Manifesting DOUBT: The Design
To open Doubt outwards from the narrower confines of the theatrical stage to the broader, more fluid, three-dimensional energy of the screen, John Patrick Shanley had a very specific stylistic vision, at once minimalist and visually engaging. "I wanted the environment around the characters to be stark, yet very vibrant and alive, so that against it, their humanity would really register," he explains. "The physical environment of the film became a way to reinforce the drama, the tension, the emotions. So the ringing of a phone that isn't answered becomes like the sinking of the Titanic to Sister James and Father Flynn adjusting the Venetian blinds in Sister Aloysius' office becomes a parry in the battle between them. Every single camera move had to be justified by either adding something to the storytelling or to the portrayal of the characters. Everything in the design of the film exists as a reflection of what the characters are saying, thinking and feeling."
For Shanley, there was never any doubt that Doubt would be shot on location in the Bronx, in the very same working class, Catholic neighborhood that had been the raw inspiration for his play in the first place. "This is a New York story," says Shanley, "and I wanted to go back and shoot in those same locations where I grew up. It adds a richness and a texture that you can't replicate anywhere else."
Ultimately, the fictitious St. Nicholas church and parochial school would be created by knitting together several different locations throughout New York City. Most of the interiors were shot at the College of Mount St. Vincent in the Bronx, which was founded by the Sisters of Charity as the first women's college in New York City. Standing in for the school's exterior is St. Anthony's, Shanley's original grade school in the Parkchester area, while the church exterior is St. Augustine's, also in the Bronx. Classrooms were filmed at the original Girls High School (now the Brooklyn Adult Learning Center), a Bedford-Stuyvesant landmark before the Civil War. Meanwhile, the courtyard, garden and nuns' dining rooms are those of St. Luke in the Fields on Christopher and Hudson Streets; and the basement, gym and lunchroom scenes were shot at St. Mark's Lutheran School in Yonkers.
For the film's interiors, especially inside St. Nicholas Church and School, Shanley took his cues from the idea of a season of change. "This is a film that takes place in the autumn -- not just the autumn of the year, but the autumn of an era in which ideas that were once vibrant and green have now turned brown and are falling to the ground," he explains. "They're about to be replaced by the fresh sprigs of a new time, a new zeitgeist in the culture. So we emphasized that with the use of surprising colors in the interior scenes. The feeling of Sister Aloysius' office is that is you're looking from a very vibrant green room out the window to a drained-away world of leafless trees and sidewalks scorched by the cold."
The elements themselves are suddenly intruding on this world, as Sister Aloysius is plagued throughout the story by a fierce wind she tries to keep at bay. "Windows keep opening and the wind keeps getting into places it shouldn't be and Sister Aloysius keeps closing those windows," Shanley remarks. "It seems to be the winds of change."
To capture all of this on celluloid, Shanley worked closely with his director of photography, seven-time Academy Award® nominee Roger Deakins, who he says was able to beautifully compose the sharp and stark angles that create the film's overarching ambience of disorientation. "Roger is not only one of the best cameramen alive," comments Shanley, "he also has very pure aesthetic and a kind of austerity in camera movement that was so important for what I wanted to do for Doubt. He understood that I had something very specific I wanted to express visually and was very intelligent about lighting and moving the camera in ways that always evoked that."
Early on, Deakins asked Shanley for storyboards, but Shanley would only provide them for the entrance of Sister Aloysius. He explains, "I told Roger that I didn't want to storyboard the rest of the film because I wanted the camera to follow the lead of the actors. I didn't want to put the cast in a cage; I wanted us to be free to be inspired by what they were doing in the moment." Deakins rose to that challenge. "Roger is not a technician, he is an artist and it was great to work with him on that level," summarizes Shanley.
Deakins found working with Shanley invigorating too. He says, "Since John lived with his story for so long, he was extremely confident and precise in how he wanted to film it. His assuredness allowed us to moved with a fleetness and agility that I enjoyed."
During pre-production, Shanley emphasized to Deakins that he wanted the audience to be aware of the world outside the church and the school, in the pivotal scenes between Sister Aloysius and Father Flynn. Deakins notes, "John wanted to convey the idea of the natural world impinging on this cloistered world - from leaves blowing in the window, driving rain, lightning, sunlight coming through the blinds. He wanted the audience to really feel the force of the elements and how our characters reacted instinctively to this as a way to peer inside their psyche at that moment. I found this idea to be incredibly effective, and it gave the action in our interior scenes a palpable sense of foreboding."
When it came to lighting the scenes, Deakins took a less heightened approach, as he wanted to maintain the focus on the actors' faces. He says, "I felt the light needed to be more naturalistic so the audience would not be distracted by any sense of artifice. Photographing the faces in this kind of environment is important so the audience can absorb the full strength of the performances. We knew that audiences would never want to take their eyes off of these characters."
Shanley then brought in Oscar®-nominated production designer David Gropman who focused on forging Shanley's palette into sets that came alive with character and period details. "I came to David with very strong opinions about colors and set design and he took that task on in an extraordinarily creative way," says Shanley. "And while doing that, he also was able to create a palpable sense of the era."
Gropman recalls, "John was very precise in what he wanted. There's a clarity and preciseness to the whole palette - it feels honest to the time and place but is also purposefully very sharp and striking. The idea was that with exteriors we would use the organic colors of the surrounding Parkchester neighborhood. But when the camera comes inside, John wanted to use a color scheme that would bring the audience back out of the period and into this world of clashing ideas. For example, we used a really rich green in Sister Aloysius' office - where much of the film takes place. John kept saying 'we have to be bolder with that color.' So it's a truly striking green that elevates the drama that takes place there. It's a color that takes your breath away and I think John's instincts were so right because it brings an extra intensity to the characters' interactions."
Vibrant colors also come into play in other rooms. "Another example is in the convent where the nuns live, there's a sitting room and John said, 'let's paint that room Virgin Mary blue.' I showed him a range of blues and he picked the strongest blue, which really makes you sit up when the camera enters that room," adds Gropman.
At the center of Shanley's design ethos was the concept of constantly reinforcing the state of doubt for the audience. "That's one of the reasons we used so many unexpected colors," says Gropman, "because John wanted that feeling that every time you entered a room, you had no idea of what to expect. It's a way of keeping the audience from every being sure of itself, which goes to the heart of the film."
A further strong and defining influence on the palette was the local architecture of the Bronx. "There's a lot of this kind of tan or yellow brick and that became a strong feeling in the flavor of the film as well," Gropman explains. "The warmth and hardscrabble strength of that brick reflects these traditional institutions that supported the community yet were in a moment of change."
Shanley and Gropman also discussed creating a stark design contrast between the traditional ascetic lives the nuns lead in their cells and the more social life of Father Flynn and the other priests. "The room where we see Father Flynn having dinner with the Monsignor and the other Fathers has an almost clubhouse atmosphere," notes Gropman. "It makes an interesting statement about Father Flynn's desire to relate to people in a new way." This warm, intimate setting also served another purpose: to convey a sense of authority and power enjoyed by the male hierarchy of the Church, as they had the liberty to put aside temporarily the rituals and rules of their faith. The nuns, on the other hand, respected their restrictions at all times, and never waivered from their devout, prescribed lifestyle. Gropman adds, "We see the room in which the nuns eat - stiff white linen, minimal decoration, a solitary, formal room, the complete antithesis of the priests' dining room."
One of Gropman's most challenging tasks was transforming the cathedral in which Father Flynn gives his sermons back to the typical church style of 1964. "The church was very much in transition at the time," he observes, "and today everything is different. "We used the chapel at Mt. St. Vincent, but we had to do things like recreate the high altar and put an altar rail back in. The big changes were difficult and emotional for the nuns on the set - seeing the church go back to the way it had once been brought back memories of harder and less forgiving times. They were very happy when we restored it to its current state."
The costumes of Doubt were equally important to Shanley's visual conception, forging a world of contrasts between the soon-to-be-obsolete nun's habits and the more expressive clothing of the working-class parents and students. To create them, Shanley brought in Academy Award® winner Ann Roth. Says Shanley: "Ann has a very elegant, Old World sense of style that was a great match with this story. She also has a way of building a very personal relationship with actors and giving them everything they need, which she did with Meryl, Amy, Phil and Viola."
Roth's biggest task was recreating the traditional, medieval-style Sisters of Charity habit, which was phased out in the late 1960s, and is now hard to find, save for among a few elderly nuns who chose to keep wearing it. The unique habit, with its somber bonnet and black cape, had remained unchanged from the one worn by Mother Seton, the founder of the Sisters of Charity, in the early 19th century.
"The habit we use in the film is exactly the habit as prescribed in the time of Mother Seton and the same one nuns wore in 1964," says Roth. "We copied it exactly, but what I learned from meeting with the Sisters is that there are a lot of little rules about how it must be worn so the focus was on getting all those details right. There are very exacting rules about how much shows at the wrist, where it touches the ground, what is worn under it, the way the stockings are held up with garters. It was all very specific and, for the most part, terribly uniform."
In 1964, each nun would have stitched her own personal habit upon joining the order, so Roth and her crew sewed habits for Streep, Adams and the rest of the nuns that had that same authentic home-made essence. The actors in turn found putting on the habits transforming. Says Streep: "It would take a long time to get dressed because it's all very intricate and precise and there are so many layers that you don't see underneath everything. I began to feel that the ritual of putting on the habit was part of the spiritual ritual of the day. You get ready to be this servant of God and it begins the minute you get dressed in the morning. Wearing the habit was a big part of the preparation for the role and I loved wearing it."
Roth then injected another element of change into the visual design with the well-groomed outfits worn by the school children. "They are still wearing school uniforms but there's a certain sharpness to the way they dress that was emerging at that time. You see it in their haircuts, their shoes, the way they wear their uniforms," she says. "A lot of that was based on conversations I had with John about his memories of the working-class kids he grew up with and that moment when fashions were changing, when individualism was emerging, even within this very traditional environment."
Adding to the seasonal palette, Roth further contrasted the black-and-white outfits of the nuns with an autumnal range of colors for the film's extras. Finally, Roth focused on the one lay adult who figures so prominently in the story: Mrs. Miller, whose clothes speak to her driving desire for a better life for her son. "In that era, if you were a black lady who cleaned houses, you wore a hat and a nice coat and you knew you had to look good to come into these wealthier neighborhoods," says Roth. "That was what we wanted to get at with Mrs. Miller -- the way she wears her clothes with pride is a part of who she is and what she is striving for in trying to get her son into another world where he will be safer. I especially enjoyed working with Viola Davis because I think she is one of our greatest actresses."
Following production, Shanley turned the footage over to Academy Award® nominated editor Dylan Tichenor for a first assembly that took him by surprise. "When you're a writer, you've already cut the film to a certain degree in your head," says Shanley, "but when I saw what Dylan had done in his first cut I was impressed because it was so superior to what I had envisioned. Dylan was able to put it all together with all the musicality of the script. We worked very well together because he also has an almost rabbinical talent for communication."
Next, Academy Award® winner Howard Shore came aboard to work with Shanley on the film's subtly building, emotionally rich score. "Howard had perhaps the toughest assignment of all on this film," says the writer-director. "I asked him to create music that would allow the audience the spaciousness to feel strong emotions without telling them what they should feel. That's a tremendous challenge, but Howard did a masterful job of being a jury who considered all the elements of the story without coming in with a judgment or any finite sense of conclusiveness."
Shore recalls his initial sessions with Shanley: "We talking about wanting to develop the emotional arc of the film musically; to reflect the thematic relationships between the characters in music; and also to give a sense of the old giving way to the new inside the score. For me it was about trying to create a score that would mirror the feeling of John's writing. As I was composing, I felt like I was in his slipstream, turning his ideas into sound."
To begin that process, Shore started with the central details of Doubt - its '60s time period and Bronx Catholic school setting. "That brought me back to a lot of ideas based on traditional hymns, and I was also influenced by my knowledge of sacred music," he explains. "I used a lot instrumentation that would evoke the traditionalism of that time period, including dulcimers, zithers, pan flutes, mandolins, different recorders, of course lots of harmonium and also Irish Bouzouki."
Shore also kept the natural world in mind. "Climate and wind are big characters in the film - the winds of change, the coming of storms - and I used orchestration that would shape those kinds of environmental sounds," says Shore.
Throughout, Shanley and Shore kept the focus for the score on a spare but vibrant minimalism that echoes the film's visual style. Summarizes Shore: "We used a chamber music approach that is in synch with the cinematography, the palette, the lighting, the editing. John's underlying idea in Doubt was never to use too big a force to tell the story, and this was equally true with the music. It was very exciting working with John. His ideas are so strong that it made the compositions stronger."
Behind DOUBT: The Sisters of Charity Remember Life in 1964
In bringing Doubt to the screen, John Patrick Shanley moves well beyond the stereotype of the parochial school nun and reveals these remarkable women as rich human characters who have chosen to lead spiritual lives devoted to love, prayer, compassion and service.
To do so, he had a lot of help from the Sisters of Charity who had taught him as a child at St. Anthony's, several of whom shared their own recollections of what moved them to embrace vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and what life was like in the convent and parochial school.
Then, as now, the lives of the nuns moved to a deep, devotional rhythm focused on finding God in the midst of serving the poor and needy. For these sisters, the very choice to become a nun in a cloister was so radically different from what most of the girls around them were doing that it was sometimes clearly questioned by friends and family. "I felt I was answering a direct call. I just knew this was something God wanted," says Sister Irene Fugazi, who has been a Sister of Charity for 71 years. "But it was very hard to explain that to other people. My father eventually agreed, but very reluctantly. And he gave me three weeks before quitting . . . of course, he was wrong and many years later, he admitted that."
The nuns' lives back then were simpler, stricter and more isolated than they are today. They adhered to a rigid schedule, the horarium, which began at the break of dawn when the women were awakened by a bell for morning prayers, followed by time for silent, personal meditation. After mass at 7 a.m., the nuns would have a small, silent breakfast before the teaching day would begin. Sister Peggy recalls that, after the workday was done, the women looked forward to dinner. "Afterwards we took turns washing the dishes and then we would go in for our night prayers," she says. "They would ring a night silence bell at 8:10 and by 9 p.m. it was supposed to be lights out, although I remember I kept a secret flashlight for reading."
In those days, the nuns were often kept apart from the rest of the world, including their families. When they did have to leave the cloister for a doctor or dentist appointment, they always had a companion. "It was rather austere," Sister Peggy notes. "We couldn't have wine or go to parties. We were allowed to go funerals but not weddings. They were very strict about that. I couldn't even go to my brother's wedding, which was sad, but you accepted that this was the life to which you committed."
Outside of the classroom, silence was way of life, a way of staying closer to God. "We were pretty much in silence unless the sister in charge had mercy on you or had something good to chat to you about," recalls Sister Fugazi.
Inside the classroom these women were dedicated to their young charges, even as they struggled with the rigors of teaching classes of 42 children or more. Notes Sister Fugazi, "I love teaching and I love children. But if you really wanted them to learn, you had to have order. And you learned to keep order. But my students also knew that I really loved them, even the scamps. I would go out at lunchtime and teach them to play basketball or hockey."
In 1964, when the film takes place, the sisters were acutely aware that changes were coming to the church, changes that did not always appeal to the older nuns but were welcomed by the ones just beginning. The liberalizations that followed Vatican II allowed them more freedom and contact with the world. The strictness of their life inside the convent was gradually relaxed. They were allowed to get drivers licenses, to vote, and they became as Father Flynn says, "friendlier." "I think Vatican 2 has helped us in our relationship with the laity. Now I can really get to know the families of my students," continues Sister Peggy.
Still, many of the nuns approached the changes cautiously, reluctant to give up the rigorous spirituality or to modify how they expressed the devotion to God that led them to be nuns in the first place. Says Sister Rita King, who has been a Sister of Charity since 1948: "I've seen a lot changes. And when times change, you always have people who want to go back and also those who want to go forward - but I've always hoped to stay somewhere in the middle." "Sometimes I wish someone would ring a bell now and put us into silence," adds Sister Peggy, "because the phone is always ringing and people are coming and going, and you really have to seek out peace."
Even the gradual disappearance of the habit was looked on with mixed feelings. Sister Fugazi comments: "I remember as a young sister really taking pride in the habit. There was a certain joy in being part of a community where we all had the same aims. Once we were out of the habit, things were different, although it was just as happy in another way."
As the church changed so too did society and, most visibly, the children the nuns were teaching. Today, the sisters all agree, children live in a entirely new reality. "They're definitely different, they're more outspoken, more sophisticated," says Sister Fugazi. "But to say that they're different doesn't mean that they're not as good or as kind or as interesting. They just live in a world so unlike the one that existed when we started teaching in the 1960s. Now, they're all walking around with earplugs in their ears!"
Yet, the most essential elements of the nun's lives -- expressing their love for God through teaching and caring about children in tough neighborhoods -- remain very much the same. "The children's lives have changed but not their needs," sums up Sister Peggy. "They still need the support and encouragement of adults and teachers. They count on us-- and that part hasn't changed."
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