John Patrick Shanley
5 November, 2008
1 hour, 21 minutes, 45 seconds
Ireland House Oral History Collection, Archives of Irish America, New York University
John Patrick Shanley (b. 1950) was born in the Bronx and attended primary school at traditional Catholic schools, St. Helena’s and St. Anthony’s, both in the Bronx. Despite behavioral problems triggered by rebellion against the rigid disciplinary and academic system, Shanley continued his parochial school education, beginning ninth grade at Cardinal Spellman High School, also in the Bronx. His creative side was misunderstood and discouraged by his parents and school administrators, and he continued to misbehave and subsequently was asked to leave the school. He graduated from a private boarding school in New Hampshire under the careful guidance of an older male teacher.
Shanley’s problems with educational institutions continued when he entered New York University. Shanley chose to leave NYU after one semester and joined the Marine Corps for two years. Though Shanley never went to battle, the structure of the Marines taught him how to make institutional systems work to his benefit. His wife persuaded him to return to New York University after a five year absence and Shanley graduated as valedictorian of his class.
While at NYU, Shanley took an introduction to playwriting class and learned he had a particular knack for the structure of dialogue. The first play he wrote in the class was produced three weeks later, after which his work was consistently produced in New York City. Shanley’s father was not supportive of a career without security and a pension, but Shanley persisted and worked odd jobs to support himself while waiting for his “big break.” A grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the 1980s allowed Shanley to write his first screenplay, which became a movie produced by the former Beatle, George Harrison. Shanley’s father’s questions as to whether his career choice was lucrative were silenced after his next script, Moonstruck, won three Oscars in 1988, including one for Best Original Screenplay.
Shanley’s success continued both on Broadway and in Hollywood. In 2004, his play Doubt: A Parable premiered to critical acclaim, winning four Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize. Shanley both wrote and directed the 2008 film adaptation, which starred Oscar-winning actors Meryl Streep and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who both receibed acting award nominations for their performances in the film.
Shanley considers his Irishness more of a literal than social or cultural part of his identity, and attributes his creative nature to his Irish background. Though he grew up in a neighborhood that did not understand or appreciate his artistry and penchant for storytelling, a visit to the family farm in Ireland found him in a world where it was not only understood, but thought to be completely normal.
Excerpt No. 1
inspiration for DoubtDisc 1, 37:11–38:10
Transcription of Excerpt No. 1
JPS: You know, when you’re a parent – I’m a parent, I have two 16 year old boys – and we all do these things, you know, we all make these bets that something’s going to be alright. And if you were ever to truly verbalize what your computation was… people would be horrified. Simple thing, like, you know you have your two kids and you’re going out to see a show, and the babysitter comes, and you look at the babysitter and you go, “you know I don’t really know who this guy is. And he looks kind of weird… oh, well it’s time to go!” and you just sort of say, “well I guess it’ll be alright.” And many people make that kind of simple but extraordinary calculation on a regular basis. Now if you were to sit them down on a one hour talk show and grill them about – “now do you really think that was the right thing to do? What was it you thought about that person and everything else?” – the answers would probably make the hair stand on your head. But we all do it.
Excerpt No. 2
What is enjoyable?Disc One, 78:12–79:36
Transcription of Excerpt No. 2
LDA: We’ve talked to writers and writers don’t seem to enjoy the experience when they go out to Hollywood.
JPS: Well, you know, what is enjoyable? You know, you do a play, and it gets horrible reviews, that’s not pleasant. You gotta go, if you’re the writer and director, you’ve gotta go backstage and buck up the cast – for months. For months! That’s not easy. You go out to Los Angeles – you know, life is… a struggle. Life is difficult. Doing these kinds of things isn’t easy. You’re out there in front and you’re like saying, “I think we should do this rather than that” and you’ve got to defend it every step of the way. I do the film of Doubt it costs $20 million. They’ve got to get that money back, you know? And then promotion as much again, and they’ve got to get that money back. So you’re surrounded by people who look very, very worried all the time. And they’re worried about their money. And they’re right! They’re right to be worried about their money! So is that enjoyable? Eh, you know. No! It’s not. But if you live your life just simply chasing pleasure, you’re going to have a really boring life. You have to chase something that occasionally gives you pleasure, but that has meaning for you. Then you’ll be okay.
Excerpt No. 3
They don’t think money is funny.Disc 2, 5:00–5:46
Transcription of Excerpt No. 3
JPS: You’ve got to be very careful with people’s money. They get pissed off when you take their money and you don’t give it back. They get pissed off. It’s a lot of money. You know, I don’t have a lot of respect for money, but I remember I did some interview when I was doing Joe vs. the Volcano, and I said something about money. They said the movie was going to be $2 million over budget, and so I said, “So just give me the $2 million. Just give it to me!” And they… and I mentioned that in an interview, and Steven Spielburg called me up, who was my producer, and he said, “John, never joke about money. They don’t think it’s funny. They just don’t think it’s funny… I’m like, I mean my phone is ringing off the – please. Do not make any more jokes about money.”
Excerpt No. 4
Life Education and College EducationDisc 2, 11:36–12:45
Transcription of Excerpt No. 4
JPS: It was the dying days of the Vietnam War, and I was going to be drafted, and I heard that the Army was boring and that terrified me. And I asked my brother, who’d been in the Marines – my brother Tom had been a sergeant in the Marine Corps, and one of my best friends, and Terry Moran, here, Professor Moran, had all been in the Marines. And every time I would ask someone who had been in the Marines, “Is the Marines boring?” They would look at me very strangely, laugh, and go, “No… that’s not the word that I would use, no…” So I said, “Okay, if it’s not boring, then I’ll do that.” So I went in the Marines…
LDA: Sort of a preemptive strike?
JPS: Well, you know, I was going to be drafted anyway, and I also was a writer and I wanted to have experiences, I wanted to have a life. I wanted to have something to write about, I didn’t want to just be, you know, sort of in a – go from being in a creative writing class to being a creative writer – what would I be writing about? And so I went in the Marines, and indeed, when I got out, the discipline I had learned there was extremely helpful when I returned to school. And I did very well when I came back.
- Mary Williamson [MW]
- Linda Dowling Almeida [LA]
- John Patrick Shanley, taken by Linda Dowling Almeida.
- John Patrick Shanley and Mary Catherine Williamson, New York University student and oral history interviewer, taken by Linda Dowling Almeida.
- A copy of the play, Doubt: A Parable, by John Patrick Shanley.