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The Soul that Remains: Paul Harrill on Light from Light

Marin Ireland in Light From Light

Paul Harrill’s Tennessee-set Light from Light, which premiered this year at Sundance, stars Marin Ireland as a paranormal investigator who may or may not believe in ghosts and Jim Gaffigan as a recent widower who still feels his wife’s presence in their house. Harrill is quick to point out that it is definitely not a horror film, and anyone expecting scares will be disappointed. Instead, Harrill investigates seemingly more mundane day-to-day Southern living (as he did in his previous effort, Something, Anything), and in it finds a delicate balance between reality and spirituality.

I saw Light from Light at the Sarasota Film Festival earlier this year, where I was screening my film, Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes, a Texas-set John Prine musical in the tradition of Eagle Pennell. I immediately felt a kinship with Harrill and his work. We are both directors and cinephiles who make “regional films.” When I met him, it was clear how much patience he had for me as a first-time filmmaker wanting to pick his brain. I was moved by his film and really wanted to write about it, but I don’t consider myself much of a critic. So, thinking back on our conversations from the festival, I thought other filmmakers might get something out of the two of us sitting down together and discussing Light from Light and his work in general. What follows is a conversation that began in person and continued electronically.

Light from Light opens this November from Grasshopper Film.

Filmmaker: You’re a filmmaker who’s also a cinephile, a programmer, a teacher, a writer—all these things. Getting into movies is one thing, but when did you decide to make films? Or was there a film?

Harrill: A lot of my earliest memories are of going to see movies with my family. Probably my earliest memory is of being at the drive-in with my family. Another is of driving home from a family vacation and going straight to the movie theater. We didn’t even go home—we went straight to the theater to see Star Wars (1977). My dad would get my sister and me to watch his favorite movies when they were on TV. And my mom would watch Siskel and Ebert with me, way back to when [they were] on PBS in the 70s. A lot of the movies they’d review, like My Dinner with Andre (1981), wouldn’t even come to Knoxville. But that was part of the reason for watching—it was exciting to see those clips and just think about what those movies were like. When we got a VCR, that opened up an entirely different world because it meant I could see those films. 

I didn’t know of, or see, anyone who was a filmmaker. My family, friends of my parents, my friends’ parents—there were no artists. And most of my family had been in East Tennessee for generations—I only had a couple of relatives out of state. “Filmmaking” meant Hollywood and that seemed impossibly far away. So, I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I thought of other jobs. But by the time I was in high school in the late 1980s, people like Spike Lee, John Sayles and Steven Soderbergh made it seem more possible. So, I wrote a feature-length screenplay over the course of my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. I didn’t tell anyone I was writing it. I wrote it just for myself, just to do it. I got Syd Field’s The Screenwriter’s Workbook (1984) and followed it. In a year, I finished it. That was the most ambitious thing I’d ever tried, much less accomplished. And I thought, “I don’t know if I’m doing this well, but I am actually doing this.” That’s how it started. I didn’t go to film school until I was out of college.

Filmmaker: For a cinephile filmmaker to say, “OK, I’m actually making something that’s mine”—that’s a huge distinction. I struggled with the idea of “finding a voice.”

Harrill: I’ve never thought of myself as a cinephile filmmaker. For me, it’s just a given that if you want to make films you should know about film history. 

Filmmaker: Was Gina, an Actress, Age 29 (Harrill’s Sundance-winning short from 2001) the first finished film you made?

Harrill: No, I made a few shorts in film school at Temple. That was the first film I made after graduating. Gina was inspired by some things a friend told me about her experiences as a labor organizer. When we were trying to secure a location for the factory in the film, the management would get excited about the idea of a movie being made. But then when they learned the film concerned a union organizing effort, they’d show us the door.

Filmmaker: I’ve been struggling with, or thinking a lot about, balancing personal narratives with political undertones. I feel like most independent films are afraid to touch politics and religion, which are so integral to your films. Were you conscious of this at the time?

Harrill: The political aspect I was more aware of and comfortable dealing with early on. My first job in film was working for some political documentarians between college and film school. It was an incredible experience, but it was also… disillusioning. But before that, when I was an undergraduate doing film history work for Christine Holmlund and Charles Maland, and afterward, when I went to Temple, which is known for its social consciousness, [we] talked a lot about the politics around [a particular] work. With Gina, I was interested in telling a story that was politically engaged but also humanistic and wasn’t didactic. As I continue to make films, I think I’ve moved away from making work that’s as directly engaged. But I still try to be thoughtful about the choices I make.

Filmmaker: I got an email today from a film festival in the South, and at the bottom, it said, “absolutely no political films.” I feel like Something, Anything is very political. 

Harrill: It’s about values and how we live our lives. 

Filmmaker: Light from Light is so personal, but obviously everything is influenced by politics in a way. Just thinking about Jim Gaffigan’s job in the movie. 

Harrill: Yeah, the fish hatchery.

Filmmaker; Does he work for the city?

Harrill: The hatchery in the movie is fictional, but it’s modeled on the one that we filmed at, which is managed by the state of Tennessee. It’s well outside the city. Where I’m most interested now in terms of the political stuff is simply making work that shows people who we’re not used to seeing on screen. Obviously, we’re living in an incredibly polarized time, and some of that is for good reason, because there’s some really bad stuff being done. But I want to make stuff that invites anyone in. I might be sensitive to this because I live in a region that, in many ways, feels politically alienating. I’m trying to reach out to audiences to invite them to see something differently. That’s true for an arthouse crowd, and it’s true for people in the area where I live and members of my family. I want to make movies that they would enjoy, too.

Filmmaker: I saw Light from Light in Sarasota with my mom. She’s from Flat Rock, North Carolina, so she is super familiar with the whole area. She told me afterward, as soon as the first shot started, she thought “I’m in. I love this.” 

Obviously, there’s the specificity of it for her, but I do think the idea of wanting to invite anyone into your films is very true. At the same time, I think you’re navigating a very difficult lane because, in some ways, your films could be perceived as slightly too “arty” for a mainstream audience, but they might seem too “mainstream” for the arty audience. To me, the most interesting films being made right now are doing that, and maybe throughout history that’s also been the case, too. Are you aware of the fact that you’re kind of like navigating those two things?

Harrill: One thing that interests me is this idea of “slow cinema.” I find the term problematic, but I certainly understand the concept and I understand how some people might feel I have a toe in that genre, if not a whole foot. But what’s interesting is, the pacing in my work for audiences in the South, especially older audiences who grew up watching 1980s and 90s cinema—it’s not slow cinema, that’s just the pace of life. There’s this Venn diagram of people who still get their movies by buying them at Walmart and people who watch slow cinema, and there’s this little sliver [in the middle]. That’s where I live, in that sliver, and that’s because I’m trying to speak to both sides. It’s not like I’m alone. The producers I’ve collaborated with, they get it. Ashley Maynor, who produced Something, Anything, grew up in Joelton, Tennessee. James M. Johnston and Kelly Williams, who produced Light from Light? They’re from Texas and are both still based there. 

Filmmaker: I wanted to ask about the house.

Harrill: It’s funny. When I think, “I made a haunted house film,” it’s more like “a haunted house?” film: Is this a haunted house? The house is so important. A lot of the writing I do is based around places. Maybe it’s a landscape, maybe it’s a place in my mind, and maybe it’s not even a logical place where the rest of the story could happen. Growing up, I spent some time in Middle Tennessee at a friend’s farmhouse. I always found that place mysterious and inspiring. I have really positive memories associated with it, so as I was writing the script, I had that place in mind. I knew we wouldn’t be filming there because it was in Middle Tennessee, and the story was going to be set near the Smokies. We began a search for the house a year before the film. It actually wasn’t that difficult because farmhouses like that are pretty common in the area. I looked at four locations, and ultimately, it was the first one we saw. It was nearly identical to the one from my childhood, with the exception of the staircase, which was on the other side of the hall. I had written the script so specifically to the house of my memory that this one difference was like, “I have to completely reimagine where everything is happening. Can this work?” But otherwise, it was absolutely perfect. And in the movie, we laid it out differently. We filmed the script pretty much as it was written. 

Filmmaker: How did you rehearse it?

Harrill: Generally, I try to keep it simple: Understand what’s under the lines and find the blocking. With Light from Light, most actors arrived the day before they started filming, so there wasn’t time for rehearsal in preproduction. Marin got to town a few days before filming, and together we went through the script page by page over the course of a couple of meetings. Some pages, we would read our scripts silently and then turn the page. And some pages, she would ask a question of me—what was underneath a line, how I might want to shoot something. Or she’d have a suggestion, like a prop she’d want. With Jim, he and I talked by phone a few times in the weeks before filming. He would key in on specific moments or little details that were in the script, and he’d use that as a way into discussing larger things about who Richard is. With Josh Wiggins and Atheena Frizzell there were similar conversations. So, this isn’t rehearsal, but it’s important. Then, on set we’d do a little rehearsal before filming, then start rolling. It usually wasn’t much. For some scenes, like scenes that make up the final moments of the movie, we didn’t rehearse at all other than to set the blocking. We all agreed that should be kept as fresh and spontaneous as possible.

Filmmaker: There’s a moment that I found particularly striking, when Sheila [Ireland] is walking through the house in silhouette, and you can clearly see her eyelashes when she turns toward the camera—how planned can something that seemingly small be?

Harrill: A lot of that is [cinematographer] Greta Zozula. We talked about attention to small details throughout preproduction, and we were asking questions like, “How do you film a person going through a dark house? We’re not making a horror film, yet how do we honor what’s really happening? How do we walk this line of what would be naturally suspenseful for most of us, walking through an old house with just a flashlight and hearing something?” Greta came up with some good ideas. It was a lot of testing. We didn’t have time for much in terms of lens and camera tests and things like that—one day. We spent a little bit of time on Marin and her wardrobe, and the rest of it was filming flashlights. Greta knew how important that was. She’s very methodical and very focused about that kind of stuff. She tested 25 flashlights, and we watched the tests and were like, “That’s the one.” Then it was a matter of choreography.

Filmmaker: When did the initial idea of a ghost story occur to you?

Harrill: It’s been years. Back when I was in film school, I had an idea—not an idea, but like, “Character deals with a ghost thing.” It’s like half a sentence, a fragment. I didn’t do anything with it for a long time. Then, while we were making Something, Anything, I was driving through Virginia and was briefly in range of this AM station that was interviewing a woman who was a paranormal investigator. I heard like five minutes of this interview and recorded 30 seconds of it with my phone while driving. I think I’d seen an episode of one of those ghost-hunter shows, or maybe I just knew about them. And I was like, “What if I approach this from the most baseline realistic way possible and use it to explore the things I’m interested in exploring?”

Filmmaker: And what were those things?

Harrill: I think, at root, questions about loss and hope. And the search for something bigger, something that goes beyond the material.

Filmmaker: How long did the actual process of writing the script take?

Harrill: It was on and off. There’s a research stage where I do a lot of reading. I read all these ghost-hunting books, which obviously don’t make their way into the movie very deeply or strongly. But it’s a way to ground myself in my world and feel like I’m not just going to make up a bunch of stuff. The people who do this work, what are they thinking about? How do they talk about stuff? What is the level of sincerity about it? That’s a period of grounding, where I get to know enough about the world that I can start to develop the character. That takes a while. And I’m doing a million other things—I’ve got a day job, I’ve got [other projects]—so, it might be a year’s worth of me reading a book here, reading a book there, making notes. Then, it might be six months of me drafting ideas, then six months of me writing and rewriting until it’s like, “This is it. The draft that we’re gonna make.” I started researching Light from Light around the time I was finishing Something, Anything.

Filmmaker: I love the idea of doing this kind of heavy research for these sort-of seemingly small, human dramas where you totally dive into what they’re actually interested in. I always think about, even when you just see an actor walking into a room—just the way they like close the door or open the microwave—has to feel like they’ve done it a thousand times or else it’s going to immediately read as phony. It’s such an important part of developing something.

Harrill: It’s funny you say that because one of the things Marin wanted to do was spend some time at her character’s house walking around there, so when she turned corners, it was like she knew exactly where she was going.

Filmmaker: When you’re writing the script, are you very technical? Do you think about, “I know I want this lens, I want this light here?” 

Harrill: On certain scenes I am. I’m not thinking, “It’s gonna cut to a close-up here.” I see the master usually. I like talking about technical stuff with the DP—the make of the lens, the focal length. I have strong opinions about lenses. But more than camera, when I’m writing, I have a sense of how it’s going to be paced—how the performances will play and how quickly it will cut. I have a sense of what the rhythm of it is, and I feel like my job on set is to film the scene to gather the material I need to cut it the way I want. That doesn’t mean I know I’m going to cut on this moment or this moment in the script. It means I’m know I’m going to cut to make it feel this way. That’s something you can only find when you’re actually sitting there doing the cutting. But there are times when I’m filming that I do understand—I know exactly how I’m gonna cut this. Marin has a two-page monologue on that porch scene. We filmed the wide, and we did a couple of takes. We moved in for her close-up, and I felt like I was just watching the movie. So, when she finished, I said, “Cut. That’s how that’s going to play.” I always do one for safety, and it was also great, but I was like, “No, we have it.” But that’s less common.

Filmmaker: Do you want to talk about the ending? 

Harrill: I don’t want to say much about it.

Filmmaker: You said at Sarasota that it was a practical effect—you had a magician on set? Am I right about this?

Harrill: The magician and production designer worked together to create an effect. And that’s all I can say about it.

Filmmaker: It’s a secret.

Harrill: It’s magic. I told the magician on the first day we talked, “I understand this is magic, and how it’s done is a sacred thing that shouldn’t be shared.” And he was like, “I appreciate that.” And that’s more interesting. Why do we want to know everything about how a movie was made, even for Filmmaker Magazine?

Filmmaker: Do you think teaching has impacted the way you make and watch movies?

Harrill: Yeah, it has. Obviously, teaching filmmaking, you have technical stuff to teach. But the more important thing is to help students cultivate their voice. Part of that is exposing them to lots of different things and challenging the tastes they come in with. These days, a student will come in, and they’re probably less challenged than they were 10 years ago because now you have Netflix algorithms saying, “You liked this, so let’s just keep showing you more of what you liked,” as opposed to “Let’s show you something you might not like. But let’s take a risk.” As a teacher, you’re many things, but one thing you are is a programmer for a very small group of people. It makes you think about what you value. You’ve got 15 weeks in a semester. You may only teach this student once. What should they see? You think about canonical stuff, but you also think about stuff that’s personal for you, that you can get the most passionate about. And you want to show them stuff that they’ve seen but turn it in a different way. Not because the way they look at it is wrong, but so they can see all the different ways, or many different ways, to look at it. I know teaching has slowed me down. I haven’t made films as rapidly as lots of other directors who I consider my peer group. But I don’t regret teaching because it’s afforded me this enormous opportunity to have a lot of time for reflection and only make work that I want to make because it supports me. That’s been a real gift.

I’m very intentional in what I watch, and I watch a lot less than I used to. I used to consume movies all the time, but my values and interests have changed. And, I’m not saying this is bad, but I was never interested in the cataloging and rating of things that you see with a lot of cinephiles online. I know that a lot of the movies that really mean something to me, some of them were immediate experiences, but some of them I walked out of thinking it was okay or mediocre or fine, and then it starts to open up for me. That happens with music, too—“growers.” Those albums that are growers, all of a sudden you’re able to hear it and you’re like, “This is going to be part of who I am.” It becomes so meaningful. Part of it is because of the process you went through in processing it. It’s fun to watch a bunch of stuff, but it’s also great to just reflect—be there with the thing or with the memory of the thing.

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