by Marcia Hunt
Jacob Cleary is a senior film major who is working on his senior project, tentatively titled “Craig’s Fresh Start.” The feature-length screenplay is a semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story about Craig Murphy; a 22-year-old misfit who finds new direction in his life when he gets a job as a crossing guard at his old middle school.
You’re finishing up your senior year during a pandemic and writing a feature-length screenplay. How are you holding up?
I’m good. I’m really excited honestly. This is my first interview, first interview, hopefully, of many.
Well, that depends; is your screenplay any good?
I think so. It’s really been coming together over the past few days. It’s due in three weeks, and then I have about a month to record and make a podcast out of the first 12 pages. That, in addition to the screenplay, is what’s going to make up my senior project, which is what most people are electing to do.
You described this screenplay as semi-autobiographical? How?
Well, I’ve sort of imagined what would have happened to me if I had never gone to college and if my high school self carried on into my adult years. In high school, I was extremely negative and very depressed, angry, and confused. Thankfully, throughout the last four years at Purchase, I’ve been able to mature. I wondered what would have happened if I didn’t come to Purchase and just stayed at home in Syracuse.
So, tell me more about alternate universe high school you.
Craig’s big thing is that he has the mind of a 16-year-old but he’s in the body of a 22-year-old. The screenplay is his coming-of-age story where he learns to let go of his childish, self-destructive behavior and get a grip. He’s misunderstood and the world has screwed him over because he doesn’t have any power in his life. So, he becomes a crossing guard at his old middle school, and that’s how he starts to find a purpose. He becomes like a guidance counselor for the kids as he helps them cross the street.
That reminds me of Holden Caulfield’s whole coming-of-age story in “The Catcher in the Rye.”
That was a big inspiration to me. I know it looks bad, but my favorite book is “Catcher in the Rye.”
Wait, really? Mine too!
Everyone is kind of like Holden Caulfield at some point or the other. I’m still a lot like him, I think, because I’m also really scared of what comes next for me. The biggest theme of “Catcher” is that Holden sees himself as a protector between children and adults. He dreams about being the only person who can catch these kids running through the rye from falling off a cliff. He doesn’t want to make that leap between running in the rye as a child and adulthood, which is basically like falling down the hill and then eventually dying.
On a less morbid note, what inspired you to take Craig back to middle school?
For the past seven or eight years, I worked at various daycare centers in Syracuse with infants all the way up to middle schoolers. I had a bunch of great, bizarre interactions with kids. A lot of times, kids let us see how stupid we are and they expose things about ourselves.
What’s the weirdest interaction you’ve had at daycare?
One day I was put in the middle-school room with another worker, a 17-year-old girl. And then one of the kids -- a 9-year-old just acting stupid -- asked her if she had kids and she told them she had a baby. They basically started interrogating her.
Eventually, the kids turned to me and they were like “You should date her.” I declined. Then they made us face each other and they were like “Rate each other from one to 10,” and I had to explain to them that that was really inappropriate. I felt really bad for the girl I was working with because it was such an awkward moment. It’s a very inconsequential event but it’s just so strange.
Does Craig have these moments? How does he interact with the middle schoolers?
There are two kids in particular that he takes under his wing. Tyler is 11 and he’s a younger version of Craig. Tyler gets walked all over. Kids pretend to be friends with him and mock him, and Craig starts giving him advice. But Craig’s advice isn’t very good, so Tyler takes his bad advice and makes things worse for himself.
There’s also a girl named Jo, a 14-year-old student journalist. She has a crush on the girl running for class president and she has to write a bunch of articles about her. I’m still figuring out the details of her and Craig’s dynamic, but at the end, she is going to be the catalyst to help Craig have his epiphany.
You were telling me that this piece is a bit of a statement about the world. What does it say?
A big part of the film is that it’s a commentary on toxic masculinity. My character embraces these male ideals that men are “supposed” to have, like getting laid all the time, becoming successful, and being physically intimidating. These are all things he is not, but he’s really hung up on that sort of stuff. But, as I’ve learned, you really shouldn’t be.
What are some of your takeaways from studying film at Purchase?
It’s really ruined movies for me. Everything I’ve learned in college has made me see film in such a new way. When I’m watching movies with my parents, they’ll tell me that whatever movie we’re watching is the best they’ve seen all year. And then I’ll be like “Well, it was good but that one scene if they just shot it THAT way…” I really find myself sort of revising other people’s films. I guess I’m just itching to go out and try to actually get started and write my own films and see what I can get off the ground.
What’s one of your favorite movies you’ve seen recently then?
I’ve just seen Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” which is a Japanese movie based off of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” but set in samurai times. It’s this really big, epic movie. It’s one of the last films Kurosawa made and I thought it was one of the best films I’ve ever seen.
You’re graduating soon. What are your fears about going into the industry, especially during the pandemic? I don’t have data to back this up, but I have a feeling that there are way more film graduates every year than there are available film jobs. This is a very scary notion. For the past few months, this fear about not being able to jumpstart my career has been haunting me. But it’s also a good motivator to get out of bed, drink some coffee, and get to writing as many quality pages as I can. I’m always revising and rewriting to make my work better. It’s therapeutic to immerse myself in this world and write about a character both like and unlike myself.
Craig’s life is directionless. You’ve sent yourself through film school. What advice would you give to your high school self?
I’d tell him that things will get better.
More updates about his screenplay and access to Jacob Cleary’s work can be found at his website, jacobcleary.net.