There’s a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote that accompanies the name of Self-Reliant Film, the production company started by Paul Harrill and Ashley Maynor – “The virtue in most request is conformity. Self-reliance is its aversion” – that would seem to suggest a way of life and a way of filmmaking is bound together for the pair. Certainly, it’s evident in Harrill’s feature debut “Something Anything,” the story of a young woman named Peggy (Ashley Shelton) who attempts to regain her inner strength after a devastating personal loss.
“Emerson’s notion of self-reliance — his idea of how being authentic to oneself, by definition, means resisting conformity…I think that’s inseparable from what this story is about,” said Harrill of the connection. “And then, of course, there’s Thoreau’s idea of withdrawing from society to live simply and to live deliberately. That’s Peggy’s story too, albeit in a very different way.”
Like Harrill’s two celebrated shorts “Gina, An Actress, Age 29” and “Quick Feet Soft Hands,” “Something, Anything” finds its heroine at first on solid ground with the promise of something better yet to come, then follows her as she eventually has to tread lightly into the great unknown, in this case tracking Peggy as she goes from a self-assured realtor with a baby on the way to a lonely wanderer whose interest is piqued by a high-school classmate (Linds Edwards) she’s learned has become a monk. Although self-discovery is a frequent trope in the realm of independent filmmaking Harrill is entering himself, observing the act of soul searching that takes into account the subtle and often abstract influence of one’s surroundings and peers is far less common to see onscreen, which is what makes “Something, Anything” such a particularly rich experience.
Filmed in Harrill’s home of Knoxville, Tennessee with excursions to nearby Trappist and Lexington, Kentucky, the film ponders nature in every sense of the term, letting each frame stew in its Southern setting where tradition defines behavior, yet once one looks outside of themselves or their urban habitat, there exists vast areas of untouched wilderness to explore. (It speaks volumes that a cheeky tagline and a significant portion of the film’s press kit has to insist the fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains that can be seen in the film are real.)
Shortly before the film opens in New York, Harrill took the time to answer a few questions via e-mail about how his first feature came together and his own process of discovery as a filmmaker.
There’s a Christina Rossetti poem that opens the film. Where did you find it?
When I ran across that poem, it was in the very early stages of developing the story for “Something, Anything.” I think I read it in an anthology given to me years ago by my grandmother, who was a schoolteacher and voracious reader. But, honestly, I don’t remember. I do remember that when I read it, I immediately felt like it connected to the kernel of the story, so I transcribed it in a notebook I was keeping for that film. I had not originally envisioned it being used in the film like it is. I had tried to use it in the film, in a scene of Peggy doing storytime with children in the library, but the scene didn’t work. Later, as we were finishing up the editing, I experimented with using it as an epigram to begin the film, When I did, it felt like it really completed the movie.
Peggy is constantly moving throughout the film from place to place and of course, she’s a real estate agent by profession at first. Was the idea of dislocation as much a characteristic for figuring out who she is as anything else in creating this character?
Displacement runs through the movie — the first time we really see her work, Peggy displaces the woman and her children [living in the house] when showing the house [to others]. Then, later, [her family friends] the Thorntons are displaced from their own home because they’re underwater financially. And like you say, Peggy’s displaced — literally and metaphorically. She’s searching, even lost, for much of the movie.
I wrote the film knowing it would be filmed in Knoxville, and knowing the city as I do (I’ve lived there on and off for nearly 30 years), it’s impossible for me to write without thinking of specific locations, so those places are more than just “movie sets.” A lot of them have meaning, memories, associations. There’s a great Tarkovsky quote, something to the effect of, if a filmmaker uses locations with memories for him, then the audience will feel it. Maybe there’s some truth to that here, and you’re responding to it? That said, some of the locations were just whatever we could get.
In the press notes, it says you shot in 58 locations, more than a few of which seem to be operational while you were shooting, which seems like a lot to take on for a small-scale production like this. Was it challenging?
Very. Without going into details, this was a microbudget film. And we filmed in a working monastery, a public library (which would not permit filming when closed), a national park… Ashley Maynor, the film’s producer, will probably never forgive me for the number and complexity of the locations. But we both agreed that they were important to telling the story. Being a native of Knoxville, people wanted to help us out. So we did have that going for us. This was very much a community film in that sense.
How did you approach the look of the film? The use of darkness in particular is quite striking.
Kunitaro Ohi, the film’s cinematographer] and I knew that if the film had flashy cinematography that would go against the whole message, or spirit, of the film. The film’s about a woman simplifying her life, it’s about monks…So we didn’t want camera movement that drew attention to itself and we wanted to avoid jittery handheld stuff. Some people have called our approach minimalist, but a word Kuni and I used was “humble.” Whether or not we achieved that or not, it’s not for me to say. But that was the guiding principle.
Having said all of that, we wanted the images to be compelling. Kuni and I felt that the way to get there was through very classical compositions and through the lighting. Like hundreds of other filmmakers, we talked a lot about painters like Vermeer and Rembrandt and, in the case of cinematographers, Gordon Willis and Nestor Almendros. We wanted the light to feel authentic and, when it was appropriate, we wanted it to kind of glow, to really be beautiful.
You actually made a short documentary about Tibetan monks before this. Of course, Tim, the monk Peggy goes in search of, is cut from a different cloth and I realize that piece was a contemplation of nonviolence, but did the experience inspire the character?
I think it did. That earlier documentary, “Brief Encounter with Tibetan Monks,” which was made for the 9/11 themed anthology “Underground Zero,” was my first time interacting with monks of any religion. (Some people have asked, so maybe it’s worth pointing out — I’m not, nor was I raised, Catholic.) But I think the experience of filming the Buddhist monks introduced me to the idea that while monks are holy men and the vows they live their lives by are more rigorous than those most of the rest of us live by, they’re very much men. They’re human, they don’t have all the answers. But they’re oriented in a different direction than most of us.
There were a lot of things I learned by making the transition from writing and directing short films to features. Just as an example, I learned that I wanted to use music more, and in different ways, than I had with my short films. But — I don’t mean for this to sound glib — I expected to learn things making the film. You always learn things making movies. That’s one of the reasons you do it. Learning, to me, is a kind of evolutionary step, but “discovery” sounds like something bigger. Maybe it’s because you’re connecting it to the film itself, but “discovery” sounds like a kind of breakthrough, something more transformative. And I think I did discover something.
Coming into this film, I put a lot of weight on what other people thought about my work. I could take things pretty hard if I got, say, a rejection from a particular festival, or if a critic wrote a bad review about one of my short films. In retrospect, I think some of that comes from growing up as a “people pleaser.” Some of it also has to do with reading a lot of critics, and studying film closely, because I really respect the work that curators and critics do.
But what I discovered in making this film was that I just had to let that stuff go. Set aside that this is my first feature and I’ve got so much to learn as a filmmaker. I wanted to tell a story about a character that, by the nature of who she is and what she does, some people might love — and some people might really hate. And then, to be true to the spirit of this character’s story, I needed to tell it in a voice that wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. I could either not tell the story, or I’d have to tell it knowing it might be polarizing.
Discovering this about myself, and learning to be more comfortable or resilient in the face of criticism or rejection was both a breakthrough for me. And very much a process. But I am in a different level of comfort with the way I approach my work now. It took a while. And owe a lot of this to Ashley [Maynor]. I can talk about how she stretched the budget or all the locations, but this is where she had her biggest impact on the film as a producer, no question.
What’s it been like to travel with the film, introducing where you live to others?
It’s been wonderful. I made a film that, I thought, was very much of the place where we shot it. You asked about landscapes earlier, but more than anything else what makes this a film about East Tennessee — and maybe, more generally, about the South — are the values that you see Peggy rebelling against. The assumptions she starts to resist seem very Southern to me, so when we began traveling with the film, I wondered how those elements would translate or resonate for people outside the South.
What I’ve been reminded of while sharing it with audiences both in the US and abroad, is that that what Peggy goes through is quite universal. It goes back to that classic quote from Emerson: “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.” Most of us have felt that pressure to conform. We haven’t experienced the specific pressures that Peggy does, maybe, and we haven’t, maybe, responded in the way Peggy does. But it’s a universal struggle — finding your voice, finding your self, loving who that is, and — maybe — finding someone who loves you for who you are.
“Something, Anything” opens at the Made in NY Media Center in New York for an exclusive one-week run beginning January 9th, where nearly every screening will be accompanied by an intriguing panel discussion with the filmmakers and friends, followed by a release online and VOD on January 20th.