The Oscar-winning screenwriter on why film audiences here rarely enjoy an outsider’s take
Even before he started to make his recent drama Wild Mountain Thyme, screenwriter and director John Patrick Shanley warned the cast, including Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt, not to expect love from Irish audiences and critics. So, when the vicious criticism came, he was the least surprised of all.
“If you chase the Irish looking for love, you’ll be disappointed,” Shanley (70) tells the Irish Independent from his home in Brooklyn, New York.
“It was almost funny how in Ireland the criticism went past the accents, they attacked Jamie’s sideburns, they attacked the colour of Emily’s hair! It’s like, ‘OK, fine, fine’. When I was talking to Emily [Blunt] originally about doing this part, I said, ‘we are not making this film for the Irish. I want you to understand, we are making this film for everyone else.’
“From my observations, the first reaction by Irish people to everything having to do with Ireland by anybody else is ‘no’.
“They’re a wonderful people and a welcoming people and, in the end, I think more Irish people will want to see it than not. I anticipated this initial fierce hostility, but I was surprised to be right.”
The movie is based on Shanley’s successful 2014 Broadway play Outside Mullingar. Shanley’s father emigrated to New York from Mullingar when he was in his twenties and married an Irish-American woman. Shanley grew up in an Irish and Italian enclave in New York, which he describes as “extremely anti-intellectual and extremely racist”.
“My father grew up on a farm and didn’t come to American until he was 24,” says the playwright. “My mother’s a Kelly and all of my grandparents lived in Ireland. I took my father back to Ireland when he got old, because he wanted to visit the farm and needed a driver. So I visited my relatives on their beautiful farm and I knew from how they spoke that I would have to write dialogue inspired by them, that would be a play and eventually a film.”
During one of his trips to Ireland, he received the tall poppy treatment from an Irish butcher that still makes him laugh.
“I did have, on one trip, a rather expensive leather coat that I had bought with my new-found movie money and I remember a butcher looked at my coat and said, ‘how much did that coat cost?’ When I told him, he said ‘they saw you coming’. I let it stand.”
He returns to the rhythm and cadence of how people speak.
“Even in the household I grew up in, language was very important, even in the households of the Italian-Americans nearby. I loved listening to the way people talked and that’s where my movie Moonstruck came from.”
Moonstruck, a romantic comedy starring Nicolas Cage and Cher set in the Italian-American community, won Shanley an Oscar for best screenplay in 1987.
“Each person has something to contribute linguistically and emotionally and from the soul, and it’s my job to excavate those things and bring them out to where people can appreciate them,” says Shanley, who in 1992 adopted two sons with his second wife, actress Jayne Haynes (the pair later divorced).
When it comes to depictions of Ireland in the movies, he describes himself as “more of a Quiet Man kind of guy, than The Field kind of guy.”
“I’m an Irish-American, which means I’m not utterly American and I’m not utterly Irish. I think the Irish have long resisted the love of Americans and the idealisation of Americans. I don’t think I actually idealise Irish people in Wild Mountain Thyme, I think it’s a canny depiction, but a loving one.
“There are no villains in this film, Irish or American, that’s not my interest nor, in fact, my belief.
“I remember Frank McCourt, who was a friend of mine, he said the folks in Limerick gave him a tough time about Angela’s Ashes, saying ‘we weren’t that poor’. So, everybody from John Millington Synge onward has had their difficulties with they way they have loved the Irish. But I think the thing they did have in common was that they did love the Irish.
“The history of Ireland when it comes to movies, there have been these really romantic films like Ryan’s Daughter and The Quiet Man and then there are more grim depictions like The Field. All of them have their validity.
“I come from poor people and I have had to put together a skill-set based on how am I going to survive, how am I going to enjoy my life. So to me, it is a little indulgent to make films that explain how shit life is, because I am fighting to find the sun. I am fighting to live and enjoy my life and that’s the kind of story I want to tell.
“I find storytelling to be at its best somewhat prescriptive — I don’t think it’s enough to simply describe a grim or happy scene, but in fact saying ‘if you move these things around a bit, you could do this at home’. In addition to everything else wonderful that cinema can do, I think that’s important.”
Although he has written on a broad range of themes from the light-hearted to the serious, his play Doubt, which he adapted and directed for the screen in 2012, is among his most powerful pieces of dramatic work. Featuring a nun who suspects, but cannot prove that a priest in her dioceses is abusing children, the writing is an exquisite exploration of faith and power. Wild Mountain Thyme is Shanley’s first movie since Doubt.
“I do a lot of plays and a lot of exploring through writing. I never wanted to get on the Hollywood treadmill of ‘what’s your next project?’ I do something when all the stars line up and it makes sense to me. Sometimes I want to do something and other people don’t want to do it, so that slows you down.”
Having been raised a Catholic, what are his views of Pope Francis?
“First of all, there’s hope. Second of all, this pope, along with everyone else, is searching for his place in the world, in this new world, this ever-changing world.
“The world always changes, but sometimes we notice and this is a period during which I think everyone is noticing that everything’s been thrown up in the air and ‘what is my place in things? What use can I be? How can I not be an obstacle but rather someone that’s a helpmate in the situation I’m in?’
“I think that the Pope is goodhearted and struggling to find that kind of unifying voice in a discordant world. And I think it’s admirable and not completely successful, but what’s the harm?”
Like most of the rest of the world, Shanley is sitting out the pandemic at home.
“I’m a theatre and a film guy and all my outlets are shut down. I always think, ‘what is life telling me?’ and I felt like life is telling me ‘go home, John, and contemplate and sit back and don’t be using this time simply to write the next movie or play, because the world is changing and you are changing. I think you need to meditate and spend time catching up through this extraordinary experience we are all going through, not simply avoid it by going to never-never land, but to stay here with it.’
“I’m never going to make a movie where people are wearing masks, because we are going through that and it’s terrible and necessary. But I am going through it with everybody else and I want to write about where I come out on the other side, which I hope is a glorious place.”