Excerpting Senior Writers: Sam Chalsen '12
Sam Chalsen reflects on his screenwriting thesis.
The hardest part about writing my thesis was explaining it to people. You should be able to pitch any good script in about a sentence, like, “After her grandson gets hurt in a surfing accident, an old lady decides to learn how to surf to win the big competition,” (Title: Surfing Grandma. Tagline: “Surf ’s up!” Choice dialogue: “Hey look, it’s a surfing grandma!”). The story I wanted to tell was a little more complicated. It’s about a Catholic family living in New York in 1965, around the time when the Catholic Church held the Vatican II Council that decided that Masses should be given in the vernacular instead of Latin. Joseph (he’s the father) finds himself alienated from the Church while trying to keep his family together during a period of social change—his daughter who’s discovering her sexuality, his son who’s starting to hang out with a bunch of guitar-playing bums, and his wife who’s secretly volunteering at a soup kitchen. See? That was not a successful elevator pitch. That took like two sentences, and one of them had a dash in it. But it was the story I wanted to tell. My family’s Catholic, but my grandparents (my mom’s parents are divorced, so I have three sets) are as different as canbe. My father’s parents are devout Catholics and devout Democrats; my mother’s father and stepmother are Florida Republicans; and my mother’s mother married a Jewish guy. But they’re all the same age, and they all spent the ’60s living just across the Hudson River from each other, in Nyack and Ossining (where my thesis takes place). So how did they all end up with such different beliefs? And where does anybody get their religious beliefs anyway? I did a lot of research into Latin Masses and ’60s slang, and I interviewed one of my grandparents and some family friends, from whom I fragrantly stole a number of anecdotes. (You can’t tell me that your priest once came onto the altar dressed as Jesus while singing Jesus Christ Superstar and not expect me to put that in a script). But I never delved too deep into my family’s own beliefs. This isn’t what happened to my family in the ’60s; I wanted this to be an imaginary story, a parable about reconciling our faith and our country, about what we leave behind when we move forward, and about how we always hurt the people we try too hard to protect. Over the course of writing, I did the best I could to hone in my story, thanks mainly to the help of my adviser Danny Rubin. (Goodbye periodic flashforwards to 2002, goodbye lengthy discussions about Dorothy Day, hello montages set to protest rock). And eventually I figured out the easiest way to pitch it: “It’s like Fiddler on the Roof, but for Catholics in the 1960s.” It doesn’t quite capture the nuance I was going for, but it gets the job done.
SCENE FROM “AMERICAN CATHOLIC”:
EXT. PARKING LOT - NIGHT
The Spot has been kicked up into high energy. Bonfires are going, BEATNIKS and HIPSTERS sit around smoking, scantily clad GIRLS, BOOZE, DRUGS. Billy and Mary walk through the crowd of teenagers.
MARY: This place... is... so neato. I can’t believe you’ve even been here before.
Billy stiffens up ever so slightly.
MARY (CONT’D): Do you know anyone here?
BILLY: Yeahh! Those guys over there, they go to Ossining High.
MARY: What are their names?
Billy glares at her, then looks past her shoulder.
BILLY: There, I know that guy.
Mary turns around. Her eyes widen. Sitting on a log across from her is HARRISON, a dreamy hipster. Long hair, chiseled features, a little facial hair.
MARY: You know that guy?
BILLY: Harrison, he’s from Schenectady or something... What, you think he’s cute?