"Something, Anything": A Conversation with Paul Harrill

An interview with an American indie director slightly out of step with most of his American contemporaries, about his latest film.
Darren Hughes

Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything, which co-premiered recently at the Wisconsin Film Festival and the Sarasota Film Festival, is a portrait of a young woman in crisis. Peggy [Ashley Shelton] has already achieved her “stereotypically Southern” (as she’s described in the press kit) ambitions: a successful career in realty, a husband, a house in the suburbs, and a baby on the way. In the opening moments of the film, however, she’s forced to confront her dissatisfaction with it all. A family tragedy sends Peggy on a sojourn that leads her to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and, eventually, to a simpler life in a small apartment overlooking the Tennessee River.

Harrill first gained recognition in 2001 when his short film, Gina, An Actress, Age 29, won the top prize at Sundance and enjoyed an impressive run of screenings at international festivals. Starring Amy Hubbard and Frankie Faison (Burrell from The Wire), Gina is about a woman who answers an audition call and soon finds herself performing the role of real-life union buster. Harrill’s second fiction short, Quick Feet, Soft Hands (2008), stars Greta Gerwig and Jason Von Stein as a young couple eking out a living on the minor-league baseball circuit. Harrill also produced Ashley Maynor’s documentary, For Memories’ Sake (2010), and last year returned to the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as an Associate Professor of Art.

I met Harrill a decade ago, when he and I were invited by a mutual friend to present on an academic conference panel. I spoke about cinephilia in the digital age; he screened what was then his most recent work, Brief Encounter with Tibetan Monks, a five-minute documentary that was part of Jay Rosenblatt’s Underground Zero project. We became friends, formed a small cinema club here in Knoxville, and then lost touch when he left to take faculty positions first at Temple University and then Virginia Tech. I ran into him again three years ago at a local screening and was happy to learn that he’d begun pre-production on his first feature.

The plot of Something, Anything fits neatly into a number of American indie genres, but Harrill is slightly out of step with most of his contemporaries. Like the other movies he’s directed, Something, Anything is very much an East Tennessee film, but it avoids the traps of regional cinema. There are no picturesque shots of abandoned storefronts and dusty crossroads (although both can be found a short drive from the film’s locations) and no mentions of Knoxville’s literary and cinematic icons, Clarence Brown, James Agee, and Cormac McCarthy (although McCarthy fans might be interested to know that Peggy’s apartment is straight up the hill from where Suttree anchors his skiff). “Place isn’t about landscape,” Harrill told me. “Place is about values.” It’s a useful distinction, I think, and Harrill takes those values seriously. There’s no nostalgia in his voice. He doesn’t exoticize the South or the people who live here. There’s only affection and a careful attention to the social, economic, and spiritual (for lack of a better word) pressures that determine so much of our behavior.

In an era when “contemplative” filmmakers tend to evoke Tarkovsky, Dreyer, Malick, and the Dardennes, Harrill’s style is decidedly conventional—old-fashioned, even. Peggy’s appearance might allude to Vivre sa vie-era Anna Karina, but Harrill’s treatment of her owes less to Godard than to American studio directors like Henry Hill (I was reminded more than once of The Song of Burnadette), George Cukor, and, as he acknowledges in our conversation, Frank Borzage and Leo McCarey. Harrill seldom leaves Peggy’s side, typically filming her in medium shots and closeups. The cutting is standard continuity, and the pace, though slower than most multiplex fare, will feel familiar to viewers of classical Hollywood. Finally, though, Something, Anything has the soul of a Bergman film—if not its style—remaining agnostic on questions of God and putting its faith, instead, in human affection. A film about a woman of few words who swallows her emotions and fends off despair, Something, Anything manages, in its final moments, to capture two minor miracles, both of them earth-bound and sublime.

NOTEBOOK: Knowing you as I do, I’m going to assume you sympathize with Peggy’s retreat into her own Walden woods? Did writing this story in any way qualify as a kind of wish fulfillment for you?

PAUL HARRILL: It’s a very personal film on that level. I’ve certainly wanted to give up all of my possessions and retreat and find quiet. You do that as a filmmaker if you’re a writer. It’s so solitary. And writing is the part I most enjoy, which goes along with being an introvert. I don’t like production. I like editing and I like writing. I mean, I hate them both when they’re not going well, but when they are going well, they’re the reason I do this.

I did a lot of research in preparation for the film. To the point of procrastination, really. Reading and reading and reading, the way someone might research before doing a dissertation. I read a lot of monastic writings, whether it was the early ascetics living in caves or Thomas Merton, and I read Tolstoy’s religious writings. But those ideas, romantic as they are, ultimately don’t appeal to me.

NOTEBOOK: True monasticism, you mean? Becoming a monk?

HARRILL: Right. And, you know, Peggy doesn’t become a nun. She simplifies her life and becomes a seeker.

So the film is not wish fulfillment for me because I already feel like a seeker. I haven’t given up my phone yet, but I think about giving up Facebook everyday. We’ve been trying to put together a social media strategy for the film, and I keep thinking, “What would be appropriate for this film is to have no social media presence whatsoever.” [laughs] People should write me letters and I’ll write them letters back.

NOTEBOOK: I’ve only lived here for fifteen years, but my sense is that Knoxville, like much of the South, has a real ambivalence about seekers. On the one hand, we are church-going folks and most people I know practice some kind of faith that shapes their lives. But Knoxville is also a very comfortable, very middle-class place that is suspicious of paths that stray too far from convention.

There’s a scene midway through Something, Anything when Peggy’s old friends confront her about her behavior. I half expected one of them to invite her to a Bible study—and I say that as someone who recognizes the characters in this film, who lives among them. To me, the one questionable moment in the film is when Peggy  has to photocopy pages from a Bible because she doesn’t own one. She and her parents strike me as the type who would’ve gone to church every Sunday if for no other reason than out of social obligation.

HARRILL: First, regarding your comment about one of her friends inviting her to a Bible study, I wrestled with whether to put in something like that. It would certainly be true to life. There was a scene in an early draft of the script where she goes to church with friends, but I eliminated it for two reasons. First, I felt that an audience who knows these characters—and, by the way, people like this certainly aren’t limited to the South—I felt those audiences would fill that in. They already know those women and they recognize that subtext.

I say this without any judgment, but I think of Peggy’s friends as the kind of women who will accessorize their faith—you know, they’ll wear a gold cross and so on. I wanted to steer away from things like that in costuming because—and this is the second part of it—it makes Christianity into an easy target. To have those two women, who become antagonists, also be “the Christians” wouldn’t be fair. It would simplify the characters, and it would horribly oversimplify Christians.

I want this film to speak to a lot of people. I don’t think it’s necessarily a film that was made for a lot of people [laughs], but I want it to reach not only the Peggys of the world—the seekers—but also the Hollys and Jills. If you type them in that way it’s too easy for audiences who recognize themselves in those women or their husbands to just check out of the film. That’s where there’s a danger of satire. Or perhaps it’s that audiences have seen those characters portrayed satirically so many times before, they might assume that’s my intention as well. That’s why I ultimately stripped out any overt critique of mainstream Christianity. I felt it would be superficial. And probably unfair.

As for Peggy not having a Bible, you’re probably right. She would have a Bible, but it would be back at home. Maybe she and Mark [Bryce Johnson] got one as a wedding gift. She probably got one as a kid, too, but it’s at her parents’ house and she never read it. 

But that misses the point, in a way. I think Peggy is doing something pretty sophisticated there. She’s taking those words out of their familiar context—you know, that thin, Bible-grade paper? She’s putting them onto something with more heft, and that helps her look at it critically, and engage with it as something whose meaning isn’t defined or predetermined for her. At least, that’s how I look at it.

NOTEBOOK: Peggy eventually leaves her apartment, gets in her car, and drives to Gethsemani. It’s a significant moment, I think, because it marks an important shift both in her character and in the form of the film.

HARRILL: She’s a seeker and, at some point, the road has to become part of her search. On a narrative level, it’s important for her to get out of the city and be in a different space. To take action. Travel is about removing yourself from your surroundings so you find out who you are without them. On a formal level, it’s important because the film has up to that point been such a chamber drama. It’s so interior. And then she gets into the car for the first time and we hit this big blue sky. There’s something important about seeing that openness. The film needs to breathe at that point.

NOTEBOOK: Something, Anything is shot fairly conventionally, but there are occasional moments where I can almost feel the formalist in you wrestling its way out. When Peggy arrives in Kentucky, the camera watches her approach from the door of the abbey. It’s almost Antonioni-esque. Is that shot about her? Is it about the abbey? Is it about situating her in that new space?

HARRILL: I think it’s all of those things. I mean, I want it to be all of those things. If I’m not mistaken it’s the widest shot in the film. It’s the longest shot. It’s the smallest we see her. That seems appropriate for where she is—both metaphorically and concretely.

NOTEBOOK: The scenes at the abbey strike an interesting balance. I especially like her brief exchange with the monk who tells her, “Every day is a choice.” It’s all very warm and human. And at the same time, the film depicts the abbey as a genuinely holy place.

HARRILL: That’s interesting. You’re talking about it as if it’s a dichotomy: human and holy. Obviously those two things are different but they needn’t be separated.

Getting access to film at the monastery was a long process. But the monks never asked to see the script, not even the pages that were shot at the abbey. They only asked us what the story was about, in the most general sense. They wanted to get to know me, and once they got to know me, they were very trusting. Our guide while we filmed was Brother Paul Quenon, who is a photographer and poet and who’s been there since he was seventeen years old. Thomas Merton was his novice master. It was really satisfying when we filmed that scene with the monk in the hallway. We were shooting in places where the public isn’t allowed, so Brother Paul was observing, and he really loved the scene. He felt it was true to his experience.

They’re people. They’re different, but they’re people. You know, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but there’s a DVD underground at the abbey, and there are a couple monks who are cinephiles who wanted to talk about Ozu! When they found out I had a Region 2 copy of Ruggles of Red Gap, they asked me to send a copy.

NOTEBOOK: Peggy becomes a seeker in response to her growing realization of just how alienated she’s become. If this were the real world instead of a film, her condition would be diagnosed by those around her as dysthymia or depression. The film resists psychologizing her, though, both in the script and in the form. None of her friends say, “Peggy, have you thought about seeing someone about this?”

HARRILL: I think there's value in psychology, in real life. But as a filmmaker, I think it can be creatively deadly.  People are mysterious, and characters need mystery too. For me to identify the crisis she's going through—for me to label it, or explain it in the terminology of psychology—well, at that point I've done three things. First, I'm telling the audience how to understand the character, which I think disrespects the audience. Second, I've taken away some of the character's mystery. And finally, I've basically said, “I have all the answers, I understand all of this, everything about these characters.” That’s a lie.

If someone watching the film views Peggy psychologically—if they see her and think “that’s depression”—or whatever, it’s far more powerful for them to do that without my prompting.

NOTEBOOK: I asked because, getting back to that dichotomy—“What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be holy?”—Something, Anything offers, I think, a real analysis of what degrades our humanness and our holiness. There are, of course, whole genres of film that attack the values of suburbia, but your film is not a portrait of alienation in a generic sense, it’s alienation in a very specific sense. I’m tempted to call it alienation in the Marxist sense.

HARRILL: Well, first let me say this: I don’t think the film has an answer for what it means to be holy. The question is important, though. Certainly, the main character wants to know what it means to be holy.

I’ve always admired a sensibility in Raymond Carver’s work. He has a deep affection for his characters while also remaining critical of them. But what’s so remarkable about his writing is how concrete the incidents are. In Something, Anything Mark gets upset because someone dings his car. I grew up in a suburban neighborhood. I don’t have an axe to grind. But the parking lot scene, Mark’s anger—it’s a concrete detail.

NOTEBOOK: Or the scene in which Peggy meets with a couple who are being foreclosed upon. You open it with a montage of simple, static images of empty rooms—a kind of portrait of the house they’re about to lose.

HARRILL: Right. We only see them once, but that couple, like Peggy, is in a period of transition. If we were to see that montage before they move into their new home those images would be filled with hope and promise, but it’s obviously the opposite. They’re in trouble.

NOTEBOOK: Have you seen Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy?


NOTEBOOK: There’s a scene in that film in which an older security guard who has befriended Wendy recognizes she’s in trouble and gives her some money. Reichardt inserts a shot so that we see he’s giving her seven dollars, but it’s clearly seven dollars he can’t afford to lose. When Peggy goes back to her real estate office, her boss asks her to help out the team: the couple is going to lose $40,000 on one deal so that the company can make an extra $35,000 in another deal. I appreciate the way money is always real and consequential in Reichardt’s films, and it’s real in yours, too.

HARRILL: That’s true. Money is very much a common thread in the last few movies I’ve directed. It’s not evil, but how people relate to money is important. Albert [Faison’s character] in Gina willingly compromises his integrity to pay his bills. Money is central to the characters in Quick Feet, Soft Hands.

NOTEBOOK: Near the end of Quick Feet, Soft Hands, Jim tells Lisa, “One of us should go to college,” which is certainly dialog in the Carver vein. And like the couple who are losing their house in the new movie, it’s also a time stamp. These are Great Recession films. My favorite moment in Something, Anything is when Mark asks Peggy if she needs any money and she replies, “I pay my bills.” It’s a gut-kick of a line reading. She’s proud and hurt in equal measure. On the page, I would think Peggy has the potential to become a type herself, but Ashley Shelton seems to always be performing at multiple registers.

HARRILL: I can’t even remember how many actresses I met with before we found Ashley. It might have been in the triple digits. I met her very late in the game and, especially after auditioning her with Linds Edwards (who plays Tim, one of Peggy’s old friends who has become a monk), knew that she could be vulnerable and strong, which was essential for the character.

NOTEBOOK: You posted an article at filmmaker.com about your experience with the IFP Narrative Lab, where Something, Anything was workshopped. It sounds like it was a productive experience.

HARRILL: We thought we were pretty close to picture lock when we submitted the film, but we knew that if we were selected it would be an opportunity for some more feedback, and a different kind of feedback than we’d been getting. We knew on one level, this could change everything. But we were eager to hear that because we wanted to make the best film possible.

NOTEBOOK: But you’re also opening yourself up to the possibility that the feedback will recommend more than small tweaks. That would be terrifying.

HARRILL: Yeah, there was this initial burst of excitement for being selected, because it’s very validating to know you’re one of ten projects out of something like 140 that applied. We’d been making this movie in such isolation. For someone to select it confirmed that we were on the right track, that there was something of value here—and not just to us but to others as well. But then day two of the first week was “the crit” and excitement turned to anxiety. What if the feedback is, “You need to reshoot”? In fact, the feedback we got was very focused on what I wanted to hear—how specifically to tighten it up, while maintaining the sense of rhythm, and getting a bit more into the character’s interior life.

NOTEBOOK: How would you describe the film’s rhythm?

HARRILL: [laughs] Isn’t that your job?

I’ve been rewatching Stan Brakhage films lately for a class I’m teaching, and he mentioned in an interview that most of his films are silent because rhythm is such a fragile thing—that putting any sound to his films would inevitably change and redefine that rhythm. Obviously I’m not making films like Stan Brakhage, I’m not making films that I would compare to Stan Brakhage in a qualitative or quantitative way, but I connected with that comment because rhythm is what I think about more than anything.

I wouldn’t say that the film has a rhythm; it has various rhythms. This sounds pretentious, but like an extended piece of music, it has movements. That’s what I spent so long trying to finesse. For example, the whole film is shot fairly classically, but the beginning is especially conventional; the rhythm is conventional. But it’s a setup, I hope, for something else. You asked about potentially devastating feedback. The worst would have been, “We really love the beginning of the film but then it gets really slow!” Something, Anything isn’t Bela Tarr slow, but it moves into a slower pace before working through a couple modulations.

NOTEBOOK: Well, since you’re dropping names, I was interested to see in your press kit that you mention Leo McCarey, Frank Borzage, and Robert Bresson. I could draw some connections between those directors and Something, Anything, but I’m wondering how you see them guiding your work?

HARRILL: Well, I mean, first, I didn't write that. That's other people involved with the film trying to summarize some ideas I've discussed. But I’m fairly conversant with film history and it’s impossible for me to not at least acknowledge a tradition I’m coming from.

I fell in love with some of Bresson's films when I started making films, but I haven't watched any of them, probably, in 7 or 8 years. The word "Bresson,” I think, is a kind of critical shorthand and I want to be careful about that. It’s become a synonym for "transcendental style.” What Paul Schrader wrote about, though, were the unique expressions of a handful of highly original filmmakers. Bresson, Ozu, and Dreyer are distinct—their stories are distinct, their styles are distinct. But all three made films where composition, sound and, most of all, rhythm can bring the viewer to a place of inner reflection, contemplation and, hopefully, insight and feeling. That intention, the very idea of it, I think, is profound.

But as a style it's only profound because some of the works are so profound. Once these sensibilities became identified as an approach, and once that approach could be seen as means to an end, well, it's a bit like Clement Greenberg’s comment about Abstract Expressionism: first it turned into a kind of school, then into a manner, and finally into a set of mannerisms. I think that has happened a bit with the "transcendental style."

NOTEBOOK: Borzage occasionally gets lumped into that style—or, at least, I certainly think he should be mentioned alongside Dreyer—but McCarey seems to be the odd bird here.

HARRILL: Renoir claimed that McCarey understood people better than anyone in Hollywood. Maybe that speaks to your question about the human and the holy?

Like I said earlier, I’m trying to create something for an audience where they have this place for reflection and contemplation, and to try still to offer them insight and feeling.  But instead of taking the path that, say, Bresson takes stylistically, I realized—for myself—I have to get there through something more conventional, more classical. McCarey and Borzage are the two filmmakers whose work helped me understand that. In the same way maybe that Stromboli was Eric Rohmer's "road to Damascus,” two or three films by Borzage and McCarey suggested the beginning of a path for me.

It’s funny, though. To me, classicism seems so out of use these days I think sometimes it can, paradoxically, be strange. Especially if it's used sincerely and infused with other ideas. Ultimately, though, I just want the story to be conveyed in a way that is confident, that feels intentional, and that helps people arrive at a place of contemplation and feeling.

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