How did you get to know the monks at The Abbey of Gethsemani? What was it like filming there?
Well, as I mentioned, I did a fair amount of research on monks. If I was going to write a film with a character that has recently quit being a monk, I knew I wanted to get that right. So, in very early stages of developing the script, I reached out to the Abbey. After a few emails, I ultimately visited them and met with their admissions counselor. I basically interviewed him about what might be probable or possible for this character I was creating, and I listened to some of his stories about men that had tried unsuccessfully to become monks.
Then I set the project aside for a few years while I worked on some other projects. But when I returned to Something, Anything and I had finished the script, I wrote the monks, asking if they remembered me and if they'd be willing to let me film a few scenes at the Abbey. They were like, "We're still here!" It wasn't quite that easy—getting permission to film there was a process—but what was extraordinary was that not one person in the chain of approval asked to read or approve the script.
As I understand it, we're the first fictional film ever to film at the Abbey. Our goal while filming was to be unobtrusive. I prefer to work with a small crew anyway, but the monastery scenes were filmed with a crew of two or three people. Because our ability to speak at the monastery was very limited we did a lot of rehearsal in Knoxville before traveling up. Sometimes I could only use hand signals to give directions to the actors or the cinematographer. So it was challenging, but that's what made it an incredible experience.
In one scene, Peggy is talking to Tim, the character who had become a monk, about whether, and how, he prays. She asks him what to do if you don't know how to voice your thoughts to God (and yet, she's been writing in a notebook the whole time). He says, "Then I lower my standards." That line struck me as something that frames the film: where do our standards for life come from? From our friends? From our community? From ourselves?
As I said earlier, I wanted to make a movie that encourages its audience to ask questions. So hearing you ask this kind of question is really gratifying.
I want to be careful not to reply in a way that suggests my answer is the "right" answer. Do I have an opinion about what Tim means? Yes, but I want to be clear that it's only an opinion. That might sound odd or disingenuous for me to say, since I'm the guy that wrote the character and the dialogue. But once they start speaking onto the page, I try not to presume that I always know what a character means when she or he speaks. What's important is that it rings true for them.
Anyway, with all of those caveats stated, I wonder if maybe what Tim is saying about "lowering one's standards" when praying is simply this: If God is indeed listening, then surely God forgives us for our doubt, or being inarticulate. Put another way, I think he's saying that when you feel lost, and when you don't know what to do or to say, on those days—pardon the expression—but on those days the urge to say something, anything, is enough. The urge alone is good enough.
You can find out more about Something, Anything, including upcoming screenings, at the film's website.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College. She tweets at @alissamarie.