An Investigation of Agnieszka Holland’s THE THIRD MIRACLE, and a career spanning talk with its author, Richard Vetere

THE THIRD MIRACLE, a sort of “spiritual detective story” about a troubled priest chosen to investigate whether a laywoman allegedly responsible for a miracle is a suitable candidate for sainthood, came out in the fall of 1990 and had a brief run on the art-house circuit, collecting some respectful reviews before gently exiting the Oscar race with less than $600,000 in grosses.  The film had a reasonable DVD release (featuring a commentary from director Agnieszka Holland) but has not been discussed much since – it has yet to have a Blu-ray release, and is not currently available for streaming on any platform.

MIRACLE  at one point or another deals with miracles (real or faked); family abandonment; demonic priests; a fraught Postulator known as “the Miracle Killer,” played by a forceful Ed Harris, who is drawn to a damaged, frisky and inviting Anne Heche; bleeding statues of the virgin mother; drug-addicted teenage prostitutes; sarcastic Church bureaucrats with tee-times and luxurious wardrobes; and a domineering European Archbishop who has no use for American Catholics, among much more (did I mention the little gypsy girl praying fervently as bombs reign down on her village during World War II?). It could have easily proven high camp, a hackneyed exercise in spiritual uplift, or in a best-case scenario, a broad rip snorting melodrama (or farce).  It’s none of this.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but THE THIRD MIRACLE is a hell of a movie.

Critic Dave Kehr once rather bravely proposed in a review of APOCALYPSE NOW that Francis Coppola was a better producer than director, his greatest talent in hiring people; I appreciate NOW much more than Kehr, but Coppola indeed proves an unusually deft producer of MIRACLE, fusing delicate components to generate a film much much more pensive, both skeptical and moving, than the usual Cinema of Spirituality.

Novelist Vetere, a Catholic with a working-class Maspeth Queens background who cowrote the final screenplay with John Romano, provides an unusually personal perspective that  Holland’s efficient, hard and yet sympathetic eye makes universal without losing the local detail; she also helps keep the film from having its spiritual cake, and eating it too.

While I would not go so far as saying “depiction is not endorsement,” Holland fully dramatizes the material without fully submitting to its message or ironically commenting on it from an intellectual distance; this tightrope walk is no mean feat.  She may be an agnostic half-Jew, half-Catholic raised in Communist Poland, but she’s no dilettante in the fervently religious world of MIRACLE; perhaps witnessing the political and social weight of Jan Pawel being made Pope, which “miraculously” brought Communist Poland back from a spiritual and near physical death, led to Holland’s unusual sensitivity and respect towards the material.

The film doesn’t dismiss bitterness or disillusionment among its characters, nor does it turn into a brightly lit, banal sermon to the choir. Regardless of the film’s even keel, it does suggest faith and hope are essential in a world that likes to take swings at us, and it has a bit of a devilish sense of humor; the stern, scolding Archbishop (Armond Mueller-Stahl) has a damn good cosmic joke played on him towards the film’s resolution.

Some of the story’s woolier plot developments work because Holland’s direction is an elegant series of checks and balances that engender trust in viewers so when the film is obliged to have some rather dramatic narrative developments, we feel they deepen, not cheapen, the drama. Harris’ attraction to Heche could feel like the film giving into conventional romantic impulses, but the script and Holland’s direction avoid florid dramatic gesticulation (after all, ladies likes a man in uniform, and Harris makes for a striking priest, both tightly wound and empathetic, with not only intimations of deep resignations not far from the surface but intimations of deep hope always present in his performance, too).  The filmmakers also don’t avoid historical injustice – a key plot point turns on a corrupt and abusive priest — but MIRACLE favors investigating the deep, often wary, personal relations and commitments people have with and to their church.  By ending the film on a lovely, discrete moment of grace and friendship that nevertheless hints at a larger, perhaps miraculous, spiritual epiphany, THE THIRD MIRACLE has a polished classic symmetry while remaining quite natural in tone; perhaps God, or at least Holland and confederates, had a plan, after all.

What Camus termed “the wretched and magnificent life that is ours” is what Holland, Coppola, Vetere, Romano and the cast get across so piquantly in THE THIRD MIRACLE.

I caught up with Richard Vetere, the author of the novel THE THIRD MIRACLE and co-author of the film, to ask him a bit about his career and this unusual, underseen work:

You had an interesting trajectory towards THE THIRD MIRACLE, starting as a poet, then a playwright, then a screenwriter. Was MIRACLE  the first novel you attempted, and what made you think it was best suited initially to that medium as opposed to the stage or something you were more established in?

THE THIRD MIRACLE was my first novel and it took ten years to get it published.  I studied Comparative Literature for my master’s while at Columbia, and of course that included fiction; I always wanted to write novels as well as poetry, plays and film scripts.  I saw MIRACLE as a novel from the beginning probably because I wanted to get into the thinking of my theologian Father Frank Moore, and I could only do that as a novel.   When writing the novel, however, I was aware of the strong cinematic aspects of some moments, especially the scene in the schoolyard in the rain when Frank climbs the statue to see up close the tears of blood. 

I was sure who ever directed the movie they would certainly include that scene with all the dozens of faithful standing there in the rain holding up their umbrellas.  Interestingly, years later, in a private screening Agnieszka had for me, when the scene came I was really pleased. However, she had the camera above the schoolyard, not how imagined it.  Later that night at dinner, I mentioned to her that scene and how she filmed it and she told me she loved it and she had wished she had had a bigger budget to film it several more ways.  So I was correct, it was a cinematic scene a director would love to shoot. 

When were you able to “let go” of THE THIRD MIRACLE and call it finished?  Did you really feel it “done” or did you just realize you had to stop at some point?

I liked the ending to the novel when I wrote it, but later I didn’t feel it worked for me as well.  So in my most recent version of the story, a stage adaptation, it ends with Frank and Roxanna in the schoolyard at the statue of the miracle and it is about to rain.  I like that ending because in many ways The Third Miracle it is a love story and the lovers need to resolve their relationship at the end.   It is in the movie, but really watered down.   Frank is still a priest and Roxanna needs to come to some resolution with the memory of her mother, the potential saint.  This same scene is in the novel, but not exactly at the end. 

What inspired you to write the novel in the first place? I know it takes place in a working-class Queens Catholic milieu you knew from growing up, but what made you want to explore this story of faith and politics in the Catholic Church?

I am still a Catholic.  I was an altar boy.  I began the novel back in 1985, and the word ‘miracle’ was hardly ever mentioned in conversation.  Hard to believe, but it wasn’t, especially not in the context of actual faith.  The idea of anyone contemporary being a saint was never talked about.  I was curious who would believe in miracles and saints, and I went to the library and found The Ordinary Process of Canonization published by the Catholic Church.  It was a small black book about the process of finding out if someone is a saint.  That intrigued me!  The fact that anyone would believe anyone else was ‘touched by God’ and was a saint inspired the theme of the novel. 

I had to take the book home and quickly read it cover to cover.  I still remember the night I did.  It was a very important night in my life as an artist.  Research is key.  I went to the university library and they let me in, since I had kept my old college ID card.  I started reading the book immediately. Close to the beginning of the book was the line “And the Postulator will be appointed by the Vatican and the Postulator will act as a spiritual detective to discover if the said candidate is a saint.”  Think about that! 

A spiritual detective.

That was when I realized my novel was a detective story and that was how I started to think about it.  And the fact that the Postulator needed three miracles was also a great dramatic device.  Creating Frank Moore came next, and I based him on me.  My Catholic faith.  The doubts he has as a character was inspired by Graham Greene’s characters in his novels The End of the Affair and The Heart of the Matter.  Frank Moore’s doubts is the conflict in the book and his falling in love with the agnostic daughter Roxanne of the Saint candidate is the major conflict.  The structure of the story wrote itself.  I also had Frank be an avid swimming, which I am.  I rewrote THE THIRD MIRACLE with over eight complete new drafts on a typewriter with whiteout! 

The first draft of the novel was close to five hundred unruly pages.  I met an agent who read it and sent it out and it was rejected by every publishing house, including Simon & Schuster.  I would go back to the novel over the years and attempt re-writes.  I am talking at least a decade!  Then on a trip to LA in the late ‘90s, I was taking pitch meetings set up by my wonderful agent back then, Mary Meagher, who became a legend in her own waySadly she passed away in 2006.  So here I am with a producer at Paramount who asked me one of the best things any producer ever asked: 

“What do you have back home that you are working on and did not plan on pitching me?” 

I shyly told her about his unruly novel I was working on.  She seemed interested and when I got back to my hotel, I got a call from Mary who said, “Paramount just called me.  What is this THE THIRD MIRACLE novel you are working on and why haven’t you told me about it?” 

Well, once back in New York I brought the novel to her office at Williams Morris Agency, and once I told her what it was about, her eyes lit up.  She was Catholic and her father was a theologian.  She immediately set to work.  She sent the unpublished novel to Francis Ford Coppola,  and Alec was involved at one time.  She also set up a screenwriting deal at New Line Pictures for me to write the first draft because they offered me more money than Paramount. That is when the novel began to take shape, meaning that in writing the screenplay I gave the story a three act structure which I then used to trim the novel down by cutting more than half of the extraneous parts.

Then after a decade of rewrites the novel, at last, had a wonderful structure and shape.  That is when Kent Carrol of Carrol & Graff publishers made an offer to publish it.  Right after, Simon & Schuster through Scribner’s, offered to purchase the softcover rights.  I received raves reviews in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal both calling it one of the best debut novels of the year.  So think about it, it took me over ten years since I wrote the first sentence of the novel to get to “best debut novel” talk. 

However, after writing the screenplay nobody wanted to produce the film.  My agent left the business and no one picked up the banner to promote it.  Then another project was making the rounds in Hollywood that was also about a priest and miracle and that script was about to get the green light.  I was sure my film would never happen.  But then Zoetrope got the script to CAA, and they gave it to Agnieszka Holland, who gave it to Ed Harris and Anne Heche.  I happen to be LA again taking meetings when my new agent at William Morris called one morning and told me to read Variety.  I got one at the hotel and right there on the front page was the headline “Holland, Harris, Heche Find Miracle.” 

Funny thing was though, Zoetrope had let the option run out! My agent wanted to show it around and I told him not to.  I told him to let them pay outright for the script plus the new money for the option and they quickly agreed after calling me frantically, when they realized they had let the option run out.  That was the summer and by the fall I was on the set in Toronto filming and when I met Ed Harris he said to me, “You got your novel to be made into a movie in record time.”  I smiled and told him it had taken nearly fifteen years from the day I started it to that moment. 

By the way the other script was titled THE MIRACLE PROJECT.  I got to read it a few years ago.  I am sure the reason it didn’t happen right away was that it lacked a love story.  No tears for that writer though, he is from Australia and has had some big movie hits to his credit in the last decade.

You are one of the screenwriters on the project – did you find it hard to adapt your own material to the screen?  A film and a novel obviously have different structures and requirements, can you talk a little about the process of self-adapting for the screen?

As I said, I was writing the screenplay and going back and forth to the novel and re-structuring the novel.  So my work on the screenplay was feeding off the novel, and what I kept from the novel fed the screenplay.  It was fortunate that I got hired to write the screenplay before the novel went out to publishers.  Of course, there is a lot in the novel not in the movie. The first hundred pages never changed much.  They were the first I wrote and the strongest writing, I believe.   The stuff that changed was the backstory of Father Falcone and Willow Lake.  Although it is in the movie, there is much more of it in the novel.  But most importantly, since the novel is like a detective story, a mystery, it was easy to follow that structure in the adaptation.

The biggest character left out of the movie is Satan, or the Devil.  There is no mention of evil in the movie at all.  The writing worked this way:  I did the first draft, and John Romano did the second draft.  I did the last pass, if I remember correctly.  At one point a young executive at New Line asked if I could turn it into THE EXORCIST.   I told her that I really liked THE EXORCIST but I didn’t write it.   

Were any other directors ever considered besides Agnieszka Holland?  I think she was a terrific choice, she brings a European subtlety to the storytelling and certainly knows how to work with actors, but I’m wondering if anyone else was circling around the project.  Did you have any names in mind?

Coppola originally considered directing it.  Fred Fuchs told me that Coppola backed away because he feared dealing with the Church.  Sidney Lumet was someone I heard was interested.  Agnieszka is both Jewish and Catholic in her upbringing.  That is why it appealed to her and she is good friends with Ed so that is why he got it right away.

Ed Harris is phenomenal in the film.  Did he match up with what you pictured in your mind from the novel?    How do you feel about the overall casting for the film?  Do you know if anyone else was in the running for any of the roles?

I think Ed is masterly in it.  Perfect for me.  Those intense blue eyes.  You can see his struggle as Frank Moore.  There is not a false note.  I like Anne a lot.  There are moments she is magical.  On the set Ed was the consummate professional.  He had every line to the word.  Anne, not so much.  But I love her scenes at the gravesite and at the travel agency a lot.

The list of actors who were very interested in playing Frank Moore is a kick.  Richard Gere and Sylvester Stallone.  In the novel Frank Moore was an avid swimmer but that is not in the movie.  If Stallone had played Frank Moore, they told me I would have to put back the swimming since he liked it a lot.  Romano had taken the swimming out in a second draft. 

Tom Cruise also read the script and was interested.  And if I remember correctly so was John Travolta.  I always saw Al Pacino and if you read the novel, I actually described Frank Moore more like Al than anyone else, though Alec Baldwin also came very close in my mind. 

Robin Wright was also mentioned as Roxanna.  I thought she was too pretty. 

When was the first time you saw the film?  Do you remember your reaction?

The first time I saw the movie in its entirety after the last go around of editing was sitting next to Ed Harris at the Toronto Film Festival.  We were in the biggest movie theater in the city.  Ed was nervous.  I was fine.  We both had been introduced on stage to the huge audience.  But I also remember the first time I saw an uncut version was in LA.  Agnieszka had a private screening for me and I brought a priest friend of mine.  I liked most of what I saw.  But my biggest disappointment was her changing the location from Maspeth, Queens to Chicago.  Over dinner she told me that since we filmed in Toronto she believed she could make Toronto look like Chicago more than Queens, NY.  Ironically, she found a Saint Stanislaus in Toronto and ultimately many of the scenes looked they could have easily have been placed in Queens. 

Interestingly enough, not long after, a producer filmed my TV teleplay adaptation of my stage play THE MARRIAGE FOOL (aka LOVE AFTER DEATH), starring Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett and John Stamos, which is a story of my father and me, and also set in Maspeth, Queens, in Toronto!  They had no problem trying to make Toronto look like Queens.  Trying is the operative word here because it didn’t work!  The locations  looked nothing like Queens.

An impressive cast in a Polish DVD of Vetere’s THE MARRIAGE FOOL, most definitely NOT shot in Queens!

Going back to The Third Miracle, I remember being on set for the shooting of some of the most intense scenes and Agnieszka had those I hadn’t seen screened for me while I was in Toronto.  She even put me in the precinct scene because she saw me on set.  

Also, in the novel Maria dies and stays dead.  In the movie she comes out of her coma.  I was concerned, but the audience loved it.  That is the difference between a novel and film.  A novel is a personal experience.  The movie is a communal one.  Her death in the book is important but not an essential; in the movie we get to see her on screen and do not want her to die.  The scene that is most complete for me is Frank’s interview of Maria.  In the novel it is in the schoolyard and in the movie it is in the empty church.  It is really well acted. 

What are your favorite parts of the film (as opposed to the novel).  Did anything come out differently, or even better, than what you expected?

My favorite parts of the film that are not in the novel include the entire sequence when Father Moore is driving through the streets looking for Maria Katowski which ends when he pulls the young prostitute out of the truck cab in the garbage dump.  With the music Agnieszka chose and the way the entire sequence is choreographed, it is my favorite part of the movie.  The scene where Frank is brought to a crime scene where Maria has been found beaten and her boyfriend dead is wonderfully acted and shot.  The music is great.   I really like the Willow Lake sequence with Father Moore and the Brother when Frank is investigating Father Falcone’s death.  The lines that play so well are when the Brother says to Frank, “Now I know why they call you the miracle killer.” Their back and forth about God playing tricks with them is so well acted and directed.  And Frank’s response is delivered so well by Ed when he says, “You don’t understand.  This one was supposed to be real.”  Agnieszka intercut Frank on a subway dreaming the memory of his time at Willow Lake intercut with the action that happened there.  That entire ten-minute sequence is wonderful filming making and for me, magnificent.

Do you ever think of doing a follow up novel or screenplay?

 I did.  It was actually titled THE POSTULATOR.  I vividly remember the opening.  A young nun in her habit walks into a blinding snowstorm and disappears.  Frank Moore is now a bishop and had once been her mentor.  I can’t remember much more of it other than a scene here and there.  I believe I was lost on plot and story.

Then I was approached just a few years ago about doing a sequel to the film which I would write and direct.  He was a mid-Western businessman who was obsessed with the movie.  He even flew here to NYC to meet me.  But nothing came of it.

Interestingly enough I have written an adaptation of THE THIRD MIRACLE for the stage.  I have tried to get it produced now and again.  I really like the stage version a lot, and in some ways more than the novel and the film. The ending mostly.  There was even an attempt to turn it into a book for a musical by a young composer and lyrists as well.  After winning a big musical theater award and announcing publicly they were working on The Third Miracle, they left the profession. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up VIGILANTE, your first screenplay and a cult classic, partially for the streets of working class Polish Greenpoint and Italian Williamsburg displayed in it, the 1970s Italian Poliziotteschi-styled gritty action, and the cast featuring Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Woody Strode, Joe Spinell and others.  Is what ended up on the screen pretty much what you wrote, or was it one of those learning processes where everything was different in the finished project from what you initially worked on?

What I love about VIGILANTE is that Bill Lustig, my director, shot every scene I wrote exactly as I wrote it and most of the lines were exactly as I wrote them.  Some lines were improvised, but very few.  Here’s how Bill and I worked, since it was my first screenplay; we worked out a structure of the opening ten pages, talking it out moment by moment then I would go home and write it.  Bill had a very clear idea of some of the scenes so I wrote them as he saw them and was prepared to shoot them. 

But then scenes were vague, like when Eddie’s wife is attacked by the gang in her house.  I wrote the entire scene beat by beat and had her run through the backyard and the clothes lines.  When Bill read it he asked me where I saw that scene before.  I told him I had never seen it before. I just wrote what I wanted to see shot. 

There is so much in the movie I really enjoy because it was line by line, moment by moment how I imagined it.  I was lucky that my first movie was like that.  Now when I see the movie in special screenings at film festivals I am amazed how great it looks.  It was shot on 35mm and on the streets just as they looked.  No green screens. 

As for the locations, Bill is from New Jersey so I picked out a lot of them for him in fact, one of them was a friend’s business.  Long Island City, Woodside, all locations I knew.  We would drive around, and I’d show them to Lustig and he would love them. By the way Robert Forster and Fred Williamson were joys to work with.  Since I had a reputation as a playwright from the Actors Studio, most of the actors were happy to work with me.  Don Blakley was one of them, playing the key gang member who Forster tosses off the water tower at the climax, but sadly passed away in 2004.  Of course Robert recently died; he was extremely well-liked.

Can you tell whatchareading.com’s readers a little bit on what you’re working on now?

Last year I had both a new novel published and a new play published.  The novel is THE WHITE ENVELOPE.  It won Runner Up in the Amazin’ Whodunit Mystery Writers Contest last year and they published it.  It is about a ten year old boy whose mother sends him to an aunt’s house to pick up a white envelope from his aunt after school every Tuesday.  One afternoon he finds his aunt dead.  The murder happens the day before JFK’s assassination and it remains unsolved for nearly fifty years.  It is loosely based on my own life (the white envelope, not the murder) and is set in Maspeth.

My play ZAGLADA was also just published by Dramatic Publishing and will have its world premiere in North Caroline– if the virus permits– in mid-August.  Set in Maspeth, Queens as well, it is the story of an elderly man who is arrested for taking a shot at a journalist. When he is arrested it shows that he was wanted by Homeland Security for entering this country by lying on his immigrant application.  He left out that he was once a kapo at Buchenwald.  The play is based on a recent true story.

I am also developing a new play at the Actors Studio in the PD Workshop titled THE ATHEIST IN ALL OF US  loosely based on the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

Another new play, titled THIEF IN THE NIGHT, is being written for a theater in Warsaw, Poland. It is also set in Maspeth Queens and is about a money laundry scheme.

And yes, I am writing a new novel.  It is a Young Adult novel titled THE POWER WINGS OF A MIGHTY CHERUB.  It is loosely based on my own childhood when I would go to the library and copy a book on the Solar System.  My novel is about a young boy on the autism spectrum who copies the same book, but at night when he sleeps he flies as an angel to individual planets experiencing first-hand what he has learned.  On each visit he meets people on earth and finds out that each planet is a metaphor for something he learns about life.  The big mystery for him is to find out why he is coping the book in his notebook word for word.

Thanks to Richard for his time and memories!

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