Playwright, screenwriter, and director John Patrick Shanley has the distinction of winning a Best Writing Academy Award for his first produced screenplay, the swooningly romantic 1987 hit Moonstruck. Shanley followed it up with the quirky Jodie Foster drama Five Corners (released around the same time as Moonstruck) and 1989's The January Man. In 1990, Shanley made a spectacular directorial debut with the delightful, life-affirming romantic comedy Joe Versus The Volcano, a film that underperformed at the box office, but has gone on to become a cult favorite.
After exhausting, frustrating battles with studio executives over Volcano, Shanley returned to the theater, but he still dabbled in screenwriting with two 1993 projects—the survival film Alive and the animated dinosaur adventure We're Back—and the 1995 hit Congo. In 2002, he picked up an Emmy for his teleplay for Live From Baghdad. Shanley added more awards to his overflowing trophy case when his smash-hit 2004 play Doubt: A Parable won a Pulitzer, a Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, and the Tony for Best Play. Doubt also provided an entryway back into directing. After an 18-year gap between directorial efforts, Shanley helmed the critically acclaimed film adaptation of Doubt, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Shanley about protecting his screenplays, men in gorilla costumes, and Doubt's relationship with the Iraq War.
The A.V. Club: Is it true that you have a clause in your contract that your words cannot be changed?
John Patrick Shanley: Oh, that's not true, but I think I know the genesis of that idea. What I did was, for my first four films, I wrote them on spec, and when people wanted to make them, I would get on a plane and I'd sit down with that person, like Norman Jewison, and I'd say, "Now this is a screenplay, and I own it, and I'm not going to sell it to you unless you intend to make this screenplay. If you have notes, that's fine, let me hear them now, let's talk about them and let's see if we can agree. If we can, we're in business, and if we can't, we're not and I'm going home." So I did that on four films in a row, and then people just slowly got used to it. They were like, "You've got to talk to this guy." [Laughs.]
I also had very powerful protectors, like Steven Spielberg, Norman Jewison, and Scott Rudin, who would protect the script. They weren't going to allow anyone to interfere with that script. They'd give me their thoughts, but they would never impose them on me.
AVC: That's definitely not the norm in Hollywood. It seems like screenwriters are regarded as chefs, and if the studios want 15 different chefs, that's what they pursue.
JPS: That's what happened on Live from Baghdad. I did that movie with HBO about CNN and the Gulf War. This guy was a journalist who wrote a book about it, and then he wrote a screenplay from the book, but he had never written a screenplay before, and it needed work. They brought me in and I very much wanted to write about that subject, so I did a page-one rewrite on the thing, and it came out pretty good. We got within a couple of weeks of shooting the film, and the director that they had hired, he couldn't bear it that I had such a strong point of view. He fired me, I found out through an executive, for no discernable reason whatsoever, and then hired somebody who basically didn't want to touch the screenplay because he thought it was really good, but then did some work on it and felt very apologetic about the whole thing. That's the kind of thing that people run into all the time. I only ran into it that once. I was fired basically because this guy's ego didn't want any one screenwriter to be the author of the film.
AVC: With films like Moonstruck, it seems like you're the dominant voice rather than director Norman Jewison. Do you think because you have such a strong voice, it was inevitable that you'd go on to direct?
JPS: Maybe. When I write a screenplay—and I think this is true for a lot of people—you direct the movie. That's what writing a screenplay is. Then what very often happens is, the director comes in, and you have these conversations, and gradually you incorporate the director's ideas into it, and maybe then it goes as far as to be the co-writer of the screenplay, that kind of thing. That was never my story. I write the screenplay as it's directed. I describe the shot, and you can take the screenplay and shoot the movie.
AVC: How does working on something like Congo compare to your more personal projects?
JPS: [Producer] Kathy Kennedy and [director] Frank Marshall came to me with Congo and asked me to read it. They're good friends of mine. They're terrific people. They gave me the book, and I read it. I called them and said, "I read it." They said, "Well, what'd ya think?" And I said, "I like the title." This is dead accurate. This is exactly what I said, "I like the title." Then I paused and I said, "I like that it starts in San Francisco and they go to the Congo. I like that."
And they said, "Great! We'll make the deal." And I was like, "Holy mackerel, they wanted this to happen." So I said, "Okay," because I felt a great loyalty to them. I said "I'll do it, but the great white hunter has to be black. I can't do this thing where this white guy is telling all these black people what to do, I just can't bring myself to do it." [Laughs.] And they said, "Fine, the great white hunter will be black."
I went back to New York and did revisions. There's all sorts of stuff going on in a heavy tech movie like that that you have to revise to deal with. Then I was in New York when I saw the first cut of this film, and I realized Frank had used guys in hairy suits and hairy masks for the gorillas, and not some, you know, process like Jurassic Park, to make the gorillas move differently than people. I knew we were dead. [Laughs.] That's how smart I am; it was the biggest opening in Paramount history, and made $155 million.
AVC: What do you feel was gained and lost in adapting Doubt to film?
JPS: Well, when I tried to adapt it the first time, I got to page 50, and I was just in despair. I couldn't. I felt it was bad. Then I wrote this scene where the woman cuts open the pillow and the feathers fly off the roof, and I thought, "Well, that's cinematic. That works. Now if I can go back and make the other 49 pages do that, I'll have something." So I went back to the beginning with this slight encouragement, and I thought, the entrance of Sister Aloysius [the stern, domineering nun played by Meryl Streep], if that were a major entrance, and it were during Father Flynn's sermon, then that becomes cinematic, because you have an important cutaway, and you're introducing the conflict.
Then I just had to solve the problems that each scene posed on a scene-by-scene basis. What I found—modern plays have this problem. The modern economics of the theater is such that we write plays with fewer and fewer characters. Back when you were doing plays like The Miracle Worker, you had 20, 25 people in the cast. When you go to make the film, that's not such a stretch. But when you're doing plays like Proof, it's just five people or something in the thing, and it gets to be a really difficult re-conception.
Doubt had four people in it. I had to wake myself up from the hypnosis of the theater and realize that it was an asset to show the kid who Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn were fighting over. It's important to show the teachers teaching in the classroom, to show the working-class neighborhood, the congregation, the nuns in their convent, how they live, the priest in the rectory, how they live differently than the nuns. Those things were assets. I understood that I was going to have to show the priest's relationship with the boy so that you understood it, and that you were going to see the boy, most importantly of all, that they were all fighting over. So I sort of woke up and realized those were all natural expansions from an artificial solution that I had come up with in the first place for the stage, and that the film was actually the more natural way to tell the story.
AVC: You've said that Doubt is the first in a trilogy about hierarchies and America.
JPS: Well, I already wrote the second one. It's called Defiance—if I do anything with it as a film, I'll change the title because, you know. But that's about the military. It's about the Marine Corps in early 1971. I was in the Marine Corps in 1971.
The idea "Where does authority come from?" is fascinating to me. And also the idea of a chaplain is fascinating to me, because it's a man of the cloth in uniform, and it's the uniform of a killing machine. Back when I was in the Corps, when I saw that, I was amazed by it. I went to the church, because they make you go to church when you're in basic training. Really, they don't make you go, but if you don't go, you have to do horrible things, like clean the bathroom with a toothbrush or something.
When you go to the church, the murals on the walls are of planes machine-gunning other planes, and explosions, and guys fighting and stabbing each other, in the church! And I thought, "Man, this is just surreal." It's like a military hospital, where it says "Our job is to keep as many men at as many guns for as many days as possible." You're going in there with an illness, and they're basically saying "We're just gonna patch you together so you can get back to work."
But these institutions, like the church or the military, they're really great reflectors of the value system of the culture. It's a great way at looking at the value system of a society or of a culture, by looking through one of these hierarchies. I don't know what the third one will be yet.
AVC: You've talked about Doubt being a parable for the Iraq war.
JPS: I was rehearsing a play about Israel and the Palestinians called Dirty Story, and I was sitting on a break with a friend of mine, an actor in the show, and we had nothing to do, and we were staring at the empty stage, and I said, "I think I'm going to write a play called Doubt." He said, "What's it about?" I said, "That's all I've got."
By the time we opened that play, we had very good reviews, but we had trouble getting an audience, because everybody was home watching the invasion and didn't want to come out. I was really affected by the atmosphere of uncertainty that I was seeing on these political talk shows and news reporting, and even the social settings I was in, where people seemed incredibly certain that there were weapons of mass destruction, and yet there was no evidence there were. And the people who were questioning that in these debates were being ridiculed as weak. And I thought, "What happened to doubt being a hallmark of wisdom?" It's something—something's gone wrong with the culture. So I wanted to write a play that invited you to doubt again.