing Roger Deakins as your DP and what he brought to the film.

John Patrick Shanley: Roger is a gimlet-eyed, taciturn, extremely witty cameraman. He also happens to be one of the top three cameramen in the world. He works with speed, humility, and great good humor, providing a lighting environment that gives the maximum freedom to the performer. We collaborated on the composition of the shots. Sometimes he held sway, sometimes I did. It was a great collaboration.

How hard it was to assemble an amazing casting for the film?
Did the actors see the play before taking the job or did you rather they wouldn’t have so they could work on the script you designed for the movie?

John Patrick Shanley: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams had seen the play. Viola Davis had not. Assembling the cast was remarkably easy, with the exception of Viola Davis. Meryl came right on board, Phillip took a day to consider, Amy came to me and requested the role. Only for the role of Mrs. Miller did we have to do screen tests. Five people read, and Viola affected the camera crew so visibly that the role was incontrovertibly hers.

How did you work with actors, developing their characters, considering that in the movie there are two brilliant performers like Streep and Hoffman and two newbies like Adams and Davis?

John Patrick Shanley: I rehearsed the script for three weeks like you would a play. Over the course of those three weeks, the goal was to get all four actors in the same world. Viola is actually an extremely accomplished stage actress of wide experience. Amy was the greenest of the four, and she isn’t even that green. By the third week we’d formed an extremely tight ensemble.

In Doubt there is comparison between tradition and innovation. In these days to face the economic downturn we should get back real old values?

John Patrick Shanley: I don’t think you can ever go back, but nothing ever gets lost. The history of the human race informs every person’s actions. Change always involves loss. What we are experiencing as loss now is an aspect of change. I think the changes that are going on in the world now needed to transpire, but there will be blood on the floor.

Do you have more plays you intend to adapt for the big screen?

John Patrick Shanley: I’ve just written a new original screenplay on spec. I’m very much enjoying not adapting a play into film. It’s easier to conceive of a story as cinematic from the outset. Adapting plays is a bitch.

Did you feel comfortable stepping back into the role as movie director?

John Patrick Shanley: Yes.

How difficult was the post production process, knowing you could sway the audience’s opinion on Father Flynn’s guilt by the way the film was cut?

John Patrick Shanley: As a storyteller, I didn’t know whether Father Flynn was guilty so I know that nothing I shot would definitively answer that question. Having said that, yes, we had to be very careful in editing not to overload the narrative one way or the other.

You won an Academy Award for your Moonstruck script in 1988; as a writer, how does winning an Oscar compare to a Pulitzer Prize?

John Patrick Shanley: Winning the Pulitzer is a really mellow, fabulous thing. You don’t sit and wait for them to open an envelope. You already know you won, and you have a nice lunch. Oscars are more stressful. I had to sit for three hours and wait for my category. I had to fly to Los Angeles. For the Pulitzer I just had to go up to Columbia. But, while the president of Columbia gave me the Pulitzer, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck gave me the Oscar, so that was better.

Where did you get the idea for “Doubt”?

John Patrick Shanley: I wrote Doubt during the invasion of Iraq, and I was listening to a lot of people on television sounding very certain about the way things were, and I felt oppressed. And when I put a name to the oppression I felt, I was that I had doubts. When I named the feeling of oppression, it reminded me of another period of my life, in the 60’s, when I was feeling oppression and I had doubts.

Was there a particular incident, rumor, or scandal that inspired Doubt?

John Patrick Shanley: No.

Why did you make the play into a movie and what is the added value of it?

John Patrick Shanley: When I told the story as a play, I had to greatly compress the world of the story. When I did it as a film, I was able to open it up to its natural dimensions, which included the students, the nuns in their convent, the priests in their rectory, and the congregation.

Could you have ever had a screenplay like DOUBT directed by anyone else, as had happened with other screenplays you have written?

John Patrick Shanley: Sure somebody else could have directed it. I don’t know what they would have done and I don’t know what they would have done with it. But it would not have looked like the film I did.

You changed the title of your play from DOUBT to DOUBT – A PARABLE. The movie then hit the screen, without being a parable by title. Why is that? Isn’t it a parable anymore?

John Patrick Shanley: The play was called Doubt: A Parable, the film was called Doubt. The play was widely performed enough that people had a sense that it was about more than the simple story that was being told, and I didn’t want to hit them over the head with it.

Mr. Shanley, what interpretations or variations that were absent form the original play were contributed by the cast of the screen adaptation?

John Patrick Shanley : Meryl Streep has a moment in her great confrontation scene with Phillip Seymour Hoffman where she begins to, in answer to his question, “Have you ever done anything wrong?” confess, as one would confess a sin to a priest. That was an interpretation I had never thought of. But I liked it.

Meryl Streep is regarded as an actor’s actor, and is obviously loved by the general public (Mamma Mia!!). What sort of qualities does she bring to a production? Is she too big to direct?

John Patrick Shanley: No. She’s utterly, eminently directable. She is mischievous, extremely intelligent–an antic presence in the room. Even she doesn’t know what she’s up to half of the time. For that reason, she likes and enjoys being directed. She doesn’t want to end up on the moon.

Does the storm in the movie have a deeper meaning?

John Patrick Shanley: That’s for the viewer to decide. I make it, they interpret it. That’s the way it goes down.

How did you approach the cinematic adaptation of the opening sermon?

John Patrick Shanley: Well, when I was re-writing the screenplay I realized it had to be a scene about the two combatants coming face to face for the first time, and that dictated the way I wrote the scene and shot it. Sister Aloysius’s entrance is in counterpoint to Father Flynn’s sermon.

Has there been any talk in bring “Doubt” back to Broadway or doing a national tour?

John Patrick Shanley: No. Doubt is the most produced play in the US at this time. God knows it’s having sufficient exposure.

Doubt happens in many surroundings. Why did you choose this particular setting?

John Patrick Shanley: The setting chose me. I grew up in a working class neighborhood in the Bronx. Doubt is realistically placed there. The exteriors include the church school that I went to, the street I grew up on, the rooftops that I played on, and the alleyways where I skulked.

How challenging was the filming of the final confrontation scene?

John Patrick Shanley: It was a brutal act of athleticism on the part of the actors. To cover this properly, we had to ask them to go to an extremely demanding place over and over again for three days. We had to break the scene down into a thousand looks and small, realistically motivated actions in order to justify the number of camera moves necessary to keep the scene vital.

Do you sometimes yearn for more certainty in life?

John Patrick Shanley: I sometimes yearn for death.

What’s your favorite scene or quote from this adapted screenplay?

John Patrick Shanley: That’s not my job.

DOUBT was your first work as a director since the 1990s JOE vs. THE VOLCANO, also based on one of your plays. What took you so long to get back to the director’s chair?

John Patrick Shanley: After the long shoot of Joe vs. the Volcano I just wanted to go home and get back to my roots as a playwright. I adopted two children, which took much of my time, and dealt with advanced glaucoma in both eyes, which caused intermittent blindness and required multiple surgeries. The play Doubt was a phenomenon and there was the opportunity to turn it into the film, with Scott Rudin, so we went with that.

Did you know right away that you wanted to turn your play Doubt into a movie?

John Patrick Shanley: No. I didn’t have any idea that I was going to adapt Doubt into a film until I was asked to adapt Doubt into a film. When I accepted the job, I had to figure out how the hell I was going to do it.

Why didn’t you use the original actors from the play?

John Patrick Shanley: Someone else directed the play–Doug Hughes. He did a great job. I had no desire to take his work and call it my own. I hadn’t directed in 18 years and I felt it was important to put an original stamp on this.

How much input did you have with the casting?

John Patrick Shanley: I cast the film.

How was the cooperation with Miramax, did they give you enough freedom?

John Patrick Shanley: The chief collaborator was Scott Rudin was the intermediary between me and Miramax. Having said that, Miramax did voice their opinions, and those opinions were useful. So it was a good collaboration.

The subject dealt with in the film (and the play) is quite relevant to our time. Why did you choose to place it in the 1960’s?

John Patrick Shanley: I wrote the play during the invasion of Iraq. There were a lot of people on television speaking with great certainty about the “weapons of mass destruction,” and I had a feeling of oppression. I realized the feeling that I was experiencing was doubt. That reminded me of this earlier time in my life, in the 60s, when I was surrounded by certainty, and I experienced doubt for the first time. The story grew from there.

Do you know if father Flynn is guilty of these horrible acts or is this a secret even to you?

John Patrick Shanley: As a storyteller, I didn’t know whether Father Flynn was guilty so nothing I shot definitively answers that question. We were also very careful in editing not to overload the narrative one way or the other.

The viewer is left behind with a feeling of doubt in the ending. Did you created a clear image of what happened for yourself?

John Patrick Shanley: The tale is told from the nuns point of view. We know what they know, and they don’t know everything.

Although this film (and the play) ultimately isn’t specific about what happened, did you receive any negative response from the Catholic church?

John Patrick Shanley: No, to the contrary. I’ve heard from a very large number of priests, nuns and brothers, and they uniformly respond in a positive way to the material.

Did it matter to you whether the actors knew the original play or not?

John Patrick Shanley: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams had seen the play. Viola Davis had not. They had all read the play.

Amy Adams, was there a particular role of hers that you liked that drew you to cast her in the pivotal role in the film?

John Patrick Shanley: Junebug.

Interview By: Emma Loggins

Doubt Official Site

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