I spoke to writer-director John Patrick Shanley, who has returned to film to direct his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Doubt.” Best known to film-goers as the Oscar-winning writer of “Moonstruck,” he has spent the past few years working in theater. “Doubt” is the story of a nun who accuses a priest of molesting a child and the movie, like the play, does not reveal which of them is telling the truth.
The film is set in 1964 and one of the striking differences is the very extreme and formal attire worn by the nuns in the movie, with big black bonnets. Where does that come from?
They were in an order founded by Mother Seton. She was a married woman with five kids who took her husband to Italy. When he died there she took the mourning costume of an aristocratic woman, including the black bonnet and black habit. Our costume designer, Ann Roth went back to the Sisters of Charity to get the details right, even though they no longer wear it. It is quite elaborate and constricting and has no zippers. And it is an incredibly beautiful frame for the face, almost like a Dutch master, with a deep feeling of period.
You have written for both theater and movies. How do you think differently about story-telling as you change mediums?
Theater is highly stylized and pared down to bare essentials for financial and aesthetic reasons. Look at older plays like “Of Mice and Men,” “The Miracle Worker” — older plays have like twenty people but “Doubt” has four. Adapting it was daunting, but also liberating. I thought, “Oh, now I can show the kids in the classroom, the nuns in the convent, the way they live, the neighborhood that feeds the congregation.” It was organic and natural to extend the perimeter.
What is it like to direct acting powerhouses like your cast in this film, especially when you had such strong performances by very different performers on stage?
Meryl Streep is feisty, very creative, very playful, like a very feisty cat. She is very mentally rigorous and she lives in a wide imagination. Working with her and Philip Seymour Hoffman together was great. This is the third thing they’ve done together. They have a real rapport and work in a similar way. She is always trying to get the better of Phil and he’s amused and protective. Then there is Amy Adams. Her character’s kind of a ping pong ball batted between them and Phil and Meryl tugged over her.
What was the advantage of setting the story in the past?
Two years after the story was set the nuns were no longer wearing those habits, kids were not acting that way, the Bronx was in flames. The change that was coming was extraordinary and not good. The person trying to keep the future from coming is the short-sighted one in our tradition and the other is progressive. But that is not always true. If you’re a tailor in 1931, trying to keep the future at bay is not a bad thing. In the Bronx of 1964 it would not have been a bad thing.
Why have the nun’s character reveal that she had been married?
The founder of the order was married and had five children. We all make assumptions about what nuns are like, but as the story goes on your assumptions are called into question and you have to say “There’s more to this person than my mental shorthand allows for.” That’s my intention, as the story goes on, to make you take your assumptions and look at them, to say “My assumptions are not going to carry me through this movie.”
Do you think parochial school can be good for kids?
I don’t see anything wrong with parochial school. I went to Cardinal Spellman. They threw me out. Later they were bragging that I’d gone there, so I started putting in my bio that they threw me out. I went up there to visit and I was very impressed. The student body is 90% black, there is so much spirit, it is so terrific, the educators are so committed – I started to send them a check. Talk about full circle! I couldn’t pass any of my subjects. It was just not the right place for me. I have two sons, one doesn’t respond to structure at all and the other one does.
The title of the movie refers not just to the questions of doubt and certainty and questioning assumptions of the characters but of the audience as well. Do people ever come up to you and say, “Come on, you can tell me, did he do it?”
That comes up a lot, that’s understandable. People are preconditioned. If the question is whether the guy is going to get the girl, at the end of the movie you answer the question. But that is not most people’s experience of life, unsettled questions. Giving an answer is satisfying but simplistic, just a punch line. I want more than anything else for people to start talking to each other again, a real discourse. Any small part that this movie can do to make that happen is a good thing. People are not affected by things other people say any more. People are exhausted by that. There is a hunger for a real exchange; we have to get back together as a community and that means communicating with each other.
We’re living in a time that is so balkanized. The identity of the West is so in transformation from the influx of all these kinds of people from all nationalities and religions side by side by side, the oddest ship of fools imaginable. Defining commonality is a long process. We are interconnected and in each other’s face and up each others coats, cross-pollinating in a way the world has never seen. We are establishing commonalities, banding together in cafés, reconvening at the café level, cooking like a mad soup, reaching out through the internet. Maybe it is all Gnostic, just between the individual and the divine. People have a desperate hunger for community and communal worship.