Oscar nominee John Shanley prizes his independence
As a playwright, John Patrick Shanley played by the rules: a degree in theater; summers at the prestigious Eugene O'Neill Theater Center, a credible if unspectacular Off Broadway career. But as a screenwriter, Mr. Shanley is nothing short of a maverick. Refusing to play by Hollywood's standards, Shanley writes his films ``only on spec,'' even going so far as to interview directors before turning over his scripts.
So far, this unorthodox approach has produced some spectacular results. All of Shanley's first three scripts - ``Moonstruck,'' ``Five Corners,'' and ``The January Man'' - have been made into films. (``The January Man'' is being shot this month.) In addition, Shanley is in the running for a best-screenplay Academy Award for ``Moonstruck.'' The moderately successful playwright has become what one critic called ``a star screenwriter.''
``I was very, very happy as a playwright,'' said Shanley during a phone interview from his Brooklyn home. ``But I needed to make a living as writer, or I would be back painting people's apartments.''
In the notoriously fickle movie industry, where reputations can rise or fall with one or two films, Shanley has become something of the flavor-of-the-month. His success, however unexpected, is not unprecedented. Other screenwriters, such as Steve Tesich and Bo Goldman, have achieved this kind of overnight success, only to see their reputations wane. In Shanley's case, it is his dogged independence - artistic and financial - that distinguishes him.
Not only has he spurned typical studio wheeling and dealing (he was invited to address the striking Writers Guild members as a result), but his devotion to playwriting (he's been compared to fellow playwright David Mamet in this regard) is reflected in his film scripts. Critics have called ``Moonstruck'' and ``Five Corners'' ``writers' movies.'' And indeed, many of Shanley's passionate concerns and the incendiary language characteristic of his plays are also found in his films. Although the two movies differ wildly - ``Five Corners'' is a dark, almost violent examination of the Bronx in 1964 and ``Moonstruck'' is a honey-hued look at an Italian family - Shanley insists that the films came from similar artistic impulses.
`'Five Corners' was me writing about my past and the particular sadness I had about my old neighborhood that doesn't exist anymore,'' says Shanley. ``I wrote `Moonstruck' the same way - me sitting at my typewriter, working out certain issues - marriage, divorce, family - in my life.''
If such an approach seems derived from the artistic freedom more common to the nonprofit theater world than the hard-ball film industry, then it is a prerogative Shanley has insisted upon. Despite his six-figure screenwriting fees, he refuses to take any commissioned work, turns down multi-picture contracts, and keeps as his address his very un-Beverly Hills-like Brooklyn apartment. It is an approach not without risks and rewards. ``Most screenwriters have a lot of money and no autonomy,'' he says with a laugh. ``I have a lot of autonomy and less money.''
Such independence, Shanley says, was fostered by his upbringing - a rough-and-tumble life on the streets of New York. The Bronx-born son of an Irish immigrant meatpacker, Shanley dropped in and out of school and joined the Marines before eventually returning to New York University, where he obtained his theater degree. It was an upbringing infused with a measure of violence that Shanley says is still the greatest influence in his work as a playwright and screenwriter. His breakthrough play, ``Danny and the Deep Blue Sea,'' features the quintessential Shanley protagonist - an angry and beaten man who seeks salvation in both his rage and in a redemptive love. If such a character is traceable throughout Shanley's play series - ``The Dreamer Examines His Pillow,'' ``Savage in Limbo'' and, coming up, ``Italian-American Reconciliation'' - it is also evident in the films. Heinz, the hero of ``Five Corners,'' is just such a man, as is, to a lesser degree, the maimed and disillusioned Ronny Cammereri in ``Moonstruck.''
If Shanley acknowledges the thematic similarities in his films and plays, he also acknowledges the differences between the two crafts. ``Everyone thinks they're the same, but they're not. Film is a totally visual medium, and writing a movie is a very Cubist activity. You only work with what's in the frame, and you construct a point of view through the juxtaposition of those frames.
``When I wrote `Five Corners' I was extremely aware of that filmic structure,'' says Shanley. ``But when I got to `Moonstruck,' I threw all that out and wrote what I wanted. But, to my horror, when I finished it, it read like a play with wall-to-wall dialogue.''
Dialogue or no, director Norman Jewison bought the script, obtained studio financing, and signed Cher as the star. ``When I finally met Cher on the set,'' says Shanley, ``it dawned on me that I was doing something different.'' Jewison is now working with Shanley as the producer of ``The January Man,'' starring Kevin Kline and Susan Sarandon.
As for Shanley's apparently overnight film success versus his years of struggle Off Broadway, the playwright suggests that 10 years of playwriting have honed his dramatic instincts. ``Excuse me, but I have written something like 20 plays!'' He is also quick to credit crucial differences between the industries. ``They cast much closer to type in film, and actors don't drop out of movies to do Off Broadway plays,'' he says dryly. ``Also one Broadway critic can't kill your work. There's a lot to be said for nationwide studio distribution.''
About future projects, Shanley promises a mix of theater and film. He has already written two additional screenplays, but after that, ``I think I'll give movies a break,'' he says. ``I don't want to make it my life.'' Meanwhile, the last in his play series, ``Italian-American Reconciliation,'' is set to open Off Broadway next fall with Shanley as the director. He has already directed a short film, ``I Am Angry,'' and predicts he'll do more of the same. ``Yeah, I want to get into directing,'' he says, tossing out a not-quite-so maverick idea. ``I find it very relaxing.''