John Patrick Shanley is a legend and a pal. It’s strange to think of a friend that way, but I do. A bit like being chummy with King bloody Arthur.
He’s a playwright, screenwriter, film and theatre director. His plays have been performed all over the world while his canon of work has received the highest accolades in the industry – Including an Academy Award, Tony Award, and Pulitzer Prize to name a few.
Before his success, John was born and raised in the Bronx, New York City to an Irish-American family with five kids. Now his home is in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – the borough of artists – or formerly I should say. Though once he’s there, his presence should maintain the shred of artistic integrity left.
He has a colourful, brash Bronx cadence and waves of white hair. He’s young, he looks young with an infinite, youthful spirit which comes out in wicked flirtations here and there. Geniuses are painfully individual and that he is.
So when I asked to interview him for loaded – I was nervous. I wouldn’t be chatting with JPS about his day or complaining about mine; I would be digging into his professional life, into that genius – which is prolific, to say the least.
He wrote and directed the cult film, Joe Versus the Volcano – a project that was the first to bring the dynamic duo of Hanks and Ryan together. He also wrote the Oscar-winning Moonstruck starring Cher and a very ripe Nicolas Cage.
Then there was Congo directed by Frank Marshall. The 2008 film Doubt, adapted from his play was the last project he helmed and starred the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Amy Adams. The ‘A team’ as he calls them.
Originally, I’d only known him through New York theatre, which is arguably the mainstay of his ability. It’s how we as a public first came to know his signature wit and vibrancy with plays such as – Danny and the Deep Blue Sea, Defiance, Outside Mullingar and of course, Doubt.
In all, he’s authored more than 23 plays, 10 films and even delved into writing opera librettos at one point. There’s isn’t much he can’t do.
Where do you begin with such a person?
I started with gorillas.
loaded: Was Congo meant to be a ‘Jungle Caper’ type film?
John Patrick Shanley: It was adapted from a novel by Michael Crichton of the same title. I noticed there were things in the novel that were unacceptable, there were these mutant gorillas, and he [Crichton] actually make some theorisation that this came about out of black people mating with gorillas a long time ago. So the first thing I said was, well we won’t being doing that. There was also a great ‘white’ hunter character, and I said we couldn’t do that either. We can do a black great ‘white’ hunter. I saw it as a sort of King Solomon Mines kind of movie. It was one of those films where you go on a safari and find a mysterious place where there is great wealth and great danger.
loaded: How did you feel about the mutant ‘gorillas?’
John Patrick Shanley: It was a big budget movie, so I assumed that the gorillas – these mutant gorillas – would be a special effect. When I saw the first cut of the film, it turned out they were in fact not a special effect but guys in hairy suits jumping out from behind trees, I was terrified. I thought this is going to be very embarrassing. Then, they did a lot more work on the film, and It was the biggest opening in Paramount’s history. It made like $155 million, so I came out of the whole thing with ‘go figure.’ That was Congo.
loaded: Tell us about the ‘dream team’ you’ve worked with on a few films.
John Patrick Shanley: I worked with Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. We did Joe Versus the Volcano with Steven Spielberg, and then they came to me with a book called Alive and that film did very well and the third time was with Congo. We’ve talked about this and that, but that was the last thing that we did together. It’s just kind of rare to do three with one entity.
Now Kathleen is the head of LucasFilm, so she’s very wrapped up in Star Wars, they’re making a lot of those movies, and she’s basically in charge of that pipeline. With Frank, his two big interests are music and sport – his dad was a jazz musician. He was also on the Olympic committee for a long time and did a documentary on Frank Sinatra for HBO. He’s always doing something. He’s a great producer.
loaded: How was it working with Steven Spielberg?
John Patrick Shanley: Steven was great; Steven was film school. He produced Joe Versus the Volcano. I had no interest in directing before that; I’d directed this short film called I Am Angry for $3000 and then I was doing Joe, this extremely ambitious script which had typhoons and Polynesian people and exploding volcanoes. I Am Angry was my justification for directing, when people asked well, what makes you think you can direct this gigantic film? I said well I’ve already directed a movie, [chuckles].
During production, Steven and I would talk, he’d bring up this movie or that movie, and I would always say, oh I never saw that. So, he’d have it sent over to my hotel. I’d watch the film and then Steven Spielberg would talk to me about it. So basically he gave me a film class that went on for months. He’d show me movies, and we’d discuss them. We worked on two or three projects together back then. He was just very helpful and kind of a great guy. I was very lucky.
loaded: What was the experience like with your film Joe Versus the Volcano?
John Patrick Shanley: We did five months of pre-production; I spent a lot of time in the art department – designing scene after scene, story boarding – that part I loved.
loaded: There was a bit of a colour story going on.
John Patrick Shanley: Well, I went through more desaturated colour, in the beginning, I did a lot of it in the physical design of the scenes. I chose very bland, washed out colours. I shot in fluorescent light to show the dehumanising effects of the guy’s life and this artificial environment that he was in. Then we take him from there to the South Pacific with the blue water and sun and tropical foliage, that did a lot of the work for me in terms of making it a journey to vibrant colour. It’s a story about a guy who comes back to life. So you’re going from a neurotic and pale place to a more full-throated and full-blooded place.
loaded: What was the purpose of the great danes?
John Patrick Shanley: The film was shot in extreme anamorphic, which is letterbox. If you’re gonna, do that you’ve got to design the shot for the frame. If you have those east and west corners of the frame, you’ve got to make it all full and vibrant. So, the great danes were a framing device.
loaded: No way.
John Patrick Shanley: Yeah, way!
loaded: The moment he hugs the dog, was that planned?
John Patrick Shanley: Yes, that was very much planned. But it was the most contentious shot in the film and caused a war between Warner Bros and me that Steven Spielberg got dragged into. Because It’s an uncut master, so it’s a locked off camera, and the scene goes on and on and on. I did no coverage; I knew if I did coverage they would be on me to cut it up. I didn’t want that.
Warner Bros were already uneasy about the film because it was so unconventional so when they found out about that particular shot they went insane and demanded that I do coverage (more footage and different camera angles used to capture a scene.) Then they went straight to Steven Spielberg because he was the executive producer. He called me up and said, “you go back and get a tight shot of Tom Hanks hugging that dog and do it soon because dogs die.” I told him I’d do it, but I didn’t. Now, It’s my favourite scene in the film.
loaded: How did Meg Ryan approach playing three different characters?
John Patrick Shanley: Everybody wanted to do that role; actors don’t usually get to do that. Julia Roberts came in, Annette Benning came in and then Meg Ryan came in. Meg just – she had all three characters. She was unbelievably winning. I called Warner Bros and said I’ve got to have her. She is perfect. That was actually the first time Tom Hanks and Meg were paired together on film. Nora Ephron ( Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve Got Mail) used to come to my set to visit; she was shooting My Blue Heaven elsewhere on the lot. She developed a crush on Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as a couple.
loaded: What was it like working with Tom Hanks?
John Patrick Shanley: Very good. We’re still working together. He came to me with this thing, a miniseries for HBO based on a book he’s optioned called Factory Man. Then there was a change in management. Now, he wants to do it as a feature with him in it and me directing. We’re negotiating that deal right now. He’s a great guy. Tom is a very unusual person, very powerful. Big brain and very decent. He is Tom Hanks. He actually is that guy.
loaded: You were the first person to shipwreck him before Cast Away.
John Patrick Shanley: [laughs] True. Well, he’s a California guy, so you know. There’s always a little bit of the surfer in those guys.
loaded: Will you adapt anymore of your plays?
John Patrick Shanley: Well, I did Doubt, and I’ve now adapted my play Outside Mullingar. That takes place in central Ireland. I’m supposed to do that next.
loaded: Filming in Ireland?
John Patrick Shanley: That’s the deal. You never know with these things. They’re telling me its going to happen, so we’ll see.
loaded: Speaking of Doubt, what was it like collaborating with Philip Seymour Hoffman?
John Patrick Shanley: I’d known Phil for years; we went on vacation together, his family still comes and visits. I knew him for a long time, and our families knew each other – but he was a private guy. When I came to him with Doubt, I called him up and said I’m going to do this and I’d like you to play the priest, Father Flynn.
He said, Oh man I have so much going on right now, but send it over, and I’ll read it. He called me the next day and said I’ll do it. He knew the play, but it’s a different thing with film. It’s incredibly subtle the way you make a play interesting as a movie and expand the text in a way that feels organic.
loaded: What was a memorable moment from filming Doubt with him?
John Patrick Shanley: The big scene for Phil was where he confronts Meryl’s character Sister Aloysius in the office. We rehearsed it on the set for awhile, and they’d just started to light. I stopped him and said, ‘the whole confrontation over the desk – it doesn’t work, you’re gonna have to come out from around the desk.’
He said, ‘Well, that’s not what we rehearsed.’ But he went with it, and we went through it again. Well, he came out from behind that desk like a car coming at you, and I’m sure it had a lot to do with his rage towards me changing it, [laughs]. He was very easy to work with.
He just had a dark cloud over him and spent a lot of time in his dressing room staring out the window smoking. He was suffering as a person, in ways I couldn’t understand. But it was a terrible shock when he died. He was friends with every person I’m close with, so it was traumatic. He knew my children. I can’t explain it. It was rough; I was useless for three months.
He’s always busy with something, despite the fact that he insists he needs a break. I doubt that will happen. He’s got too much left to write.
Thanks for speaking with loaded John Patrick Shanley!
Loaded staff writer Danielle De La Bastide has lived all over the planet and written for BuzzFeed, Thought Catalog as well as print publications throughout the Caribbean.