It was March 2013, and Paul Shoulberg had every reason to be happy.
Nearly a decade after graduating with a film degree from Kansas University, the Lawrence native’s script for “Walter,” his first feature-length effort, had been sold.
The film was just heading into production when Shoulberg’s father died. Donald Shoulberg was 76, and it was cancer.
During shooting, Shoulberg’s thoughts never strayed far from his dad.
“After that process, I realized I wanted to tell a story that was very personal, that would let me deal with all the stuff you have to deal with in losing a parent,” Shoulberg, 39, recalls.
So, instead of “shelling out thousands and thousands of dollars in therapy,” Shoulberg coped in the way that seemed most natural to him: He wrote.
The filmmaker’s latest project, a romantic comedy called “The Good Catholic,” follows a devoted young priest named Daniel (Zachary Spicer) who unexpectedly falls in love with a college student (Jane, played by Wrenn Schmidt) he meets in confession one day.
“The Good Catholic” is essentially the story of Shoulberg’s father, who left the priesthood to marry Shoulberg’s mother, Gini, who was, in a departure from the film, a Dominican nun at the time — some 40 years ago.
Writing and directing “The Good Catholic,” which also stars Danny Glover and John C. McGinley as Daniel’s fellow priests, had been a long time coming for Shoulberg.
Growing up in Lawrence, he never regarded his parents’ unconventional romance as anything but normal. It wasn’t until after his father’s death — and several years of hearing friends and acquaintances tell him what a great screenplay the Shoulbergs’ love story would make — that he began to really consider the idea. It seemed to him the ideal way to honor his dad, a “huge reader” and academic with whom he’d debate the great philosophical questions of life.
“I’ve never been particularly religious, and I’m still not, but as my father was dying, I really learned a lot about what religion has offered him, and I developed a real respect for how he embraced it and used it to be a better person,” Shoulberg says. “To see how a really smart, progressive, loving guy can find meaning in religion did give me respect for it. And that was something I hadn’t really learned yet.”
In “The Good Catholic,” Shoulberg’s protagonist struggles to reconcile his feelings for Jane with his role in the church. He wonders if denying genuine love out of obligations to the priesthood is really the path God has chosen for him, or if he might be a better Christian by following his heart.
“That’s the question the film raises,” Shoulberg says. “What makes you a good Catholic? How are you able to best serve other people? And if you’re not true to yourself, can you really be good for other people?”
Donald and Gini Shoulberg (née Hartigan) met at a Durham, N.C., parish in the late 1960s. The two formed a bond that Donald over time recognized as more than just platonic, and he asked his new love to leave the church with him.
The ordeal propelled Gini into a full-blown “spiritual crisis,” but the nun ultimately found reaffirmation and acceptance from her peers. They told her, “You can’t deny what you’re feeling — this is real,” Shoulberg says.
After receiving permission from the pope, the couple “left on good terms” with the church. There wasn’t any major reprimanding, says Shoulberg, which he admits might surprise some.
“I tried to show people in the church as being people,” he says of his film’s portrayal of clergy members. “They can be petty, they can be profound, but they’re human. They’ll bicker over who gets the last piece of bacon and they’ll also talk about the meaning of life and death, all in the same day.”
Donald and Gini married, moved to Lawrence to start a family and remained involved in the church throughout their lives together.
After arriving in Lawrence, Donald started teaching at KU’s School of Social Welfare and eventually earned a PhD in speech communication and human relations from the university. His ultimate post-priesthood career was marriage and family therapy, most recently in private practice here in Lawrence.
Gini retired from her longtime teaching job at St. John’s Catholic School, Paul’s alma mater, only a few years ago. She even did a bit of consulting work (to ensure authenticity in matters of religious life, along with a few priests who were also brought in) on “The Good Catholic," which wrapped shooting in Bloomington, Ind., last month.
Shoulberg, who attended graduate school at Indiana University, still lives near Bloomington. He has a family of his own now, and he hopes to have “The Good Catholic” finished in time for the 2017 film-festival season.
It’s one of the few movies he’s written that could be deemed PG-13, or possibly lower, so he says, happily, that Donald would have probably “loved it.”
Still, all those “deeper, philosophical questions that he and I used to talk about … a lot of those come up in the film,” Shoulberg says. “And I think he’d get a real kick out of it.”