The Healing Power of Film

The Good Catholic’s writer and director discusses art, life, and death

Anna Powell Teeter

Paul Shoulberg (M.F.A. ’07, Theatre) joins me for our interview at Soma Coffee House — a crowded, basement café in downtown Bloomington. Ads and local art pepper the walls. Amid voices and the whir of coffee machines, Paul orders a coffee and tells me that he just came from the public library across the street. He’s started a new script. He’s five pages in. He’s excited.

The thrill of beginning a new script is a familiar experience for Paul. He’s written about 20 screenplays. Three have been made into films, two directed by Paul himself. Indiana University, he says, is where he found his voice. There, he honed his craft by hearing actors perform his lines. His first film, Walter, emerged from a short story he wrote just after finishing the program. We plunge into talk of writing and the larger questions he explores in his films.

“I’m interested in the big, big philosophical questions,” Paul says. “Life and death. Is there a God?”

Ms. White Light, the film Paul is currently editing, is about a woman who helps people die. She focuses on the deaths of others, he tells me, while avoiding thoughts of her own ending.

For Paul himself, death is a persistent question. It wakes him up in the night. He wonders in the dark what it would mean to die this very instant. He wonders about the afterlife. He wonders what meaning death casts upon life. When he reads books or watches films and notices a writer approaching the idea of death, he focuses in the hope of hearing some kind of answer. Rationally, he knows that no one can give him that answer, but he still hopes to find himself a bit more enlightened or a bit more at peace than he had felt moments before.

"This has to work out," Shoulberg says, "so that I can at least give [my kids] the option of following their dreams."

Art, Paul thinks, should provide both artist and audience with this kind of transformation. When Paul goes to the movie theater alone, he walks out having had what others might call a religious experience. He feels clear. He feels alive. When he attends a screening with someone else, that person’s presence colors his experience and he doesn’t achieve this state.

For Paul, the experience of art is private. It’s individual. And in creating art and in witnessing the art of others, he feels more connected to life. When his characters process the big questions and ease their burdens, Paul feels as if his own burdens have been temporarily eased as well. Life itself is lighter when he’s writing. In between composing and directing his first three films, Paul stocked yogurt at Bloomingfoods — a local co-op — and he tells me now that an eight-hour workday wouldn’t feel as heavy if he had written beforehand.

The necessity of art

Before he started writing, Paul explains that he felt disconnected from the world. Around him messages swirled about how life should be lived. One needed to live in the moment. One had to jump into the center of things and dance.

But he didn’t feel comfortable in the center of things. He felt comfortable being an observer. In his early twenties, he began to immerse himself in books, music, film. He began to question the messages he was receiving. He began to think about who he was and what he wanted. And to feel engaged, he realized, he needed to write.

“Being able to distill how I view the world through characters, through set pieces, through these worlds is how I process existing,” he says.

The weighty issues that occupy Paul’s mind often take shape in his writing. When he was younger, before he met his wife and had children, he wrote about love. Later, following the death of his father, he plunged into writing and directing The Good Catholic, a film released this past year starring Danny Glover and John C. McGinley. Paul’s father had been a priest who left the church in order to marry, and the script for The Good Catholic is loosely based on that story. Before working on the film, Paul had been unable to process the loss of his father. After the film was made, he felt a sense of conclusion.

Paul’s father also had the ambition to write, but he never made good on that aspiration, at least not professionally. This stays with Paul and upsets him to this day. In part, it fuels his passion for his own work. Now a father himself, Paul wants his two children to understand that their father knew what he was meant to do and that he did it.

“This has to work out,” he says, “so that I can at least give them the option of following their dreams.”

Shoulberg does much of his writing from his home in Brown County, Ind. Above him hangs a painting that was featured in his film Ms. White Light.

Subverting expectations

Paul’s writing may be deeply personal, but there’s a larger social context to it, as well. To his mind, every representation of character on screen is political. When he initially wrote Ms. White Light, the lead character was male. He later flipped the character’s gender. Now he can’t imagine the character being anything but female. Paul is conscious of the fact that his first two films and a play of his currently running in Los Angeles are male-centric, and his intention in making this move in Ms. White Light was to give the lead space to a woman. He plans to write for female actors from now on.

The idea of flipping a character’s gender fascinates me. It makes me wonder how Paul views character. Isn’t character a constructed identity based on its own history of gender issues and expectations? Paul nods, recognizing that someone who’s a woman may react to an event differently than someone who’s a man. Whether gender can be flipped depends on the larger issues being explored in a particular film.

Paul is also conscious of the dialogue that has been given to male actors and female actors historically. Male dialogue, he says, is often allowed to be more nuanced, more complex, and more interesting.

And Paul knows that he can write good dialogue. He just consciously wants to give the space on screen to female actors. Stories can often remain the same and hit the same beats despite a character’s gender. He asks me to think of all-female productions of Hamlet. The storyline is the same as before. The internal struggle is the same. But the casting is a political act that in part makes us reevaluate our expectations and the play itself.

While the films he’s already made have subverted expectations on a small scale, Paul wants to make a bigger splash. Apart from the personal satisfaction he gets from writing and directing, he possesses an undeniable competitive streak, and that pushes him forward, too. He feels that if he wants to continue making films, he’ll have to move to the coast.

“I don’t want to work in a little vacuum or a little bubble,” he says. “I want to test out my skillset against the best in the industry.”

He wants to try directing someone else’s work. He wants to know if this is satisfying. When he talks of the future, he makes jokes and isn’t sure what will happen, but he looks curious. Animated. And he looks excited.

Lana Spendl

Lana Spendl is the author of the chapbook of flash fiction We Cradled Each Other in the Air. Her fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry have appeared in The Greensboro Review, The Cortland Review, Notre Dame Review, Zone 3, Hobart, and other literary journals. She holds an M.A. in Spanish literature and an M.F.A. in creative writing from Indiana University, where she served as the nonfiction editor to Indiana Review. Lana can be reached via her website: lanaspendl.com.