Podcasting Them Softly is thrilled to present a discussion with the phenomenally talented playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker JohnPatrickShanley. An Oscar winner for his MOONSTRUCK screenplay, John has a list of incredible big screen credits which include the Andes mountain plane crash drama ALIVE, the hilarious and offbeat cult classic JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, which he also directed, and the 2008 feature film version of his Pulitzer and Tony award winning dramatic play DOUBT, which he also directed, and which starred Meryl Streep, Viola Davis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams. An NYU graduate, John has written over 20 plays, he’s worked in television, notably on the HBO war drama LIVE FROM BAGHDAD, and has even dabbled in the opera, with a version of DOUBT put on by the Minnesota Opera in 2013. His most recent endeavor on Broadway was the limited engagement of his original play OUTSIDE MULLINGAR, which looked at life on an Irish country farm, and which received a Tony and a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Play. It was a real honor to be joined by someone of this magnitude, and we hope you enjoy listening to this fascinating and passionate discussion!
Doubt is an impeccable piece of filmmaking. From the Oscar-nominated writing to the air-tight direction to the spellbinding performances, it’s a precision-tooled work from a master storyteller who has an amazing grasp on what he wants to say. Adapted from his Pulitzer winning play of the same name, writer-director John Patrick Shanley crafted one of the most thought-provoking films from 2008 with Doubt, a piece of work that scorches the nerves because of how vital and possible all of it feels. Set in the 1960’s at a NYC Catholic school, Doubt tells the story of a priest who is accused of improper behavior with one of his altar boys. Philip Seymour Hoffman, forceful as ever, is Father Flynn, a seemingly good and decent man who takes a liking to the only black student/altar boy in the school. The scarily intense Meryl Streep is Sister Beauvier, the main accuser, who teams up with another nun, the fragile Sister James, played by Amy Adams, in order to try to bring Flynn down. Sister James is the one who thinks that something improper has occurred; she doesn’t have definitive proof but she merely thinks that something bad has happened. Shanley asks his viewers to make a decision at the end of the film as to who was right, who was wrong, who was lying, and who was telling the truth. This is a hard film to review without spoiling because there’s little to no fat on the bones of the story, with each scene feeding into the one previous and the one following. Every piercing line of dialogue is important to the overall narrative and every moment in each of the three central performances are so integral to the film’s outcome that it becomes a tricky movie to discuss without giving everything away.
And then you have an emotionally shattering Viola Davis, who stole some heartbreaking scenes as the altar boy’s deeply concerned mother; there’s not a false note played by any of these superlative performers, all of whom were bestowed with Oscar nominations for their riveting portrayals. With Doubt, what I think Shanley was trying to get his audience to ask themselves is: How do we really know what goes on behind a closed-door? Is it enough to simply think that someone has done something wrong before you attack their character? What is a person’s moral compass made up of, and how do we truly know the people we work and live with? How do we decide who is right and who is wrong when all of the facts aren’t made clear? Working with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Shanley brought an appropriately chilly visual aesthetic to the film, with Deakins stressing grays and browns and darkly lit interiors with tons of Dutch angles and long takes that maximize the dramatic potency of every face-off between the verbally sparring actors. Every line of dialogue crackles with authority, especially when spoken by Hoffman and Streep, and Adams, in the film’s most layered role, did excellent work, painting a portrait of a confused woman who may or may not have started something she has no way of ever controlling. And most importantly, Shanley knew exactly how to wrap up his story, and during the film’s final, stinging moments, you’ll be left with a lot of fodder for discussion after the final credits have rolled.
Nobody makes effortless romantic comedies like Moonstruck anymore. Beautifully written by John Patrick Shanley (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and wisely directed by Norman Jewison, this film is funny, heartfelt, genuine, and so perceptive of Italian culture it almost hurts. Cher was fantastic in a role that netted her a Best Actress Oscar (that hair!), Nicolas Cage was at his wild-eyed and passionate best, and the entire supporting cast just nailed every single o…pportunity that they were given, especially Olympia Dukakis (who took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress), Vincent Gardenia, Danny Aiello, and John Mahoney. Jewison was one of those steady and sturdy filmmakers who never seemed to get the credit he deserved, despite winning awards and almost always garnering critical acclaim; was it that he wasn’t a “Hollywood” guy that kept him off to the side a bit? He always seemed interested in tackling important social and/or political issues within the narratives of his films (he was also a prolific producer), and he was seen as a filmmaker who was able to turn the potentially inaccessible into something commercial.
Moonstruck was one of his more classically structured films, an effort that played to the conventions of its genre but one that enjoyed poking fun at the tropes. Shanley’s rich and frequently hysterical screenplay touched upon ideas of love, chance, and the importance of family, and at no time did the writing ever get overly sentimental or cloying, a trap that befalls many films of this ilk. Moonstruck opened on December 18, 1987, and immediately became a massive theatrical hit, spending 20 weeks in the top 10 of the box office, and grossing close to $100 million. And it’s remained a popular favorite for years due to the simple fact that it just flat-out works on every level. It’s romantic without being sappy, sexy without being puerile, and intelligent without being pretentious. Nothing was forced, the film was never vulgar just to be vulgar, there was a terrific sense of New York City running all throughout, while the low-key manner in which the plot unfolded should be held as an example for this variety of storytelling, which tends to get overstuffed and too complicated for its own good at times. I also hope that the people who created My Big Fat Greek Wedding are sending weekly royalty checks to Shanley and Jewison. “Snap out of it!”