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The 58-year-old is perfectly happy to laugh at himself when explaining why he was in such a panic when converting “Doubt” into a full-fledged screenplay, then going on to direct the movie, which stars Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and stage actress Viola Davis. The film comes out Dec. 12 from Miramax. It wasn’t necessarily because the last film he helmed, 1990’s “Joe Versus the Volcano,” was a box-office flop — and if he feels the pressure to repeat his 1988 Oscar for writing “Moonstruck,” he doesn’t show it. “The IRS was hovering,” he explains, cracking up. “I had this one year where I just forgot to pay taxes and I had no idea. Then that bill came in and I was like, ‘Ho-ly mackerel, I better finish this screenplay.’” Peals of laughter.
Too bad that rewriting the Tony award-winning “Doubt,” a four-person play about two nuns who suspect a priest of “interfering” with the only black student at the parochial school, wasn’t that simple. “It was the hardest screenplay I’ve ever done,” says Shanley, who credits producer Scott Rudin with transferring the story from stage to screen. “I didn’t say this to Scott, but my reaction was, ‘Why this? Couldn’t it be an easier film?’” The challenges included adding scenes that brought offstage characters to life, creating the interactions between the priest and the boy and bringing movement to the naturally static world of a play.
As for Shanley’s return to the director’s chair after an 18-year hiatus, he didn’t hesitate to accept, though he admits to a few nerves during the shoot. “Anyone who takes on the directing of a film, unless you are dead, is going to be nervous. It’s a big job and it’s really easy to make a big mistake. There are a lot of different ways you can go down,” he says, perhaps recalling “Joe Versus the Volcano,” which left him “burned out.” It helped that for “Doubt” he had stars like Streep and Hoffman, who he cast for the simple reason that “I knew he would make Meryl sweat. There was no way she was going to wipe the floor with Phil. He’s like a brick wall coming at you,” says Shanley, who first began writing plays while at New York University.
Another boon was that Shanley was able to shoot much of the footage in his old Bronx neighborhood. The convent school in the film, for example, is the actual one he attended, and also featured is the block where he grew up, the youngest in a family of five. “I’ve had the fantasy of going back and never coming back to Manhattan,” admits the playwright, who is divorced and the father of two 16-year-old adopted sons. “It’s a self-referential world, though it’s changed an enormous amount since I lived there.” To ensure accuracy, he brought on board his first grade teacher, who is the basis for Adams’ character of Sister James, right down to her name. The real Sister James had reconnected with Shanley when “Doubt” was produced on Broadway, and he hired her as a technical consultant for scenes like those revealing life behind the closed doors of the convent. (The playwright is no longer a churchgoing Catholic, though he rejects the term “lapsed,” saying, “It suggests slovenliness.”)
Such a personal relationship with the material, points out Miramax head Daniel Battsek, is one of the reasons Shanley was a natural pick to direct. “It’s so connected to him,” says Battsek, adding that Miramax will be pushing Shanley for some Oscar nods. “He is so knowledgeable. It was not hard to imagine that he was the only person who could really bring this story to life.”
Adams says, “It became an obsession to work with John. I loved the writing. He is patient, intelligent and intuitive.”
The racial tension depicted in the film is also true to what Shanley witnessed as a boy. “It was a segregated neighborhood. If a black kid walked into that neighborhood, they were beaten,” says the writer, who himself got into his fair share of fistfights that he attributes to his tendency to “say things you just don’t say.”
“You know, an artist feels black,” he continues. “The ‘otherness’ I felt certainly made me identify with that.”
There’s more to the story that Shanley hasn’t revealed publicly until now, preferring to demur on the inspiration for the troubling student-teacher relationship at the center of the “Doubt” plot. But as it turns out, that, too, is based on his own experiences. At 15, after getting kicked out of various local schools, he was sent away to board at St. Thomas More Preparatory School. There, he remembers, “most of the students didn’t like me and most of the teachers didn’t like me,” except for one, who became his protector of sorts. It wasn’t until his 30th reunion that he discovered the same teacher had abused at least one of his classmates. “That certainly was the biggest impetus for that aspect of the story,” says Shanley. “[Only] later on, when I looked back on it, could I admit to myself that one of the big reasons that he was my great champion is that he was attracted to me. Obviously he had damaged some boys in a significant way, but in my case I benefited from this same quality that this guy had. And that equation was in my head. It’s like, what do I do with that?”
But filmgoers shouldn’t look to Shanley for the answers to the “Doubt” referred to in the title, though he admits he had a clear idea of whether or not the fictional character of the boy was molested when he wrote the script. “‘Doubt’ is about freeing the audience from being told what to think and what to feel,” he says. “And even the [musical] score is very careful not to say you should feel this and you should feel that. It’s like, ‘This is for you. Now, think and feel for yourself.’”