This isn't your average ghost story.
Like labels, placing a genre tag on a specific film immediately sets up expectations. If I were to tell you that Paul Harrill's latest feature, the restrained and cathartic Light From Light, was technically a ghost story, you would most likely come into the film with preconceived notions of what a ghost story is supposed to be.
Like any familiar ghost story, there are often creaking doors, ominous gusts of wind, and lights that go off and on by themselves. Light From Light encompasses those elements, but not once do you feel frightened. Harrill is after something more long lasting than being afraid; he wants us to face the prolonged act of grieving.
Starring Marin Ireland as Shelia, a car rental service-woman who specializes in paranormal activity (and prophetic visions) on the side, the film is about a woman who believes she has a gift that she so often doubts: the ability to conjure up and summon the dead. When she's contacted by a Friar who says she must meet someone, Richard (Jim Gaffigan), a widower whose wife died tragically in a plane crash and might be trying to make contact in the afterlife, she chooses to investigate. Is Richard's wife really trying to contact her husband from beyond the grave?
The film is interested in that question without being preoccupied by it. Shelia is a struggling single mom, trying to have ends meet and have her teenage son live a life where he doesn't have to worry about how to pay for college. The film is both economical and ecumenical in how it approaches the daily struggles of existence.
As Light From Light gets set to premiere in the NEXT section of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, No Film School spoke with Harrill about the expectations of genre, location scouting, shooting with natural light, and more.
No Film School: Something, Anything was your debut feature that premiered in 2014. Here we are five years later with Light From Light, your second feature. What did you learn from the experience of getting your first film out into the world?
Paul Harrill: That's a good question. The first thing I would say is that it developed my sense of patience, and letting things happen organically with a film. It took a while to make, it took a while to get out to the world, and that process was hard in a way the films that I'd made before had never been. At the end of the journey, in terms of the film getting out and being received well and finding an audience, it was really satisfying. I think I've learned to just let go of expectations and let go of desires about wanting specific things to happen with a movie, and just letting the movie take its own course, and the course it needs to take.
NFS: What prompted you then to start on Light From Light? Was there a specific push that you had for making a second feature, or did this story fall into your lap?
Harrill: I think it's always a little of both. With this story, in the final days of finishing up Something, Anything, I actually started the very beginnings of doing the research for this script, and so I started researching. It was in late 2013/early 2014 that I started researching Light From Light. And then, Something, Anything got out to the world, and that was very much an effort, a self-distribution effort, and so it took a lot of my time. Between that and obligations to my job, it was really hard for me to maintain the focus.
It wasn't really until after Something, Anything was finally out in the world in 2015 that I started this new project in earnest. It was a process. There was a lot of upheaval happening in my personal life, as well, and so it took a while to get this script written and for the film to get initially off the ground, but it really snowballed after that. This was an idea I'd had that had been percolating in different ways for some time.
NFS: The film is a ghost story, at least in theory. Did you see that as a hook that would allow you to dive into deeper issues, or do you find that ghost stories present their own kind of narrative depth that attracts you?
Harrill: It's funny, I've always thought of it as a movie about mystery. It's a movie with a mystery and it's a movie about mystery itself. It is and isn't a ghost story. There were elements of that genre that I was interested in exploring, and then there were elements of that genre that I knew I was up against, if you will, in terms of trying to defy expectations about where the story was going to go and what kind of experience the film could give an audience.
"From a storytelling standpoint, I think I'm just trying to tell a story that feels really organic to the characters, to my own experience, and to the location."
NFS: Did you find yourself having to resist any urges that previous examples of the genre may dictate? A "jump scare" here or there?
Harrill: Not really. Let's put it this way, I knew from the beginning that this was not a horror movie in any way. I wasn't really compelled, and didn't feel obligated, and wasn't interested in satisfying those kinds of things. I think that some people may be frustrated by that if they have certain expectations going into the movie. But I think for another set of people it will be, I hope, refreshing.
NFS: Having your films take place where you live, in Tennessee, is a deliberate choice. How conscious are you of incorporating the state, and then very specific parts of the state, such as the national park and things of that nature, into your films?
Harrill: That's a really great question, and the thing is, half the time I'm super conscious of it. Living in East Tennessee and working as a filmmaker (or trying to work as a filmmaker) is challenging. You're often aware of it from a production standpoint.
From a storytelling standpoint, I think I'm just trying to tell a story that feels really organic to the characters, to my own experience, and to the location. It's always rooted in a place. And so for me, it's like, some of the things that people might think of as really specifically Southern, or Tennessee, or East Tennessee about it, might be things that I take for granted and am not even aware that I'm doing, because I'm so deep into this place.
NFS: How did you find the house where Richard and his (now deceased) wife live? It has to be welcoming and yet hold the distinct possibility that it may be haunted...
Harrill: That was a process. East Tennessee is dotted with houses like that, but it was a really special place. I think, actually, the first person who showed me that house was our film commissioner, the head of Visit Knoxville Film Office, a guy named Curt Willis. And then it turned out that one of the film's co-producer's, Amy Hubbard, had also done some work at that house and had filmed some stuff at that house for a TV show and knew the owners. We looked at several, and that one just had the right feeling but we obviously did things to the house to dress it for the movie. At the same time, a lot of the stuff there is really there, is really the house itself.
NFS: When Shelia inspects the home for paranormal activity, you incorporate a lot of natural light, some coming from her flashlight as she surveys the house. Did that beam of light offer any limitations (or open up new possibilities) for shooting in the dark?
Harrill: The film's cinematographer, Greta Zozula, and I decided early on that that was something we wanted to explore. The movie is something that we wanted to feel very real. It's very much a film that's grounded in these characters' lives and uncertain realities, and so we were focused on natural lights throughout the whole film.
In this instance, using that sole flashlight was how we approached it. There are things that you conceive of when you're talking about making a film, and then you get on set, and you start doing it, and then it exceeds your expectations and becomes a whole new process of discovery of the things you can do with it. Having said that, it's also something that we tested. Greta tested...I don't know how many flashlights it was, ultimately, probably at least 20 flashlights that she tested as part of the process of making the film, before we were even on set. We had to have the exact beam of light for what we were trying to do in that sequence.
"The simplest way of expressing this scene would be the best way to express it."
NFS: There's a scene about midway through the film in which the two lead characters, Shelia and Richard, sit on the porch at night and talk about two of their most painful experiences. You shoot the scene in real time (about 10 minutes long) and while it's not a single take, it feels like it is; we're so engulfed in the conversation that it just flies by. In scenes like this, what goes into your shot preparation and planning?
Harrill: It's really about being focused on the character's emotions and the arc of that. It's about each character's arc and how they open up over the course of that scene, and then trying to keep the cinematography as simple as possible. I mean, I'm working with two amazing actors, and I trusted the writing with these two actors. The simplest way of expressing this scene would be the best way to express it. And you're right, the whole scene is not one long take, but there are a couple of long takes, and in fact, there's a two-minute closeup of Marin Ireland as she tells one story, and that's something that you try in the edit, and you see how it plays, and you just have to trust that its characters are interesting enough, you know? That you don't need to dress it up.
NFS: Do you ever have any arguments with yourself about when to cut? Are you editing for a performance, or are you cutting for time constraints and things like that?
Harrill: Courtney Ware, the editor and I worked really closely together. You're cutting for performance, but when you're working with actors as strong as the ones I was working with, you have a lot of options. So that was really wonderful, and it meant that I could really cut for rhythm. I think the film has a pretty specific pace, and scenes have very specific rhythms to them, and that's really the way I approach the cutting of the film.
NFS: What kind of camera did you use and why?
Harrill: We used an ALEXA. I guess it was the ALEXA Mini. There were a couple of days where we used an AMIRA, but it's the ALEXA Mini that we used the whole time of the main shoot. We used some really wonderful Cooke lenses, and we really almost exclusively used three lenses the whole time. We really limited our choices and used those lenses to keep it for simplicity.
NFS: As you're showing the film to the public this week, it will play to believers and nonbelievers, as well. Do you see the film working as an example for both believers and nonbelievers, that it can have an emotional impact either way? How do you as a filmmaker see the film speaking to two different kinds of audiences, if you will?
Harrill: That's an amazing question. I'm making a film about things that are mysterious, and my greatest hope for any audience member is that they take something away that makes them feel and that makes them ask questions, whatever their beliefs may be. That's my goal with the work on this film, and anything I've made really. I think that that openness is something that I hope people find in the film, whoever they are.
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No Film School's podcast and editorial coverage of the 2019 Sundance Film Festival is sponsored by Blackmagic Design.