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Something, Anything: An Interview with Paul Harrill
Image: Self-Reliant Film
Ashley Shelton in 'Something, Anything'

Alissa's note: I originally ran this interview in June, when Something, Anything was screening at BAM Cinemafest in New York City. The film is now available on VOD (iTunes, Google Play, Vimeo, and Vudu), so I'm bumping it back up. It's one of my favorite films dealing with faith from the last few years.

Something, Anything, Paul Harrill's debut feature, is a movie about faith, doubt, belief, and the journey we take between those points. The movie stars Ashley Shelton as Peggy, a young woman who's finally gotten everything she thinks she wants: a good job as a realtor, a beautiful home in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a handsome, affable husband. But when tragedy strikes, it sends her on a journey to find meaning in life beyond the trappings of life her community expects.

From that description, you might be expecting a certain sort of movie you've seen before, but I was struck repeatedly while watching Something, Anything by how unexpected the movie was. There's no easy answers, no "come to Jesus" moment, and no straight paths here. Instead, Peggy's development takes her through may points that seem like they could be ends in themselves—but that are incomplete to answer her needs.

Ashley Shelton in 'Something, Anything'
Self-Reliant Film

Ashley Shelton in 'Something, Anything'

Peggy's journey put me in mind of C.S. Lewis's writings on Sehnsucht, the "inconsolable longing" in our hearts for something more. What makes Something, Anything better than most films on a similar theme (Christian and secular alike) is that it echoes, most clearly, Augustine's famous prayer that "our hearts are restless until they rest in You"—but that resting in God is not something we easily do in this life.

Paul was good enough to answer some questions for us about filming at a monastery, the movie's soundtrack, his creative process, and how Something, Anything—which was one of ten films selected for the prestigious IFP Narrative Lab in 2013—is different from a "faith-based" movie.

About three-quarters of the way through the film, I scribbled Blue across the top of my notes—referring to Kieslowski's film, which I love. I felt like Peggy's story was a lot like Julie's from that film: a woman who, overcome by grief, withdraws from the world and considers living that monastic type of life, only to discover how much she needs to love others in order to live fully. Was that story in your mind at all? Are there any films or filmmakers you found yourself thinking of while you were making Something, Anything?

You know, Ashley Maynor, the film's producer and my filmmaking partner, described the film to someone once as Leo Tolstoy meets John Hughes. I always loved that because it speaks to the range of influences and, as improbable as it sounds, it somehow seems like a good way of saying where the film's heart is.

The biggest source of inspiration for my work is always real life—taking things I've seen, or experienced, or heard, or that have happened to friends or family—and then re-imagining them. But I did do a lot of research, I did a lot of reading. I dug into a lot of books about or by monks and other spiritual seekers. Authors like Thomas Merton, of course, but also books like Tolstoy's My Confession, interviews with John Coltrane, lots of stuff. Some of this was re-reading, stuff that has been important to me in my own life, regardless of the film.

As far as cinematic influences, my influences are pretty eclectic. In another interview I mentioned that before writing the script I had really fallen in love with some romantic melodramas from the 1930s that were infused with a sense of spiritual mystery—movies like Frank Borzage's History Is Made At Night and Leo McCarey's Love Affair. So those are two important touchstones. I hope, though, I reconstituted all those influences enough that the film has a freshness to it.

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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Something, Anything: An Interview with Paul Harrill