Sam Orlowski saw the LGBT community reflected in films and on TV but never recognized herself in the depictions.
So, she did something about it.
Orlowski, an aspiring Pittsburgh filmmaker, wrote, co-directed, edited and produced the 23-minute film “Thanks to Her,” a coming-of-age drama with intergenerational dialogue exploring sexuality and identity. The film, which has been viewed more than 625,000 times on YouTube since September, was shot partially at the Jewish Association on Aging’s Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.
Now, Orlowski and others are seeking funding to either make a second part or turn the existing short into a feature film.
“I, myself, am a member of the LGBT community and I’ve taken in lots of LGBT representations on TV and in movies,” Orlowski, who lives in Canonsburg, told the Chronicle. “Women aren’t treated as well in movies. They’re baited or one is killed off. I wanted a wholesome depiction … so I said, ‘I’m going to write this.’ It all started with me wanting to write a Sapphic story and it all branched out from there.”
Orlowski asked Sam McCoy, a film student who, like Orlowski, graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2019, to co-direct “Thanks to Her.” McCoy, who now lives in Brooklyn and works as a freelance camera assistant, was thrilled by the project.
“I had never directed anyone else’s piece and I was excited to bring it to life,” McCoy said. “Sam and I had a good relationship — we worked really well together.”
The film is a testament to their collaboration and the spark of Orlowski’s inspiration. Hundreds of YouTube commenters have said how much they relate to the film’s two female leads. The strong reaction has surprised Orlowski.
“I posted it because I wanted people to see it — I just wanted to put it out there,” Orlowski said. “[My response] was ‘What is happening? This is insane!’ It was 100,000 views, then 200,000. It was just insane.”
Carl Kurlander grew up in Pittsburgh attending Rodef Shalom Congregation and Shady Side Academy. He moved West, then left a screenwriting career in Hollywood (“St. Elmo’s Fire,” “Saved By the Bell”) for what was supposed to be a one-year teaching sabbatical at the University of Pittsburgh in 2001. One year became two, and two became 20. Kurlander, who taught both Orlowski and McCoy at Pitt, was their connection to the JAA.
“JAA was generous enough to let us shoot at Charles Morris,” said Kurlander, noting that doing so was “poignant” because the nursing and rehabilitation facility has since closed. “Now, it’s preserved in this touching story.”
Orlowski said she loved shooting at Charles Morris and interacting with the people and staff. She even left in a few cuts in which real-life residents are seen in the background for a flicker of fame.
“It was really beautiful [and] once we started shooting, everyone was so nice,” Orlowski said. “It was, ‘Oh my God, we couldn’t have found a nicer nursing home.’ We had a great time shooting there.”
McCoy agreed: “I will say I remember everybody at JAA being so welcoming and so happy we were there — it made the experience that much easier [and] it was the best space to work in.”
The JAA has championed the film and is sharing its Zoom premiere at 6:30 p.m. on March 4. Attendees may register here. The free screening will be hosted by Sue Berman Kress, Leah Berman Kress and Doug Kress.
“The goal of our event is to introduce the film to those who will benefit from its message of self-discovery, especially with the intergenerational connections it makes,” JAA President and CEO Deborah Winn-Horvitz said. “The bonus is that it was filmed at JAA, which is why we are so thrilled to help premiere it.”
The filmmakers have established a Kickstarter campaign to fund the next installment in the story, which Orlowski first wrote as a feature-length film. As of press time, they had drummed up about $11,000 of a $35,000 goal.
“Everyone who sees the short says, ‘I want more!’” Orlowski said. “There’s so much more and I want people to hear the full story.”
“It’s been such a great experience — I hope we can keep it going,” McCoy added. “It deserves for the whole thing to be told.”
Kurlander remains a vocal supporter of the project.
“I’m hoping that some people will see the movie and get behind it,” Kurlander said. “I’m always trying to get people to write from their experiences and for their voice … That said, I feel this is a really unique story.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.