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Spirituality in the South: Something, Anything‘s Paul Harrill and Ashley Maynor

Ashley Shelton in Something, Anything

An alum of the 2013 IFP Filmmaker Labs (an experience he wrote about here), Paul Harrill’s Something, Anything is less saccharine than truthful. A quietly meditative, regional production, Harrill’s debut feature follows Peggy (Ashley Shelton), a young Southern woman who, after a series of tragic personal events, begins a spiritual quest to better herself as an individual with altruistic intentions. Ethereal throughout, Harrill’s film displays an assured, contemplative expressiveness behind the camera.

The writer/director and his producing partner, Ashley Maynor, are as much advocates for strong storytelling in their own work as they are for encouraging it in the films of others. This year marks the fifth anniversary of Self-Reliant Film, their production company labor of love that creates and releases work with “compelling stories, a personal sensibility, and regional character.” Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, Harrill and Maynor are a pair unafraid of participating in all aspects of the filmmaking process.

As Something, Anything prepares to open at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP this Friday, I spoke with Harrill and Maynor about crafting strong female characters, incorporating elements of religion into a narrative, and the advantages of shooting in familiar locations.

Filmmaker: You both work very closely together as a filmmaking team. Could you speak a little bit about the benefits of collaborating with someone you’re very familiar with?

Harrill: Ashley has a great eye for story. She was always pushing me, from the earliest drafts, to better express the story I wanted to tell. Since we had a really small crew, she was always on set and had to play multiple roles. She was the producer and an assistant director who I consulted about the performances. She was the person looking at the cuts more than anyone else, so it was the biggest kind of collaboration possible.

Maynor: Paul and I have been working together since 2005. We’ve made short films, both fiction and documentary-based. The relationship that we have, from director-to-producer and producer-to-director, is a creative partnership. I’m not someone who just finds money or helps manage the crew. I do those things as well, but I’m lucky in that Paul lets me contribute a lot to the writing and directing process and through the edit. I’m able to help shape the story and be Paul’s advisor on all things female. [laughs] I keep things true to the experience of being a Southern woman. I was born and raised in the South, and Paul’s films often feature characters from there, so I can help give him a gutcheck on if it’s realistic or not.

Harrill: It’s funny. People have asked me how I learned to write a female character. How did I learn to tell this story if I’m a guy? Well, I tell them that I’m surrounded by women on set, with Ashley and our lead actress, and they both played a big role in the collaborative process.

Filmmaker: How did the idea for this film come about? What made it the right fit for your first feature?

Maynor: I became involved with this project early on and I think the film comes from two different places. One is Paul’s experience as a Southerner watching women — like myself and his sister and pretty much every woman from the South — facing the inevitable pressures to marry young and start a family and career. It’s like going through a checklist for young women in their early twenties. The second place the story comes from is Paul’s exploration of spirituality, as opposed to religion, in the South. Everybody has an idea of a girl having a typical Southern religious experience, and it definitely is a religious region, but we were interested in the less evangelical vein of spirituality. I saw Paul exploring that in both cinema and literature, drawing from those resources.

Harrill: As Ashley said, religion is such a fundamental part of the Southern experience, and yet what I’ve seen on the screen so rarely is a depiction of my observations of that. So many movies either don’t acknowledge that religion and spirituality are a thing at all, or — on the other side of the spectrum — there are these faith-based movies that are religious propaganda. I wanted to tell a story that acknowledged the foundational role religion has played in so many people’s lives, while at the same time resisting a story that was advocating any sort of religious doctrine.

Filmmaker: I wanted to talk a little bit about the opening credits sequence. It takes us through a significant portion of a couple’s progression in a matter of minutes (proposal, wedding, pregnancy). The highs of the relationship are shown very quickly, while the film deals at length with the challenges of the aftermath.

Harrill: It was always imagined to be a montage of sorts, and I think the goal was to introduce these two people as types, especially Peggy, and then over the course of the film show that she’s not a type. She can’t be typed at all. I wanted to start with something very conventional, a montage sequence of a conventional relationship, and then take that apart over the course of the film.

Filmmaker: The film opens with a shot of Peggy putting on nail polish, and from there you feature numerous shots of applied cosmetics. What’s the intended perception of Peggy when the film begins? Is she trying to keep up appearances to maintain a successful marriage with her husband?

Maynor: I think Peggy has adopted a lot of the accepted practices of what it means to be a successful Southern woman. You’re put together, you’re living within certain means, in terms of your style, dress, jewelry, and care for your personal appearance. At the beginning of the film, she’s blindly accepted that as her way of being. The rest of the film is a questioning of that, as you see her strip away her layers one by one.

Filmmaker: How did you go about integrating the husband into the story? In some films, once a couple separates, we follow only one person post-breakup. And yet, you keep bringing the husband back. Was it difficult to avoid making him a one-note antagonist? He’s very relevant throughout, and not merely a trigger for Peggy to move on and start a new life.

Harrill: It was a struggle, and in some ways he was as challenging of a character to write as Peggy was. The story isn’t about him, and ultimately the story isn’t about the marriage, but about this woman. Finding the balance of tone and how to portray him, of how much of him we need to see and how much we don’t was definitely a challenge. It was something we worked on quite a bit, not just in the script but in the editing as well. There were more scenes with him that we filmed, but ultimately we decided that this was her story — not the story of a marriage, but the story of a woman.

Filmmaker: One thing that’s hard to make cinematic is the physical act of writing. We’re usually just given a voiceover to inform us of what a character is scribbling down. Here we’re often shown Peggy writing in her notebook, and what she’s writing appears as a caption on the screen in her handwriting. I thought that was a very unique choice.

Harrill: The direct inspiration for that is Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comics, with Charlie Brown writing something like “that pretty little redheaded girl” and then we see the text above him as he’s writing his letter to her. I felt like it would be appropriate to use that as a device because the film is so much about silence. To watch her writing, but to hear her voice, wouldn’t work as well. Writing and reading are such an integral part of the movie that I thought it would be nice if the audience had to read them.

Maynor: We wanted to avoid voiceover. I think it’s an overused device and has become pretty clichéd. Throughout the film, Peggy is trying to find a voice for herself, so using narration didn’t seem true to her character. She’s someone who’s somewhat mute at the beginning of the film, growing into her voice as it progresses. By showing the text on screen, it seemed a little bit truer to who she is.

Harrill: And when you do hear her voice in voiceover, it’s someone else’s work that she’s reading.

Filmmaker: The film takes place over a year, indicated by seasonal title cards, concluding with an ultimatum of sorts that indicates another significant passing of 12 months is yet to come. When writing the screenplay, did the story come into its structure by taking place over one year’s time?

Harrill: Yes. The very first scene I wrote for the film was the last scene. I knew that the scene would have two important elements, one being that a year plays an important role in the telling of the story. The second element was that the ending also features a kind of proposal, and therefore the story is bookended with proposals.

Filmmaker: There’s this recurring theme of financial interests and monetary worth throughout the film. One scene displays a role-reversal, role-playing game Peggy has with her boss, declaring that she wishes to leave the real estate business to work in the local library (and therefore make considerably less income). The film seems to imply that, for everyone besides Peggy, the dollar is the bottom line.

Harrill: It’s hard for us, in our own lives, not to think about money. At least it is for me! We all have to think about how we’re going to make a living and how we’re going to pay our bills. But then there’s another element to it regarding the kinds of things we want to acquire and think we want to own. Peggy shifts into a way of seeing the world where she doesn’t want that stuff anymore. Money becomes secondary. I think it’s quite surprising when people want less in our society, and I wanted to tell a story about that kind of person in a way that I think is kind of heroic.

Filmmaker: How did you learn about and go on to work with the Monks of the Abbey of Gethsemani?

Harrill: I knew about the monastery, located in Kentucky, because it’s probably the closest one to where I live in Knoxville. It was also the home monastery of Thomas Merton, probably the most famous 20th century American Catholic monk.

Maynor: If I remember right, Paul had touched base with the monks about six or seven years ago, when he first had some initial ideas for the script. From a producing standpoint, we touched base with them about a year before we wanted to start filming to try to get permission. We had an interview with one of the monks who wanted to interview us as filmmakers, to get a sense of who we were and decide whether or not they were comfortable with us filming. Surprisingly, they never asked to read the script, although they did watch some of our previous work before passing the permissions up through the Catholic hierarchy.

Harrill: It was important that they didn’t ask to read the script, only asking in a very general way what the story was about. They wanted to know if they could trust us as filmmakers. We were very clear and they understood that we weren’t making a film that was some sort of faith-based movie. It was supposed to be an honest depiction of a character that could have been a monk.

Filmmaker: One particular moment at the monastery that I found striking had to with the film’s sound design. After finding out that Tim, the man she came to see, isn’t there, Peggy walks outside at magic hour, the walkway lights, crickets, frogs, and church bells engulfing her as she begins to leave.

Harrill: We worked on the sound design quite a bit. Although it’s a very quiet movie — which usually means the characters aren’t speaking — viewers really focus on the sound design. We had to think about ways to give people an experience with the soundtrack that was rich while at the same time keeping with the minimalist aesthetic of the film.

Filmmaker: A central location in the film is a local library where Peggy begins her new career. It has a real cinematic flair to it, with posters of The Graduate, 2001, King Kong and A Star is Born displayed prominently in one shot. How did you go about shooting there and finding the perfect library setting?

Harrill: It was actually pretty easy in the sense that we used the main public library in Knoxville. It was always the location I imagined in my head as I was writing the film, and they were pretty wonderful to work with. One challenge we faced was that we were always filming while the library was open. It definitely made it more real for the film, however. Ashley was really the one who worked to negotiate of all this.

Maynor: We didn’t want to put any strain on their staff and we also didn’t have any money [laughs].

Filmmaker: Did you notice more of a willingness and openness to shoot at these establishments if you were already frequent patrons of theirs?

Maynor: It absolutely mattered that we were the ones who often used that library, and it helped that I also had a degree in Library and Information Science. I understood the principles they used —

Harrill: “She’s one of us!”

Maynor: Yeah, all librarians follow a code of ethics, kind of like our version of the Hippocratic Oath that doctors use. They knew that I understood that and could keep a crew within those bounds. We were very respectful of the patrons who were using the library as we shot, and everyone was very excited by this project. The library is portrayed as a refuge for this character. It’s a place of quiet that ultimately saves Peggy from her own grief. I don’t think any librarian would have trouble being depicted in that way.

Harrill: This goes back to what you were asking about earlier, about the monetary value of things. The library is a place where nothing is bought and sold, and so it’s very critical that she becomes a librarian. It’s a place that saves her, and that’s one of the reasons why.

Filmmaker: You mentioned in the end credits that the fireflies shown in a sequence in the Great Smoky Mountains late in the film are real. We see them briefly in a sequence that serves as a real moment of enlightenment for Peggy. What was the significance behind implementing them into the story?

Harrill: On a technical level, the fireflies sequence was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. They were the very first thing we tried to film in the movie, and the technology just wasn’t there. So we went and shot the rest of the film, and near the end of the shoot, the fireflies, which only flash synchronously for 14 days a year, were able to filmed because the camera technology had caught up. As for including them in the movie, I have to say that they are the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen. We’re all looking to be astonished in some way, and I wanted Peggy to have a moment where she found that.

Maynor: It was probably the hardest shot to get in the movie. I think that sequence is about 20 seconds and we probably devoted a few work weeks, probably 80 hours, to get those 20 seconds.

Harrill: And it was usually just a crew of two, Ashley and myself and the actors.

Filmmaker: Something, Anything played at a number of festivals last year that covered quite a bit of the filmgoing world (Wisconsin, Sarasota, Edinburgh, Brooklyn), both regional and international. What was your experience on the festival circuit with your first feature?

Harrill: It’s been a wonderful experience. This is a film that very much comes from my understanding of a specific place, and I wondered if that would translate to audiences. One of the things I enjoyed so much about traveling to these different festivals was hearing people respond to the film in a way that was really warm and very specific. There were many times when a woman would come up to me after a screening or during the Q&A and say “That was my life” or thank me for making the film. That’s wonderful to hear as a filmmaker, and it was interesting to know that these things, however culturally specific I may have thought they were, turned it into a universal story.

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