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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.
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.
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.
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.