(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)
AARON CAIN: Welcome to Profiles from WFIU. I'm Aaron Cain. On Profiles, we talked to notable artists, scholars and public figures to get to know the stories behind their work. Our guest today is Paul Shoulberg, a writer and director of feature films and a graduate of the MFA playwriting program at Indiana University.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT TRIO’S “BEVERLY’S MARCH”)
Paul Shoulberg's directorial debut, The Good Catholic, starring Danny Glover and John C. McGinley, won the PEN division Spirit Award for independent cinema at the 2017 Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and it also won best screenplay at the same year's Milan International Film Festival. The Good Catholic follows a devoted young priest who unexpectedly falls in love with a college student he meets one day in confession. It's essentially the story of Paul Shoulberg's his late father who left the priesthood to marry Shoulberg's mother. Paul Shoulberg also wrote the feature film Walter starring Academy Award nominated actors William H. Macy and Virginia Madsen. And Ms. White Light, which was also filmed in the Bloomington area. Ms. White Light marks Shoulberg's second collaboration with Pigasus Pictures, an Indiana based production company that hopes to cultivate the next generation of filmmakers in the state of Indiana. Recently, Paul Shoulberg dropped by the WFIU studios for a conversation with Janae Cummings.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Paul, welcome to Profiles.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Thank you. Thank you. It's good to be here.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You're from Kansas.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yes.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And you have long major home right here in Bloomington, at least 10 years.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Well, actually, I live in Nashville.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Oh.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Nashville, Indiana.
JANAE CUMMINGS: OK.
PAUL SHOULBERG: But my wife works at Harmony School. We've been back here since 2011. I went to grad school here from '04 to '07 with my wife. We lived in New York for four years, and then we came back here and she got the job at harmony because we had two kids while we were in the Bronx. And it's hard to have little kids in the Bronx. It's a lot of work. So we came back here to have something resembling easier life. And then we moved out in the middle of nowhere. And I guess I'm Hoosier now. Like, I've been here total of over 10 years of my life, yeah.
JANAE CUMMINGS: So what drew you to Indiana? I mean, you're coming from Kansas, one fly-over state to another fly-over state? Why Indiana?
PAUL SHOULBERG: It really came down - it was a very pragmatic decision when I was applying to grad schools for playwriting. I really wanted to be a screenwriter, and there were no programs for screenwriting that had funding other than very highly competitive scholarships at, like NYU or something that I wasn't going to get. So I found that there are a couple playwriting programs, MFA programs that would be fully funded. And I had written a 10-minute play. I've been writing screenplays constantly. I'd written a 10-minute play, and I had a really good playwriting teacher at KU, was able to get, like, three months ahead of the deadline since I was like, “I'm going to write a One Act and I'm going to just try to get into the playwriting programs.” So I applied to just the ones that had funding for grad school and Dennis Reardon who was the head of the MFA program at IU contacted me and basically said, “I'll take you on the strength of the screenplay that you submitted. But you have a lot to learn about playwriting.”
JANAE CUMMINGS: You got a long way to go.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Like, really that's shocking that I just started this. So he brought me in - the program was great. You're the only one that comes in a year, which changed since then. But at the time, they would never have more than two students in a three-year cycle. So for the first year I was the only MFA playwright and then I had another guy come in. But there was never a third playwright in the MFA program. So it was a very unique program. I came here just - I'm going to be a screenwriter, and I'm just gonna do the playwriting to get myself some time to just write. And I ended up getting completely roped into theater. But that's how I ended up here was just randomly looking at the map and being like who funds writing. I'm from Lawrence, Kansas, which is - it's Bloomington in Kansas. And so I have this weird - most of my life I've been in a very liberal pocket of a very conservative state. I have a very bizarre understanding of the Midwest that I'm reminded every time I leave. I mean just go to Martinsville.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah, around 20 minutes, yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah, suddenly it hits me that this isn't Indiana. This is just Bloomington.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right. Right. When you were in the playwriting program, you said you got roped into theater, so, you know, did you put screenwriting aside? Did you act? Did you start writing plays for the theater program?
PAUL SHOULBERG: I wrote a ton of plays for actors when I got here. If I could backtrack again a second, I had a screenwriting teacher at KU. His name was Kevin Willmott. He wrote Chi-Raq and BlacKKKlansman. He was my mentor all through undergrad, and he forced me to stage my screenplays, get actors to come in and do a staged reading of it because he knew that I wanted to direct. So he insisted that I work with actors even though I'm a screenwriter, because usually screenwriters, and then film directors, their biggest weakness is they get on set they do not how to talk to actors at all.
JANAE CUMMINGS: They're kind of removed from the process of that.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah, and a lot of times actors expect - I mean, they don't like it, I don't think. But they expect to get nothing from their director. They show up and do the work. There are directors, very famous, very successful, very good directors that don't really do a whole lot with actors. They'll place them but they - you know, there are directors that really don't - sitting there and, like, talking about motivations stuff is not necessarily how it works with film all the time. With indies, it's usually different. He had me doing that, and I got really hooked on working with actors. So the transition from playwriting to screenwriting, it just made sense because I really love giving scripts to actors and the hearing them say those words. So I would write a play and I'd always find six or seven actors and put a reading together. We'd find some room on campus and had, like, six people would show up. And it was great.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You mentioned that you hadn't been writing screenplays very long, writing plays very long. And when you applied to these MFA programs, when did you first become enchanted with storytelling?
PAUL SHOULBERG: When I turned 18, I was a D student in high school. I never really - I knew I wasn't, like, dumb, you know? It wasn't like a complete moron. I was capable of getting better grades, but I didn't see the point of any of this. I decided I wanted to be a guitar player because I was 18 and that seemed like a thing to do. So I played guitar, like, from the time I graduated high school. I went to college, but I was not a good college student. I had, like, 13 different majors in my first year. But all I did was play a guitar around the clock. And I did that for a couple of years. And I went out to LA to some guitar - one of those like - it's just a very expensive school that anyone could go to, but it sounds cool. And I was young enough to think that I had accomplished something, went out there and realized right away, I got around a bunch of musicians and realized I was going to be a hack. My poor parents who paid for me to go to this school I started skipping, and I stayed home. And I was watching, like, two or three movies a day. And I realized - it hit me. I think I would have been 20 or 21 at this time that I was more interested in the narrative of being a musician than the music.
JANAE CUMMINGS: So it's this, like, romanticized life.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah. Yeah. And then I realized that every aspect of my life I was more invested in the movie version of it. And I was watching movies constantly. Two a day would be normal for me. I was still a failed musician. I was still trying to do that, but I just wrote a monologue from the perspective of a failed musician. That was cathartic and I had something to say. And I felt something. With music, I never had anything to say. I was just trying to be good at it.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: And it made sense. And I just kept writing. And by the time I was done with that screenplay, I hand wrote it in a notebook. Music was just - it killed it just in, like, three months. And from that day forward, I've been writing constantly.
JANAE CUMMINGS: What happened to that screenplay?
PAUL SHOULBERG: I ended up typing it up onto the first iMac. It exists. It's called College Town. It's about a musician in a college town. That's the most exciting part about it. It's really - it's a terrible script. It's pop culture references wall to wall.
JANAE CUMMINGS: But it's the thing that got you going.
PAUL SHOULBERG: It got me going. And when I gave it to people, they laughed. There's a voice in there. It's a terrible script, but, like, there's life in it. And that's the kind of thing that someone - I read a lot of screenplays, and a lot of writers will send me scripts. And when you do see somebody with a spark, all the other stuff, they can figure out. You can learn structure. You can learn everything. But if they got a spark, you can't teach that. They have a spark and a voice and a point of view. If they're bad at dialogue, they might need to find either actors that can correct that through improv, or find a writing partner that's good at dialogue. But if you have a voice and something to say and that usually comes later. You know, when you're in your early 20s, there's not a lot. At least I didn't - when I see people that are doing great stuff in their early 20s I get jealous because I was just saying nothing at the time. But that spark, it's there. It's buried under just a bunch of garbage, but it's there. And when I don't see it, I worry if that person is going to - not necessarily make it because I know people that make it. There's several paths to making it in the film industry that have nothing to do with me liking your work, because there's plenty of work that - but, like, something that's exciting to me. What I think of as success is the indie filmmakers that I consider like they've made. It would not even be considered successful by a lot of standards in Hollywood and the people that are making these huge franchise movies. I have no interest in them. They're power players, and I just don't view that as interesting. They have a lot of money, and I would love to have some of that. But when I say that I see like a spark in someone, if you really work hard, you might be able to make $18,000 a year for the rest of your life. It's nice to get philosophical about money and stuff like that. Like, in my heart of hearts I know what I like and what I think is good art. And that's all that matters to me. But there are, like, several hours out of every day where I have doubts.
JANAE CUMMINGS: How do you combat that?
PAUL SHOULBERG: For example, right now I'm trying to work my way into some genre filmmaking. I like horror. Thriller. Stuff that I really like the ones that do it with an artistic bent. I've just finished a script that is a revenge thriller set in the woods. My goal was to make it so these characters are characters you would enjoy in a non-thriller. It's not like you don't really know these people, and then they just start...
JANAE CUMMINGS: And there are jump scares and...
PAUL SHOULBERG: Right. Right.
JANAE CUMMINGS: ...Running through it, yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: You invest in these characters, and there's a real love story there. And there's real depth to it. But all the good stuff happens, too. And so I'm trying to be responsible as a filmmaker and be like I'm going to ask for money, spend that money, make a movie. If the scares are there, I can find an audience that doesn't care about the stuff that I love in all movies. There's more room for people to come to the movie if I execute the genre elements of it. So I'm actively trying to work my way into thriller-horror just so I can reasonably go to a producer and say, “yeah, I know how to make movies for very little.” So if I can make it for this budget, the odds of recouping are much higher than on the movie I just made that's about death.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right. And we haven't talked about those movies yet what seem to focus on religion and, or religious aspects to them and death. But how or why are you hoping to make this transition to genre film? Is there something where, you know, it's more likely you can get a movie made or is this what you're really passionate about?
PAUL SHOULBERG: There's a movie called Blue Ruin that came out a few years ago that really blew me away. It's like they made it for $435 grand. The guy made it on his own and took genre film - but it subverts the genre. There's just a depth to it. You really care about the characters. If nobody got killed, I would have been engaged the whole time. And seeing that really kind of opened my eyes to other avenues of filmmaking where you challenge yourself a little more, because having made The Good Catholic and just finished making Ms. White Light, I want to go on set and not know how I'm going to - I need to know I'm going to shoot the scene, but I want that fear of not having a system down exactly; how this is going to work. And I want to just keep challenging myself. And it's a genre that I happen to really like. I'm not a big sci-fi guy, and I don't like slasher films at all. I like a lot of off-camera violence, like a sound is to me way creepier. I don't like to see somebody getting, like, their leg cut off or something. That's not interesting to me. But the good versions of those movies I think are - they're very real exciting.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Can you give us some examples of those?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Well, all, right. So Blue Ruin and then his name's Jeremy Saulnier. He did – Green Room was his follow up. Another great film. You should check these movies out. They’re…they're amazing. In The Shining where you could just look at a frame and just have a camera slowly tracking in and nothing's happening...
JANAE CUMMINGS: But it just gets scarier and scarier.
PAUL SHOULBERG: That tension. There's a movie called The Witch that every single frame of that movie I didn't know when it was going to happen. And then actually when the stuff started happening is the only time in the movie where I was like, “ehh.” All the stuff leading up to it, the tension, it's exciting. The scary element is just a slow-building tension. And I love that. Just to add that element to filmmaking I really - it's very exciting to me.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT TRIO’S “SEAMSTRESS EXTRAORDINAIRE”)
AARON CAIN: Writer-director Paul Shoulberg in conversation with Janae Cummings. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You graduated from the MFA program in 2007.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yep.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And then you headed to the Bronx.
PAUL SHOULBERG: We did Brooklyn for a year. And my wife was teaching public school. But she was always teaching in the Bronx. And that was a really terrible commute. It was rough, so we ended up living across the street from the school she was teaching in the Bronx for the last three years we were there, which is kind of nice to be - I mean, she could walk to school.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Did you go there at all to kind of make these connections with screenwriting?
PAUL SHOULBERG: I went there thinking I was - at that point, after three years of really good playwriting instruction, I went there thinking I was going to be a playwright, going to New York going to be a playwright. I worked my way back into film at some point in time. My thesis play at IU is set on a film set. It was called Rel, like R-E-L. So it was clearly still, like, there, but I thought, you know, I'm just going to go be this artistic poet. And real quick, the realities of that world set in. And I - that dream was dead in about a year of being there, just looking at the realities of playwriting. It's not really a field. The people that are doing well immediately jump over to TV. Playwrights just do that now.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Why is that?
PAUL SHOULBERG: There's not much money in theater. There's - at any point in time there might be four or five playwrights making a living just doing playwriting. Musical book writers, if you have some huge, you know, Wicked, or something, yeah, you're doing all right. But straight up plays, like, off-Broadway stuff that is a tough racket unless you parlay it into film.
JANAE CUMMINGS: And I mean, the idealized that romanticized version. Like, you can be Arthur Miller and just whip out these plays live this glamorous life and have Marilyn Monroe and everything is wonderful for you. And so no, it's surprising.
PAUL SHOULBERG: So, you just said Arthur Miller - can you name a playwright under the age of 40?
JANAE CUMMINGS: (Laughter) Absolutely not.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Exactly. Nobody can, except for people that are in that world. Unfortunately, theater is just not nationally relevant for economic reasons. I mean, how can you expect anybody that isn't wealthy to come to something where it's $50 a ticket for an hour-and-a-half of entertainment, when you could go get it for $2.99 on demand. Part of what really started to bother me about theater is how it's a very highly-liberal group of people writing politically very liberal pieces for very liberal audiences. I can handle an echo chamber. It's worse than that. It’s…It's a roomful of very wealthy people going, “oh, that is...”
JANAE CUMMINGS: “This affirms everything I ever believed.”
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yes, like, in a weird way you get a catharsis that I don't think is healthy. If that hour-and-a-half at the theater isn't going to lead to something else, you feel like you've gone through a story. But you really have just watched somebody that just came out of Carnegie Mellon express their concerns about a societal thing and you're in - like, look. Just look around. Look to your left and right. Who are you talking to? And what is this changing? Not to say that movies are changing the world, you know, but, like, the theater community is - the cost of those ticket prices, it's just - there's no way to say that it's not a very elitist group. And I don't know how to rectify that. If you're a playwright living in the Bronx - like, where we were living in the Bronx - no one in that neighborhood is going to your play. No one.
JANAE CUMMING: They're trying to get by.
PAUL SHOULBERG: They're not even going to know that that play - you're not putting up a poster there, and I'm not disparaging to, like if you're a playwright and you're doing it, great. But just, as a system, the relevance of it just…it can't really be relevant to anyone other than very wealthy people in New York.
JANAE CUMMING: Yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Maybe Chicago. And there's lower-budget theater but it's all, like, the people that aren't rich that are going to theater in New York and Chicago are people that are aspiring actors and writers. That's who's going. It's not like the public is going. There's so many people coming out of theater programs around the country. They're all going to these cities, and that's who's supporting the lower-budget stuff. It's not community. It's something else. One of the things I love about specifically talking about thrillers and horror films, people still go to the theater to see them because there's a community feeling of being scared. That's why they still do well. Like, horror films, Blumhouse, the studio that - they make most of them. And they make them all for five million or less. And every fifth one becomes a hit. And every, like, 15th one becomes a mega hit. And every once in a while, they'll do, like, an arthouse film. They'll kind of sneak in there. But there's a community there. You go to watch a horror film in the theater. You are with everyone, and that is not the case with any other genre of film anymore. Some comedies, but that's not really - the studio comedy right now is, that genre is just not I don't think it's very exciting. But it's not, like, indie dramas where people are packing the theater and like, oh. You know, like, it happens. You can get those experiences. But in general, it's horror and thrillers that are getting people to come to the theater. And it's accessible anywhere in the country. It's not cheap to go to a movie, but it's...
JANAE CUMMING: It's cheaper.
PAUL SHOULBERG: It's cheaper, yes. So that to me feels like a relevant artform. I'm excited to create in that area because I do have certain political, not agendas, but things that I would like to express. And if I do it in genre, people will hear it. People that aren't coming to hear it will hear it. I'm not really excited about talking to people that are exactly like me with art.
JANAE CUMMING: Right.
PAUL SHOULBERG: I need them. But to me, unless you're expanding, what are you doing?
JANAE CUMMING: Yeah; well, the point should be to make an impact and to touch people's lives.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yes. And that's why Get Out specifically is super important because it's hitting every quadrant. Not everyone's seeing the same movie when they see Get Out.
JANAE CUMMING: But people are thinking. And people are going...
PAUL SHOULBERG: …thinking, “I've never had any experience like that in the theater before.”
JANAE CUMMING: Right. Right.
PAUL SHOULBERG: I've never been sitting there going, like, “I'm the villain. This is crazy.” Just flipping perspective, that's all you're doing. People are only there because it hits the genre beats. If you take all that away, it's just a good film that isn't going to pull in any young people or, you know, it's going to create that excitement. And there was excitement in the theater, like, I have not experienced…
JANAE CUMMING: I mean, packed out weekend after weekend.
PAUL SHOULBERG: …and going to see it in a - I saw it in LA, and it was very, I imagine, different than if I would have seen it in Bloomington, a very different experience. And it was awesome. It was a brilliant move to make that. And again, they're making horror films - this company, Blumhouse - over and over again. So they got their brand down. And for them to be, like, as long as you make it, like, as long as it works in the genre, like yeah. Get - get your message across. That's great. Because horror is so relevant, I think that's the best vehicle to tell stories right now, I mean, as far if you really want to reach an audience.
JANAE CUMMING: So we talk about Get Out. I mean, is that the kind of film that you would like to make, the kind of - I don't know. I feel like Get Out was extremely subversive, which made it outstanding. Is that what you're kind of going for?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Get Out specifically - if I wrote Get Out, it doesn't mean as much as it...
JANAE CUMMING: Oh, right. Cool. Cool.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah. And I'm aware of that. And I feel like the thing that I'm most excited to do and I think the thing that I can offer the privilege that I have is that when I go meet with people to get money for films they look at me and they're like, “yep, you look like a filmmaker. There's nothing about you that looks different than every other filmmaker that I know.” You know, like, and so I have that advantage. I don't have the advantage of having any money or any power. But I do have that advantage of just the straight white male privilege advantage. And the big thing I have is I can write scripts that get people excited. I have all the leverage as long as the script is mine, because they can't get that. They can't just go write a script. They need it. So if I hold on and I stay on as a director, then I can have control over casting. And that's where I feel like I can create the most space for other people. What we did with Ms. White Light, it was Mr. White Light at one point in time. And we decided to switch genders of the lead and then cast a female of color, like, no matter what. And it was really weird. I thought that would be like a yeah, just casting director here you go. Sends the list. Every agency sent - first pass, every agency sent three or four women of color. And then it was, like, just all the same white women that they sent for Good Catholic. The notes were hilarious because we go back and be like, we - like, “I'm casting a woman of color for this role. And she has a dad, so they both have to be - she's not going to have a white dad, either. Like, that's not - we're not doing that.” And they would send stuff like - they'd send, like, a very white - and say, “well, she's actually 1/64th Argentinian.” They would say that in the notes. I was like, “do your job.”
JANAE CUMMINGS: Well, I think what's troubling and fascinating is that you're trying to do the right thing. And these casting agents...
PAUL SHOULBERG: No, the casting director was great.
JANAE CUMMINGS: OK.
PAUL SHOULBERG: So, yeah. Our casting director - she's the one who did - her name's Gayle Keller. She did [The] Big Sick. She does all these things out in New York. She's great. She got it. But the agencies, the big agencies - they're the ones that - they send these lists. And so they're trying to say, like, it's so funny right now. There's this whole, like, panic that people - I don't know if anyone knows about this outside of the industry. There's this whole panic right now in Hollywood. If you go out there and you talk to people, writers, actors, directors, where nobody wants white people for any of the roles anymore. Nobody wants white writers in the TV rooms. It's like - it's a panic.
JANAE CUMMINGS: That's sad.
PAUL SHOULBERG: It is, because if you still look at what's getting made, and now it's, like, shifted from 98% white to like 94% white. And it's like, oh, what are we going to do (laughter)? And when I talk to managers and stuff out there, they will sit down say, like, “hey, just so you know, I can't even send you anywhere because TV writers can't be white dudes anymore.” It's like, “OK, but why are all the TV writers white dudes still?” And they're like, “oh, they have one spot on each staff.” And, sometimes, that is funded outside of the studio, so they're not even paying for that spot, their “writer of color” or their “diversity hire,” they call it.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: And so they have one slot that is not even really - again, they're getting, like, grants and stuff to, like, staff that. So it's an extra spot.
JANAE CUMMINGS: To do the bare minimum.
PAUL SHOULBERG: To do the bare minimum. And then they let - they don't promote them. So they just keep having to go from, like, the lowest staff writer to lowest staff writer type of thing. And white people are legit complaining. Terrified. And these are very liberal - it's - but it's a real thing.
JANAE CUMMINGS: But I think the disconnect between highly liberal elitist people and what they say and what they do - it's...
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah. And that's the thing where I have to look at things and say, “I have to direct my films.” I'm not giving that spot up. I'm not in a position where I can, anyways. Like, if I make a first-year teacher's salary off filmmaking, that's a great year. I'm, like, really excited. So - but I can control the casting, and the person we cast is the lead in Ms. White Light. I was rewarded a thousand times over by casting someone that isn't the typical person you would cast in that kind of role. She knocked that out of the park. If she was a straight white male, she would be, like, Ryan Gosling-level of success. She's got every tool that an actor needs. And just - it was an honor to be able to get to demand different people coming into the room. And the crazy thing was I got - audition-wise, we had people that were way bigger than the project auditioning. Once we got it in their heads, like, we are not - do not send us any more Gilmore Girls, or whoever - (laughter), like, just, like, you know, whatever it is. Like, great actors. But we specifically said this is what we wanted. The amount of talent that we're willing to read that normally would be you don't know who the - I'm an unknown director. We certainly don't have money. So, usually, in that situation, it's tough to get known actors to - you might be able to win them over with a script. But they're not going to read for you. It's offer-only for bigger names. And some still did that, but the talent that came in to read, it was just like, wow. And this is because you're getting a lead role that's nuanced, that normally would go - it was written for a white man. You get to do all that stuff. You get to do the stuff where it's not about the struggles of being a woman of color. You just get to do stuff and, like, be funny and make mistakes and be a lead, a real nuanced lead character. People get real excited about that. And you realize, wow, if you're reading for me and you don't know who I am, you're not getting very many opportunities to do this kind of stuff 'cause there are a lot of - casting and stuff is getting more diverse. If you look at Netflix shows, everyone's got, like, a best friend of every demographic. It's that fake diversity where it's, like, you're not developing a project for this actor. You're just - you're making them the best friend of...
JANAE CUMMINGS: Well, and they're never a developed character. They're really flattened.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Right. And it's, like, now you're playing the poorly-developed white female character. Now you get to do that and not be white. But the character still sucks, and you don't get to do the fun stuff. So that's the kind of thing that - I know I can control that now. I'm not even with the scripts. I'm just sending it in as - like, when I write a script, I'm creating it in a way that if you give the character's last name Mendoza, they have to, like, ask you if they can send you white actors. They also have to ask you if they could send you Black actors, but you're at least saying, like, hey, just so you know, this is something I know that I could control if I get them to like the script. The last two scripts I've written have been two female leads in love stories. And it has nothing to do with the struggles of being a lesbian at all. Nobody wants me to explore that,
JANAE CUMMINGS: Right.
PAUL SHOULBERG: (Laughter) Like, I'm not - I know, like...
JANAE CUMMINGS: That's not your story to tell.
PAUL SHOULBERG: No, but it's a love story. And I make it two women so I could cast two women. That's why. That's - the only reason I'm doing that is so I can create space for actors. I know I could do that. I'm trying to do that with crew, cast and crew. It's very hard to find in our budget. If you find someone you like that will work at these budgets, you're not gonna walk away from - you've started building these relationships. You need them. And so I don't think we've done a - as good of a job as we can with, like, having a diverse cast and crew. It's very hard to find anyone that can do these jobs in Indiana, period. We're not yet at the point where I feel like we can - whereas, at least at the films I've worked on, have been as diverse as a crew as I would like them to be. And a I hopefully move on to bigger things, I will have more control over that.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT TRIO’S “A LIFE IN EAST POULTNEY”)
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is Paul Shoulberg, the writer and director of The Good Catholic and Ms. White Light. Both films made in collaboration with Pigasus Pictures, an Indiana-based production company that hopes to cultivate the next generation of filmmakers in the state of Indiana. Paul Shoulberg is speaking with Janae Cummings.
JANAE CUMMINGS: I'm curious about filmmaking in Indiana. You have collaborated I think three times with Pigasus Pictures. Am I wrong?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Two - the first one that I wrote was a different - Purple Bench Pictures was - they were an Indiana company. And then the last two films have been Pigasus.
JANAE CUMMINGS: OK. What is it about making films in Indiana? Why? Why not go to Georgia? Why not go to New Mexico, where filmmaking is probably easier and more diverse?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Initially, I - you know, I was gonna do The Good Catholic in Kansas. I did that whole film to honor my dad, who’d passed away - and he'd spent all of my life living in Kansas. The two guys that run Pegasus were from Indiana. And we were going to do it that way. And it hit us at one point, like, this would be easier to do 'cause a film was so low-budget that the tax - there wasn't a tax credit in Kansas, either. So it didn't - that wasn't really a factor. But the whole thing about going to Georgia or New Mexico, you get those tax credits. At that small of a budget, we thought we can make up way more than the tax credit by doing it on our home turf. Or we could go and, like, get locations and get deals with a lot of people. And we did. On Good Catholic, that really - that made sense, you know? I'm really torn. I know that Pegasus is very much like we're in Indiana film company. We want to hire only Indiana people. We want to do that. And that's awesome. That is their No. 1 mission. And I love Indiana, and I feel like, well, I love Bloomington. That's all I really know. I hate a lot of what the rest of the state is doing. And so I am more torn about - the mission's less - is more nuanced from my end where I'm trying to decide. Their theory - and I like it - is that if you create art in these communities, you can change the makeup of these - I mean, Georgia - the tax credit in Georgia specifically has - that state is trending to purple, I guess, or whatever. And I think it's directly as a result of that tax credit. There's like a mini Hollywood out there, and that makes a huge difference. And if that's how this goes, that's awesome. I mean, if anything, they could bring in more people to the state that are different, 'cause you can't have everyone fleeing. And then this is how we end up where we are. I do have this weird relationship where I'm like also, like, “well, the government doesn't want to support the arts at all. So should we go somewhere where they care more about this stuff?” It's tough. I haven't had to really confront - like, we haven't gone into small-town Indiana - I haven't - and made a film. Bloomington has been so welcoming and so open to everything. And, like, the mayor is supportive. Like, the city government, local government has been great. So, that - to me, that's where Indiana is exciting, just to watch this community come around. But there is part of me that feels like I can't walk around with an Indiana flag, waving it, talking about how great this state is, because it's not. There are great people in this state. There are great cities in this state. There are great people in terrible places in this state. But this state has so much work to do, and the state has a lot to be ashamed of, politically. And I want to see that change. I can't call myself a Hoosier filmmaker because of those things, politically. And I know, like, that might upset some people. But I can't be all in on a state that won't let my sister get married. There - I have issues with that. So it's kind of fascinating, this whole, like, working with Pigasus because their mission is great. And it's gone very well. We've had a great working relationship. And we'd like to work with them again. But as they continue and I continue, I will be interested to see what the missions are. I have goals with my films that are, politically, very specific and I'll be interested to see how that works in with the mission of sticking with Indiana at the same time. I think it's an interesting thing, and I hope that that works.
JANAE CUMMINGS: But kind of in the vein of sticking with Indiana, when you made your first feature film, Walter...
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah.
JANAE CUMMINGS: That wasn't filmed in Indiana, was it?
PAUL SHOULBERG: They shot one week in Indianapolis for exteriors, but it was all mostly shot in LA.
JANAE CUMMINGS: So at the time from what I understand, you were working at Bloomingfoods and...
PAUL SHOULBERG: For both - yeah for both Walter and The Good Catholic, I took a month off, went to LA, never been on a film set before. Fly out to LA, sit there, watch them make a film for a month, come right back. In fact, I was back working at Bloomingfoods while they were shooting the exteriors an hour away in Indianapolis. I was already back at work. With Good Catholic, I remember sitting in my car on a lunch break, talking to casting director and, like, being like, “yeah, like, I think - you know, Danny Glover, that'd be great,” you know? Just having these conversations like it was my office in the parking lot of Bloomingfoods. We finished shooting, and I went back to work there. While we were editing the film, I was working at Bloomingfoods still.
JANAE CUMMINGS: How do you navigate those two worlds at once?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Really weird and hard to have a student PA working for you on set and then to be working at Bloomingfoods and have them come in and you're working for them, you know? I would say it was humbling, but I feel like at this point in life, like, I'm so beaten down that I just always assume, like, everything's gonna go away the next day. So I'm always in that mindset. It was very strange for people to come in and be like, “aren't you the guy that I saw in the paper?” And, you know, you’re stocking yogurt, you know? It's a very weird thing. But, you know, it's work, you know? You got to stay alive, so you just - one story that sums it up really well, though: an old professor from IU, from grad school walked in - and talk about a humbling experience. This is, like, the perfect example of why it's useful after making a film. But he came in. And he was like, “you work here?” And I was like, “yeah.” And I started to explain, like, the economics of independent film. And he's just like, “oh, are those apples on sale?” He just came up to me like, “you're just a guy that works here,” not asking like, “oh, you work here.?” He was literally asking if I work here. Like, “will you help me, sir?” And I just realized right away, like, nobody - like, everyone's just there to get their apples. It's not about you when someone comes in and gets rice. Like, it really isn't. Nor should it be about you when you're on set even making a film. And so, like, having that happen at the same time, it just really lets you see that, in a good way, that you're not special, just making a movie or stocking apples. You still work, and you still just got to, like, put your head down and do it. And it's a useful reminder. I'm glad to not be doing it right now. But I know that I'm always six months away from having to go do something like that again.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You write these screenplays, these words. And then William H. Macy, for instance, or Danny Glover acts out those words. And you guide them through your vision. What is that like?
PAUL SHOULBERG: It's crazy. It's really strange. So William H. Macy - I wasn't the director on that. But just having him pull me aside and say, “hey, Paul. I wanted to change this. You say ‘and’ here, but I think it might be easier just not say the ‘and.’ Is that OK?” To have William H. Macy ask me that, it's like, “yes, sir. Hell yes.”
JANAE CUMMINGS: Absolutely.
PAUL SHOULBERG: On Walter, the first time around, I was so - especially just being a writer on the set, you really are kind of a useless thing. You do, like, 10 minutes of work a day. Once a script's done, you're there. And everyone - some people have a question. But, usually, you're just sitting there, eating and looking at monitors and being, like, “that was good. They did a good job.” It was surreal. That whole experience was just - I was shocked. I never got used to it. It was just insane. When you're directing, you're worried about so many things. There are moments when you first see Danny Glover sitting across from you. It's – “how did this happen?” But the minute you start working on the text, there's so much work to do. So many questions and answers and elements that I have to worry about that I'm just trying to get it right. And that goes away really fast. And then it's just work. And then you could step back and be like, “I can't believe this happened.” But as a director, there are so many things you're responsible for. You just don't have time during the thing to...
JANAE CUMMINGS: There's no time to be stressed out.
PAUL SHOULBERG: You shouldn't be processing that. You should just be worrying about, like, are you getting what you need? Like, stepping back, it's kind of fun to look at. I just keep thinking my kids are going to one day think this is cool. They don't now. They're, you know, 7 and 9. So they're just waiting for something to be animated or whatever, you know? But I keep thinking like, oh, maybe, you know, one day, they'll look at this and be like, “wow, that's kind of crazy.” But I don't know. They might never. I have no clue.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT TRIO’S “HELIUM”)
AARON CAIN: Writer-director Paul Shoulberg, speaking with Janae Cummings. You're listening to Profiles from WFIU.
JANAE CUMMINGS: When you filmed The Good Catholic here in Bloomington, are there any stories that stick out to you from that time?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Oh, God. The Good Catholic was - we had so little time to prep. My favorite thing from The Good Catholic was when we needed a shot where they were walking around the square. And it was - the lights had been on while we were scouting, but they were going to turn them off 'cause the holidays are over. Cook Medical, like, is in charge of that. And they got them to, like, keep the lights on through all the production for that. And I remember standing out there. And somebody - the old manager from Bloomingfoods walked by - was like, “oh, my God. This is so great. You're doing this.” And the lights were on. And I was just like, “yeah,” like, “this is crazy. This is…” That was sort of, like, kind of a full circle. But then I was back working in Bloomingfoods two weeks later. So I was, like, I guess a full figure eight (laughter) when the circle goes back around. But that was a moment where I really felt like - because they had heard me talk about, you know, I'm making this movie. I'm going to do this - from the time I started writing it. It's a year and a half, two-year process. And so they - these - everybody there working knew that I was doing this. So it was really cool to be able to have - just the way it worked out, it felt like one of those, like, movie moments, where like the lights are literally on in the square while I'm running into her because of this movie. It just felt like that was a nice moment. Like, you get a few of those I think in your life and that was a good one.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Well, also, I mean, in a town like Bloomington, where so many creative people live and are - you know, someone's always writing a song or working on a screenplay or writing a play, to actually see that come to fruition for a friend...
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah because I know a lot of - I got a lot of friends. And I've been that friend where it's like you're talking about the thing that never happens. Like, it just doesn't happen. That's so many people, especially in these college towns.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: It's the same in LA and New York. But in the college towns, like, you know all the people that - like, these are the 12 guys you know that want to be novelists. You do see a lot of sitting around. So, like, I'm going to do this thing. And it just doesn't happen. Somebody came up to me. It was - another person at Bloomingfoods, like, came up and said, “you actually did it. I didn't think you were going to do it.” He did it. That's amazing. That doesn't happen. It's tricky because when you're in LA, everyone is pushing you. When I go out there, I - the amount of energy I have to have to just hustle, like, if you look at your calendar and you're like, “oh, there's a three-hour gap here. What am I doing?” Like, that's not happening here, you know? If I have a meeting, just a - this, this is my day. Like, I did - this is great. Like, this is a whole day. It's good, and it's bad. I like - I do like the pace of life here. It is nice, but it can be a little too easy on artists.
JANAE CUMMINGS: It's easy to get comfortable here.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Very easy. It's a college town trap, you know? Again, I - born and raised in one. So I know it can be a trap, but anywhere it can be a trap. You could live a very different - like, we moved here from the Bronx for a reason. This feeling all the time, hustling just to get by every second is not a healthy (laughter), like, state of - you know? I'm 41 years old. Like, in my early 20s, maybe I could live off of that. But now it's just - I just feel the work that comes with that. So you can walk around Bloomington and not feel that every second, which is nice.
JANAE CUMMINGS: I'm curious about your creativity process. I thought I'd seen you say that you're not a writer, for instance, if you're not writing every day. What are you doing every day to make sure that you stay fresh?
PAUL SHOULBERG: So that's definitely - like, I do think you're not a writer if you're not - so when I say writing every day, that can mean I go on modes where I'm actually - like, I'm going to sit down. And I'm going to do x amount of pages on this script every day for the next however. But then there's times where I am actively working an idea in my head, and I know that I'm going to be better served by watching a couple movies that are kind of touching around that. Like, I've seen so many movies. Whatever I'm into, like, if - I'm just like I don't know how to start this movie. I know what the movie is. I don't know the opening scene. I know seven other movies that have an opening scene that are kind of touching on kind of how I want it to be. So I'm going to go watch those seven movies over the next three days. And that's writing to me. It's active writing. And there are times where you - because I just finished a script. I've written two feature scripts over the last four months. And I had these mapped out because I'm hoping to - I've got - like, I'm trying to line up some directing stuff, which eats up - you're doing nothing. When you start directing, like, that kills writing. You just have to turn that part of your brain off. So I'm trying to - I have these ideas I really wanted to get out. So I just really wrote a lot over the last four months. And so now I'm just like, “I don't need to write for a while.” I've got an idea in my head that hit me last night. And I was just like, “oh, this is my next movie. I don't even know what this is about, but I got this idea.” Usually, for me, an idea is - it's really a character. I got a character that I love. I have plot ideas that have always been there coming and going. And if I had a character I loved, I'm like, “oh, can I stick him into that movie? Well, what about that movie? Or do I need to create an entire new thing?” If I love a character and I could find one great scene to put them in, I will find a way to honor that character and get them a full script. And once I get going on that, then I get my little Mac calendar. And I got page counts I want to hit. And it keeps adjusting not in a good way (laughter). It's never like, oh, you did more than I was - like, it keeps adjusting. But, usually, once I lock in, the first 10 to 20 pages can take - there are times that I could take, like, six weeks, even two months if I'm really focused. And once I get about 20 pages in, the last 70 to 80 pages - they're gonna take me four or five weeks, total. If I get going - sometimes, I get - like, Good Catholic I wrote in six weeks. It just all came in one wave. And, like, about 85% of that first script was the final draft.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Is that because so much of it was inspired by your parents' relationship?
PAUL SHOULBERG: I think because I'd been thinking about that, yes, there are other stuff that come from real life, but I haven't been structuring it. In my head, I've been thinking about it. And once I sat down and started writing, I realized I was just channeling kind of my dad's vibe. And it just pushed through the whole thing. And that happened, sometimes. I've written stuff where it's like ridiculously fast, it's just all there, and then other times, where it just takes - I write the first 10 pages over and over again because I know the kind of movie I want to make. And it's not getting there. Yeah, it always starts with a character. I do - sometimes, I come up with an idea that's like, “God, that's a great” - like, you always want to come up with a - especially with low-budget filmmaking. Like, “how can I do something in two locations? What about one location? What about - is there no locations?” Is that - you're just, like, you're always thinking, “could I do it with one actor? Can I do it with no actors? Can I do it with negative actors?” If you come up with an idea that's like, “wow, that would be really easy to shoot if I can find a story that works with that,” those always linger around. But if I start from there, it always fails. Even if I get 30, 40 pages in, if I start from a concept, like a plot or a world, it will fail. I have to figure out the character. And then I can put that character in any of these things, and it's good. But if I'm not coming from character, it will die. It will feel derivative. It'll feel like the world's dictating the character. And I always go character first. I write thinking about actors. That's the most important thing for me - the text and the acting. That comes from I think studying theater. That, to me, is what film is not. And most filmmakers I think go the other - not most. But, like, a lot of filmmakers come from worldbuilding and visuals. And then they learn about working with actors as a secondary thing. And I kind of - I do it the other way.
JANAE CUMMINGS: When I watched The Good Catholic, I really felt like it would make an outstanding play. Is that something you would do?
PAUL SHOULBERG: You know, it's one of those things - like, I know how I would do it if I did it as a play. Like, I would structure it around the homilies and do more with those and really have them be, like, monologues to the audience. I've been asked by a couple people, but it was just like - there's gonna be a lot of work. And I don't want this to debut at some place that no one's gonna go to, you know? Like, it's just one of those - I would like to do that. It's a weird - usually, you go the other way. I would do it if I thought that there was a theater company that would do a good job of it, and it would make sense. I've always been accused of - my movies are too talky. And my plays are too - they jump around - are too cinematic. So I'm, like, in this weird spot, but that's what I like. I think plays where they just sit on the couch for 90 minutes are really boring. And movies - long rich characters scenes where you can let them breathe and let them act - that's what I like. So I'm in this weird middle ground. But I've come to terms with that's just what I do. So instead of trying to change it - you know?
JANAE CUMMINGS: Just roll with it.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT TRIO’S “ESPERANTO”)
AARON CAIN: You're listening to Profiles from WFIU. Our guest is Paul Shoulberg, an Indiana-based writer and director of feature films like The Good Catholic and Ms. White Light. He's speaking with Janae Cummings.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Are there any actors out there who you would want to write for or you have had in mind for roles?
PAUL SHOULBERG: Oh, man. Yes, I would love to, like, write something for Maya Rudolph. I think she's the funniest person alive. One of my scripts I'd written, I was like, “oh, this is my Rudolph role.” And it turns out it's so similar to something - not that I would ever - you know? I'm not saying I could get to Maya Rudolph. Like, who knows? But I wrote something. And it's - and she's on a show where she plays a character that's similar. And I was just like, “well, you can't do that now,” but, like, “oh, it’s my Maya Rudolph script.” I'm kind of obsessed with this actor John Early. Do you know John Early?
JANAE CUMMINGS: That name's he's familiar, but...
PAUL SHOULBERG: Do you - have you seen Search Party?
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yes.
PAUL SHOULBERG: He's the blond guy. He's the one that's, like, lying about having...
JANAE CUMMINGS: Yeah, yeah.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah. He has this thing on Netflix. They have these one-person, like, skit things. And he's in one of them. And he just makes me die laughing. There's a lot of - I mean, Roberta Colindrez - who is in Ms. White Light. She solved every - like, when actors come into a room, you want them to solve all your problems. That's really all you're asking. It just - it doesn't matter what they do. If they solve - if they just, like, “oh, yeah. This is gonna work.” I would work with her on anything, always. She is so good. And I don't even know if she wants to be, like, famous, but she deserves to be. That's for sure. There's so many. Ruth Negga. Her work on Preacher is like, oh, God. She's so good. So I've only seen Preacher. I haven't seen the film that she got nominated for an Oscar for. Loving?
JANAE CUMMINGS: Loving.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Loving, OK. But she's awesome. There's just - there's so many. And the cool thing is going through this casting process, I didn't know who Roberta Colindrez was before this. And so I now know - I want to find someone that hasn’t broken through yet. There's so many great people there. And you got to go - I mean, you had to watch a lot of painful audition tapes. But I saw a lot of people that aren't household names that are good. Like, there's a lot of good people. They all do different things, too. So it's a matter of finding the right fit. But that's the thing actors don't realize you send in a tape, you never hear from someone. I'm not going to contact someone and be like, “you didn't get the role, but let me tell…” - you know? But there are people that I've logged. Like, that person would be so good for this kind of role if I ever have that again. And they don't - actors don't know that. But that's what people are doing all the time.
JANAE CUMMINGS: You've mentioned that you've completed two screenplays. What is coming up for you? What are you excited about?
PAUL SHOULBERG: You know, I'm really, really excited about - I want to direct again. It's not like it's been, you know, a long time. But I've got these two scripts - I want to make both of them - that I've just finished writing. And they're both very different. I really just want to get on set and do it again. Writing is the thing that I do. It's just built into me. Like, I will always write. If they took away - they cancelled movies and theater, I would write fiction. If they cancel that, I would write something else. That's just what I do. Directing to me is, like, the reward. Doesn't feel like it at the time 'cause it is the hardest thing. Like, it drains you. I really want to get on set and keep developing as a director because that's the thing that's - I've been writing forever. And directing is something I've only been doing for the last couple of years, like three years. And I love it. And I just want to get on set again.
JANAE CUMMINGS: One last question I think related to directing. First, how did you get into this? It seems like a daunting leap, getting into directing from being a writer.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yeah. And what people don't tell you is that once you are known as a writer, people really don't want to give you a - you're better off not being known as anything than - with Walter, I wanted to direct it. But I had no - there was no justification for me doing so. I had not done anything. Undergrad, I did film school. But, like, that didn't prepare me for - I made a skit with, like, four people once, you know? That wasn't going to prepare me to go direct a feature film. I got pretty good at writing, so that's where I leaned on. And so people started to know me as a writer. And it became hard to be, like, “I want to direct.” I'm like, “well, you're a writer. You can't do it,” where, again, if you're just nothing, you can say, “I'm a director.” And they'd be like, “OK.” I knew after having had a movie made that I had spent so much time writing. And I didn't get to control it. And it's not anything negative against the director of Walter. I thought she did a great job. But it wasn't mine anymore. I didn't want to do that again. I decided, like, unless the money's really good, I'm not gonna give that up. It's a tough leap. It's, like, 17 skill sets. Writing is writing. Directing is, like, really 17 different things. You have to have good taste. You have to know film. You had to have watched a lot of film and just understand, like, is this a scene from a movie that I would watch? And then be able to work with people in high-pressure situations. If you can go into a - and really be in a high-pressure situation and be able to still communicate, properly, be able to manage time - when I'm able to do those things. So all the other stuff, you know, learning about lenses and learning about just the pluses and minuses of certain types of shots, stuff that - like, you can watch a movie and be like, “I love how that's a six-minute oner.” Like, “that's as cool as cool. They never cut.” It's, like, really - and then you get on set, and you try to shoot a six-minute shot without cuts. And you're like, “oh.” You gain this really cool thing, but, suddenly, there's a million new problems. And so you're just learning new stuff like that. It's really exciting for me. It feels to me - like, writing is just, again, it's like muscle memory. It's a thing that I do. This feels like new territory, and it's really exciting. And I feel like I have so much more improvement to make. And that's exciting to me. I want that. I can't imagine directing ever getting to a point where it's like, “I got this.” If it does, I'll probably want to do something else with it. But it feels like every ounce of you is done when it's over. And that's not something you should do around the clock. But it's good to do that. It's good to just know that you - every so often in your life to walk away and be like, “wow, I've got nothing left. I gave everything I could.” That's a nice feeling. And I - directing does that for me. And it just feels - it's cool to walk on set and be like there are 35 people here, and they're all supporting this idea. That's pretty cool. Again, writing's very - like, it's an isolating thing. And I'm always alone. And I prefer that 80% of the time. Like, for my creative stuff, I would like to have that. But it completes the art, the cycle of that particular piece of work. And it feels like it's done. And that's nice because you don't get that as a writer. You don't get - that feeling is it just goes on and on. You can finish it. You can finish the thing and then move on to something else, which is really nice.
JANAE CUMMINGS: Paul, thank you so much for joining us today.
PAUL SHOULBERG: No, thank you. This is great.
JANAE CUMMINGS: It's a pleasure.
PAUL SHOULBERG: Yes, absolutely. Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF TIN HAT TRIO’S “HELIUM”)
AARON CAIN: Paul Shoulberg, the writer and director of The Good Catholic and Ms. White Light, both were filmed in and around Bloomington by Pigasus Pictures, a local production company that hopes to inspire the next generation of filmmakers in the state of Indiana. I'm Aaron Cain. Thanks for listening.
MARK CHILLA: Copies of this and other programs can be obtained by calling 812-855-1357. Information about Profiles, including archives of past shows, can be found at our website, wfiu.org. Profiles is a production of WFIU and comes from the studios of Indiana University. The producer is Aaron Cain. The studio engineer and radio audio director is Michael Paskash. The executive producer is John Bailey. Please join us next week for another edition of Profiles.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELA FLECK AND THE FLECKTONES’ “BLU-BOP”)