John Patrick Shanley on Returning to Irish Roots With 'Wild Mountain Thyme'

John Patrick Shanley  - Getty - H 2019
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The Oscar-winner also discusses why he doesn’t like the term rom-com and spotting Timothée Chalamet’s talent early on: "He was electrifying."

It’s been more than a decade since John Patrick Shanley turned his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning play Doubt: A Parable into the five-time Oscar-nominated drama Doubt, starring Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman. With Wild Mountain Thyme — adapted again from his own Broadway play, Outside Mullingar — the writer-director returns to the big screen, swapping a Catholic school in New York for a remote farm in the Irish countryside. Loosely based on his family’s experience on the Emerald Isle, the "lyrical romance," which Hanway Films is selling at AFM, stars Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan as obstinate, star-crossed lovers whose families are caught up in a feud over a hotly contested patch of land. Christopher Walken and Jon Hamm add to the A-list lineup.

Speaking from the shoot in County Mayo, Shanley, 69 — who also directed Tom Hanks in 1990’s Joe Versus the Volcano and won an original screenplay Oscar for the now classic 1987 romantic comedy Moonstruck — discusses his need to "crash and burn" after each project, why he doesn’t like the term rom-com and spotting Timothée Chalamet’s talents before he hit the big time.

Wild Mountain Thyme is described as a "lyrical romance." What does that mean?

Well, it’s about my family and their life [in Ireland], but also their language. The people on the farm when I visited with my father years ago spoke in verse, and I’ve never heard anybody express themselves as beautifully. It’s poetic and yet it’s extremely grounded. But the farther you got from the farm, mile by the mile, the language changed. It was like they were literally drawing a kind of poetic strength from the farm.

This is the second time you’ve adapted your own play for a film. Was it something you just couldn’t give to someone else to direct?

Of everything that I’ve written, writing that play was the most fun I’ve ever had. I didn’t want it to end. So I didn’t want to pass up another chance at it and to get to actually photograph incredibly beautiful landscapes.

Rising British star Holliday Grainger was originally cast in the lead role, but then Emily Blunt came aboard. What happened there? 

We were going to do it with Holliday, but then her schedule went south, We had to push a couple of times, as people do, and then the window closed. But then out of the woodwork we gained Emily Blunt and Christopher Walken, within 24 hours of each other. A lot of my work is revolved around big roles for women that they don’t get to do, and this is certainly no exception. I think she’s having a great time doing this.

This comes more than 10 years after your previous film. Why the break given the success of Doubt?

I’m the kind of person who does things and then has to completely crash and burn for long periods of time before I do something again. I do continue to do a lot of plays, and they’re their own brand of nightmare. But also, over the past couple of years, doing a low-budget film like this is incredibly difficult. My producer, Leslie Urdang, was heroic in the way she got it together. I said like five, 10 times, "This is never going to happen," but she got it to happen.

As someone behind some muchloved romantic comedies, have you been noticing the genre’s recent return to form? Could this film even be included?

When I was talking to Bleecker Street about this, I said to not call it a romantic comedy, because this gets shortened to rom-com, which to me seems trite and makes everything the same. It doesn’t really tell you anything. I can promise you there are things in this where you’ll go, "OK, that is not a rom-com." This is a romance, it’s a passionate romance. Sure, there’s plenty of humor, but it has real grief and passion and an acknowledgment of mortality. It’s sort of its own animal. We tend to homogenize things down. But Joe Versus the Volcano and Moonstruck were very different animals. I would say that this is the first thing I’ve done since Moonstruck that is highly poetic.

Before he was a star, you selected Timothée Chalamet in 2016 for your off-Broadway play Prodigal Son. Did you anticipate his rise since?

Actors are very committed people by and large, but there’s another level of commitment that you very occasionally see. He had that level of commitment. So I was like, "Well, this guy’s going to be terrific." And he was electrifying.

Interview edited for length and clarity. 

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's Nov. 8 daily issue at the American Film Market.