On the surface, Doubt—first the play and now the film, opening Friday—could be described as a story about a charming, charismatic priest who may or may not have sexually abused a young boy in his parish's Catholic school.
But John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer-prize winning story is about so much more than that. It's about, as the title says, a quest for truth, and the doubts and certainties that inevitably crop up along the way.
Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Father Flynn, the aforementioned priest. Meryl Streep stars as Sister Aloysius, the stern school principal who is certain—despite no physical evidence—that Flynn has gone too far with one of the boys. And Amy Adams plays Sister James, the epitome of grace and innocence who isn't nearly so sure as her principal about Father Flynn; she is, indeed, nagged by doubts.
So, while "Did he or didn't he?" is certainly an anticipated audience reaction, Shanley hopes viewers will consider the situation—and their own doubts and certainties—on a deeper level. Shanley says it's fine to embrace doubt, and even more, he says it's wrong to embrace any sort of certainty, "because it ends the conversation."
Doubt is semi-autobiographical, in that it's set in a Catholic school in the Bronx similar to the one Shanley attended as a child—run by the Sisters of Charity and led by a strict principal. But he says he wrote the play because he "felt surrounded by a society that seemed very certain about a lot of things.
"Everyone had a very entrenched opinion, but there was no real exchange, and if someone were to say, 'I don't know,' it was as if they would be put to death in the media coliseum. There was this mask of certainty in our society that I saw hardening to the point that it was developing a crack—and that crack was doubt."
CT Movies recently interviewed Shanley to discuss the film further.
I have not seen the play, but one of the critics here in Chicago said the film left even more doubt in the viewer's mind than the play. Do you agree?
John Patrick Shanley: I have no idea. What goes on in people's minds, I can't tell you. I've done about ten Q&A things after screenings, and people say things like, "Obviously the old nun is insane." And then other people just shout that person down: "Are you out of your mind? She's a hero." Every audience is different. People get up and say with utter certainty that they know the priest is guilty, and that they know everyone in the audience knows that, too. And then other people say, "Actually, no, we don't feel that way at all." It's a very strange thing to watch happen.
Is that what you hoped would happen, that people would walk way with a bunch of different …
Shanley: What I'm hoping for is that people will at first feel confirmed in their prejudices, and the have their prejudices explode and then go, "You know what? I don't know what's right and what's wrong in this story. But it's a compelling story, and I think I want to talk about it." I want to foster discourse in the audience, because I think that's what we need more than anything else in our society now—for people to start to talk to each other without massive assumptions. I think we've had enough of people yelling at each other. We really need to talk.
There isn't always a winner, is there?
Shanley: No. And we are all breathing the same air. It's time we woke up and realized that we're in this together and we really need to talk to each other. There's great challenges ahead in society. This is a time of great change. And change brings wonderful things and terrible things. And really need to be paying attention right now.
Why did you decide to make this into a movie?
Shanley: Infinitely more people will see it as a film, and that alone is a great thing. And I hadn't directed a film in 18 years. When [producer Scott Rudin] asked me to direct it, I thought it's now or never. And I thought, I know everything about this place. I went to that church school. I'm from that neighborhood. And nobody else is going to be able to render those details like I can because I was there.
So this story is pretty autobiographical for you.
Shanley: Not in the sense that there was any incidence of abuse that I know of in that church school. So it's not about that, but did I know the Sisters of Charity, and it is accurate about how they behaved and the way they spoke and the values they had.
So was there a Meryl Streep type character?
Shanley: Oh, you bet.
And your principal was the type who would rap your knuckles with a ruler?
Shanley: Yes. We had two principals, and the first one was very frightening, and her name was Sister Aloysius. She was gone probably by the time I was 8. The next one was a woman named Sister Miriam, and she was pretty frightening, too. But she was nicer than Sister Aloysius. But she'd rap you on the knuckles with a ruler in a minute.
I understand you had basically two types of experiences in Catholic schools. The one with the sisters was a good one. But then you got with the Irish Christian Brothers in high school and they were …
Shanley: A disaster. The Christian Brothers and I were not meant to be together. They threw me out of there over a series of misunderstandings.
An article in The New York Times Magazine says you were a professional problem child.
Shanley: Well, I didn't see it that way. I saw it as miscommunication. I had some emotional problems. Teenage years are not easy years, and I was a very particular person. I was very much of a daydreamer and creative type. I was in a very regimented school. It just wasn't going to work.
Were there theological issues? That same article said that you insisted to the teachers that there is no God.
Shanley: There were theological issues, but simply because I wanted to have an interesting debate. But I found out the Christian Brothers were not interested in debate. They saw that as revolution. I wasn't denouncing anybody or disrespecting the faculty. I just would occasionally say something as a provocation to …
Whether you actually believed it or not?
Shanley: Exactly. Exactly. Just start an interesting conversation, and the result was they would just throw me out of the class.
You later went to Thomas Moore Prep School in New Hampshire, and that same Times story quotes you as saying it that school's homosexual teachers "saved you." What did you mean by that?
Shanley: It's sort of complicated. I'd been thrown out of a lot of schools in New York, and I ended up in a private school in New Hampshire and I had a very heavy Bronx accent. People couldn't even understand what I was saying. I had emotional problems, and the kids and the teachers there didn't like me very much. But this one guy took me under his wing and made sure I got a first-class education. And he defended me when they wanted to throw me out. And that guy was a child predator, but he didn't try to molest me. But I found out in subsequent years that he was molesting boys. But the sum total of the experience was this person did something very good for me and something very bad to some other people, so it's a complicated memory.
I've also read that you had a relative who was molested by a priest.
Shanley: I don't talk about that.
Fair enough, but those kinds of experiences can obviously make somebody angry at the church. Were you?
Shanley: No, I never had any particular beef with the Catholic Church. The Sisters of Charity gave me a very solid education, and with the Christian Brothers, our differences were not theological. Our differences were testosteronic. It was really about educational philosophy.
The Sisters of Charity were a little bit more laissez faire. It was evident from the way that they talked that they were not engaged in a popularity contest; they were not trying to charm their students, and they were not interested in being adored. That's something I saw a great deal of later on in various educational settings, where the teacher wanted to be loved. It takes a real adult to teach the way that the Sisters of Charity taught, which was very selfless. It's not about you. It's not about me. It's about getting the work done.
What's the difference between being angry at the church and being angry at God?
Shanley: Well, I think if you're angry at God you're not going to get anywhere, are you? You're going to have a pretty tough time. But I'm sure we all do at one point or another, even if it's when you bend over to pick up a glass and you stand up and smash your head on the cupboard and curse, who are you cursing? Your own stupidity? I always think you're angry at somebody when you get mad. People say, "I'm angry at myself." I don't really believe that. But I don't think we would have been given a temper if it was a bad thing to get angry. Even Christ yelled at his Father from time to time.
When I first came to faith as a teenager, I was certain about so many things. And even though my faith has grown over the 30 years since then, I also have more doubts even as my faith gets stronger. Do you think that's contradictory?
Shanley: No. Or if it is, then contradiction is the basic building block of life. I think people who have a problem with contradiction are going to have a problem with the experience of life itself, because life is contradictory. You're in a position where you have to sort of operate from the assumption you're going to live forever and the assumption that you could die any minute. And there's thousands of bifurcated moments like that that you have to deal with, that you have to incorporate into your worldview.
So faith and doubt are compatible.
Shanley: In my head, certainly.
Is all certainty bad? Is it okay to be certain about anything?
Shanley: In a way there's a Manichaean element to your question.
I'm sorry, but what's that mean?
Shanley:Manichaean theology was an early rival of Christianity, a belief that there was a god of good and a god of evil. Manichaean theology believes that life is simply a battle between good and evil; things are bad or good. I am not of that school. So I think certainty is always dangerous. It doesn't mean it's always bad, but it's always dangerous. Basically it means end of conversation.
Always? I mean, we can be certain that one plus one is two. We can be certain the earth revolves around …
Shanley: You've given me a very bad example. I had a problem with one plus one is two from my earliest days, because I was like, "One what? Plus one what?"
No wonder you got kicked out of school!
Shanley: Exactly. I'm not going to agree to anything that's going to end the conversation, period. And so in any sense that certainty ends any conversation, I'm against it.
So when Scripture says that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, you would dispute that verse.
Shanley: I would endlessly dispute anything.
Isn't that stressful, being the eternal skeptic, disputing everything?
Shanley: No. If you know everything, you might as well just be on a desert island by yourself. If you don't need anything from anybody, if talking to other people has no effect on you, then you don't need to talk to anybody. I think that we're social beings and that we're part of a larger organism and that we're supposed to continue to combust until we die.
Isn't it okay to be certain about some things and uncertain about others?
Shanley: Yeah, but I'm not going to go there.
If people walk away from this film and all they're thinking about is whether or not the priest is guilty, haven't they missed something?
Shanley: One woman got up at one of the Q&A things and said that was all she thought about. Guilty or innocent, that was the whole thing for her. And I said, "That's okay. But maybe you'll feel different tomorrow."
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