Knoxville-based filmmaker Paul Harrill values local talent and tries to use area cast and crew whenever possible. But on his new feature film, “Light From Light,” which opens Friday at Central Cinema, he ran into a couple of obstacles.
First, the primary cast was small – only four main characters, with very few supporting roles, and he decided to “strip” the movie down to focus on them.
“Some scenes I cut out, and there were really wonderful Knoxville-based actors in those parts,” he says.
“In terms of the crew, we had some great people from Knoxville working on the movie. There’s so much production in Knoxville, it’s hard to get people sometimes.”
That’s a nice problem for the city to have, but it left it to the locations to represent East Tennessee in the film. Some of them are viscerally familiar, like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Others most definitely have a local flavor.
But as authentic as they seem, it’s not as though Harrill and his crew just walked into houses and started filming.
“It’s like picking a canvas that you’re going to work with,” he says. “We did pick locations that needed to be adjusted or amplified – or the opposite, sort of minimized.”
There wasn’t an official location manager on the film; it was more of a “team effort.” But he says Curt Willis, Film Office director for Visit Knoxville, and co-producer Amy Hubbard were helpful resources in securing locations like Strong Stock Farm.
“Light From Light” is a kind of ghost story, but not an outright scary one. Marin Ireland plays a single mom who works at a car-rental agency but also has a background in paranormal investigations. Jim Gaffigan plays a widower who has noticed strange happenings in his farmhouse and wonders if his late wife is trying to contact him.
Harrill, who earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Tennessee and his master of fine arts from Temple University, taught digital filmmaking at Virginia Tech before returning to his hometown to live. He started teaching at UT in 2013 and is an associate professor in cinema studies and art and is co-chair of the cinema studies department.
Making films is a balancing act for a professor, with shooting squeezed in during school breaks. He shot “Light From Light” in summer 2018 and worked with editor Courtney Ware, who lives in Dallas, to cut it that fall.
“I made trips to Dallas here and there so we could be in the same room,” he says. “Then winter break I did the sound mix and the color in Dallas.”
Once the film was accepted by Sundance, it was another exercise in cross-country filmmaking to meet the deadlines, “but we got it all done.”
Fortunately, all was copacetic with his day-job bosses.
“UT has been super supportive, I’ve gotta say that,” he says. “I couldn’t ask for a better group of people to work with and for.”
Harrill first made a name for himself when he went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 with his short film “Gina, an Actress, Age 29.” He ended up winning the Short Filmmaking Award.
Since then he’s visited the festival a few times and maintained relationships with people there and with the Sundance Institute. At the beginning of this year, he returned with his second feature film, “Light From Light,” which was received warmly.
Taking a feature film to the festival as an official selection so many years later was a different experience from his first trip.
“The festival’s changed,” he says. “It just feels like it’s grown a lot, and it was huge then (in 2001).
“I think that the biggest thing was, when I went to Sundance in 2001, it wasn’t the first film festival I’d ever attended, but it was close. I had screened a film, I think, at the Philadelphia Film Festival when I lived there, and I had screened a film in Knoxville. Sundance was the world premiere of ‘Gina.’
“That was a really specific moment in my life and a real threshold to cross. In many ways it felt like my debut as a filmmaker – a debut like a debutante. Like, ‘OK, here I am!’ It exceeded every expectation a person could ever have, with a short film.
“So returning this year with a feature that I made with a bunch of people that I consider friends, not just collaborators, and having almost 20 years of distance between then and now, it was really special. I felt a lot of gratitude, like mature gratitude. I was incredibly excited to premiere this film, but I felt this other feeling as well that I think the younger me couldn’t comprehend, or wasn’t even in a place to have that emotion.”
Like the Sundance festival, the independent-film scene has changed, with an even wider gap between indies and the effects-driven, comic-book-based blockbusters that fill the multiplexes.
“I think there’s a real need for stories with mature themes that are made for adults,” says Harrill. “Sadly, it feels like the studios have largely ceded that space to independent film, and I think theaters have played a role in that as well, honestly, by not booking and supporting films the way that they used to.
“There was a time when a smaller drama would play in a theater for a few weeks and would get its legs, and the box office from the third or fourth week would get more than the first week because a movie like that needs word of mouth.
“Because of the internet and instant gratification, those days have long passed, but I think a result of that is that some people feel like movies aren’t made for them anymore. They see what’s in the theaters, and they stay at home. And I think that’s unfortunate because those movies are being made – I’m trying to make them, and there are lots of other people doing that as well.
“That’s what’s great about a place like Central Cinema is that they’re showing all sorts of movies, and they’re trying to be part of the community in a way that it’s different and it’s special. And it helps us remember that movies are a communal experience.”
“Light From Light” will play at 2 and 6 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6; 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7; 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8; 7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 9; 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 10; 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11; and 2 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 12, at Central Cinema, 1205 N. Central St. Harrill will introduce the Dec. 7 show and will hold a post-screening discussion at Central Flats & Taps.
Betsy Pickle is a veteran entertainment, features and news reporter.