Raised in West Knoxville, Paul Harrill got some national attention in 2001 when his Knoxville-shot film, Gina, an Actress, Age 29 won the Jury Prize for short filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival. Since then, he has made a second dramatic feature called Quick Feet, Soft Hands (2008), a 25-minute movie about minor-league baseball that aired on public television across the country. Harrill now lives in Blacksburg, Va., where he teaches filmmaking at Virginia Tech. In his latest completed project, he served as producer for a film directed by his wife, director Ashley Maynor, called For Memories’ Sake. The short documentary about a very unusual Middle Tennessee woman—who happens to be Maynor’s grandmother—has been a hit at several film festivals, but will be shown in Knoxville for the first time this Friday, at the East Tennessee History Center at 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m..
Paul, one of your first films won one of the most prestigious awards in independent cinema. Was there any downside to this unusual early acclaim?
PH: Well, it’s not as if I became a star or anything, so there weren’t many downsides, and even then they were fairly minor. One of the most surprising things was that some people—including some friends—imagined me “going Hollywood” and they wanted to live vicariously though me. So I sometimes disappointed folks when I explained that I still had my day job, which was teaching filmmaking, and that I didn’t want to move to Los Angeles. It was a little awkward at times being asked to explain or justify my life choices—particularly when the questions came from complete strangers. But, really, those are minor complications, and I’ll take those any day over the downsides of obscurity or failure.
The short form is very unusual, at least from the point of view of an American viewer. Despite their long history, short movies are rare on TV and in movie theaters. What draws you to them?
AM: Short films aren’t altogether different from short stories. They receive less attention, but as anyone who’s ever read a Raymond Carver story knows, they can be as powerful, if not more so, than a longer-form work.
For Memories’ Sake • East Tennessee History Center (601 S. Gay St.) • Friday, Oct. 1 • 6 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. • Free • easttnhistory.org
PH: We’ve also been able to find funding for them, either through grants or through the support of public television. So the economy of the form—in both senses of that word—is appealing.
In your last short feature, Quick Feet, Soft Hands, one of the two leads is Greta Gerwig, whose star seems to be rapidly rising. What are you going to tell her biographers?
PH: I’d be a very boring interview because everything I’d have to say would be positive. Greta’s very down to earth and she’s a total professional.
Did it take some courage to choose to work together on a long project?
AM: I don’t know if courage is the right word. I might call it naïveté. Though the process of working together is very stressful and can often be tense, I couldn’t be prouder of what we make together.
PH: It was probably a lot like guiding your wife having a baby—except in this case it was a three-year-long pregnancy.
A grandmother who takes a lot of photographs is an unusual subject for a documentary. How did that idea germinate?
AM: For Memories’ Sake grew very organically. In my first film class, I made a short film, which is now pretty embarrassing, about my grandmother. I moved on to other subjects but came back to the idea when I discovered my grandmother’s home movies and began working to try to preserve them.
PH: When I learned about Ashley’s grandmother—and particularly after seeing some of her more bizarre photos—I knew it had to be a movie. So I was encouraging Ashley from the earliest days to make this film.
The documentary takes some startling twists. How much of that did you anticipate, going into it?
AM: An audience member once described For Memories’ Sake as a series of surprises. The way I approached the film was as an investigation, to try to find out why Angela is who she is, and of course why she takes so many—and such unusual—photographs. So the film was as much a process of discovery for me as it is for the viewer.
The film exposes some very personal details about Angela Singer and her family. How does she feel about it today?
PH: For Memories’ Sake goes into dark territory at least a couple of times. But the fact is, everything you’re seeing is Angela’s documentation of these brutal aspects of her life. She’s already been there, and she had the courage to point the camera at these things.
AM: I was surprised at how open Angela was about me including these private moments in the film. Screening for an audience has been a very gratifying experience for her. It’s been a kind of testimony of what she’s been through. I think Angela’s prouder of the film than I am.
Ashley, in your experience with For Memories’ Sake, what’s the most surprising thing about making a movie?
AM: I don’t know if I’m surprised but I’m often saddened at the presumptions people make about a movie that features a post-menopausal woman. People think that because it’s a film about an “old” person it’s going to be boring, or, because it’s a documentary, that there are going to be lots of talking heads. Or they think that it’s only going to speak to women because it’s directed by a woman and about a woman. But this isn’t your typical grandma movie. So, we’ve had to work against these expectations.
PH: But in a way, those false expectations allow audiences to be surprised by the film.
Paul, your company is called Lovell Films. Where did that come from?
PH: Well, I grew up near Lovell Road. I like the sound of that word, and the history behind it. And it sounded better than “Paul Harrill Films.”
Three films are collected on Southern Stories. Where can we buy them?
AM: We typically don’t sell DVDs to the general public, except at screenings we attend. We hope it’s a reason for people to come out and see the movies the way they were intended—in a theater with an audience. So DVDs will be available the First Friday screening at the East Tennessee History Center. Otherwise, folks can request that their library buy a copy for them to check out. Order information is online at selfreliantfilm.com/dvd
PH: We’re big supporters of libraries. We’re interested in having libraries buy the DVDs so that the movies can be shared, so that the stories are there for the community, instead of just sitting on someone’s living-room shelf. Don’t we all have enough stuff anyway? Since most libraries will purchase DVDs requested by patrons that’s where our focus is. We may also make a special DVD offer for Facebook friends of For Memories’ Sake and Quick Feet, Soft Hands. So people that are interested should become a fan of the films, or “like” these movies—or whatever it is you do on Facebook these days—and then stay tuned for more details.