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‘Light From Light’ Director Paul Harrill on the Comfort in Ghost Stories and Breaking Screenwriting Rules

Written by on October 30, 2019 

Halloween is upon us and if you are looking for a ghost story with an immense sense of humanity, you can do no better than Paul Harrill’s second feature Light From Light. A standout at Sundance Film Festival, the film follows Shelia (Marin Ireland), a single mom living in rural Tennessee, working at a car rental service by day and a paranormal investigator at night. She takes on a new case involving Richard (Jim Gaffigan), whose wife Susanne died a year prior in a plane crash but may still be around to communicate.

“There’s a palpable tension to this story of paranormal investigating, but rather than injecting the expected terror, the film’s power lies in never seeing ghost hunting depicted so grounded and character-driven before,” I said in my review. “This is the kind of film where the minutiae of insurance policies are discussed before any haunting may begin. Those going into Paul Harrill’s second feature looking for frights will be rewarded with something more substantial: an experience rich with atmosphere and humanity, and drama ultimately more enlightening than the cheap thrills that pervade the dime-a-dozen ghost stories we’ve seen before.”

Ahead of a theatrical release starting this Friday, I had the pleasure of speaking with Harill about how horror has conditioned our minds, the emotional themes the film explores, casting Jim Gaffigan, working with A Ghost Story team and how his film tells a different specter tale, his approach to screenwriting, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the film.

The Film Stage: Our minds have been so conditioned by horror films that when you experience stillness it can be more intense without even seeing anything necessarily horrific. Can you talk about breaking the mold in that way with this film?

Paul Harrill: From the start, when I started thinking about it and developing it, I knew I was after something that wasn’t horror. I wanted to tell a different kind of story and that about regret and grief and loss and hope. And that’s how it emerged for me. It was never really a consideration of taking it into more traditional horror territory. But I will say, as I started developing the project further, there were these moments where I thought this might be suspenseful and that is okay. You know, walking around the house in the dark with a flashlight, whatever you believe or don’t believe in, can be a little eerie or spooky of an experience. I wasn’t going to shy away from those moments if they were organic to the story I was telling.

All these characters have been through a lot and one of the themes I was drawn to is this hesitation of commitment. Owen [Josh Wiggins] says, “What’s the point of getting together if you know it’s going to end?” and Shelia [Marin Ireland] says, “Things only matter if they last.” Can you talk about grounding the film with these ideas?

I knew from the beginning that Shelia’s character was going to be a single mom and that was there from the very, very beginning. Where that started was seeing that she was going to be struggling with her son leaving home, which comes in pretty late in the film actually. But that sense of the impermanence of things or, in Shelia’s case, the one thing that is steady in her life is the relationship with her son, and for that to be changing. Then talking about a ghost story of any sense you’re talking about impermanence. So it started from those two strands and then it felt natural for there to be an extension of that theme with Owen and Lucy then, about a young relationship–a kind of inverse with the adults. With Richard, who has recently lost his wife and with Shelia, who has had relationships that have ended and sort of shield herself off from having more.

Your film feels grounded in that you are showing this paranormal investigating realistically, but also the economic realities. Sheila is working another job as well and you are seeing the “mundane” aspects, like they just have to watch hours of footage at a time. Can you talk about focusing on these things and how it helped the story?

[Laughs] Yeah, that’s just something I’m drawn to in movies, just grounding things in the real. The reality of my daily life is that I have a day job and everyone I know, we all have day jobs. I just wanted to acknowledge that and represent that on screen because that’s the economic reality of the world we live in. That can be a source of obstacles and conflicts, but it can also be something that grounds us. The other part of it, the hours of footage, is whenever I’m working on a script, I always do a lot of research about the kind of work the characters do, to feel like I can write about it confidently. So for the paranormal investigation stuff, which I knew nothing about, I read so many books about that. I watched a lot of documentaries. I became so interested in the process and the meticulousness in which these investigators would take on this work. There’s not a ton of that in the movie. I could have made a movie that went far, far deeper into all of those procedures. That’s not the story I was telling, but I was interested in that. Our immediate reaction to ghosts is they are spooky, but for these investigators, they do it very sincerely. A lot of it is pretty mundane work.

In recent years there have been some other ghost tales that have dealt with the idea that ghosts could actually bring a sense of comfort and not terror. I think of Personal Shopper as well as A Ghost Story, whose team I know you collaborated with for this film. What are your thoughts on those films and the cathartic spirituality in all three of these films?

Well, I haven’t seen Personal Shopper. I’m really looking forward to finally watching it.

[Both laugh]

I was aware of the film and I was starting to develop the very earliest ideas of this and I just thought I wanted to stay away from that right now. Then I asked a friend who had seen the film and who knew a little bit about my project, “Do you think I should watch it?” They were like, “No, I don’t think you should watch it.” [Laughs.] So I avoided it and it’s been on my watch list for so long. So I’m really looking forward to watching some Kristen Stewart.

With A Ghost Story, it’s funny a little bit of the story behind that. James Johnston, who is one of the lead producers on this film, he’s one of the first people I talk to when I’m developing a new script. We’ve been friends for a long time. I remember this really photographically: I called him in 2016 and said, “Hey, I just finished the first draft of a new script. Would you be willing to take a look at it? It’s kind of a ghost story.” He said, “That’s so funny! We all just finished wrapping A Ghost Story here in Texas.” I was like oh, great. I guess I’ll never make this movie. 

[Both laugh] 

Because of David Lowery–who I’ve known for a while too and I’m such a fan of his work and his sensibility–I thought no one will need to make another ghost story because it will be the definitive film. James was like, “No, no. I promise you. I’m sure it’s different. Whatever you’ve written, I’m sure it’s different from what we just made.” So I saw the film finally in 2017 at BAMcinemaFest here in New York and I felt this enormous relief. First of all, it was a beautiful film and a cathartic film, but also, wow, we were going in really different directions in how to tell a story that’s about these more human dimensions of loss and spirituality. 

They definitely are a great double feature, but certainly different.

I’m not sure which you should watch first. [Laughs]

I feel like A Ghost Story might better after you see your film since it’s more expansive?

Yeah, you are probably right. [Laughs]

I also wanted to take about casting in the film. Especially Jim Gaffigan, his presence is undeniable and the weight of loss his character is going through. I love the scene where paranormal investigating is going on but he’s just on the porch with Marin Ireland’s character as they are digging up the past.

With regards to Jim, I actually wrote the role of Richard with Jim in mind. I heard a radio interview with him that was very much Jim as a person, not Jim as his comedic persona. He was talking about his life, his own personal beliefs, his family, and he’s a really thoughtful guy. Yet he has this physical presence and that combination was very much on my mind when I was writing Richard. Jim is also from the midwest and while that’s east Tennessee, I thought that element of his own life, he could relate to the regional element of the film. So, that went into the thinking about Richard. When he read the script, our first conversation we talked about how he connected to the material personally because he almost lost his wife. She went through a very scary health crisis, which she has written a book about now. He connected with that.

Speaking about the porch scene, sometimes to trick myself into starting the process of writing–because it is difficult–I’ll come up with a guiding principle that usually I’ll later abandon as the script and the story develops and I kind of know where it’s going. For this film I initially thought of it as a film that was going to alternate between a wordless sequence and then a sequence where characters had some kind of conversation. The two main conversations that remained from that initial structure was the conversation between the two teenagers on the couch when he says “What’s the point in getting into a relationship if it’s just going to end” and this porch scene. And that was a scene that as I’m writing, I really just let the characters go where they wanted to go and I tried to let go of these kinds screenwriting principles like a scene is only supposed to be four pages or less. Let’s just see what happens with these characters talking. I rewrote that scene countless times and we rehearsed that scene a lot. I continued to work on the text of the scene as we rehearsed it and then it obviously went through another pass while editing. There was always a feeling that the film would have this kind of centerpiece moment where these two characters who are dealing with loneliness in very different ways would drop their guard and be vulnerable with each other.

Just wrapping up, you read my review so you know what I thought about the film, but I’m curious what you hope others will take away as the film?

When I was at Sundance, there was a really remarkable thing that happened at one of the screenings. A woman stood up and talked about the loss of a loved one and how the film had given her a kind of closure and made her feel very hopeful about the loss she had suffered through. That’s not something I even sort of imagined would happen with this film. I think some people will watch the movie and want it to be something it isn’t, like a horror film, and I think those people will be disappointed. But if people can watch it with a kind of openness I hope that they’ll find something in it, whether that’s hope or catharsis or closure or a sense of possibility. 

Light from Light opens on Friday, November 1 at NYC’s Quad Cinema and Philadelphia’s Ritz at the Bourse and expands in the coming weeks.


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