Parked in a generic white utility van atop the crest of Bloomington's Hunter Avenue, Paul Shoulberg (director and screenwriter for The Good Catholic) sits shotgun anxiously dangling a walkie-talkie from his right hand. Somewhere below him, maybe three blocks down the hill, his starring actor Zachary Spicer has just completed a lumbering jog to the bottom. Following him, a four-man camera crew hanging off the edges of a golf-cart comes to its stop. Peering through his glasses, Shoulberg tries to put a bead on his leading man. And that shouldn't be hard because Spicer ran the length of the street wearing a priest's habit.
The catch — and when you're shooting a movie like The Good Catholic there's always a catch — is Spicer's footwear. Battling lower back pain which borders on debilitating, the only way Spicer could make the run is in a pair of sneakers, shoes which could not be in the shot.
"Did you get anything?" Shouldberg pleads to his walkie.
"Yes..." camera director Justin Montgomery crackles back, "but you're not going to like it."
"Yeah..." Shoulberg mutters sarcastically.
"Do you want to come down here and take a look at it?" Montgomery queries.
"If it's not any good," Shoulberg answers, the talkie close to his mouth, "then I don't see the need. We need a shot, and Danny's going to end up waiting for us in the church."
The "Danny" in question is one Daniel Glover, and he is the one member of the cast and crew of The Good Catholic — a feature film currently being shot in Bloomington by almost entirely all IU grads — who should not be left waiting around for the rest of the team to show up.
"Ideally we would shoot this run maybe eight or ten times," says Shoulberg. "Then we would have enough footage in the editing room to get exactly what we want. But when you're on an 18-day shooting schedule, you have to make decisions. Some directors would prefer to get these sort of external shots just right. But my most important concern is the story. What is most integral to the story? Every decision I make has to come with that in mind."
For Shoulberg the story behind The Good Catholic is more than a vehicle driving his film. This tale is personal. It's effectively the story of his late father.
"He was a priest who met Mom when she was a nun," says Shoulberg, speaking of his parents. "They left the church together, but they remained very involved in the church throughout their lives. They were very liberal parents, so I wasn't exposed to any of that weird judgmental stuff. But faith still played an enormous role in Dad's life." Having survived two previous bouts with cancer, when Shoulberg's father fought the disease for the final time three years ago, he returned to his home state of Kansas. Witnessing his father's demeanor as that faith faced its strongest test would linger with the filmmaker long afterward.
"I remember spending time with him the week he was dying," says Shoulberg. "And he was so at peace. People would come in to see him, and he was comforting them. I was blown away by what I saw, and I realized that there's value to this. His faith wasn't my path, but seeing what it did for him made me realize that there's tremendous value which comes from believing in something."
Rather than tell a purely biographical tale, the director opted to fictionalize the story, his most prominent change was transforming the female love interest from a nun into a college student, Jane (played by Wrenn Schmidt). Attempting to offer peace to straying partiers in a college town, young Daniel (Spicer) and his elder priests (played by Glover and Scrubs' John C. McGinley) hold a series of late-night confessionals. Enchanted by Jane's talkative personality, Daniel falls for Jane and finds himself trying to answer fundamental questions about love, faith, and God.
"[Despite fictionalizing the story] what is still central is this idea I wanted to convey of priests as very normal people who experience great moments as well as petty ones. We carry this perception in our minds that they always sit around in front of the altar contemplating the fate of world, but the truth is that they spend their days talking about what they heard on the radio or what they had for dinner, just as we do. I'm not interested in either making fun of the Catholic Church or promoting it. I just wanted to show these people as they are: people." Asked what he thought his father would think of the film, Shoulberg slips an honest grin.
"I would never have been emotionally able to tell this story while he was alive," says Shoulberg. "People have been telling me for 15 years: 'This is the story you should be writing.' But after you watch someone die, the themes in this film become clear. Before that happened, I wouldn't have been able to conceive so much of what this film is really about."
Lesser filmmakers, those without the peace granted them by their fathers, may have stayed on Hunter Avenue for the rest of the day, angrily determined to a 15-second jog just right at the expense of the bigger idea. For Shoulberg, however, the stakes are too high. The big idea is really the only thing that matters.