John Patrick Shanley, 58, is the Irish American playwright, screenwriter, and director of "Doubt," the highly touted new film opening this Friday starring Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams and Viola Davis based on his Pulitzer Prize winning play.
The new screen drama begins when a nun, Sister Aloysius, played by Streep, suspects Father Flynn (Hoffman), a priest at a Catholic school in the Bronx of sexually abusing an impressionable young black student. Soon the fates of several lives are riding on the outcome.
It's the first film that Shanley has directed in over a decade (he's the Oscar winning writer of the 1980s classic "Moonstruck" that starred Cher in an Academy Award winning performance and made over $80 million at the box office) and the likelihood is that "Doubt," with its acclaimed cast, will be both a critical and box office darling that will stack up nicely with Shanley's greatest successes.
Shanley, whose father was born in Co. Westmeath, has been divorced twice and is the father of two 16-year-old adopted sons. Now he lives in Brooklyn, and during an interview with the Irish Voice on Tuesday, he talked about his Irish roots and his storied career.
"My father came from a place about 11 kilometers outside Mullingar, a place called Killucan. I've been many times. My father came here when he was 24 and later in life he used to go back every year," Shanley said.
"When he got too old to travel back by himself I went with him. I ended up going back a lot. He passed away in 1995 and I continued going back after that. The farm's been in the family for over 100 years. Yeah, I guess they've seen a little bit of everything and nothing at all."
Shanley suddenly roars with laughter at this double-edged pronouncement. He has the born playwright's sense of the tragedy and absurdity of life, and like all the best ones, it often makes him laugh uproariously.
Paying his dues before stardom finally hit saw Shanley working at some classic Irish American jobs. At various times he was a bartender, a locksmith, an elevator man and more.
"I was a moving man and a house painter for a very significant period of time. I was always painting somebody's apartment. I never had to advertise," he says.
"When you walk down the street covered in paint people hire you. It's the damndest thing. If you ever find yourself short of money just walk down the street covered in paint, I guarantee you'll have a job in about four blocks!"
While painting houses and moving furniture Shanley still found the time to hone his craft as a writer, in time honored fashion, writing poems on the back of bills between shifts.
"I worked for a company called Charles and Company, a chain of delicatessens in Manhattan. I was a relief manager for three years. I still have in my files poems I wrote on the back of Charles and Company white paper bags," he says.
But how does a working class Irish American kid growing up in the Bronx make his way toward Broadway?
"To be honest I think I was born a playwright. I didn't know it because I had never met one," Shanley feels.
"I saw two plays in a high school production, other than that I never saw a play until I was 22. But I was a poet, I was always writing. Then once I tried writing dialogue at about the age of 23 that was it. I stopped writing anything else. I wrote one play after another.
"At school I failed every subject they presented. I couldn't pass any courses and I was eventually thrown out for claiming I had no belief in God. It was a Christian Brothers school and they just didn't give a damn.
"All I did all day long was read one novel after another and write poetry. They even failed me in English! If it happened to fit the way your mind operated you got a very good education. If it didn't, forget it."
Shanley found out a few years ago that his old school, St. Anthony's, was bragging that he had gone there. In response Shanley placed a note in the Broadway program that he had in fact been thrown out.
"Someone called me up and said, 'Look why don't you come back and talk to the students. If you'll forgive us we'll forgive you.' So I went up to the Bronx and the student body is probably 90% black now, and they were so impressive and so sweet and working so hard.
"I started to send them money after that. It was a complete full circle in my attitude to the place."
The challenge of presenting "Doubt" - a dense four person play that won four Tony Awards in 2005, including Best Play, and the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Drama to Shanley - on the screen was a major one, but Shanley shot the film in the Eastern Bronx where he grew up, and that gave the film the depth it needs.
"You have to wake yourself up from the hypnosis of the theater where you tell yourself you should tell this story with the fewest number of people possible," Shanley says.
"Suddenly I could show the world of the play, the nuns in their convent, the priests in the rectory, how they all lived, the congregation, the texture of the people there. It was much more natural to tell the story through film."
In interviews, the film's Oscar winning stars, Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Father Flynn, have said how much they enjoyed working with the playwright, including making suggestions about their characters that made it into the finished film.
"My job is to make the film beautiful and cast it really well. When you get first-rate actors you're dealing with peers. You don't push people like that around," Shanley says.
"You ask for their thoughts and you tell them yours. When you hire talented people it makes your job easier. Hiring Meryl was having a tremendous resource. She's very suggestible, very open, she wants to do a good job and respect her character."
In "Doubt," Streep plays Sister Aloysius, the no nonsense head of her order of nuns. In the film we see the tightrope that a powerful woman must walk in order to exercise and maintain her influence, which can at any time be overruled by men.
"The Catholic Church at that time - and still - is a hierarchy. And a very definite one, just like the military. Authority comes by degrees from the Pope, through the cardinals, through the bishops to the priests. There's a very definite chain of command," feels Shanley.
"And right at the bottom are the nuns. It was very obvious if you bothered to look. Even as a kid I noticed that the priests smoked Pall Mall's and would have a rye and ginger ale at the bar, and the nuns were nowhere to be seen."
The nuns who taught Shanley were under a vow of silence, and they were up and dressed and had attended Mass long before he saw them in his classroom.
"They went through a number of prepetory ablutions. For four or five hours every morning they were in utter silence (they had taken vows). They stayed that way until a bell was rung by the Mother Superior giving them permission to speak."
As a bright, rebellious teenager, Shanley often criticized the hierarchies he saw all around him. But to his immense surprise he later discovered that not everyone was as unhappy with their lot as he at first suspected.
"I've talked to a lot of nuns from that time and here's the thing - they were happy then. And they're happy now," says Shanley.
"Meryl went up to the Bronx to have dinner with some of them and she came back and told me, 'They're happy, John.' It was kind of a shocking thing to me. It complicated my story. It's not a bad life up there, it turns out. They live their life in service and in poverty and they walk with a light step."
Shanley wrote "Doubt" during the run up to the Iraq war, and there's no question that the overheated political atmosphere of the time found its way into his script. In an era of political conviction - some might even say arrogance - Shanley was standing up for uncertainty.
"There were many things that prompted me to write the play, but the run up to the Iraq war was one. I was watching all these people on television talk with great certainty about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," he recalls.
"My question was what makes you think there are any - I haven't seen any evidence. The reply was, 'Well everyone is saying Iraq has WMD, so it must be true.' So I thought, this is religion. This is an act faith. And what a strange religion it is."
We have all known people who have been certain without evidence; we have all been those people too. We are sometimes right, sometimes wrong.
If there's anything about Sister Aloysius that we find terrifying, Shanley wants to remind us we can also find it in the mirror.
Hoffman has said that Shanley has privately divulged information about Father Brendan Flynn's background and actions to him, but has refused to tell the other cast members. So did he do it?
"What is it? I have no belief or interest in the usefulness of words like good, evil, innocence or guilt. I think all of those of words are incredibly simplistic templates placed over the complex experience of life," says Shanley.
"I would venture that that idea - the idea of guilt or innocence, good or evil - has crippled and blinded this country for a decade or longer. It has prevented any discourse and caused massive manipulations of people who just want that kind of answer. Life doesn't really provide that kind of answer. Life is more complicated than that. Life is more grown up."