Shanley relies on Sister James for 'Doubt'

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: John Patrick Shanley takes on the challenge of bringing his Pulitzer Prize-winning play to the screen.

When John Patrick Shanley was 6 years old, he had a favorite nun.

Growing up Catholic in the Bronx in the 1950s, the teachers at the local St. Anthony's school were members of the Sisters of Charity, an austere order who wore black bonnets and were steeped in a tradition of strict obedience. But Sister James was different. She was affectionate and friendly, and deeply impacted her students.

Almost half a century later, Sister James would become a central character in "Doubt," Shanley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a likable priest who is accused of pedophilia by a vindictive nun. Although Shanley thought Sister James had passed away, he was informed during a preview of the play in New York in 2004 that the real Sister James (now known as Sister Peggy McEntee) was very much alive and would be in the audience that night.

"I was terrified," he recalls. "She could be offended. She might be litigious. I had used her real name because I thought she was dead. When you are 6, you think everyone is old."

Much to his relief, Sister Peggy loved the play so much she saw it three more times.

Two years later, when Miramax Films commissioned Shanley to adapt the play into a movie, he again leaned on her for help in making the screenplay feel authentic.

"I hadn't known that the Sisters of Charity take vows of silence," Shanley says. (Teachers traditionally did not talk during the three or four hours between waking up and entering their schoolrooms or during meals, unless the head nun rang a bell allowing them to do so.) Aware of how much details like that would help, he convinced producer Scott Rudin to install Sister Peggy as a technical adviser.

"With film, you rely on nuance more," Shanley says. "Small events are treated as large events. Solutions are elegant and minute, as opposed to gigantic (as in a play)."

Shanley's challenge was to reduce the gigantic to the minute, to bring his electric play into the far more naturalistic world of film. Beyond just rethinking his play, that also meant casting it with actors who could find the subtle nuances he was looking for.

With a $20 million budget from Miramax, Shanley and Rudin started working on the casting. Both agreed on Meryl Streep to play Sister Aloysius, the steadfast nun embodied on the stage by Cherry Jones. Streep signed on almost immediately. The director then realized he needed an equally weighty actor to play Father Flynn, the priest she accuses of indecent behavior.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and his girlfriend, Mimi O'Donnell, had vacationed with Shanley on at least three occasions in South Carolina. He "was the one actor I could think of (where) I didn't know what he would do with the role, who could make Meryl sweat," Shanley says. "He is such a forceful brick wall of an actor. All of Meryl's strength would make it only a possibility that she could prevail in a fair fight."

Just as hard was the sweetest character in the movie, the one whose name Shanley had borrowed from his past -- Sister James, who challenges Sister Aloysius. Amy Adams called Shanley in New York and told him she was in town. In fact, "I flew myself in for our meeting," she admits.

After meeting in a children's bookstore, Shanley cast Adams, then added Viola Davis as Mrs. Miller, the mother of the student who might or might not have been molested by Father Flynn.

If casting was relatively easy, filming was more troublesome -- especially with a limited budget.

"We were clever in the way we pieced the film together," production designer David Gropman ("The Cider House Rules") says. Pleased with how well-preserved Shanley's old Bronx neighborhood was, Gropman suggested using the local apartment buildings, churches and schools for many exteriors.

For interior scenes, a logical choice would have been St. Anthony's, Shanley's old stomping grounds. But when approached, the Archdiocese of New York was less than enthusiastic. "The answer was 'no' and without comment," Shanley recalls.

Then, again, Sister Peggy stepped in. She and a number of her nuns happened to live in the Riverdale section of the Bronx at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. A stately Catholic institution, it offered exactly the sort of interiors Gropman sought. Sister Peggy "facilitated our whole (shooting) arrangement," Shanley says, including getting permission to construct a set of Sister Aloysius' office in one of Mount Saint Vincent's meeting halls.

Perfecting the period look of the clergy fell to costume designer Ann Roth, who researched nuns' habits and bonnets of the time. Again, Sister Peggy aided her, securing permission to visit the college archives. There, Roth measured the original outfit worn by Sisters of Charity founder Elizabeth Seton.

"After we put the underwear on (Streep), the habit, the cape, the shawl, the white bonnet and the black bonnet over it, and then we put on her glasses, suddenly the actress was no longer there," Roth says. "A nun was standing in front of us."

Roth located shawls for all the nuns except Sister Aloysius. "Meryl knitted her own," she says. "A huge shawl."

In fact, Streep never stopped knitting. "She'd do a scene and then go back and knit," Shanley recalls. By the end of the shoot, Adams had picked up the hobby. "The two of them would just sit there and knit. I felt like they were the Fates, and I was dying," he says.

When shooting began in December 2007, Adams expressed concern about how much she could deviate from actress Heather Goldenhersh's formidable stage performance as Sister James. Shanley set her at ease: "I'm not interested in seeing anything I've seen before," he told her.

Adams also harbored fears about matching wits with Streep and Hoffman.

"Here I am playing a character stuck between these two powerhouses," she says. "And as an actress, I'm also in the trenches with these two powerhouses. Sister James and I are on very similar journeys. Self-doubt and questioning are just a part of it."

She wasn't alone. Hoffman "walked around with a car on his back throughout the production," Shanley says. "Philip suffered. I felt like we were taking him to his execution. Meryl kept trying to psych Philip out. She kept muttering things to him like, 'I know you did it' and 'I'm going to get you.' Philip just ignored her or chuckled."

At the end, doubt remains. And that is the way Shanley wanted it. He waited until he'd shot the scene to explain Hoffman's character's back story to him.

"I told him everything I knew about the character," he says. "I knew that Meryl would be saying, 'What did they talk about?' I wanted that paranoia."