Obviously, faith and doubt (and the shades between them) are important themes in this film. As one character says, "I never really know what to believe - story of my life, actually." Plenty of those who call themselves believers know this feeling. Can you talk a little about how belief, faith, and doubt play into the film, and the part they played in your writing process?
Well, as I began writing the film I knew two things: First, I knew I wanted to tell a story where faith, doubt, belief and—most of all—seeking were given their due. It's remarkable to me how large of a role those things play in the lives of so many people I know while, at the same time, they're so rarely faced or considered in American films.
On the other hand, I knew what I was going to write (and, ultimately, film) would not be a so-called "faith-based" movie. If anything, I wanted to make a film that was a kind of antidote to those films, which I consider spiritual propaganda in a pretty negative way. Those films propose answers, and not only that, the answers proposed are usually predictable and overly simplistic.
I didn't want to do that, and couldn't do that if it even appealed to me, because I don't have answers. I don't have answers about whether to believe something or not, and if so, what to believe. I don't understand these things any more than my audience does. Probably less. But I have deep, deep empathy with anyone taking on the search for meaning, the search for something bigger than themselves. So I just wanted to tell the story of a character that does that and to do it with some compassion and from a place of vulnerability. Hopefully that means that a wide range of people—people of different faiths, those that identify as skeptics, people of no faith, people indifferent to the question—can connect with the film.
I was struck by the movie's soundtrack: lots of solo piano, in which I think I even heard a few hymns. And sound and silence seem important throughout the film (appropriately, given the library and the monastery); Peggy also barely speaks for the first third of the film, though she's seen writing in her notebook throughout. How did you conceive of the role of sound and sound design in the film?
A film's rhythm is really critical—to me it's how you feel the story—and I think that's conveyed through sound even more than image. With the silences in the movie, how we respond to them changes, I think. At the beginning, as you point out, Peggy barely speaks. Then the tragedy mutes what voice she does have. But as she begins to heal, her silence becomes a choice, silence becomes something she seeks. So when she goes to the library, the monastery, silence is a positive thing. It's restorative. And I wanted the film's silence to be restorative, in a way, to the audience.
With the music, the idea of using solo piano began with the Gurdjieff works, which I had been listening to while writing the film. Gurdjieff was a seeker, and the quality of so many of his compositions is really haunting. So they were a good fit. From there I had composer Eric Hachikian write some original music for the film. He had a challenging task, which was to create something new for the movie while keeping things in the same voice as the other pieces I was using. It was my first time working with a composer, and I'm really in awe of the stuff he created. What he wrote really completed the film.