a long talk

John Patrick Shanley on His Trio of Unhinged Rom-Coms

The playwright and writer-director talks Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano, and Wild Mountain Thyme. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Lionsgate/Warner Bros

John Patrick Shanley’s trio of romantic, magical-realist comedies — Moonstruck, Joe Versus the Volcano, and Wild Mountain Thyme — all exist on a very specific spectrum of unhingedness. Each is varying degrees of enchanting and insane, sometimes to great critical success and sometimes to great memes. The Oscar-winning Moonstruck (1987) is the sort of pitch-perfect, beautifully bizarre film that comes along once in a decade. It tells the story of a widowed Italian American accountant (Cher) who accidentally falls madly in love with the wooden-handed baker brother (Nicolas Cage) of her bumbling betrothed (Danny Aiello). Joe Versus the Volcano, the OG and massively under-appreciated Meg Ryan–Tom Hanks joint, follows Hanks as a man utterly defeated by capitalism and convinced he’s dying of a “brain cloud,” who encounters three different versions of Ryan as he travels to a made-up island to hurl himself directly into a volcano on purpose. Wild Mountain Thyme, out this week, is by far the oddest bird to exit Shanley’s coop, a broad, theatrical tale of two extremely, almost unnaturally Irish people (Emily Blunt and Jamie Dornan) who won’t get together despite the many factors insisting they do, including a dead Christopher Walken pushing them to wed.

Although Wild Mountain Thyme’s critical reception hasn’t exactly been as gushing as Shanley might have hoped, it’s fascinating as part of this larger trio, another story about a kooky man and a relatively grounded woman who are utterly confounded by and obsessed with each other. It also has some of the most questionable dialogue to come out of a Shanley film, something I was eager to discuss with him. In our hour-long conversation, Shanley was, much like the characters he writes, an open book — receptive to criticism of his work but proud of it nonetheless.

So we’re going to speak mostly about your three what I would refer to as rom-coms, but I know you take issue with that classification.
Yes. I guess I’d say human comedy. I mean, if you look at Wild Mountain Thyme, it’s not simply about “Will these two people get together or not?” It’s about a whole family, a microcosm of people.

Hum-com?
Are we so lazy that we can’t say the rest?

We have to abbreviate it. It’s the rule. Let’s start with Moonstruck. Have you paid attention to its recent resurgence in the popular imagination?
I always hear from people about Moonstruck that it’s part of their lives, so that’s perennial. I have always been grateful and shocked and pleased by that. It entered the culture. I didn’t intend for it to, but I’m glad it did.

What do you mean, you didn’t intend for it to?
I was just writing a story that meant something to me. You don’t know how people are going to take it.

Right. But I would say that in the past year and a half, two years, Moonstruck has become part of the conversation again. What do you attribute that to?
I mean, with Moonstruck and with Wild Mountain Thyme, I attempted, when I did both of those, not to tie it down to any particular year so that it would have a more timeless feeling. Maybe that helps. I would say the last year or two’s been pretty stressful on a lot of people, and if Moonstruck is a happy world, why not go there?

I know you spoke about this many, many years ago, but just for people who may not have been alive or paying attention to the discourse in the ’80s — what was the genesis of Moonstruck? Where did that idea first come from?
Well, at the time, I was running into a lot of women who were facing a dilemma. They were in their 30s, and there was a guy they could get but there was another guy — maybe a guy in their imagination — that they really wanted but they never could find. “Should I settle for this guy I can get, or should I hold out for the guy who may or may not exist?”

This was women in your life?
At that time, yeah. I would say the world has changed since then. Let’s put it this way: Maybe women have become more philosophical.

What do you mean?
I’m going to try to cobble together a life that works for me, and I’m not going to be such an idealist that I actually don’t have a life.” But then, sort of running against that tide, that’s what I do in Wild Mountain Thyme, is that this woman, from birth, has set her cap for this guy. And no matter how uncooperative he is, she intends to get him.

Do you see a sort of alignment between the two movies? Because I definitely do.
Absolutely. I mean, it has something to do with that idea that people have of the One: “There’s one person out there for me, and if I find them … ” But I think I’ve always been interested in the idea of people disenchanting other people. People saying, “You have to be realistic. You’re not going to get everything you want.” My reaction is like, “Why not? Why ain’t I going to get everything I want?” Now, of course, life can stand in the way. Something, many things can happen to make that the case. But not some person who’s just saying, “You have to be realistic,” because I don’t know what realism is. I know that being what many people called unrealistic led me to a much more interesting life in the real world than the people who were telling me I had to be realistic.

Unrealistic? Can you give me an example?
First of all, I was in the Bronx. I was like, “I want to be a poet.” That is just about the most unrealistic thing a kid whose father is a meat-packer and whose mother is a telephone operator could come up with. What’s more, I didn’t want to just be any poet. I wanted to be Cyrano de Bergerac. I wanted to be a poet who was also a vigorous, masculine presence in the world. I did feel grotesque, which is why I identified with Cyrano, in part because just aspiring to things [was] not in the particular world that I happened to be inhabiting.

Then, by going out into the world, I found many of the things that I sought. For instance, when I went to Ireland and met my Irish family, I was like, “Oh my goodness. There are other people in the world that are closer in sensibility to me.” Then when I wrote Moonstruck, I was in an Irish and Italian neighborhood. I would go to the Italian American households, and the woman serving me dinner had three buttons on her blouse undone and was handing me a big bowl of pasta. I was like, “This is a lot better than what is going on in my house.” So I took everything from my household, which was very good talk and intellectual rigor of a kind, and then everything from the Italian American household to build something new.

What do you mean by “vigorous, masculine”?
In other words, in my neighborhood, there was an idea of a poet that was sort of like a Leslie Howard type — sort of like a guy who’s very ethereal, and he’s writing about his beautiful ideas. That’s not the kind of poet I wanted to be, and that’s not the kind of poet that Cyrano was. Cyrano was in the military. I went into the military. He was a tough guy. I liked that idea. I don’t think I was that tough, but I liked the idea that I would be intrepid, that I would take physical chances, that I would be an adventurer, that I would have some derring-do.

Okay, I want to come back to that because I do feel that applies to a lot of your films, too. But I’m curious: I read an interview with you where you said you use your writing to solve your life. What were you trying to solve with Moonstruck?
I was, in a way, trying to get what I wanted. First of all, I wanted to describe a family that worked. When I thought, What would that family look like? It would look like the family that I wrote in Moonstruck. Then I wanted to be like, What would a relationship look like that I would find exciting? It involved very big feelings that I had, which were described by many as more operatic than realistic. I’m like, “Well, then take me to the opera.” So, in Moonstruck, they go to the opera.

One of the reasons the movie works so well is that it feels like a very rare confluence of you, the director, and the actors all being on the exact same page about tone, and the tone is so specific. I’m curious how you translated that to everybody. How did you all get on the same page about that?
I wrote the screenplay on spec. I sent it to Norman [Jewison, the director]. He wanted to do it. I flew up to Toronto, and he and I acted out all the parts across the desk from each other. He got it. We had a very similar sense of humor. He didn’t attempt to mess with it. He did the stage directions. The actors, I think, the same thing. The writing has a very definite style.

Did you always have Cher and Nicolas Cage in mind for these parts, or were other people in the running?
I didn’t have anybody in mind. I was writing about versions of real people I have known and versions of myself. I mean, I grew up with two guys, one of them lost his hand in a bread-slicing machine and another lost his foot pushing his car off the interstate. I still know the guy who lost his foot. The guy who lost his hand died. His son contacted me and said, “Was my father an inspiration for Moonstruck?” I said, “Absolutely.” I sympathized and identified with the mutilation. That’s like Cyrano, again, some kind of feeling of being grotesque that so many of us have.

What do you feel about you is grotesque?
Well, first of all, I was originally a teenager. I never met a teenager who didn’t feel grotesque in some way, unless they were truly boring. But look, I’m a poet. I’m still a poet. That’s a bizarre thing to be, and it makes you feel a bit like a freak. I don’t really feel like a freak anymore. I feel like I’m the normal one and other people are inhibited by the chains of wanting to fit in and from just being themselves and saying what they think and feel. I run into a lot of people who are unable to truly be genuine. It’s not that they don’t want to; they literally can’t remember how.

The people you write in your films all speak their feelings out loud directly. They’re all very poetic in the way they talk.
I remember getting on the A train one time, back close to the time that I wrote Moonstruck. People were commenting that the language [in Moonstruck] was stylized. I heard two women talking on the train, and I thought, They’re doing it. I mean, that’s exactly … They could be in the film.

In terms of dialogue, I think something great about your movies is that there’s never a real side character. Each character has a fully fleshed-out persona — like in Moonstruck, the couple at the liquor store, the way they speak to each other.
Well, Moonstruck is sort of a fairy tale containing a bunch of little fairy tales. The liquor-store scene is one of those. They have a whole love story in a minute and a half or something. Each place is called, like, Cinderella Beauty Shop and the Sweetheart Liquor Store. I’m telegraphing something when I’m doing that: that we are in a world where everyone is affected by or in love.

You also return again and again to this magical realism — the moon, the stars, the way the Earth sort of influences people. Is that your personal belief system?
I had a nameless ache in my heart every time I looked at the moon when I was growing up. I couldn’t believe it existed. I wanted to go there. I was floored by the specificity of it, the craters, the rough edges of it, and the light that it shone on me and everything around me that changed.

What did it change?
Light changes everything. There’s a daytime world and a nighttime world. When I was a boy, I remember telling my brother Jim that I could run significantly faster at night than I could in the daytime. What I didn’t tell him was I also thought I was a horse.

Oh, much like the character in Wild Mountain Thyme who thinks he’s a bee.
Yep.

You also seem to have a fixation with death, which I completely identify with. Your characters talk about it a lot as sort of the central, motivating force, like specifically for men’s behavior in Moonstruck. It sort of hangs over everything.
Well, I think that the concept of death is really exciting. When you’re talking to people who are unwilling to take a chance, unwilling to risk being themselves or reach for what they want or tell the truth, my reaction is always the same. It’s like, “Just do it. You’re going to die in about ten minutes. You have this idea you’re going to be around forever. You’re not, and it’s getting in your way.” When you feel you’re going to live forever, you put off, forever, living.

Have you had any near-death experiences yourself?
Yeah.

Can you talk about any of them?
One time, when I was about, I guess, 8 or 9, I threw a snowball at these two guys who were older than me. They took it amiss, and they chased me up the staircase of a five-story building until they got me on the roof and then they hung me off by my feet and threatened to let me go. I remember thinking, Get very calm, and treat them like they’re your best friends, because your life is in their hands. I just spoke to them very gently, and they brought me back up on the roof. I’ve been attacked with knives about three or four different times.

Who was attacking you with knives?
I’m from the Bronx. When you watch West Side Story, that came from my neighborhood. And other stuff, violent car accidents … I was in a plane crash. I’ve been very fortunate.

Can you talk to me a little bit about coming up with the “Snap out of it!” moment in Moonstruck?
I was up in a tenement, living on 177th and Fort Washington. I had an apartment with chunks of plaster falling out of the walls and a couple of windows that were cracked, and I became very friendly with the super, a guy named Ralph. Really, I just kind of adored him. He was very short, and he looked like he was from Castilian Spain. He looked like he was running in front of a bunch of bulls. He came up and he would say, “Let me fix that hole in your wall,” and I would say, “I love that hole. Do not touch that.” “Fix that window,” and I’d be like, “That crack in the window is a once in a lifetime. I don’t want it touched.” I was very in love with the way that things are and the imperfectness — the imperfectness which Nic Cage talks about in the snow scene, when he talks her into going upstairs. I wrote the stage directions. I just acted it, pictured it in my head. So I slapped him, and I looked at him and it didn’t work, so I slapped him again and said, “Snap out of it.”

When you say you slapped him, you were talking about an imaginary person.
I’m talking about me. I do the one part, then I turn around and I do the other.

You slap yourself.
Yeah. I do a lot of that.

Another thing I love about Moonstruck, and this is present in some of your other movies, too, is this sort of bonding around food: Cher sits Nicolas Cage down, and she’s like, “I’m making you a bloody steak.” Then in Wild Mountain Thyme, Emily Blunt is like, “I’m going to make you a sandwich.”
It’s a thing that people in the theater know and some people in film know: If you have an actor, and they’re not good, they’re not grounded in the scene or they’re faking it, give them something to eat. They will immediately be a great actor. It’s very hard to be a bad actor and eat, because you’re doing something real. But when Emily Blunt says to him, “Would you like another sandwich?” I mean, I blushed. Woo-hoo, that was hot.

Let’s talk a little bit about Joe Versus the Volcano, which I really like. It’s the first movie I ever saw about my pet peeve and personal cross to bear, which is that office lighting can ruin your life.
When I was 18, I worked for a company that made terrifying medical instruments and artificial testicles. I was their advertising librarian, and when I opened up the drawer of my desk on the first day, it was full of artificial testicles. I asked why, and they said because they had to discontinue this line because they clicked.

Meaning they clicked when people were walking?
Yeah, they would give them these testicles, and when they walked, you could hear it, so they were no good. But it was weird environmentally. I went to some lengths with the [Joe Versus the Volcano] production designer to design what it actually looked like and the fluorescent lighting and the little coffee setup. Just the sheer misery of it.

The New York Times described the movie’s negative critical reception thusly: “The meteoric rise of Moonstruck led to a meteoric crash. After directing the catastrophe that was Joe vs the Volcano …”
[Laughs] Well, certainly it was rough, it was rough. But the New York Times hated Moonstruck. It’s like the only bad review in the country. The basis of the objection was “This is not what Italian people are really like.” Then the movie went to No. 1 in Rome, and they wrote a second review and said it was a classic, never mentioned the first review again.

And they hated Joe Versus the Volcano. The Los Angeles Times raved about it. A lot of papers really loved it. But the perception was that it was a disaster. It cost $30 million to make, and it made $40 million. I can live with that. I managed to make a movie that wasn’t like anything else.

You were happy with the way it turned out, ultimately?
It turned out exactly the way that I meant. I had pretty much carte blanche to make the movie that I wanted to make. [But] I had to deal with the fact that I was in rebellion against the way films were being made at that time. At that time, it was a big thing about having an incredibly mobile camera, like Michael Ballhaus’s camera: You spun around the table in The Untouchables or spun around the Statue of Liberty in Working Girl. That, together with a lot of fast cutting, was the order of the day. I was like, “Treat the camera like it weighs 5,000 pounds and it’s difficult to move.” The cameraman for that was also the cameraman for Wild Mountain Thyme, Stephen Goldblatt. I did an uncut master of a two-minute-long scene [for the studio]. I thought Warner Bros. was going to have to be carried out on a stretcher, they were so upset.

Why?
Because you didn’t do that. I mean, they would do movies like Chevy Chase’s Christmas Vacation and then I do this. They flipped out. It all worked out in the end. The whole management at Warner Bros. is gone. I’m still here.

It’s interesting to me that you were the first person to pair Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the way their next two films — Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail — were discussed.
Well, Nora [Ephron] was doing My Blue Heaven — it was shooting on the same lot [as Joe Versus the Volcano]. She used to come over and visit with Tom and Meg all the time. She fell in love with them as a couple on that film and cast them after that.

Why did you pick them?
Tom came to me. He had his manager, his agent. They all called the same day and said, “I want this movie.” So I was like, “Okay.” [With] Meg, actually I read a number of people for that role, because they had to be able to do three different parts. I remember Julia Roberts came; she had just done Mystic Pizza. She walked in the door, and it was like Ava Gardner walking in the door. It’s unbelievable. She read, but she’s very consistently one person. Then Meg Ryan came in and she was just spectacular.

Julia was too Julia Roberts–esque?
Yeah. She got cast in Pretty Woman, I don’t know, a week later? The poor kid. She had to make do. [Laughs.]

Did you come up with those three accents for Meg’s character, or did she come up with those on her own?
She came up with it. She came to me in a wig. But she did it in the audition.

How long did it take you to recover after Joe Versus the Volcano’s negative reception?
During that time, my real life just dried up and blew away. I felt traumatized, but I jumped back in. I wrote a play called The Big Funk, and the question I asked myself in writing the play was, What is it that you most don’t want to do? I thought, Male nudity. Extensive male nudity. And I’m like, Okay, you’re going to do that. In fact, Tom Hanks read it, and he said he’d do it. I don’t think I ever told him this, but I was afraid for him. He never mentioned it again, and we both went on with our lives. I cast Jake Weber, who was a terrific actor and did a great job. We did it at the Public Theater.

Extensive male nudity?
Extensive. I’ll tell you how extensive, if you can picture this: The guy comes out in the second half of the show, and he’s buckass naked. Then he walks offstage into the audience, and we bring the lights up and he talks to people in the audience who are sitting down and he’s standing up. What happened at one matinee made it all worthwhile for me. It was an older couple, sitting in the front row, and the guy put his hand over his wife’s eyes and she took his hand away and slapped his face.

How Cher of her. I think Roger Ebert had a great way of writing about Joe Versus the Volcano: “It is not an entirely successful movie, but it is new and fresh and not shy of taking chances … Some of the movie’s sequences are so picaresque they do themselves in: The native tribe, for example, is a joke that Shanley is unable to pull off.” Which is kind of how I feel when I watch it, specifically about the Waponi tribe. What were you going for with that last act?
I think I did [invent] an entire culture that didn’t exist, including language, clothing. It was my first film. So if I didn’t quite bring it off, sorry.

I get what you’re saying, that you were inventing a new thing. But I do think there are some tropes in there that maybe aren’t as —
Basically what the Waponis are saying is that if they want to continue as a viable culture, someone has to be willing to jump, take the leap. And none of them are, so they don’t deserve to go on. Tom Hanks’s character, who, as a younger man, had been a heroic fireman and had run through flames to save a kid, he’s willing to take the leap. He takes the leap, and they survive.

Well, they don’t survive, right? Because doesn’t the island blow up?
They survive. The tribe gets on boats, and they start to leave. They don’t die, they migrate.

Okay. Well, what I more meant is, looked at through a certain lens, it’s a little bit offensive, the way that they’re portrayed —
The tribe?

Yeah.
The tribe are supposed to be Irish, Jews … I forget what else. In other words, I’m specifically saying, “You ain’t never going to meet this tribe. This ain’t no indigenous nowhere on earth.” Maybe in the ultrasensitive environment that we’re in now, but I think even there it’s a stretch. This is a mythical group of people.

Okay. Most of the film is this scathing indictment of capitalism, this sense that we’re all dead inside because we’re these worker drones. But then Joe is sort of reborn after a day of extremely intense shopping. I wondered about that dichotomy.
Well, there’s no justice in the world, and certainly I’m not espousing a political point of view. I’m espousing the human point of view — that is, that I was not a materialistic person, which is different than being an anti-materialistic person. I went to Los Angeles, and the first day I was there, I just remember thinking, How the hell did I get here? How did this happen? In other words, it’s a world that I didn’t even truly know existed.

There’s a thread too in some of your other work, about this idea of soul-sickness and selling out. I’m curious if, straddling the worlds of theater and Hollywood — which are very different — if you ever felt like you were selling out or being asked to sell out?
I once had a dream that I shared on a road trip with Rob Reiner. I said, “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I had a dream and I know it was about show business. I dreamt I was Hitler’s pastry chef.” It’s like, “I’m being well-paid, but this is a terrible job.”

When did you feel like you were being Hitler’s pastry chef?
I think there was a point in my life, I’d adopted two children at birth, then a few years later I got divorced. My life cost an unbelievable amount of money as a result of those two simple facts. For a decade, I had to come up with more money than … an incomprehensible amount.

I think this actually leads perfectly into Wild Mountain Thyme — why did you decide to turn it from a play into a film?
Like a lot of these things, I was minding my own business, and somebody else had the idea. Like with Doubt, Scott Rudin called me up and asked me to come into his office. He said, “Hey, we should make Doubt as a film, and I think you should direct it.” I went, like, “Okay.” On this one, Leslie Urdang, a producer who I’d done a lot of plays with, she said, “I saw Outside Mullingar, and I think it should be a film.”

It’s based a little bit on your own Irish family, right?
My father came to this country when he was 24, and he grew up on this farm, extolling the family. It was a large family but primogeniture, only one could stay. My Uncle Tony was the one who stayed, and his wife’s name was Mary. The way they talked is the reason I wrote the play.

I know you’re on Twitter. I don’t know if you pay attention, but there was a bit of an uproar about the accent situation.
Oh God, yes. I talked to Emily Blunt about doing it in the first place. She was jazzed to do it, and I said, “Listen, I just want to tell you, right up front, we are not making this movie for the Irish, because if you try to get the Irish to love you, no good will come of it. We’re making this movie for everybody else, and the Irish will do whatever the heck they want. I love them. I love their country. I do not ask for love in return.” She said, “Okay, that’s quite a speech.” But it’s true. Even going back to John Millington Synge, who wrote Playboy of the Western World, they booed that offstage in Dublin because they said, “This is not what Irish people are like,” and, “This is pornography.” Frank McCourt was a friend of mine; he wrote Angela’s Ashes. In Limerick, they gave him a really hard time. They were like, “We were not that poor.”

So it doesn’t bug you?
Well, it made me laugh and cringe and shake my head and go, Well, I knew they were going to do this.

I want to talk a little bit more about the bee situation, how the main character confesses that he believes he is a bee. I know you said it was a little bit based on your thinking you were a horse, but either way, that’s a very risky solution in a film. Where did that come from?
In Mullingar, there was a man named Adolphus Cooke who thought he was a bee. He was a rich man, and he had his tomb built in the shape of a giant beehive, which is still there, and I have climbed on that tomb. So ideas don’t come from nowhere. But the real point of that is a very simple one that’s so obvious that I think it eludes people: Everybody thinks they’re something they’re not. A lot of the time, it makes it impossible for them to accept love.

That’s very true. Does that apply to you? Do you think you think you’re something you’re not?
Absolutely. I know that when I walk down the street, that somebody walking by me the other way who glances over me for one second and never thinks of me again sees something I’ll never see. It’s just the truth. There’s information about you that you will never have, because you’re inside looking out, that other people have readily available to them. That’s a bit of a shocker.

A few lines in this film sort of stuck with me, not in a good or bad way, but I was just kind of like, Hmm. And I want to talk about them. Emily Blunt says, “Women are the salvation of the world,” and later she says, “Men are beasts, and they need their height to balance the truth and goodness of women.”
What do you want to say about them?

I mean, I think it’s interesting because you have him challenge her, or you have her challenge him in those moments —
Well, when she says, “Women are the salvation of the world,” he says, “I want to believe that.” Because in other words, if he’s going to be saved, it’s going to be her that saves him.

Do you really think women are the salvation of the world, and what does that mean?
Absolutely. I think that if every country in the world were ruled by women — governed by women — things would be a lot less crazy. They’d be crazy, but they’d be a lot less crazy.

And you think men are beasts?
Absolutely. In other words, the reason for civilization is women’s demands to make the world a place where they could bear children and not feel bad about it. You get the guy with the club, and all he wants is sex and food. And she’s like, “Well, if you want these other things, you’re going to have to build a house. You’re going to have to get an education. You’re going to have to … ”

Men want to run off and take the women from another town and burn it down. That’s a stripe in the male identity. There are many other stripes, but men are progenitors of war. Women may have the opinion that there should be a war, but it’s been men that have really done most of the war-making through all of history. We have a lot of testosterone, a lot of warlike and aggressive feelings, and they’ve got to go somewhere. To put them into a constructive vein, sometimes we need help.

I do think men vs. women was maybe an essentialist point of view for a while — “Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, there’s this fundamental difference, and never the twain shall meet.” I’m curious if you think advancing the point of view that men are innately beasts is excusing that kind of behavior?
Well, no. I mean, first of all, there is who you are, and second, there’s what you do with it. So I may have been born with all of this passion, and I could have used it to burn down my neighbor’s house or to write a play.

So there’s a version of you that might have burned down your neighbor’s house instead.
Well, I was a pyromaniac as a child, so it wasn’t a chance idea.

When I was reading that New York Times piece that I quoted before, it seemed to credit that worldview to your complex relationship with your mother. Do you think that’s fair?
A complicated relationship? That’s how they explained what away?

This idea of these fundamental differences between men and women.
Other people can say what they want. Certainly, understanding other people, and understanding myself, has been the work of my life. I don’t feel like I have accomplished those things, but I’m very attracted to making generalizations about them because it drives everybody crazy.

I had a period where I just asked everybody, “Can you make a generalization for me about all men? You don’t have to really think that it applies to everybody.” It could be very hard to get people to do it, because they felt so endangered. But I’m like, “I know you have them. I know you’re operating from these assumptions. But they’re so central that you’re not willing to say them out loud because then you would be vulnerable to attack. As long as you keep those unspoken assumptions complex, they remain static.”

So your generalizations have shifted over the years?
Oh yeah.

Did you change the way you thought about writing romance or writing men and women after the Me Too movement?
I think that what I’m really known for is very powerful women. Whether it’s Cher — that character’s very powerful, she won the Academy Award for it — Olympia Dukakis, she won the Academy Award for the part [in Moonstruck] that I wrote for her. Viola Davis was nominated for the Academy Award for the part that I wrote [in Doubt]. In fact, they all were: Amy Adams, Meryl, and Phil Hoffman. The vast bulk of the parts that I’ve written that have garnered the most praise or accolades or whatever have been for women. Because I see women as a force, like I said in the movie. I said that they have the power to change the world. I get mad at women because I’m like, “You should be doing more. I can’t do this part. Only a woman can do this part.”

That’s a lot of pressure.
Well, men have a lot of pressure. Why shouldn’t women have pressure too? Step up.

That’s a perspective, for sure. An outlier for me, as a fan of yours and now that we’re talking about all of this, is that you were involved in a sexual-assault allegation before Me Too began. You’ve never publicly talked about it. I’m curious if you have anything to say on the matter.
Just a girl that I dated basically said that I had treated her badly, abused her, which wasn’t true. Of course, nobody else was there. I felt bad about it, but I got a lawyer, and I said, “Well, there will be no settlement, because this did not happen.” I was fortunate in that I had a great deal of evidence. I had, unedited, all of the text messages, all of the messages on Facebook and everything else. It really documented every single time that I saw this person and that there was zero indication of any of it, of anything like that. It came up a significant length of time after we’d stopped seeing each other. I was very shocked. I guess the only thing I can say is, has anybody ever said anything about you that wasn’t true in your life? Occasionally, people say things that aren’t true.

Do you think if this had come up in a post–Me Too world, you would have handled the situation differently or thought about it differently?
I don’t think I would have, no. What happened to me might have been different, but I don’t think I would have handled it differently, because I was just very straight-up about it. I just went out, got a lawyer, and said, “Here’s the facts. Here’s all the details, everything else.” I really went through it. I was deposed. The judge threw the whole thing out.

Well, I appreciate you addressing it directly. And I’m glad you’ve made another human comedy.
Are they going to start calling it hum-com?

John Patrick Shanley on His Trio of Unhinged Rom-Coms