Canonsburg filmmaker shares story behind award-winning short’s release


When Sam Orlowski posted his short film “Thanks to Her” on YouTube a little over a year ago, she hasn’t given it much thought.

“I was like, ‘I’m gonna post this on YouTube, and it’ll maybe 1,000 views. Maybe, ”Orlowski says.

Try over 1.3 million.

“Then it just exploded and I was like ‘How? How did it happen? How did we get here? ”Says Orlowski, 25, from Canonsburg.

Orlowski, who describes the response to “Thanks to her” as “confusing,” first wrote the story as a feature-length script for a class assignment during her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh. (scroll down to watch the movie)

While she wasn’t expecting much from the mission, her teacher, Carl Kurlander, encouraged her to apply for a scholarship and turn the screenplay into a short film. Orlowski and a classmate condensed the feature film into a script of just over 20 minutes, which she and other Pitt students shot for her Capstone project in the spring of 2019.

A high school drama, “Thanks to Her” explores the complexity of sexuality and the difficulty of coming out. When a homophobic comment by a college student incites a fight between Millie Blake (AJ Molder), a reserved footballer, and Andy Wellick (Julia de Avilez Rocha), a self-confident lesbian, the two are punished with one month community service in an infirmary. The time that Andy and Millie spend together creates a budding friendship that lays the groundwork for Millie to come to terms with her own sexuality, despite navigating a world consumed by righteous expectations.

In addition to amassing over a million views, “Thanks to Her” won the 2021 Rising Voices Film Festival Award and garnered over 1,200 comments on YouTube, many of which express the impact the film has made. has had on the lives of viewers.

There were “so many people reaching out and saying ‘I’m going through something similar this really helped me’ or ‘I’m also locked up and it gave me some courage’ or ‘Hey, it’s the representation that we need because we never see it on TV, ”she said.

Fed up with the lesbian characters she saw on TV who were often overly sexualized or killed, Orlowski wrote “Thanks to Her” as a way to create “healthy and enjoyable but also realistic” lesbian content. When Kurlander told her class that the best stories came from personal experience, she decided to incorporate parts of her own coming out journey into the film. (He should know: he co-wrote the 1985 semi-autobiographical blockbuster “St. Elmo’s Fire,” and worked on several teen sitcoms.)

Orlowski, who identifies as asexual and biromantic – she doesn’t experience sexual attraction, but is emotionally drawn to both men and women – didn’t really think about her sexuality until she left Canonsburg, which she describes as “Not homophobic, just very straight. . “

Extended family and friends would “put their take on you like, ‘someday you’ll have this white picket fence with this husband and these blond kids,” Orlowski says. “I could have a wife, we could adopt children – there are a million ways and I would mind someone taking charge of my future.”

Having made films on her parents’ camcorder since the age of 5, Orlowski knew early on that she wanted to pursue a career in film. She chose Pitt for her closeness to her family and, having visited the school frequently for high school swim competitions, because she already felt right at home – comfortable; safe.

It wasn’t until she went to college that she realized she didn’t have to be stuck like the same “cookie-cutter girl” she was in Canonsburg.

My sexuality “was something that I just discovered when I first came to Pitt, when I met new people, when I had new experiences and heard different points of view,” she says.

Orlowski says she had no problems hanging out with her friends at college – she even found a community of other LGBTQ + students through her classes. But by the time she finished filming “Thanks To Her,” she still hadn’t come out to her parents.

“That’s when things started to weigh on me a lot because I wanted to tell them but I kept cheating,” she says.

Orlowski says Millie Blake’s story of struggling to get out ended up modeling her own situation. She wrote the proud Andy Wellick as someone she imagined herself to be in the future. The story, set in a heteronormative city, resembles Canonsburg and includes dialogue that builds the lifestyle standards she heard growing up.

Orlowski knew his family would react well, but like Millie in “Thanks to Her,” struggled to say the words.

Millie “wants to tell Andy [she’s gay], she knows it’s a safe space, but it becomes a reality when you say it out loud. It becomes concrete, ”she says.

Orlowski ripped off the Band-‘Aid by addressing his entire family overnight. Nervous and shaky in the kitchen, she started by telling her mom. Then she walked around to see her brothers.

“They were just like ‘OK that’s who you are, okay, man, that’s okay,’ that’s how I wish it was in the real world,” Orlowski said. “People shouldn’t have to go out, it shouldn’t be a big deal. People should just be allowed to exist as they are.

Having already known the premise of “Thank you to her”, the Orlowski family were not so surprised by her sexuality; the short did most of the explanation for her, as she hoped. But it also affected thousands of people.

“The comments started pouring in and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe so many people needed to hear this story,’” she said. “So many comments made me feel like we had done something right; like we are doing something good for others.

The reaction to “Thanks to Her” was so overwhelming that Orlowski decided to give the full feature a try. She launched a Kickstarter campaign in February that raised over $ 36,000 for the film, which was shot in three weeks over the summer. Orlowski hopes the assembly will be done by May; the final product would have a run time of approximately 90 minutes.

Pittsburgher residents who watch the feature film may notice a few familiar places, including the residence in the village of Weinberg near Summerset, where all of the scenes at the retirement home were filmed, and Winchester Thurston, an independent school in Shadyside. .

Fans of “Thanks to Her” who anticipate the arrival of Orlowski’s feature film should savor it upon its release. Orlowski, who prefers to edit, says she probably won’t write another movie unless it’s something she’s really passionate about. She is currently immersed in the world of sports, where she produces films for the Pitt Athletics department and freelances for the Penguins.

But even in sports, Orlowski discusses his sexuality the same way Andy Wellick would.

“I literally say to anyone on the street, ‘Oh yeah, I’m bisexual,’ Orlowski said. ‘I walk around without caring anymore … I’m just me.’

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