“You know, I’m an odd duck,” John Patrick Shanley muses from across the table in New York City. “I always was an odd duck. The things that turn other people on don’t turn me on and the things that do turn me on are not necessarily what other people are attracted to.”
This is not an eyebrow-raising admission from the man whose last directorial venture involved a journey to the island of Waponi Woo, where natives proudly displayed their leis of Orange Crush cans and prepared their sacrifice of Tom Hanks in 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano.
Eighteen years later, on the afternoon he prepares for the first preview of Romantic Poetry, the first musical he’s ever written and directed (Dreamgirls mastermind Henry Krieger is the composer) and which is advertised as a “crackpot musical romance,” Shanley confesses, “The entire time I’ve been doing this I’ve been reading Hitler’s Table Talk. Every day, when I’m not here, and that’s for balance. It’s like this is so good-hearted that I have to read the ravings of a beast just to keep my head on straight and be able to get through it.”
So it’s only natural that a self-actualized “odd duck,” balancing the giddiness of love with 800 pages of uncensored Hitler, is simultaneously readying for the December release of Doubt, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning play he adapted for the screen and directed with a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams.
Set in a Bronx Catholic school in 1964, it’s the story of a nun who confronts a priest she suspects of having improper relations with a student.
A writer adapting and directing his own play for the screen after a nearly two-decade absence from the director’s chair is a tricky endeavor, but Shanley’s concerns were more about the material itself. “This is a play with four people and I’ve got to turn it into a feature film and that’s a daunting prospect. No matter how I do this there are going to be extended dialogue scenes and those are extremely difficult to do in a feature film that’s supposed to reach a wide audience,” he explains. “It was about the microcosm of tiny things being big things and figuring out how to dramatize that and how to keep a scene in one room alive and vivacious.
“For me, the writing of a film is much more challenging than directing it,” continues Shanley. “People are used to seeing car crashes and naked people and guns going off and here are people who are heavily clothed, talking and there aren’t even any curse words. How do you do that?”
“For someone who’s been with something so long, he was open to it as if he’d written it yesterday and that’s really something,” says Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Father Flynn. The director rehearsed his actors prior to shooting—a luxury for some, a necessity for him. “You are hiring a very particular artist to bring themselves to the role,” explains Shanley. “The core of every person is rather mysterious and alive. It’s like a burning flame and you can’t control that. If you’re seeing that, then you know you’ve got something.”
For those looking for the neatly sewn up, happily-ever-after tale of Moonstruck or the renewed sense of purpose in life found in Joe Versus the Volcano, you will be sorely disappointed. Doubt does not deliver a pretty package of definitive answers and leaves more questions in its wake, which is precisely what makes it so invigorating and refreshing. “Art describes the absence,” offers Shanley. “I was describing something I wasn’t seeing in society. I wasn’t seeing doubt, I was seeing this kind of righteousness and certainty on all sides and it troubled me and it worried me and it reminded me of another time in my life. It reminded me of when I was in this Catholic school in the Bronx and everything was certain. The world started to rattle around outside the walls of that school and would soon impinge on that universe and forever change it and perhaps, some would argue, destroy it… I’m trying to communicate what it’s like to experience life the way I do. To have to live with that kind of paradox and ambiguity and still be an effective person,” he says. “The truth of the human spirit is an irregularly shaped silhouette. I think it’s a responsibility to accurately communicate your experience of life even if it doesn’t make sense. But if you really, really accurately communicate it, it will.”
So how did Shanley weather the experience of returning to work behind the camera? “When you write a movie, you direct it and everybody in the racket knows that,” asserts Shanley. “I write every shot… You can actually go and take that screenplay—if it’s a good screenplay—and you can shoot that screenplay and you will have a movie. Whereas a lot of people dream the ultimate thing they could do would be directing a movie, for me it’s more of a cross to bear… The enjoyable part was the actors,” says Shanley. “Amy Adams is a pisser; Meryl is just great; Phil suffers when he does a role like this, it’s like he’s carrying the weight of the world, but he’s a great guy. The hard part is how long it takes… You have to be incredibly creative for 10 percent of your day and 90 percent of the day you’re comatose. It’s just like no stimulation and then 10 percent over-stimulation. Phil asked me one day, late in the shoot, ‘So how’re you doing?’ And I said ‘Overstimulated and understimulated.’ He laughed and said ‘I understand completely.’”
“He was a real team player on this film,” declares Hoffman of his director. “He wrote the play, he wrote the screenplay, but that didn’t mean he was the be-all end-all of what everything meant and what everybody was supposed to do… He was open to interpretations. He had an open heart to everybody.”
“Somewhere in the middle of the first week, [unit production manager] Celia Costas asked me a question about how I wanted to handle some moment in the film that we were about to shoot,” Shanley recalls. “She said, ‘This is sort of what the feeling is about, how you’d handle this moment’ and I stopped and I looked at her and I said, ‘I just realized that you can direct a feature film without ever doing anything.’ That if you just stand there and sort of agree to things the whole movie will get made and it will be directed and you will have the credit and you didn’t do a goddamn thing,” he laughs. “It’s kind of astonishing when you think about it, but you have such a level of support and you have so many erudite people around that something’s gonna happen. I mean, if you won’t come out of your trailer, they’re gonna shoot that scene.”
But Shanley was far from a passive participant in the process, deftly peeling a discerning eye without passing judgment. In a pivotal moment, Adams, as Sister James, confronts her student (Joseph Foster) when he returns to her classroom after a visit with Father Flynn in the rectory. Her back is to the camera and we cannot see the child’s face. “I wanted to leave that moment to the audience. We don’t know that anything happened,” Shanley states.
Though it takes place more than 40 years ago, Doubt feels contemporary. Abuse within the Catholic Church is no stranger to headlines, but that’s not the issue at stake in the story. “Sometimes life is a little gray,” says Hoffman. “We don’t always know, we can’t always know. That’s something that’s really hard to live with.”
“Things are changing a lot right now,” concludes Shanley. “I don’t know where they’re headed—nobody does—but I think that it will lead to a period of greater self-examination, which can only be entertaining. It’s interesting to really live your life and really talk to other people and let other people affect you and affect other people in turn… That’s an interesting way to live… There are conversations to be had and I would like to think that more and bigger conversations could take place on screen.” MM