Write what you know. Sometimes the best advice can be a cliche. This wisdom was what Sam Orlowski took from her screenwriting class at the University of Pittsburgh taught by Carl Kurlander. What Orlowski knew was an internal struggle around her own identity, but what she didn’t know was that from this idea would become a viral Youtube short film, “Thanks to Her”. Now, Orlowski and her team are setting out to raise $35,000 to turn their hit short into a full-length film.
The short tells the story of Milly Blake, a closeted high school senior who strikes up an unlikely bond with her out and proud classmate, Andy. After a homophobic altercation, the two are punished with a month of community service at a nursing home, where they develop their friendship.
Before she started the writing process, Orlowski found comfort in LGBTQ+ representation in television shows like “Mr. Robot” and “Killing Eve.” However, she noticed a trend when it came to sapphic representation. “They would either bait the sapphic couple and they would never get together, or one of them would die–so bury your gays–or they were just sexualized,” she said. She found it rare to see realistic representation for this demographic and used this observation to serve as a force in her creative process.
Professor Kurlander urged Orlowski to push forward with the film after the class had culminated, leaving her with a full-length script. With a $15,000 grant obtained through the University of Pittsburgh Personalized Education Department, she and co-director Sam McCoy took off to adapt the feature into a short film during their senior capstone.
The onset of COVID-19 dashed the crew’s plans of an exciting premiere screening, so instead they decided to simply upload and release the film on YouTube in August 2020. It racked about 2,000 views in a couple of weeks, but by September 30th they noticed a crazy spike in engagement. The film’s producer and assistant director, Hayley Ulmer, described the response as “insane,” which she really saw blossom in the comments section.
The short currently has over 800 comments that lovingly meme-ify the film and praise its representation of an asexual lesbian character. “I think the comments section, even more than the video going viral, was the inspiration for us to go ‘oh, we should make the feature,’” said Ulmer.
After they unveiled the Kickstarter, which ends on March 11th, Orlowski’s heart ached. She read comments where young people apologized for not being able to donate to the campaign in fear it would out them to their families. “This is their outlet and they feel like they can’t have it–it makes me emotional,” she said.
This idea of media being some people’s only outlet to feel free is another reason why Orlowski is determined to make the feature.
“Thanks to Her” was a special outlet for Orlowski as well. After coming out to her friends as bisexual during her junior year of college, she still hadn’t had the conversation with her family. Her short film served as her coming out and is now forever a part of her journey as a filmmaker and a person. She also found it ironic that it mirrored her obsession with “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,”where in season 11 Mac uses a stunning interpretive dance to come out to his dad. “We both used our art as a means to come out,”Orlowski said.
Orlowski feels her identity has come full-circle from the writing process. “I wrote Milly as who I was and Andy as who I wanted to become. I feel like I’ve made that journey possible, as I feel much more like Andy now.” In the feature film, she wants to look further at Milly and Andy’s journey to explore their lives and relationship, which the audience has really clung to. The film has already been backed by 166 people from places like Pittsburgh to Brooklyn to France. In the all-or-nothing home stretch of the Kickstarter, the team has less than $15,000 to raise.