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Hollywood Film Doubt Brings Drama to the Mount
In Doubt, a Sister of Charity who runs a Bronx school suspects a priest of improper behavior with a student. Armed with little more than the belief in her suspicions, she instigates a relentless campaign to remove the priest, soliciting the help of a subordinate nun and the child’s mother. In late December and early January of this year, Scott Rudin Productions shot much of the film version of John Patrick Shanley’s hit Broadway play Doubt at the College of Mount Saint Vincent.

Mr. Shanley, best known for his Oscar winning screenplay for Moonstruck (1987), is directing his own adaptation of the play. The cast includes Meryl Streep as Sister Aloysious, the suspicious nun; Philip Seymour Hoffman as the popular Father Flynn; Amy Adams as the younger nun and Viola Davis as mother of the student.

While Mount students were away on winter break, staff and administrators were privy to a close-up look at the painstaking nature of topflight filmmaking. The halls on the first two stories of the Administration Building were covered to protect floors when massive amounts of lighting, wiring, rigging, lumber, costumes and food were trundled into the building. Several third floor classrooms were requisitioned for wardrobe and makeup activities.

The stained-glass windows in the chapel were intensely illuminated, achieving a level of magnificence no one, not even the most senior Mount employees, could remember seeing before. It was here that crucial scenes were shot almost wholly with the light from those windows. During one weekend, 350 extras dressed in early 1960s attire packed the Chapel for an important scene. The apse was made over to pre-Vatican II specifications, complete with communion rail and outward facing altar. Smith (formerly South) Hall was turned into a makeshift soundstage. In a matter of days there carpenters had built the “Principal’s Office” set from a pile of lumber, painted it, moved in furniture, decorated the set and shot several key scenes involving Ms. Streep and Mr. Hoffman.

The shoot lasted 38 days. The sets were broken down and truckloads of equipment, costumes and paraphernalia–the “loadingout”– was successfully completed just hours before the arrival of students on Jan. 22. Proceeds from the film location fees will go toward restorations of the Chapel. Doubt will open in theaters in December, 2008.

Between takes, the Mount staff were able to speak briefly with writer/director John Patrick Shanley about his decision to film at the College. It all began, he said, in 1956. The six year old Shanley found himself on the first day of school at St. Anthony’s in the classroom of Sister Peggy McEntee (then Sister James) at the time only 21 herself. Among other things she taught him how to read and write. What gifts could be more important to a future playwright? Sister Peggy is Technical Advisor to the film and has a small role in it. As Shanley’s former teacher and a College of Mount Saint Vincent graduate, class of 1961, she is uniquely qualified for the job.

Many years later, at the outbreak of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, Shanley found himself intrigued by its potential as a vehicle for probing questions of doubt and faith. He has called ours, “a culture of extreme advocacy, of confrontation, of judgment, and of verdict. Communication has become a contest of wills...why? Maybe it’s because deep down…we have come to a place where we know that we don’t know anything. But nobody’s willing to say that.” It was this sense of life’s underlying uncertainly that compelled him to write Doubt.

The show settled in for a long run at the St. James Theater on 45th Street during which it received laudatory reviews and many prestigious awards. In 2005 when Doubt was about to win the Tony for Best Play, Shanley visited the College and spoke to a large, enthusiastic audience about his life and work. That was when it occurred to him that the film version could find no more congenial setting than the home in the Bronx built by the Sisters of Charity.

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