On Sunday, filmmaker and IU alumnus Paul Shoulberg premiered his feature film, Walter, at the IMAX Theater downtown. Shoulberg wrote the film, which focuses on the life of Walter, a ticket-taker at a movie theater who makes a pact with God to judge the fate of all living people on Earth in exchange for his father’s admittance to Heaven. Shoulberg teamed up with a couple of fellow Hoosiers on the project—producer Brenden Patrick Hill and Andrew West, who plays the lead character. (Hoosier-born comic Jim Gaffigan co-stars, as do Neve Campbell, Justin Kirk, and more notables mentioned below.) We caught up with the writer at the premiere of the film, which screens again on March 13 and 14 at IMAX.
How did you come up with the premise for Walter?
Originally, it was a short story that I wrote. The story was mostly just a character sketch of the title character. Brenden Hill read it and immediately wanted to make it into a short film. I, of course, told him it wouldn’t work because it was all in Walter’s head, and with film you want to show and not just have somebody talking the whole time. But he kept pushing me. Finally, he broke me down and I wrote a script for the short film. They made that. Andrew West, who is the lead in the feature as well, was in it. He was so good in that role that we knew we wanted to keep going. So over the next two years, with Brenden pushing me, it kept going in different incarnations. It was two different TV pilots at one time, and eventually someone said to us, “This needs to be a feature film.”
Your producer and lead actor also went to IU. Did you establish relationships with those guys while you were at school?
I went to grad school at IU. I got my MFA in playwriting. Brenden was an undergrad in the theater and drama program, and Andrew was an undergrad in telecommunications. I knew Andrew a little bit. He wasn’t heavily involved with the theater department. But Brenden and I worked together. I directed him in a couple of plays.
How did Brenden get involved with this project?
Brenden had moved to Chicago to start a theater company, and had I moved to New York to pursue playwriting. He eventually moved to L.A. and called me and just said, “Hey, I’m making a short film of your short story. This is going to happen. Let’s do this.” We hadn’t talked for a couple of years. But from that point on, we’ve been talking in some capacity every day for three years.
In addition to West, veteran actors Virginia Madsen and William H. Macy also star in this film. How did you assemble the cast?
We had Andrew involved the whole way. The first person to sign on after that was Virginia Madsen, which is really important for a film. Once you have an established person sign on, people start taking it more seriously. We had a great casting director, J.C. Cantu. I thought he did an incredible job of getting a lot of huge talent on this film. I don’t think this film happens without his contribution.
Indy landmarks like the Speedway and Fountain Square are featured throughout the film. How did you decide what Indy monuments to show?
I was born and raised in Lawrence, Kansas. I only know Indiana from school. But Brenden knows Indianapolis. And Michael Bricker, our production designer, knows Indianapolis really well. He’s done a lot of city development here. Between the two of them, they scoped out where to shoot and how to match it to the Los Angeles scenes that we were shooting so it all felt like Indianapolis.
Why did you decide to set the film here in the first place?
The short story was set in New York because that’s where I lived at the time. But it was the kind of story that could take place anywhere. Because we all had a connection to Indiana, it just seemed like, why not? You don’t see a lot of films set in this state. A lot of filmmakers don’t shoot here because Indiana is one of those states that doesn’t have a tax break for filmmakers. Hopefully, that will change.