Of grief and ghosts: Interview with Light from Light witer-director Paul Harrill

Silence, reflection, the search for meaning and the interior life are among the hallmarks of Paul Harrill’s work.

SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

One of the first great films I saw this year, at the Sundance Film Festival in January, was a quiet, luminous ghost story starring Marin Ireland as a weekend paranormal investigator and Catholic comedian Jim Gaffigan as a grieving widower who continues to feel his late wife’s presence in the house they shared.

Light from Light is the second feature film from writer-director Paul Harrill, whose 22-year career includes several short films. He also teaches film at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and is co-founder of Self-Reliant Films.

Harrill’s debut feature, Something, Anything, won praise from critics but particularly attracted the attention of cinephiles in the faith world with its depiction of a spiritual seeker whose search for meaning takes her to the silence of a Trappist monastery after reconnecting with a former high-school classmate who became a monk. Silence, reflection, the search for meaning, the interior life: These are among the hallmarks of Harrill’s work. They were also among the topics of our recent phone conversation, along with growing up Episcopalian in East Tennessee, the importance of grounding films in regional and personally specific settings, the cacophony of too much contemporary entertainment, and the shortcomings of both mainstream and faith-based films with respect to depicting (or ignoring) religion.


SDG: I’d like to begin by asking you about your title, Light from Light — the one aspect of the film that, after two viewings, if someone asked me about it, I’m not sure I could say anything very illuminating! Obviously it alludes to the Nicene Creed, and invokes Trinitarian and Christological faith, but overtly, at least, religion seems to be on the periphery of this film.

Harrill: It’s interesting … when I’ve toured film festivals, I’ve gotten questions about the title. They break down into “What does the title mean? — I don’t know where this comes from” or “I know where this phrase comes from; what does the title mean?”

SDG: I’ve had people say to me, “Oh, Light from Light — is that a film about Jesus?”

Harrill: I was raised in the Episcopal Church, where reciting the Nicene Creed every week was part of my childhood and into adulthood. For a long time this movie was “Untitled Ghost Story.” And that phrase — “Light from Light” — started popping into my mind as I was doing rewrites on the script. I like titles that have a sense of mystery or that can’t fully be explained, that don’t always directly link to something specific in a movie. A classic example for me is North by Northwest, which I think is a fantastic title.

I wanted a title that had those kinds of elements, but that spoke to what I think is essentially a mystery. And I don’t mean like a detective novel mystery …

SDG: Right — religious mystery, or artistic mystery.

Harrill: And “Light from Light,” to me, is one of the most beautiful phrases that does that. I thought that, for audiences that aren’t familiar with that phrase from the Nicene Creed, it could be mysterious and resonate for them and speak to the film’s treatment of light and darkness — literally, because there is a lot of light and darkness in the movie. There are scenes of [Ireland], walking through a dark house; there’s the scenes of light streaming in, particularly at the end of the film. And I thought that, for an audience that is familiar with that phrase, it might cue them, or suggest to them, that the film is engaging with [hesitantly] some other themes, as well.

SDG: So for religious audiences the title could cue that there may be a deeper religious dimension than appears in terms of the surface plot details?

Harrill: I want to be careful about how I talk about this film for this reason. When I’m making a film, I want there to be an openness for anyone to find it approachable and for anyone to potentially be able to take something away from it. My films are definitely not for everyone, but I would like there to be that kind of openness. I really don’t want my meaning — my interpretation or even my intentions — to steal from others their potential meanings. So that’s why I want to be somewhat careful about talking about it. I don’t want to say, “The film is an allegory for this.” But, absolutely, if people find that, or want to look for that in the film, I would encourage them.

SDG: If I were pressed to reflect on Light from Light in incarnational terms, I think I would begin with its human and cultural specificity. That is, Jesus of Nazareth — the universal Savior of humanity and Christian faith — existed not in some mythic anywhere/anywhen, like Hercules or Odysseus: He was a Second Temple-era Galilean Jew, living under Roman occupation, executed under the administration of a Roman governor known to history. Your film touches on universal questions, but it isn’t set somewhere vaguely in middle America, and your characters have specific occupations and histories that extend beyond the requirements of the plot. Can you talk about the importance of that groundedness to your approach to cinema and how you see it in terms of the universality of the themes?

Harrill: Wow. That’s a fantastic question. I don’t know how you get at the universal without being really specific in any sort of story. To me, the specificity that you’re talking about, and that I’m aiming for, is how you get people to invest in a story — because it feels authentic, it allows you to believe in it. It allows you to lose yourself in the world because it feels real. I have to do that for any of the thematic elements to resonate, or even maybe to exist.

SDG: Can you talk about the specific setting of this film?

Harrill: I’m a native of East Tennessee, and pretty much every film I’ve ever written and directed has been set there. There’s this adage, “Write what you know.” I knew very little to nothing about paranormal investigation, but I definitely know East Tennessee. My family has been there for generations, and it’s a way for me to ground the stories. It’s the first level of reality that I start with. I don’t know anyone who works at a fish hatchery, but I’ve driven past that fish hatchery [where Gaffigan’s character works] several times. I’ve been in that airport [where Ireland’s character works] countless times, and I’ve seen people and talked to the people that work at those rental counters. So it’s just that kind of stuff that is very real to me.

SDG: You’ve described your first feature, Something, Anything, as an “antidote” to the weaknesses of some faith-based films. As someone who has spent a fair amount of time diagnosing the ailments of some films in that genre [laughter], I’m always interested in antidotes! Is Light from Light an antidote to anything? I mean, it’s certainly not any kind of conventional ghost story.

Harrill: I think about this exchange I read once where Stephen King was talking about a phone call he had with Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick said something like, “Aren’t all ghost stories essentially hopeful, because it means there is life after death?” And King was like, “Well, not if you believe in hell!” Light from Light definitely isn’t a horror film. I don’t know if I would go so far as to call it an “antidote” to horror films, because I think there can be real value in what some horror films do. But I was interested in trying to do something different.

SDG: There have been non-horror ghost stories before, of course, like Truly, Madly, Deeply, and of course the Demi Moore/Patrick Swayze film Ghost. But your film isn’t like those either …

Harrill: Right, Ghost was not an inspiration for this film! [laughter]

SDG: It is about a grieving person who is left behind when the love of their life dies.

Harrill: I guess that the difference between this film and Ghost — aside from there not being a pottery scene [laughter] — is that there’s some real ambiguity as to whether there is a ghost or not.

SDG: One of the things that most strikes me about Light from Light is that other movies that deal with what might be called paranormal themes tend to either create a world with a given set of rules, or else try to tell us what kind of world we actually live in. And you don’t do either of those things. Light from Light is the only ghost story I’ve ever seen that is set in what I would describe as the “real” world, or as a representation of our world that I can fully embrace in its reflection of the real world.

Harrill: It’s gratifying to hear you say that. I wanted to tell a story in which the real world was the foundation of the story. I basically asked myself, “What would I, or anyone I know, do if we felt like something like this was happening to us?” So it wasn’t “There are ghosts” or “This is spooky,” but it was just, “Okay, this is a story about people.” This isn’t a story about a ghost.

SDG: Filmmaker Jim Jarmusch described Paterson as an “antidote” to “heavy action and drama.” And way back in 2005, I think it was A.O. Scott who described Philip Gröning’s monastic documentary Into Great Silence as an “antidote” to the rest of the year’s films. Do you think there is something in mainstream movie-making that calls for some kind of therapeutic response?

Harrill: I do think that, increasingly, we live in a world where personal reflection — the sort of embracing an interior life that we all have, or have the potential to have — is something we don’t deal with, or maybe even have less access to because of all the distractions and cacophony. And that’s all the more reason why we need to seek that out. Because the interior life, the spiritual life, is not just essential to our well-being — it’s essential to our being. Movies can be a part of the cacophony or they can be part of the search for meaning and a reflective life. And, however pretentious it may be to say so, I would like my films to be part of that and not part of the cacophony.

SDG: That sounds like you would say it’s not a coincidence that these four films — your two films and the two I mentioned, Into Great Silence and Paterson — although tonally very different from one another, do share a similar low-key approach to pacing, a slightness of incident …

Harrill: Yeah, I would agree with that.

SDG: And for you that’s part of structuring your films as a pursuit of meaning — of avoiding the cacophony of a more popular, plot-driven approach to storytelling?

Harrill: Yeah. To me, quiet has always been associated with the search for meaning and the interior life. I mentioned earlier that I was raised in the Episcopal Church. My mom would take my sister and me to services every Sunday. We went to Rite One services — there’s no music at all, no choir, no organ. They were at 8am. My foundational experience of religion, and therefore, as a child, of spirituality, was intensely quiet. I know that that is part of how I see things, and therefore part of the work that I do.

SDG: You would agree, then, with Kierkegaard regarding the difficulty of hearing God’s voice amid the noise of the modern world and the importance of deliberately seeking and creating quiet.

Harrill: Absolutely. It’s been a while since I’ve read Kierkegaard, but I would totally agree with that.

SDG: I spent a long time thinking about how to ask you about a pivotal moment in the film in such a way that it won’t be a spoiler…

Harrill: It’s interesting how people are trying to dance around this! Thank you for trying, I know it’s hard.

SDG: With respect to the possible presence of a ghost, there are questions your movie answers and questions that aren’t answered. But there is one in particular that, to me, invites the viewer to an interpretive response.

Harrill: Yes.

SDG: Then I watched the movie with my family, and there was a strong feeling that only one interpretation was possible!  

Harrill: There are people who will find that moment completely unambiguous. And it’s not intended to be ambiguous — it’s intended to be open for interpretation. That might sound contradictory, but what I mean is, the moment is there for the audience to interpret. But I fully embrace people feeling — in one direction or another — that it can only be seen or understood one way. This goes back to what I was saying about respecting the audience, about giving them the opportunity for completing the film with who they are. It was important for me to make that moment as open as it could be.

SDG: Light from Light isn’t as religious in its content as Something, Anything, but it’s striking that religion is a matter-of-fact part of both of your features.

Harrill: Growing up in East Tennessee, and spending as much time there as I have, [I’m very aware that] religion is such a fundamental and foundational part of so many people’s lives. One of the things that motivated me to make Something, Anything was the fact that I was struck that, in movies today, you have the faith-based movies, which I think of as essentially religious propaganda; they sort of tell you that this is how you’re supposed to think about things and how you’re supposed to believe. And then you have basically all other movies — and there are exceptions, certainly — but rarely is religion ever even depicted as part of someone’s lives. That doesn’t seem to represent the reality that I see.

Something, Anything was in part an antidote to faith-based films — but it was also meant to be its own modest corrective to the fact that we don’t ever see this element of people’s lives depicted on film. Light from Light is not as explicit in its depiction of religion as Something, Anything. I mean, in that film, the main character goes to a monastery; she’s photocopying the Bible, at one point. And this is not that. But the depiction of religion is something that’s still on the mind.



Light from Light REVIEW

Light from Light (2019)

I’m tempted to call Light from Light the first ghost story I’ve ever seen that I completely believe.