Paul Harrill Says Everything About “something, anything”

Ashley Shelton in "something, anything."
Ashley Shelton in “something, anything.”

something, anything fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor.  Until now Knoxville writer-director Paul Harrill’s impressive, thought-provoking feature debut has played in festivals from Austin to Madison, Wisconsin, to Edinburgh. And beginning this Friday you can see it at IFP’s Made in NY Media Center at 30 John Street in Brooklyn.

Peggy/Margaret on her journey.
Peggy/Margaret on her journey.

Peggy (Ashley Shelton) is pretty and sweet but doesn’t know how to express herself.  When Mark (Bryce Johnson) proposes, she says “I don’t know what to say,” but, typically, doesn’t object.  Soon later the young bride is having difficulty with her pregnancy.  Despite her pain, when Mark coaxes her into accompanying him to bar for a work gathering, she doesn’t voice her concerns and goes along.  While he is occupied, she feels tremendous pain and goes into the bathroom.  She hemorrhages.  She desperately tries to call Mark but he sees it’s her on his phone while he’s engaged in conversation and doesn’t answer.  She loses the baby. In the hospital he offers no apology and exhibits no remorse, but says they can try to have another baby.  She leaves Mark.  He wants her back and her friends tell her she should be more responsive to him.  Still unable to express her feelings, she quits her job as a realtor, becomes a low-paid library assistant, pulls away from Mark and her friends, and begins to search for meaning in life.  She seeks out Tim (Linds Edwards), the brother of a high school friend who has become a monk and lives in a monastery. She asks that people start calling her Margaret. As Harrill says in his press notes, this “seemingly typical Southern newlywed gradually transforms into a spiritual seeker, quietly threatening the closest relationships around her.” “Quietly” is the operative word.  Peggy/Margaret says little and talks softly, and Harrill describes his film as “kind of a whisper—one not everyone may hear.”  Yet I believe you will find your way into this gentle young woman’s head and then the movie’s intriguing themes will come through loud and clear. The following is an interview I did this week with the talented Harrill about his unique and—despite it being about a female—deeply personal movie.

Paul Harrill.
Paul Harrill.

Danny Peary: Did you emerge out of a film community in Knoxville or are you one of the few filmmakers who work there?

Paul Harrill: There’s a sizeable production community in Knoxville, but it’s more oriented to television. A lot of cable programming happens there because it’s where Scripps–HGTV, DIY, Food Network, etc.–is based. But as for “filmmakers”–people who are making fiction films or docs and really trying to get that work seen on a national level–it’s a small community.

DP: Do you think your shorts and something, anything are the products of someone who has watched thousands of movies or–since your feature rejects traditional movie storytelling–an instinctual director who pushes away all his movie memories?

PH: It’s a little of both, I think. I’ve seen a lot of films, and a lot of different types of films, and I studied film history in college and went to film school. That can’t help but influence my work. There were a few times shooting this film when Kuni Ohi, the film’s cinematographer, and I would set up a shot and say something like, “This is the Vive La Vie shot” as a kind of shorthand. But I’d say that overall I work pretty instinctively.

DP: Who were your movie and literary influences when writing and directing this film?

PH: At some point while we were shooting the film, Ashley Maynor, the film’s producer, described it to someone as “John Hughes meets Leo Tolstoy.” She was kind of joking, but also kind of serious. I had been reading a lot material by and about ascetics and monks–people like Tolstoy and Thomas Merton–and also listening to music by John Coltrane and G.I. Gurdjieff, who were both seekers. I was interested in telling a story about a woman who seeks a kind of spiritual solitude, but that also has elements of a love story. So films by directors like Frank Borzage, Leo McCarey and, to a lesser extent, Douglas Sirk were on my mind. It wasn’t that I studied those movies. It was more like, having seen them years earlier, I was trying to write my version of one.

DP: Is your first feature part of a natural progression that started with your female-protagonist shorts?  Or are they all independent of each other and this could have been made before them?

PH: The films are definitely independent of one another. But I hope there’s a progression there. I am now certainly more confident about finding how I want to work and what I’m trying to express.

DP: Talk about your title, which is lower-cased on the film itself but not in your Director’s Statement in the press notes. Am I right in assuming that the word “Say” invisibly precedes the two words in your title?

PH: Wow, that’s a good question. I’ve never heard that reading of it. I honestly hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s interesting. If you’d asked me what words might invisibly precede the title I probably would have said “I need”–words spoken from Peggy’s point of view, instead of words spoken to her or about her.

DP: Is Peggy’s inability to articulate her feelings what the film is most about?  Her first line in the movie, when Mark proposes to her, is “I don’t know what to say,” and months later she tells him, “I still don’t know what to say.”

PH: Well, I definitely want people who see the film to feel free to interpret things as they wish, so I don’t want to be pinned down to state what the film is “most” about. But it’s true that her first words are, “I don’t know what to say.” And at the end Peggy—I prefer calling her Margaret, as she calls herself in time–not only articulates something she wants, but also her last lines, her monologue at the end, is another proposal of sorts. All that’s definitely intentional.

DP: I sense Peggy can’t articulate her feelings but is it likely that she doesn’t understand her feelings herself?

PH: Definitely. She’s searching.

DP: What I find really brave about your writing this script is that you have created a woman whose feelings and thoughts are private even from you—and is it true as I believe that you don’t want to know more about Peggy than the actress who plays her?

PH: Well, first, thank you. As far as your question goes, it’s not so much that I don’t want to know more about Peggy; it’s that I want to acknowledge that, fundamentally, people are mysterious. So for me to claim to understand everything about a character, even one I’ve written, seems dishonest to me.

DP: Tell me about why you cast unknown Ashley Shelton over a hundred others who tried out for the part?  What was her audition?

PH: This is where instinct comes into play. I definitely wanted someone whose presence on screen wouldn’t bring previous associations. Ashley brought that, along with her incredible talent. For her initial audition I actually had her do a cold reading of some pages from one of my previous short films. When I called her back, I had her and Linds Edwards read the scene where she and Tim talk seriously for the first time. There was both a strength and vulnerability in the way she played that scene, so that’s the moment when I knew I was going to cast her. And it helped that her chemistry with Linds was real.

DP: Without giving away too much, tell me about the conversations you had with Ashley about what Peggy goes through as the movie evolves.  Did she ever explain her character to you?

PH: Before we began shooting the film, even before rehearsals, Ashley and I went through the script scene by scene and discussed just about everything. Motivations, backstory, wardrobe. We didn’t explain these things, we tried not to psychologize too much. But we discussed them. The story is so introspective, even fragile, so we definitely wanted to plot out places where changes could be seen, and we wanted to be in agreement. So that was an important conversation, and it was a conversation about us as much as it was about Peggy, or Margaret. But I don’t think there was ever a moment where either of us felt like we had to “explain” the character to the other. On set, we were usually after the same thing.

DP: If the tragic event early in the movie didn’t happen, do you think Peggy would stay with Mark forever?

PH: Very possibly. I think it sometimes takes a tragedy or some kind of trauma to wake up a person.

DP: Is Peggy heartbroken solely by the tragic event or also because she has a realization about her husband Mark?

PH: What do you think?

DP: I think there are several things going on with her.  She has the natural traumatic reaction of someone who loses a baby. She also has a reaction akin to postpartum depression that she can’t understand or combat to get herself out of a dangerous funk.  Also, she is in shock.  This is partly due to her disbelief that the baby is actually gone (and for a while still feeling pregnant).  But she is also shocked (and hurt) that her husband and protector abandoned her.  And most of all she is shocked because her nice guy husband revealed a monster side—she is married to a monster.  Later in the film, he shows his Mr. Hyde side again and she realizes it wasn’t her imagination.  That’s what I think.  Were you at all thinking along these lines?

PH: The abandonment part is key. That’s the part, to me, that motivates her to leave Mark the first time. There’s probably nothing lonelier than feeling abandoned in a marriage.

As for Mark, at the screenings I’ve attended on the festival circuit, I’ve heard so many different opinions about him–from seeing him as, like you say, monstrous, to someone who is sympathetic, if limited as a person. I can see why someone would think that he’s a monster. He’s very selfish, very self-oriented. He’s materialistic. He has a temper. Those qualities don’t make him sympathetic. But to me this isn’t monstrous behavior–or rather, if it is, the world is full of monsters. I pity him. Over the course of the film he has not changed, he can’t see how his values are a trap. He’s not even aware that he would need to change in order to be in a loving relationship. Until, possibly, the very last moment we see him. And by that point it’s too late, at least it is for Peggy. To me, that’s very sad. That experience is, I think, true for many men.

DP: In your “Director’s Statement,” you say, “It’s a love story, but one in which love is defined as a woman’s search for meaning instead of merely a search for a partner.”  Is it also, perhaps even more importantly, a woman’s search for herself, her identity—which she might even need to create–and a way to love herself?

PH: Absolutely! I probably should have said those things. What’s so hard for me about writing Director’s Statements–and also doing interviews—is that, in essence, what I really want to say is the movie. The movie itself is the Director’s Statement. So after making it, writing a statement that tries to encapsulate what you were going for, trying to sum it up… it’s so hard to put it into words. I understand that writing those things is necessary. But it’s very difficult. If I could state definitively, in words, why I made the movie or what it’s about, well, there’s no sense in it being a film. It should be a novel, or an essay, or something else.

DP: Talk about your filming for four days in silence at an actual monastery and your statement “the film’s story demanded I embrace the monk-like virtues that the film’s protagonist adopts: simplicity, humility, patience and quiet.”  Did you feel that since Peggy goes through hard times, you had to struggle yourself, like a right of passage?

PH: I certainly wasn’t setting things up to be difficult. There are certainly times I wish making the film could have been easier. But a lot of the struggles we faced in making the film–like filming at the monastery, or filming the synchronized fireflies, which took weeks of research and trial and error–were a consequence of wanting the audience to feel the film has an authenticity to it.

DP: You say your protagonist adopts the virtues of simplicity, humility, patience, and quiet.  I know she has a high-paying job and wears makeup, but isn’t she basically already a simple, humble, patient, quiet, and always kind person?  Isn’t that why she doesn’t fit in with her friends or her husband?

PH: I think that’s one way of looking at her. But she’s also pretty uncritical of the life she’s adopted for herself. I think of her as someone who hasn’t reflected on what life can be, or should be, or made decisions–instead she’s someone who’s gone with the tide. She certainly isn’t someone that has rebelled, as she ends up doing in her quiet way over the course of the film.

DP: Why did you have Peggy being a competitive cheerleader in high school?

PH: Ashley Shelton told me that she had done that in high school, so I added that line to the script. Sometimes when you can put those little things in a script for an actor, it gives them a toehold into the character.

DP: Are we to assume that Tim and Peggy were attracted to each other in high school but neither had the ability to tell the other?

PH: I think Peggy probably had one of those older-brother-of-a-friend crushes on him. Tim, I’m not so sure. I can imagine him just thinking of her warmly as his sister’s friend.

DP: Am I right in thinking that your producer Ashley Maynor and editor Jennifer Lilly were essential collaborators because of the nature of the story, always providing a female voice in your ear?

PH: Ashley Maynor, especially. She was the first person to read the first draft of the script, she was on set in the filming, and she was looking at cuts throughout post. Jennifer Lilly and I worked on the film together for about six weeks before she went on to another project. But her input during that time was obviously very important.

DP: What about Peggy, is you?

PH: Wow. Ok, so there’s a lot of Peggy in me. Or Margaret, as I prefer calling her. Definitely I relate to her feeling of exhaustion with the world, with her frustration about the pressures that money creates. I relate to her wanting to retreat and feeling in a kind of naïve way that it’d be “nice” to be a monk. Those things about her came from someplace personal. But there’s a lot of me in Tim, too. Tim wants to participate in the world. He’s not a monk any longer but he’s still searching, and he understands that solitude is part of that. But he also understands that connection, connection with another person, can be a holy thing, too. He’s looking to balance those impulses, and he sees someone in Margaret that might want to do that too. I’d like to think there’s not much of Mark in me, but there is. He’s egotistical. As an artist, almost by definition, I have experience with that.

DP: How important to the movie and you is Peggy’s line: “Sometimes it’s good to be lonely?”

PH: It’s very important. The “sometimes” part is key, though.

DP: Talk about the diversity of the music and how you use it to convey Peggy’s mental state and mood over the four seasons?

PH: During the parts of the movie where Peggy is on her own, we hear a lot of solo piano. But as the seasons change, and as Peggy engages with the world more, we encounter these other kinds of music–the song by Emily Jane White that we hear as she drives to the monastery, the choral music of the monks, rock music in a bar,. But we keep returning to that solo piano music, too. It’s hard to talk about the music, since choosing it and placing it is so intuitive. But there’s definitely a sense that the arc of the soundtrack is akin to the changes Peggy is going through.

DP: Talk about why you begin the film with a Christina Rossetti poem that asks “Who has seen the wind?”

PH: I decided very late in post-production to add those verses to the film. I had run across the poem when I was taking notes for the script and, after I found it, I wrote it on the first page of the binder of my notes for the film. There was something about it that helped me re-center myself when I lost track of what the movie was about. Anyway, in the late stages of post-production, I felt the film was picture locked, but it still felt like there was something missing. So I placed that poem at the beginning and then it felt like the movie was done. I guess I think of it as a way to transition audiences, whether they’re watching in a theater or on an iPad or wherever, to transition them from their daily life to this quiet, introspective story. In that sense, I hope that poem does the same thing for audiences that it did for me while I was writing it.

DP: This movie is as far from being ostentatious as it gets.  I’m sure many viewers will assume that it is so minimalistic that it was easy to make.  What can you tell them?

PH: I’d love for audiences to feel like it was easy to make, that there’s a kind of seamlessness to it. Of course, it was anything but easy. It took us a year, on and off, to shoot it. There was a crew of about five core people, and everyone was doing multiple jobs and was totally overworked. A lot of hard work over that period, a lot. And then it took another year– again, on and off–to edit it. It’s minimalistic, but we got to that by filming lots of things and then, like Peggy, paring things down to what was really essential. And that took us a lot of time. The hardest part, I think, was that making it over such a long time meant there was a lot of time to question what we were doing, a lot of time for doubt. I can’t imagine what Richard Linklater went through making Boyhood over twelve years! Anyway, if someone says it looks as if it was easy to make, I’d take that as a compliment, as some indication we were able to hide all of that challenging stuff happening behind the scenes.

DP: How can people in New York and elsewhere see your movie?

PH: Something, Anything will run in New York at IFP’s Made in NY Media Center from January 9-15. Tickets can be found here: Several of us involved with the film will be at the screenings and doing Q+A sessions and so on. And then on January 20 the film will be released digitally on Amazon, iTunes, and so on. People can always check out the film’s website ( or Facebook page (