John Patrick Shanley On Dogma And 'Doubt' The writer and director is no stranger to doubt. Shanley — whose Pulitzer-winning play has been adapted for the screen — went to Catholic school as a child and says he knew the priests didn't play by the rules.
NPR logo

John Patrick Shanley On Dogma And 'Doubt'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
John Patrick Shanley On Dogma And 'Doubt'

John Patrick Shanley On Dogma And 'Doubt'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


The Pulitzer Prize-winning play "Doubt" is now a movie which comes out today. The story pits a nun against a priest over suspicions of child sexual abuse. Renee spoke with playwright John Patrick Shanley, who also directed the movie.


The movie "Doubt" opens on a sermon being delivered by an engaging priest new to his parish in the tumultuous year of 1964. Father Flynn suggests, in a most modern way, that all is not black and white. Any one of you sitting in your pews, he says, might be doubting what you've done, what you've desired, faith itself. The sermon sets off a wave of doubt in those of the heart of St. Nicholas School, and its fierce principal, Sister Aloysius, begins to question the priest himself and what he might be hiding.

(Soundbite of movie "Doubt")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. MERYL STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) What happened in the rectory?

Mr. PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Happened?

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Hmm.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Nothing happened. I had a talk with a boy.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) What about?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Private matter.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) He's 12 years old. What could be private?

MONTAGNE: The movie stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. John Patrick Shanley set it in a world he's intimately acquainted with, his childhood neighborhood in the Bronx.

Mr. JOHN PATRICK SHANLEY (Playwright, "Doubt" (Play); Director, "Doubt" (Film)): The street that I grew up on is in the opening of the film. And the church school that I went to, St. Anthony's, is the church school in the film, the exterior. We couldn't shoot inside; the Catholic Church wouldn't permit that. But it was a bunch of five-story apartment buildings that were grimy from coal-burning furnaces that heated them. And it was a largely Roman Catholic, Irish and Italian neighborhood with some Jews that kept a kind of low profile, very working-class, cops and fireman, that kind of thing.

MONTAGNE: We just heard the one early moment when Sister Aloysius is trying to corner Father Flynn, who she suspects of sexually abusing one of the young boys in the school, in fact, the school's first and only black student. She's in the tradition of the mean or at least hard head nun who everyone's scared of. And the priest refers to her even - Father Flynn refers to her, out of the side of his mouth, as a dragon. Not initially a sympathetic character?

Mr. SHANLEY: Yeah. I mean, but dragons can be great enemies or great allies, and it's up to the audience to decide whether Sister Aloysius is a tremendous force of protection for children, or if she's simply a person who is using a fiery agenda to hide her real agenda, which is that she doesn't like this guy and doesn't like what he represents.

MONTAGNE: She's a nun who confiscates a ballpoint pen because she thinks it's decadent, almost.

Mr. SHANLEY: Well, she certainly thinks that penmanship is dying all across the country; that's one of the things she says. And she's right. Penmanship has died a terrible death in this country.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHANLEY: And was something lost, something that was aesthetically pleasing, that might have made life somewhat sweeter thing? I think so.

MONTAGNE: Here's another scene from the movie, where Father Flynn has been summoned, really, to the sister's office. And at one point he ignores her. He sits down and starts writing.

(Soundbite of movie "Doubt")

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) May I ask what you're writing down with that ballpoint pen?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Oh, nothing. It's an idea for a sermon.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Hm. You had one right now?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) I get them all the time.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) How fortunate.

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) I forget them, so I have to write them down.

Ms. STREEP: (As Sister Aloysius Beauvier) Oh, what is the idea?

Mr. HOFFMAN: (As Father Brendan Flynn) Intolerance.

(Soundbite of shuffling paper)

MONTAGNE: It's not really funny, but you kind of have to laugh.

Mr. SHANLEY: No, there's a lot of humor in the movie, and you know, the people laugh, and they have permission to laugh; they should laugh. You should laugh whenever the spirit moves you.

MONTAGNE: Hm. There's a scene in the movie where it opens up on a very rare piece of roast beef. It opens further, and you realize that the priests are there eating, drinking, smoking cigarettes, having a pretty good time.

Mr. SHANLEY: Mm-hm.

MONTAGNE: And it's juxtaposed next to a scene where the nuns are, well, practically eating gristle and drinking milk, basically, not having a good time.

Mr. SHANLEY: Well, I wouldn't agree with that last part. I have to say, the nuns seem to be a pretty happy bunch in their old age, those nuns that were in that convent, and other similar places. I've interviewed at least 20 of them. A friend of mine was a housekeeper for one of those little church schools in Brooklyn, and he told me his mother, who was quite devout, came home horrified because the groceries were divided so that the priest got all the good cuts of meat and all the best food. And I knew from my own personal observation that the priests smoke and drank. And I found out from the nuns that they did not smoke; they did not drink. And in fact, they ate under a vow of silence; they could only speak when a little bell was rung. So, they had - they lived in my parish, 40 feet apart, the two buildings were. They had entirely different experiences of life.

MONTAGNE: Doubt is something that a lot of people what to avoid. You seem to take it almost as a value.

Mr. SHANLEY: Yeah. I think that certainty is a closed door. It's the end of the conversation. Doubt is an open door; it's a dynamic process. And I think that this discomfort that many people have with doubt is not something to be overcome as - so much as to enjoy. And you know, we're going to have to use our best judgment, certainly, but I am not going to move forward on a dogmatic basis with a kind of blind certainty. That is what led to the Church scandals, was blindness that people had about who was good and who was bad and what was right and what was wrong.

MONTAGNE: Ultimately, did you need to give - or did you need to find - in Sister Aloysius, who is so sure of herself, did you need to find in her also doubt?

Mr. SHANLEY: I think that Sister Aloysius does what she has to do, by her lights. And she follows a road until the road gives out underneath her, and...

MONTAGNE: And this is in pursuit of Father Flynn?

Mr. SHANLEY: Well, in pursuit of Father Flynn, but actually, also in an argument with the world as it is and the world as it's changing. You know, you can try, with your hands thrown as wide as you can, to hold back the days to come, but you will fail, and you will be engulfed and overwhelmed, but not necessarily destroyed. I thing Sister Aloysius is finally picked up in the deluge of the forward movement of time and has to give in to it.

MONTAGNE: John Patrick Shanley, thank you for joining us.

Mr. SHANLEY: Oh, it was nice to be here.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Renee spoke with John Patrick Shanley, who was in New York. His movie "Doubt" opens today. You can find scenes from the movie along with Bob Mondello's review at It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.