Filmmaker Paul Harrill on His Debut Feature ‘Something, Anything’

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In thinking of filmmaker Paul Harrill’s debut feature Something, Anything, I was reminded of a passage from Vivian Gornick’s essay “On Living Alone”: 

I looked around then, at my life, and I saw that I had not learned to live alone at all. What I had learned to do was strategize; lie down until the pain passed; evade; get by. I wasn’t drowning, but I wasn’t swimming either. I was floating on my back, far from shore, waiting to be saved.

Quiet, contemplative, and beautifully composed, Harrill’s film is one that feels unlike few others being made today. It doesn’t beckon your approval or attention, nor does it rest on simple pop-analyzation of its subject—rather, it invites you alongside its journey. Telling the story of one woman’s search for herself, we follow Peggy (later called Margaret), played by Ashley Shelton, a Southern newlywed whose life is altered when a sudden tragedy shakes her world into perspective. As if previously asleep for her own life, she converts her life into a spiritual quest, uprooting the relationships around her but reemerging into her own skin.

With Something, Anything beginning its New York theatrical run this week as part of IFP’s Screen Forward, I spoke with Harrill about his personal connection to the film, the mystery of ourselves, and the process of bringing his first feature to life.

How do you find that your previous films informed Something, Anything, and why was this the film you chose to make as your first feature?

In terms of deciding to make the film, I knew I was going to have to fund this movie with my own money. I have some other projects I was working on and was having some trouble getting them off the ground, so I decided that I’d make a movie with what money I had in the bank. I figured that if I was going to write something that I was going to fund myself, I should write something that I would want to see. I always try to do that, but I would write something that no one else would fund and no one else would ever make. So I thought about this story for a while and decided to start with that as my first feature. Some people have commented to me that it feels like it’s of a piece with my short films, which also have female protagonists, but it wasn’t intended to be any kind of series or anything like that, but I definitely see the connections. 

Did you see this movie as a way to act out your own need for exploration? How much of yourself did you write into her journey?

It’s a really personal film. In a lot of Q&A’s at festivals people would ask, “How did you write this female character?” But a lot of it was that I wasn’t even thinking about it that way, I was pouring myself into the character. I did a lot of researching and there were a lot of things I thought about, and maybe she goes about it in a different way than I would, but it’s a very personal story. When I was writing this script I was living in Virginia and living in a house out in the woods. Ashley Maynor, the film’s producer and I had converted this shed, like this 8×8 shed into a writing studio and I’d go out there every morning and basically pour myself into the script—and that’s the truth. So a lot of it is me, but the character of Tim is me and the character of Mark is me too. All those characters, to write them, they have to be a part of you.

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The idea of solitude and isolation as a means of personal or spiritual gain is something that I’ve bee thinking about a lot recently, as well as the dichotomy between the kind of suffering that comes with that voluntary loneliness and how it also can be the only time when you’re able to really examine yourself. Looking at that through the lens of the film, are these subjects that have always interested you as a filmmaker and as a person?

Yes, and this film really wrestles with this question of being on your own and being alone and being lonely and then choosing solitude. I feel like I’ve had a lot of experience with each of those phases or experiences and maybe that’s something I was trying to sort out for myself. But for me, one of the key lines in the movie is when Margaret says at one point, “I get lonely, but sometimes it feels good to be lonely.” I think she’s trying to figure out that balance and really get to a place where she can be okay with being on her own and being alone so that she can then even consider being with someone else. But you have to go through solitude to achieve that.

I was recently speaking with a friend about something we’re dealing with and she said, “Well, I guess we’re just going to have to pray.” Considering I don’t pray I immediately thought, well what’s my equivalent of that, and felt very lost. So in re-watching the film, I feel it speaks very much to that sentiment and I’m wondering just who you intended to make this film for?

I was making a film for myself and anyone who has these kinds of feelings I do sometimes. With movies, it sometimes feels like there are so many kinds of experiences that we don’t see and I was trying to bear witness to the character’s search for answers or for a way of living. She’s lost and aimless at times and doesn’t know what she wants, and I was trying to make a movie for anyone who’s ever felt that way. And to your point about praying, like you, I know that prayer is a part of some people’s lives. It’s not a part of everyone’s lives but it is a part of many people’s lives and it is not something that we see on screen.

 It was terrifying to actually think about putting that into the film, but it felt like I had to be true to this character’s search. In the area that I live, it’s such an important part of so many people’s lives. I was raised in that culture and I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and although I’m not a churchgoer, being raised that way made a lasting impression and impact on me. I had to put that in the film. So I felt like I was making a film maybe for people who are asking these kinds of questions.

For all the questions covered in the film, we’re never submitted to questioning its protagonist. We don’t psychoanalyze her or put a label on who she is, which is something I really enjoyed because as much as she’s a mystery to us, she’s a mystery to herself.

That’s a really important point of it for me. I feel like we’re mysteries to ourselves and mysteries to each other. To try to put a label on her, like she’s depressed or she’s this or that, to analyze her in that way or have other characters remark on her in that way—even if people might do that in real life—I wanted to avoid that in the film. I felt like because then she becomes really simple to us or simplified and then it becomes a movie about, oh how is she going to get through depression, instead of what is she wrestling with and how is she going to accomplish what she sets out to do. I’ll be the first to admit I don’t know everything about the character, and part of that is a way to stay open in terms of collaboration with the actors. It’s also just a way to maintain openness so the audience feels like they have a place to come into the film. 

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How did you conceive of the film aesthetically and structurally? It’s possesses something very classical and the rhythm allows enough space for you to breathe and bring yourself into it.

I wanted to give people an experience that would be contemplative. We have a character who is going through that, so the rhythm of the film is the way for me to try to give that to you. In terms of the way it’s shot, very classically, that’s obviously by design. The cinematographer and I talked early on about how the film needed to have a humility to it and to try to do that through cinematography that didn’t draw attention to itself. It could be classically composed but it wasn’t hand-held that makes you aware of itself as a movie or unmotivated camera movements. We were just going to be very focused on this character and putting her in a world in a way that felt authentic.

When watching it I found myself feeling very quiet and contemplative and even stoic, but in the last scene, it took me by surprise when I completely let go and found myself crying. 

I’m glad to hear you say that! The final scene in the movie is intended to be a release. It makes me really happy to hear—not like, I’m so glad you cried, but to hear that you had this sort of release or catharsis, because that’s what I hoped for in a structure. It’s obviously a very quiet film and even in some ways intentionally flat. To me it’s almost like a very slow ramp and then there’s this thing that happens at the end where you suddenly get this relief and then it’s over. I wanted people to have that experience, not that sort of denouement and all those cliches or whatever, but you have this epiphany or something and then you’re out of it, you’re out of the film and you’re left to think about things. But that last scene was the first scene I wrote, so I knew where it was going to go. 

What was it about Ashley Shelton that felt right for the role and how did you go about working with her to embody this character while also keeping her open and mysterious?

When Ashley came in and did her first audition I actually gave her a scene from a previous short film I’d written. I wasn’t really sharing the script at that point. She played the scene with a lot of vulnerability but it was very real and there wasn’t a trace of melodrama in it. I liked that a lot and knew that was what I wanted the film to have. I wanted the film to have this sense of vulnerability and the character has to have a sense of vulnerability, but she’s going through a lot of pain.

So finding someone who could play that was really important. Then in terms of working with her, we went through the script page by page and just talked through what was happening in basic terms. We didn’t go into a lot of back story or anything like that, just what is this scene about. Then we rehearsed some scenes for the film, maybe a handful of scenes from the film, but beyond that we didn’t talk about it too much. I didn’t want her to overanalyze it. She got the character intuitively, so I felt like the more we talk about this the more we were going to try to explain it and I wanted to avoid that.

How were the physical changes of her world from the beginning to the end of the film important to the narrative arch?

She’s a character who doesn’t talk for long stretches. Dialogue and action are so often dialogue the ways we understand a character, but she’s not talking much, so the environment that I put her in or she finds herself in are really important for us to understand where she is on her journey. It’s interesting because those opening scenes of her idyllic suburban life, we were working with a super micro-budget and pulling off that wedding was really the hardest part. But creating this upper-middle class sheen and stripping that away is all part of the journey of the movie. 

Although she goes through this profound change, even in the beginning of the film you can tell that she is different from the people around her. She’s more gentle and withdrawn, giving you a sense that she already feels as though she’s playing a role in her life that she’s not meant for.

Someone else mentioned to me that she already seems like a good person or seems thoughtful and it’s true. She’s not a bad person, she’s not arrogant, but she’s not awake. She hasn’t realized that the choices that she’s making are choices. She doesn’t have a lot of confidence in her voice and who she is, and that’s really the journey. It’s not a story of redemption of someone who is a bad person and turns into a good person; she’s a good person but she’s asleep and she becomes awake.

Were there films or filmmakers whose work you looked to for inspiration in writing the film, even if it’s not a direct influence?

It speaks to what you said when we first got on the phone about the film not being like other contemporary movies being made today, but that’s not for me to say. However, the references were very older films, so I was writing from a very specific place personally and also culturally. I was thinking about people in my life that I’ve seen struggle with the pressures that Peggy wrestles with, but I was also thinking about films by people like Frank Borzage or Leo McCarey, especially like Love Affair or even a movie like I Know Where I’m Going by Emeric Pressburger. These films are female-centered,  and they may be love stories, but they’re very much focused on the woman and there’s a spiritual undercurrent. It wasn’t that I was trying to emulate those films, and I certainly wasn’t studying them, but it was almost like I was trying to write my version of what something like that would be. I think that’s the heartbreaking thing about making movies, you see these films and you think, oh my god I’ll never make a movie like The Best Years of Our Lives, but you know that’s part of who you are like the books you read and music that you listen to and people that you’re friends with, they all shape you.