The writer-director of the film based off his play talks about the process of bringing his play to life

One of my favorite films of 2008 was the gripping drama Doubt, which comes to DVD and Blu-ray on April 7 after a successful theatrical run that garnered five Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Adapated Screenplay for writer-director John Patrick Shanley. Shanley was present at one of Disney's nifty "virtual junkets" where he was on hand to answer questions about the film. Here's what he had to say.

Joe Versus the Volcano) and after a long hiatus you returned with Doubt last year. Why so long? In the meanwhile, did you prefer working on theatre?

John Patrcik Shanley: After the long shoot of Joe Versus the Volcano I just wanted to go home and get back to my roots as a playwright. I adopted two children, which took much of my time, and dealt with advanced glaucoma in both eyes, which caused intermittent blindness and required multiple surgeries. The play Doubt was a phenomenon and there was the opportunity to turn it into the film, with Scott Rudin, so we went with that.

Considering that the movie is based on a play, what were the challenges of staging something that had already been staged?

John Patrcik Shanley: The first great challenge was turning the play into a screenplay, because the play only had 4 characters. Turning modern plays into films is quite challenging. Much has changed since the days of Inherit the Wind. What at first seemed a difficulty, with the paucity of characters, turned out to be the answer, which was that it was unnatural to leave so many characters out. As a film it made sense to include the children they were arguing about, the congregation and the working class neighborhood.

What do you find so fascinating about Doubt and uncertainty?

John Patrcik Shanley:Doubt is an open door; certainty is a closed door. I'm interested in the open door.

Were the plot of the film (and the play) inspired by true events, given the fact that you attended parochial schools and you are familiar with that environment?

John Patrcik Shanley: The background of the story is utterly accurate to my experience as a child. The foreground is made of whole cloth, or is fiction.

Is there a particular reason why you set the story in 1964, right after John F. Kennedy was killed?

John Patrcik Shanley: The story is set in 1964 because it was a time of great change, of certainty crashing into the 60s.

I'm quite interested in the way a playwriter works his own work and tries to give it a cinematical treatment. Where did you look for ideas? Which is the scene in the film, new and not in the play, you're more proud of?

John Patrcik Shanley: There are a number of scenes not in the play--there are only four characters in the play. All the scenes with the children are new. Scenes in the rectory or convent or classroom were not in the play. The film is sculpted around the performance of the actors. Rather than the actors having to conform to a set notion of how a scene should be shot, Roger Deakins and I worked around the performances. That seemed to be the way to tell the story.

Talk about working with the amazing Roger Deakins as your DP and what he brought to the film.

John Patrcik Shanley: Roger is a gimlet-eyed, taciturn, extremely witty cameraman. He also happens to be one of the top three cameramen in the world. He works with speed, humility, and great good humor, providing a lighting environment that gives the maximum freedom to the performer. We collaborated on the composition of the shots. Sometimes he held sway, sometimes I did. It was a great collaboration.

How hard it was to assemble an amazing casting for the film? Did the actors see the play before taking the job or did you rather they wouldn't have so they could work on the script you designed for the movie?

John Patrcik Shanley: Meryl Streep, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams had seen the play. Viola Davis had not. Assembling the cast was remarkably easy, with the exception of Viola Davis. Meryl came right on board, Phillip took a day to consider, Amy came to me and requested the role. Only for the role of Mrs. Miller did we have to do screen tests. Five people read, and Viola affected the camera crew so visibly that the role was incontrovertibly hers.

How did you work with actors, developing their characters, considering that in the movie there are two brilliant performers like Streep and Hoffman and two newbies like Adams and Davis?

John Patrcik Shanley: I rehearsed the script for three weeks like you would a play. Over the course of those three weeks, the goal was to get all four actors in the same world. Viola is actually an extremely accomplished stage actress of wide experience. Amy was the greenest of the four, and she isn't even that green. By the third week we'd formed an extremely tight ensemble.

In Doubt there is comparison between tradition and innovation. In these days to face the economic downturn we should get back real old values?

John Patrcik Shanley: I don't think you can ever go back, but nothing ever gets lost. The history of the human race informs every person's actions. Change always involves loss. What we are experiencing as loss now is an aspect of change. I think the changes that are going on in the world now needed to transpire, but there will be blood on the floor.

Do you have more plays you intend to adapt for the big screen? I've just written a new original screenplay on spec. I'm very much enjoying not adapting a play into film. It's easier to conceive of a story as cinematic from the outset. Adapting plays is a bitch.

How difficult was the post production process, knowing you could sway the audience's opinion on Father Flynn's guilt by the way the film was cut?

John Patrcik Shanley: As a storyteller, I didn't know whether Father Flynn was guilty so I know that nothing I shot would definitively answer that question. Having said that, yes, we had to be very careful in editing not to overload the narrative one way or the other.

You won an Academy Award for your Moonstruck script in 1988; as a writer, how does winning an Oscar compare to a Pulitzer Prize?

John Patrcik Shanley: Winning the Pulitzer is a really mellow, fabulous thing. You don't sit and wait for them to open an envelope. You already know you won, and you have a nice lunch. Oscars are more stressful. I had to sit for three hours and wait for my category. I had to fly to Los Angeles. For the Pulitzer I just had to go up to Columbia. But, while the president of Columbia gave me the Pulitzer, Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck gave me the Oscar, so that was better.

You can pick up Shanley's powerful film Doubt when it hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on April 7.

Cinemark Movie Club