Congratulations to Hannah Cooper ’20 on finishing a full length screenplay as her senior thesis!! This is an awesome feat. We should all be in awe of her.
If you’re interested in hearing her talk more about her experience, RSVP at this link to tune in to a Zoom reading for Hannah and the other written film theses tomorrow at 3:00. Continue reading below for more on Hannah’s feature script!
Wesleying: Okay, so first could you start by introducing yourself and saying your pronouns, what you’re majoring in and which department your thesis is in?
HC: Yeah. My name is Hannah Cooper. I use she/her pronouns. I am a double major in film studies and German studies. My thesis is with film studies, but with a lot of support from the German department; the film department just doesn’t really do theses in two majors. So technically submitted to film, but could not have done it without German.
And it’s a screenplay correct?
So, is it still untitled?
No. Now I have a title. I had to turn it in with a title, but I hate titling things. My thesis advisor told me that most people—you either get the title in the first five minutes of starting a project and it’s perfect, or you’re just never happy with what you come up with. But I was like, okay, really great and reassuring advice to hear while I struggle to come up with the title, but the current title is On Belonging.
How did you incorporate your German studies into the screenplay? Or in what ways is it supported by it?
So the story is about a boy, Felix, he’s seven, who has just moved to Phoenix, Arizona, from Hamburg, Germany. And then he becomes friends with the Jewish girl in his class. And it forces both families to kind of confront the dynamic between Germans and Jews a generation removed from the Holocaust. It takes place in 1976. So the German department is a small department, which means that you just get so much one on one time with your professors and you can develop super personal relationships with them, which I found is really great. It’s one of the reasons I decided to major in German because originally I just took it as a language to study abroad. They have a grant that they give to thesis writers, and even though I wasn’t doing a thesis in the German department—I was only submitting it to film—they gave me a grant that allowed me to travel to Germany for spring break of my junior year. It covered my flights, my food; I stayed with a friend who was abroad there. So, I didn’t have to pay for anything. That allowed me to do the research that I needed to do to create an authentic story. I ended up interviewing people I met when I was abroad who grew up in Germany in the 70s about their childhoods, their perspectives on the US as kids and how that’s changed, what they know about Judaism, what they learned about the Holocaust—because Holocaust education was really only just beginning in Germany in the 70s; it really now is super intense, but it’s the past few decades that that’s really become a thing.
Is that why you chose the 1970s for your story to take place?
Yeah, my mom grew up in Phoenix in the 70s. That’s where I’m from. I just have always been very interested in that decade. A lot of my favorite movies take place in the 70s. And I also just don’t like writing technology. I think writing cell phones and texting feels very stupid to me. I just knew I didn’t want to do that. There’s this director Gillian Robespierre, she wrote and directed Obvious Child and this other movie Landline, and I read this interview with her where she talked about setting Landline in the 90s because then she wouldn’t have to write texting into it. And I was like, oh, I want to do that. But then, I also thing the 70s is interesting because it’s only one generation removed from the Holocaust. As someone who grew up with a lot of Hebrew school, I got a lot of Holocaust education my entire childhood. It never really addressed the contemporary relationship between Germans and Jews and how prejudices still exist now. That’s something that I’ve dealt with a lot being a Jewish person studying German. Everybody assumes it’s because of the Holocaust. And actually, I don’t want to—I didn’t want to—write something about the Holocaust. I studied it so intensely, I understand it, and it’s just not what I want to focus on with German studies. So, just the dialogue that I never have experienced about how we move forward as two communities. That’s what I was interested in exploring.
That’s really awesome. So that was the basis of what the story would grapple with. But then from there, how did you come up with a larger framework for presenting it? How did you fashion characters to come up with the larger story?
I think it’s really interesting how kids understand adult problems. What we think kids understand about the world and what they actually do, I think is so interesting. So in this story, it’s about the cultural prejudices that the parents have as people that know and understand history and politics and things like that. And then these kids are seven. And so not only do they not have historical background, but even if it was given to them, they wouldn’t necessarily understand it all. So that’s why I decided to write about kids.
I have this whole couple of different scenes where the parents literally have to explain what prejudice is and why it exists between Germans and Jews. It’s the kind of thing where when you try to explain something like that to a kid, there’s no way to do it in a way that makes sense, because it doesn’t make sense. So yeah, that’s why I did that. I based it in Phoenix, because, I mean, I’m from here. I love Phoenix. My mom grew up here in the 70s. So whenever I had a question about anything, I could just text her like, what did you eat for lunch when you were in second grade. Also, it’s a city where both Germans and Jews are a minority. I didn’t want either [to be a majority]. I grew up here, and I have a very close relationship with my Jewish community and my synagogue. But that being said, it’s still a very small community. And it was even smaller in the 70s.
Was it hard to write as a kid? I know you talked about wanting to deal with the issue of kids not understanding but actually writing dialogue as a seven year old. Was that something that you found challenging or was it actually kind of natural?
My favorite thing about screenwriting is writing dialogue. I feel like my strength is in writing dialogue that’s very specific to characters. So that was something I had a lot of fun with. And then, I definitely had help from people. My German advisor helped with my thesis just in terms of making sure the story was authentic because I was writing from the perspective of Germans. I’m not German, so I wanted to do everything that I could to make sure that that was an authentic representation of German people and their struggle with this huge, cultural, culturally defining, horrible, horrible thing that happened. [My advisor] would be like, well, I had kids and a seven year old would never say that. And in the first semester of a screenwriting thesis, you do a lot of workshopping with everyone else writing that thesis and you know, someone in the class would be like, I don’t know, I have a nephew who’s seven and they would say something like this and it was just actually just people telling me because I mean, I don’t know any little kids right now.
Is it from the German boy’s perspective, or is it more just that you’re viewing the whole entire story from his household?
There’s no narration, but it’s entirely from the perspective of the seven year old. He’s present in every single scene. I didn’t want to take the easy way out of this kid not understanding something and then I just cut to a scene between the parents having this conversation where they explain it all. So there are some scenes where he eavesdrops on his parents. Or he and the Jewish girl he’s friends with Rachel, they eavesdrop on their parents having this intense back and forth conversation, but everything is fully through his emotional and mental state.
That’s really cool. Was there a favorite scene that you had? Did you ever have a moment where you discovered something as you were writing?
My favorite thing to write were the conversations between the two, seven year olds because the main character Felix is very introverted and quiet. He really prefers to observe rather than actually take part in things. Then the girl he becomes friends with Rachel is very talkative, very outspoken, never afraid to express her opinion. So they have this very balanced relationship where she wants to talk and he wants to listen. It was so much fun to write her dialogue because kids will just say anything no-filter, and it was so much fun to write that. I don’t know if I discovered anything. That’s a good question, but I would probably have to think about it more.
What was the hardest part or something you didn’t anticipate in the process?
The thing about my story and also, just in general, the stories that I’m interested in, are stories comprised of very small moments that seem very large because it’s happening to the characters. So there’s no moment in my story that’s this huge, gigantic, big thing. Everything is just very small and it’s like making those small moments big. And apparently, I’m just, like, too good at being subtle sometimes. I would write something and my professor would just be like, “I don’t get it. It went over my head. What are you trying to do?” Then I would explain very clearly what I wanted to do. And he was like, “oh, okay, well, that is—this is not enough. This is too subtle.” It was just this constant thing where there were, two or three scenes, such small moments like not even a quarter of the page, and we would just have to keep workshopping those, like 10 lines of the screenplay, because I just could not figure out how to make these very specific experiences and emotions relatable to an audience who had not necessarily experienced it themselves.
So I’m really curious. Was there a film advisor on this project? Or was it mostly the German advisor?
Oh, no, it was my advisor, Joe Cacaci. He advises all the screenwriting theses. He is amazing. Junior year was kind of trying to decide whether I wanted to do a screenplay thesis or a production thesis, and then I took a class with Joe in the fall and after not even five minutes listening to him talk on the first day of class, I decided to do a screenplay thesis because he’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. He’s one of my favorite professors I’ve ever worked with. He is one of those creative subject professors who is just so good at understanding what you want to do, and then helping you do it. Every project that comes through his class or his thesis advising ends up totally differently because he doesn’t have an idea of what is good. He understands what the project needs to be and what you want it to be, and he helps you get it there. He’s amazing. I cannot recommend Joe Cacaci enough.
What are you most excited for people to see? Or read? How is this presented at the end?
A lot of people who do screenwriting theses don’t make it available on WesScholar because of just hopefully one day selling it. That being said, if someone personally contacts me and wants to read it and won’t share it, I’m absolutely fine with that.
But I don’t know. I have had a lot of conversations, mostly with German people, about this idea of how Germans and Jews relate to each other now. My family had a German exchange student live with us when I was in high school for a year, which is why I decided to study the German language because from a practical standpoint, I was like, I can always visit this family in Germany, and I have people to practice my German with. That made more sense to me than just randomly picking a country. But then I became super interested in German history and culture outside of the Holocaust, and especially in the years after, like the second half of the 20th century.
And it was so interesting being abroad as a Jewish person. I was the first Jew, that some of the people I met had ever met, and I mean, I come from a very small Jewish community, but this was my first time being the only Jew in the room. That was really just weird because just the questions that people would ask like, were totally harmless, but I was like, This is so fascinating. Like, just somebody offering me food and me saying, I can’t eat pork. And them not inherently understanding that it’s because I don’t eat non-kosher meat, and then having to explain it. I’ve never had to explain the concept of kosher to someone, even because just like in the US, it’s just a lot more people just have a basic understanding of what Judaism is.
But also there’s just like this huge German curiosity. Germans are just so curious. I think just in general that’s a stereotype that is not talked about that much. But it’s something that I found so interesting. And so this is something I’ve thought about a lot, I guess–Germans and Jews now–and it’s something that I have not talked about a lot with very many Jews. And so I think I feel like that’s what I’m most interested in.
Seeing how other Jewish students or Jews in general react?
Yeah, because I mean Jews now, we are like, I mean, there’s obviously there’s still anti-semitism, but we’re just in a totally different place than we were even 50 years ago and fully are accepted as white in a way that we were not considered many, many years ago. And I feel like there’s just not enough conversation, at least in my Jewish education, there was no conversation about how to move forward with that Jewish identity and how the ways that persecution has changed and has become a lot more subtle. Also, Germany is a very different country today than it was 80 years ago. Throughout studying German and telling different Jewish people, mostly in my community in Phoenix, that I am a German major, the reactions that I get are sometimes very confusing and weird. They’re like, why would you do that? Like, why would you want to study German? It’s like, well, because it’s interesting. But I mean, something that also is very interesting is my synagogue went from having a somewhat conservative rabbi, who was not super popular—like he refused to do same sex marriages at our synagogue even though it was allowed by the conservative movement. Then in this past year, we hired a new rabbi, who is a female Jewish convert from Germany. It is so insane to me that in my politically conservative and also religiously conservative synagogue, we now have a female rabbi, we have a German Rabbi and we have a rabbi who converted to Judaism. It’s just like an insane combination of things to go from just like the most conservative man possible to this amazing, warm, kind woman who in very recent history would not have been allowed to be a rabbi. Just like the conversations about that at my synagogue—it’s so interesting to me.
Even though the film is from the perspective of the German boy, do you address the modern day anti-semitism? You just talked about how Jews are now seen as white in the US. I don’t know how it takes place in the 70s, but in the film do you address anti-semitism that may not be as harsh or in your face?
Yeah, there’s some. There’s one main moment that was fully inspired by a story that my family friend told me—because my mom converted to Judaism as an adult. So I talked to one of our family friends who grew up here and went to our same synagogue. He’s been a member there his entire life. He told me this story that I then wrote into my thesis, slightly adjusted. The two main characters are at the birthday party of a girl in their class, and the mom, coded as pretty Christian, is very unsympathetic to the fact that there’s pork in all of the food at the birthday party, so the Jewish girl can’t eat anything but sides, and then makes this comment that is like directly from my family friend’s life where she just turns to him and is like, “Don’t worry, Jesus still loves you.” And he was just like, Okay. Totally unprompted. Just like such a weird thing to say to a kid. It’s so inappropriate. It’s the kind of thing that you say when you don’t know anybody who isn’t like you, and so then you don’t understand other people’s cultures and religious identities or things. So in small ways, there is the alienation of just being someone who is different in a way that other people don’t understand.
Okay, shifting gears. How are you in covid, and related to your thesis, but also your current mental state? Your thesis is already done; correct or no?
Yeah, I turned it in on the 27th of April.
Okay, so you’re like in the few days afterwards. How are you feeling?
Yeah, well, it was nice to have the extra time because the university extended the thesis deadline to the 21st. Then the film department extended theirs to the 27th. It was definitely nice to have that extra time just because it is just so fundamentally more difficult to be productive at home for me. I just haven’t done homework here in like four years. So now, just having to do that. It’s just like, whenever I have to do homework, when I’m in Phoenix, I go to a cafe or something, and now I can’t. So, the desk I’m sitting at right now I’ve had in my room pretty much my entire life and I have literally never used it for homework until now because I have just used my desk as a place to just I don’t know, like pile shit. I can’t even sit at it. Now, suddenly, it’s very clean and organized and my only productive workspace. So it was great to have that extra time and my thesis definitely benefited from it just because the amount of work I needed to do over spring break did not happen because I was packing up my room and flying back to Phoenix and just mourning the loss of senior spring. It’s just so overwhelming for everyone. I am very fortunate and privileged to have a home and a quiet space to work and everything. But also now having that extra time to do my thesis has thrown me directly into finals. I have no break time between turning my thesis in and starting on my other classes’ finals. Definitely the quality of work has gone down, but at least it’s getting done is my mindset right now.
So did you end up just working on your thesis in your bedroom?
Yeah, yeah, I would just do all my homework just sitting at this desk. Both my parents are working from home, and both of my older brothers are in Phoenix right now. One lives here; he has an apartment, and he’s still working remotely. My other brother graduated in December from University of Colorado Boulder, and he was supposed to leave in March for a trail work job where he would be living in various places in the southwest and doing trail work and either living out of his car or camping because by the nature of the work, and his job was postponed several months because of covid. So he’s been here also with very little to do. So there’s people everywhere and I just have to stay in my room to be productive and to not get distracted.
Were you finding creative fun ways to procrastinate? Did you get on any baking trends or anything like that?
Oh definitely yeah. I have rediscovered all my crafting supplies from high school. The main one is my sewing machine. When I was 12, I wanted to be a fashion designer, so all of my birthday presents, all my Hanukkah presents, everything for like two years were just sewing supplies. So I have this sewing machine covered in the stupidest stickers because I was trying to go for this angsty, grungy sticker vibe, but all I had were the Apple logo and weird little fish stickers and glow-in-the-dark smiley faces that I now can’t get off. And I have a mannequin that I got one year as a present. There’s a Joanne’s right by my house that does curbside pickup, so that is my main procrastination right now. I made my mom a mask, but it’s not cool. I used shoe laces and white fabric. So it is only protective, not cute, but it does the job. I made myself a dress though. That was fun. I’m working on a pair of shorts right now that have these insanely big pockets because it’s adapted from a pattern for men’s shorts. So they have the size pockets of men’s shorts, but I’m making them for myself and I’m very excited about that. But that’s also bad because there’s such time consuming projects and it takes like hours and hours and hours to sew something so it’s just very easy to lose an entire day.
But the way that I think about it with sewing at least I’m being productive because I’m making something that I can eventually wear outside of the house. I also did not bring that much clothing here because I figured that I would just be wearing pajamas all the time. But I actually love clothes. I love getting dressed. A great distraction for me is figuring out outfits. And I only have like four t shirts and like three pairs of pants. And it’s also so hot here and I did not bring clothes that are appropriate for 100 degree weather and limited air conditioning because my parents just wait until the hottest part of the summer to fully commit to air conditioning.
My biggest nightmare moving to the east coast was having to live through humidity because that just doesn’t exist in Arizona—at least not in Phoenix. It’s like such a cliche to say that it’s a dry heat but it is and it’s so much better because it doesn’t follow you inside the same way that humidity does, and it doesn’t stick to you. Once you get in the shade or in air conditioning, it feels okay. But also now this week it’s supposed to get over 100 degrees.
Stay safe, I guess. Have you got summer plans? What are you thinking? Did you have any plans that were disrupted? I’m also really sorry about your senior spring.
Oh, thanks. Well, my car is still at Wesleyan along with most of my stuff. I only brought home one suitcase that was not even fully packed. It was really just like various comfortable clothes and I don’t know, like my extra contacts and mouthwash. The rest of my stuff is in Connecticut because my plan was, instead of shipping everything back to Phoenix or paying for extra baggage, just driving everything in my car back here. So hopefully at some point this summer, I don’t know when, but my brother and I are planning on flying back to Connecticut, which will sadly be his first time visiting me in college, like a deserted campus, but then we’ll drive everything back to Phoenix. I’m planning on moving to New York. I have absolutely no timeline for myself on when that will happen. I think it’s better for me to not give myself a deadline to be hopeful for and then if something happens and it doesn’t work out, then I just don’t want to get my hopes up. That’s my eventual plan right now. While I’m at home, I’m just figuring out more sewing projects. And I’ve been watching a lot of comedy specials. Rewatching Sex in the City. That’s the main thing.
Actually, I’m a member of Wesleyan Comedy Committee. And sadly, our spring show was going to be great, and now it’s obviously not happening which is so sad because I love comedy, and I’ve loved working on Comedy Committee, and we had a really great show planned. But we are going to start on our Instagram (@wescomcom) posting recommendations for different comedy specials and things to look into which I’m excited about because we all have a pretty broad range of tastes in the committee.
Well kind of related, if you could compare your thesis to any other TV show or movie or song or any media really, but would it be?
Good question. Mmm hmm. I don’t know how much I want to compare my screenplay to this movie because it’s a really good movie, and I’m not trying to flatter myself, but The Farewell Lulu Wang’s movie. I have thought about that movie so much while writing my thesis. Partly because I saw it last summer when I was feeling very burnt out from junior year, and I did not want to do any work, I did not want to take film classes, I did not want to watch movies, I did not want to write essays about them. I did not want to write a feature length screenplay. And then I saw that movie, and it was the first new movie I’d seen in a few weeks. And it was just so amazing, and I cried so much. I think it does such a good job of finding universality through specificity which is what I’m trying to do through my movie. So few people have the experience of being a German or a Jewish person in Phoenix or being seven and having your parents interfere in your life in this kind of way. But it’s, I think, hopefully a very relatable, emotional journey for other people. I saw The Farewell with my partner. She had such a similar experience to that movie where she’s Chinese American and her grandmother when she was a kid came to live with her family. She was seeing this wonderful kind of representation of experiences that she’d had and could relate to. And my grandfather had just died that spring. I was just thinking about the ways that the emotions of that story related to my relationship with my grandfather. And we were both just sobbing at the end of the movie, but for completely different reasons, which is, I think, a very special kind of movie, and hopefully something that I’ve managed to get into my own screenplay.
That’s really cool you had such a strong influence in mind the whole time.
Yeah, it was definitely helpful.
Do you have any advice for future people embarking on a screenwriting thesis? Or advice with doing a thesis as a double major?
Advice to filmmakers in general is that people should really think about doing screenwriting as a thesis, either a TV pilot, or a screenplay. There’s a lot of benefits definitely that you get out of doing a production thesis. But there are also so many that you get from screenwriting. Joe is just the most amazing person to work with. You really get to form a good relationship with him, and he really puts a lot into your project. Because he has fewer students, it just functions differently. Also, there are a lot of limits placed on a production thesis just by making a movie with actual money in Central Connecticut. It’s expensive, and it’s also hard. I’ve had so many friends doing theses and just casting can be so difficult and I was able to write a story in German. Half the movie is in German. It’s written in English; I translated it separately with my German advisor, but I could not have made this story, even a condensed version of it in Middletown, just because I don’t think that I would have been able to find an entire family of German speaking actors. I mean, it’s just you can really write anything. I think more people should think about it. I think that because Wesleyan doesn’t have a ton of screenwriting opportunities before you write a thesis that it can be very intimidating, but Joe is the most supportive mentor and it doesn’t matter if you have experience or not, I think, to be able to get something out of the process.
Specifically double majors, I started thinking about this idea, my freshman year not in any specific way, just because my German professor told us about this phenomenon in Germany where American westerns are a really big deal. There’s this author, Karl May, who wrote all of these cowboy Indian stories that take place in the American Southwest without ever having visited the United States. As someone who grew up in the American Southwest that was just so interesting to me. That’s kind of a throughline in my thesis where the two kids become friends because they both love cowboys and they love horses and they love the Wild West.
I also just thought that German is not the most practical major. I don’t have any plans to get a job that really uses this major in a very active way. So I figured that now I have the support of the German department financially and also just personally and academically, I should make use of that while I still can speak German and have access to these resources. Just to do one big thing that makes this major really worth it in a practical way. I mean, it’s definitely worth it to major in German—everyone major in German! It’s a great department, and it’s super interesting. But also I just wanted to do something with it and know that I had done something with that major.
Was it hard to double major on those two?
It was definitely manageable. I planned ahead. I studied abroad sophomore spring, which usually COL kids do, but film doesn’t always love when people go abroad later. They make a big deal about how that interrupts their flow of education or whatever. So I planned ahead and that made it easier. It can be a little frustrating at times because the German major is small. There’s only one higher level seminar that’s taught in German every semester, so there were scheduling conflicts where I had to decide whether I would prioritize a German class versus a film class, but ultimately, I finished this major. I almost had to drop to the minor, but I finished this major because of the relationships that I built with my professors and the fact that I was able to do an independent study this year. Through my thesis and the research and translating work I’d done with that, I was able to get a credit to help finish the major. That’s the kind of thing that you get when you have such a small department that really actually knows each student just because they can’t not and also they really want to. They care so much. They are all so passionate about German.
You’re really selling this small school model.
I really am. I also was not going to be a German major. I was going to take enough German to study abroad and then I was like, wait, all of these professors are so nice. And they’re so interested in what they’re teaching, which I think is really important because I think that you can tell when your professor doesn’t care as much as you want them to.
Do you have any questions that you wish I’d asked? Or anything else people should know about your thesis or process? Any advice you want to give?
I think it’s good to have people read your writing while it’s still a work in progress. I’ve gotten a lot of really good advice from people who don’t know anything about screenwriting—they’ve never read a screenplay before, but I got such good advice. Like my mom read it, and she was like, this thing would never have happened in Arizona in 1976. I wish I had done that sooner. I didn’t have anyone read it until spring break, and then I got really good feedback that made my screenplay a lot better. That was helpful. It’s also really hard to have people read your writing when it’s not finished, but I think it’s really important. I am one of the co-hosts right now of Screenwriter’s Lounge which is a weekly event hosted by Cardinal Pictures to workshop student screenwriting. I think that was an invaluable experience. I went almost every week of freshman and sophomore year whenever I didn’t have too much homework, and then I have been hosting it since junior year with Thanmye Lagudu and just the process of reading and workshopping people’s scripts—we get all different kinds of stuff at all different levels of experience from the writer and also levels of completion in terms of how polished the writing is and it’s so interesting to work on other people’s writing because you learn a lot working on things that are different from yours. We do a lot of writing exercises that are ways to force yourself to write something, which I think is important especially as if you want to go into screenwriting you have to be able to write at any time which is hard.
Is that your goal in New York—to be a screenwriter?
I don’t know. I’m very interested in TV writing because I really like the collaborative writing process, and I love TV. I didn’t write a television thesis, but I almost did. But I’m also interested in a lot of other things. I’m really interested in comedy—not doing comedy, but producing shows, working with comedians. I had an internship that had to end this semester. I was commuting to New York to intern at 3 Arts [Entertainment] which is a talent management company, and I was mostly helping the assistants to the comedy managers; that was really cool and really interesting. So I just don’t know. It’s difficult. It’s almost impossible to start in TV from New York. I’m not at a point in my life where I’m committed enough to a career path to decide to move to a location solely based on that. Most of my friends are staying on the East Coast either in New York or Boston or New Jersey. My partner lives in New York. I’m familiar with New York, I’ve visited a lot, I spent last summer there. I don’t want to move to LA right now, so that’s also one of the reasons I’m not committing to TV writing. I’ve lived through 18 years of no seasons, I only looked at colleges that had 4 seasons. I’m not ready to give up autumn and winter. I just can’t do it!
Final Question: Theses Feces? What’s your poop been like?
Oh my god, terrible! So bad, and I don’t know if it’s because I eat nachos every night before I go to bed or if it’s because of stress. Also, the least Jewish thing about my family is how little we talk about in general illness but more specifically bathroom stuff. All my Jewish friends, I feel like their families are so open, but my family is just not. If I say I have to pee, they’re like, TMI Hannah that is gross. I’m just here suffering in silence and texting my friends, but it could be a lot worse. I feel lucky.