John Patrick Shanley on Love, Death and ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’

John Patrick Shanley won an Oscar for “Moonstruck,” his bittersweet and whimsical romantic comedy about a pair of star-crossed lovers who find themselves inextricably drawn together.

More than 30 years later, Shanley is offering another look at love, examining both its irresistible pull and its inherent danger, with “Wild Mountain Thyme.” The film, which opens in theaters and on-demand on Dec. 11, stars Jamie Dornan as Anthony, a shy farmer who has caught the eye of his headstrong neighbor Rosemary (Emily Blunt). Their tentative romance unfolds as the fate of Anthony’s farm hangs in the balance — his father (Christopher Walken) is threatening to leave the family homestead to an American nephew (Jon Hamm). Shanley directs in addition to writing the script, which is an adaptation of his play, “Outside Mullingar.”

Shanley, whose work also includes “Doubt” and “Joe Versus the Volcano,” spoke to Variety about his difficulty getting studios interested in “Wild Mountain Thyme,” casting Blunt and Dornan, and the controversy that’s erupted over their Irish accents.

How did the story change when you adapted it from stage to screen?

It’s always a fluid thing when you direct a film. You’re dealing with the facts on the ground on a daily basis and, of course, there was the changeable weather of County Mayo, and I was working with a lot of animals. Whenever I turn a play into a film, you have to wake yourself up from what we do as playwrights in the modern theater which is to create stories that may be big, but with small casts. So with “Doubt,” the congregation will actually be there. The kids in the classroom will actually be there. In this for instance, Jon Hamm’s character is an off-stage character. He becomes an on-stage character. The farm becomes the centerpiece of doing it as a film. Films are visually starving. They want images and beautiful things to look at. The audience wants to be taken somewhere they’ve never been before. Most of us don’t get to live on a farm in Western Ireland.

Did you cut dialogue from the play to make it more cinematic?

If you look at the script for “Moonstruck” it’s wall-to-wall dialogue. In addition to that, there are many magical images and a magical cast. With this, the language of Ireland is akin to the soil of Ireland. It is absolutely central to the identity of the Irish people. It’s very much appropriate to celebrate the fabulous way that these farmers talk. That was something that made the writing of the play and the film the most enjoyable writing experience of my life.

What kind of research did you do?

My father didn’t come to America until he was 24. He grew up on a farm in central Ireland that’s still in my family to this day. When he got older he asked me to take him there, and I started taking him. When I sat down in the Shanley family kitchen and listened to people talk, I was in love. I couldn’t believe the level of conversation. It was gorgeous. They were eccentric as hell, but so am I, so I finally felt, I’m home. I’ll never be Irish and I’ll never be completely American. I am an Irish American, which is a kind of mermaid. We have elements of both cultures going on. Most of my father’s brothers came over and they all had brogues. My father played the accordion in the living room and sang and my aunts danced in the living room. Both of my mother’s parents were from Ireland. So, I’m pretty freaking Irish.

In both “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “Moonstruck,” romance has this kind of primal power and pull. People can’t resist it, even when it goes against their better instincts. How do you view love?

It frightens the hell out of me. It’s the greatest thing and it’s the most terrible thing. I’ve been married and divorced twice. I’ve had romantic partners over the years. At the moment, I live alone, but I still look out the window and think about going there and think about not going there. For me and for many people, it’s a big deal. It’s probably the biggest experience that one can have. Being at someone’s death bed is a great privilege and a strange and beautiful thing if you let it happen. I used to run away from it as a young man. At a certain point, I turned and faced it and realized it was one of the central experiences of life. Love is like that too. There’s death all around love. Are you going to do this before you die? Those are the stakes. That was true in “Moonstruck” they do nothing but talk about death and they do their fair share of that in “Wild Mountain Thyme.” I see the two as really related.

Are you hyper aware of your own mortality?

I think about it a lot. When I talk to people who struggle with making a choice, I always say, “You’re going to be dead in about 10 minutes. Just do it.” It’s an argument in favor of life, it’s not about having a fearfulness of death.

Was it hard to get financing for “Wild Mountain Thyme”?

The show business climate was bad in terms of getting money for any film that wasn’t a tentpole. It would be much easier to get $75 million or $100 million than it is to get $6 million. Companies aren’t sure my kind of movies fit in the future of cinema.

Is that because the movie doesn’t fit nicely into a particular genre?

There’s a battle going on all the time about what is realism and right now the level of realism has gotten oppressive for a lot of storytelling. The acting is very minimalistic. Very behavioral. Anything that has any size or height to it is seen as melodrama or unrealistic. But there’s all kinds of people in the world and many of them have an emotional range that’s significantly bigger than what’s considered to be real.

Why did you cast Jamie Dornan and Emily Blunt?

It’s a short list of actors who are real romantic leads and believable as an Irishman. Jamie Dornan is Irish and he is a leading man. He’s at a moment in his career where the work that’s gotten him the most artistic acceptance has been very dark. And the work that’s gotten the most commercial acceptance, I don’t even know what you want to call it, but it’s maybe been a little exploitative. I figured this is a guy right now who should do something like this next.

With Emily, I was walking out the door and got a call from a producer who said the actress we were going to go with, her schedule changed and she couldn’t do it. I said, rather cavalierly, “well if you can get Emily Blunt, she’d be great.” I never thought in a billion years she’d say yes.

The trailer for the film has received blowback from people in Ireland who say the accents are unrealistic and argue the depiction of the country relies on cliches. What’s your reaction?

I told Emily when we first talked about this project, ‘I’m not making this movie for the Irish. If you try to get the Irish to love you, no good will come of it. I’m making this movie for everybody else and all the people who want to go to Ireland.’ The Irish reaction to things written about Ireland has been tumultuous from the time of John Millington Synge when they disrupted “Playboy of the Western World” because they thought that it was pornographic. Frank McCourt was a friend of mine and he took a lot of guff for ‘Angela’s Ashes.’ You bring up ‘The Quiet Man’ to people there and it’s like Jesus Christ, it’s an abomination. That’s about as much as I can say about it.

Do you prefer directing to writing?

I hate everything I’m doing while I’m doing it.

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