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Interview: John Patrick Shanley on “Doubt”

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12122008_doubt1.jpgBy Stephen Saito

In the Playbill for “Doubt,” playwright John Patrick Shanley left out his Oscar for “Moonstruck” and the highlights from his considerable stage career to shine a light on some of his earlier achievements, noting “He was thrown out of St. Helene’s kindergarten, banned from St. Anthony’s hot lunch program and expelled from Cardinal Spellman High School.” Shanley’s exit from Hollywood for the New York stage 18 years ago wasn’t nearly as dramatic, following the disappointment of his directorial debut “Joe Versus the Volcano,” but it was nonetheless a great loss for the movie business to be robbed of the writer/director just as he was coming into his prime.

So It’s no minor thing that Shanley has returned to direct a film adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Doubt,” a linguistically taut battle of wits between Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a progressive priest accused of wrongdoing and his accuser, a steadfast nun named Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), at a Catholic School in the Bronx in 1964. Days after a screening of the film and a post-screening Q & A where the mere mention of the once-maligned “Joe” brought thunderous applause, Shanley spoke about the trickiness of adapting modern plays into films and the parallels between “Doubt” and the recent presidential election.

What made you want to return to filmmaking?

I did “Joe Versus the Volcano” 18 years ago, and then I was just spiritually exhausted. I’d been working nonstop for 15 years. I’d been living in a hotel out [in Los Angeles] for ten months doing the movie. I went home and I knew that it was going to take me a significant amount of time to regroup, that I didn’t know what I really wanted to write about next. I needed to attend to my real life. [Producer] Scott Rudin came to me and said “I want to do another film with you,” and Jeffrey Katzenberg said the same thing. And I said no, I don’t want to.

12122008_doubt2.jpgI adopted two children, then I got eye disease and five rounds of surgery. I went blind in one eye, then the other eye, and that went on for three or four years. I got very enamored and involved with the theater and did a lot of plays. It wasn’t until I did “Doubt” and Scott Rudin came to me and said, again, “I think we should make this as a film and I think you should direct it” and I said, I think you’re right. And it turned out it was 18 years later.

Did the reception of “Joe Versus the Volcano” shake your confidence?

Oh, certainly, but confidence isn’t my main thing, fortunately. I just needed to figure out what I wanted to write about. I needed to live. You have to live in order to have something to write about — you get caught up in moviemaking and celebrities and money and it’s very intoxicating, but it doesn’t give you what you need as a writer. You have to do something else for that.

I haven’t actually said this to anybody, but the real link between “Joe” and “Doubt” is I leave significant room for the audience. It’s like you’re bringing something to this scene and I want you to go ahead and field the invitation. With “Joe,” I would take time, let a scene play. It was like, you’re going to start with one thing with this scene, but I’m going to give you a chance to feel and think something else.

The strength of “Doubt” as a play was how economical it was, not only in its dialogue, but in its spare staging and concentration of four characters. Were you surprised how cinematic this turned out to be?

This is the most difficult screenplay I’ve ever written, by far, the toughest page to page, finding the solution to the problem of using the materials of film to tell the story. I got to page 50 and I hated every page that I wrote. And I never do. I think that I’m delighted by what I write and I was not in this case. Then I wrote this scene with the woman cutting open the pillow and the feathers [the subject of Father Flynn’s second sermon on gossip] and I thought, that’s cinematic, and suddenly there was hope.

12122008_doubt3.jpgIt’s a tough nut to crack. Modern plays don’t translate easily into films because there are very few characters. If you go back and you look at “Inherit the Wind,” there’s a million people in the play. [Same with] “Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Miracle Worker,” “Of Mice and Men” — there are many, many characters and a feeling of real space in the plays and you could exploit that as a film, whereas this was four characters and a couple of locations. You have to realize that as a playwright, you’ve hypnotized yourself into a level of austerity that you can now dispose of.

The play takes place when you were growing up in the Bronx yourself. Were there personal touches you could throw in that you couldn’t with the play? The particularly bloody roast beef that the priests dined on seemed from a place of authenticity.

I use color all through the film. The principal’s office is an incredibly powerful green. The nuns’ sitting room where Sister Aloysius asks the young nun what she’s seen [regarding Father Flynn’s wrongdoing], there’s a sort of Virgin Mary blue, a very, very powerful blue. The meat is very red. And then the outside is very atonal, very gray and these are sort of things that crash into each other and part of the intent is to wake you up. It’s like “oh, look, it feels different now. It feels different again.” And there’s a psychological impact the color has that I’ve spent my whole life thinking about that I employ in the film.

Speaking of reds and blues, the play seemed especially potent because it was staged in 2005 at a time when moral certitude seemed to be a prevailing cultural attitude cultivated by the Bush administration, but the movie is arriving after a presidential election where such righteousness was clearly challenged — do you think the meaning of your work has changed?

The play and the film are set in 1964, which is a time of great change, but still a quiet time. Certainly in that neighborhood, that blue collar enclave, it was quiet. But you could hear over the hill a great noise and that was the ’60s coming to change everything. And things were going to get louder and louder. Sister Aloysius is like a commander on a beat-up old submarine who keeps trying to plug up one leak, then a fresh one will spring up with the lights going out — she’s battling the future and she’s going to lose. And that’s the biggest battle that she’s fighting. Not the priests, but the future itself. She knows things that are precious to her are going to be lost.

12122008_doubt4.jpgWe are again in such a time where people have been talking louder and louder until we reached a point in the zeitgeist where we’re exhausted with posturing and people posing as debaters who are in fact just in a power struggle. That’s now come to an end and people are dusting themselves off and going, we need to talk to each other. We need real public discourse. We’re not trying to overturn the others, we allow ourselves to be changed by other points of view, be affected by other points of view. So I think it’s very timely that the film’s coming out now because it’s an echo of that earlier time in reverse. Things that were lost then may be coming back now.

So, does getting kicked out of school when you’re younger prepare you well for the movie business?

Oh, I’m sure. I’ve done very well in the film business. Whenever I have wanted something, the film business has given it to me. I’m very fortunate. My big problem in life has always been what do I want? And a lot of the time, [there was] nothing that the film business could give me that would help me, of the struggles and the concerns. Just life itself, you know? Trying to lead an interesting life, a fruitful life is a big challenge.

[Photos: Meryl Streep; Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Adams; Streep – “Doubt,” Miramax Films, 2008]

“Doubt” opens in limited release today and expands on December 25th.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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