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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.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.