A Portrait of Paul, A Director, Age 29
by Jack Neely
Thin, with a head of thick dark hair, bright blue eyes, and an otherworldly smile, Paul Harrill might have been a model for an animated character in a Hayao Miyazaki film. He's young, still in his 20s, and has the sort of striking looks that might give folks the idea that he has a future in Hollywood. As it happens, his name does appear prominently in the credits of a short film that won top honors at last year's Sundance Film Festival. You wouldn't recognize him, though, because he's not in front of the camera. He's the director.
Over an Indian buffet lunch on a sunny day at the window table at Sitar, he's expresses interest in nearly everything, the high and the low, the old and the new, especially when it involves film. He talks eagerly and knowledgeably about David Lynch, Roald Dahl, Robert Altman, Raymond Chandler, even Knoxville-raised director Clarence Brown.
But ask him a question about his own career and he'll pause, look away, as if he's trying to recall something long forgotten.
You might wonder, for a moment, if he's deciding not to tell you something. He hasn't yet practiced the one-liners that celebrities keep handy to fling at interviewers.
Then, patiently, he'll answer. But you get the impression that he doesn't find it all that remarkable that a young UT instructor who lives in South Knoxville has already received international acclaim as a filmmaker. His Knoxville-based film Gina, An Actress, Age 29 won the jury prize in short filmmaking at the 2001 Sundance festival, and went on to be honored at several other festivals in America and Europe.
Harrill grew up like a lot of us did, in rapidly suburbanizing West Knoxville, and attended various public schools named after Admiral Farragut. How he first became interested in film is one of several questions he struggles with. "That's an incredibly difficult question to answer," he says, for the first of several times. He does recall that his aunt and big sister used to take him to the movies. Star Wars, which came out when Harrill was only four, meant a lot to him. But his epiphany came at Farragut Middle when, at the age of 13, he started writing screenplays.
His English class studied The Graduate scene by scene. "That had a big impact on me, to see how a movie's put together," he says. "That it's more than just a way to spend two hours."
Somewhere in there he also read a John Updike storyhe doesn't even recall which one, just nowbut says, "it just blew me away. I stayed up that night thinking, if I could make people feel this way, I'd write short stories and novels. But the next morning, I realized that the fact is, I talk about that, but I never do that.
"I think of a story, I write it, I make it."
He first studied filmmaking in the college scholars program at UT and spent his last semester in Chapel Hill, working in a peripheral way with documentary filmmakers on the movie, The Panama Deception. It won an Oscar in 1993, for which Harrill takes no part of the credit.
He got his masters in fine arts at Temple University in Philadelphia, a school with a reputation for drawing students of an independent or alternative bent. "The one thing we all had in common was that we were not people looking to work in Hollywood. None of us were really interested in moving out to L.A. and doing that sort of work, living that sort of life. I've always wanted to make films here, that were set here."
During his years in Philadelphia, Harrill taught screenwriting at the University of the Arts. He found himself growing attached to the city. "It has a sort of grungy beauty to it," he says. But eventually he made his way back to his hometown, at first by way of a UT teaching gig he thought would be temporary.
"For me, Knoxville allows me to write about the things I want to write about. Knowing this area gives me a confidence to write about themes, which I never felt I had in Philadelphia."
"Stories have to happen someplace," he says. A setting doesn't have to be very specific, but "you have to film it, and you have to film it someplace."
He returned to UT three years ago this month, originally to teach for only one semester. Here he started working on a film project called Christmastime And Other Stories. "Things started happening, and it made more sense for me to be down here."
Short stories inspire him; he mentions writers Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus as special favorites. "They're contemporary writers that pack a lot in. In film, it's really difficult to find a market for short films. I wanted to make something that had the compactness of short stories and have the impact a long story can have, in a format that would allow people to see it."
So he came up with a cycle of five stories, set over the course of a year, with some overlapping characters: five discreet stories written as one feature. His first project concerned a young actress who has an uncanny ability to cry on demand. Desperate for work, she accepts a job with a union-busting outfit that hires her as a shill to warn factory workers about the evils of unionizing. He says the story is loosely based on true union-busting stories he has heard, but it has a deeper relevance. "I wanted to dramatize the idea of having dreams, but living someplace where it's hard to cultivate those dreamsor having the sort of life that, because maybe you don't have a lot of money or whatever, makes you face compromises you might not have to if things were a little easier. I guess the person who wants to draw parallels between Gina and my own situation could do that. But I think this is stuff a lot of people, artists or not, deal with."
It's only a 20-minute movie, but it has a twist, and then a double-twist.
With his first proposal, he got lucky: he applied for, and received, an Aperture Film Grant of $10,000 for the project in early 2000, and within three months he was shooting it. Working through a casting agent, he reviewed more than 60-75 candidates for roles in New York, and about 50 or 60 here.
"It was a fun, useful experience," to go to New York, he says. But in terms of acting talent, he says, "I didn't feel there was really much of a difference between Knoxville and New York." As it happened, he ended up giving three of the four principal roles to Knoxville-area actors. "The ones I cast were better than the ones I saw in New York."
The title role went to Amy Hubbard, a young actress familiar to theatergoers; her innocent, girl-next-door looks belie her role as an innovator in local theater as co-founder of the unconventional troupe known as the Actors Co-op. Also starring are Maryville actor David Dwyer, who has appeared in character roles in several major motion pictures, and UT theatre regular Bonnie Gould. Another locally prominent actor, David Brian Alley, makes a brief but dramatic appearance. The only non-local in the cast was Tony-nominated Broadway vet Frankie Faison who had appeared in Do the Right Thing, Silence of the Lambs, and other major movies. Backing them up was a cast of several dozen volunteer extras, with quite a few familiar faces (some might be startled to notice that prominent among them is Jim Ullrich, vocal downtown advocate, founder of Ullrich Printing, and sometime train conductor).
Most of his camera crew was local, too, many of them, like cinematographer Tony Corapi, with day jobs working for the cable-TV market like HGTV. Kara Kemp, an accomplished actress herself in Actors Co-op productions, did the art direction for the film.
Being in charge of that many talented professionals would have overwhelmed many would-be directors, never mind a 20-something kid. "If I thought about it, it probably would have intimidated me," Harrill admits. "But I focus on the things I can do something about."
Harrill didn't waste his talent's time. "We shot it in one week." That was June before last.
It's a stark, minimal film, shot in spare offices, parking lots, and industrial rooms, with little embellishment or soundtrack. Knoxville is the setting of Gina, but is only mentioned once. None of the locations are immediately recognizable, except perhaps to folks who spend a lot of time in the industrial-park stretch of Middlebrook Pike. A scene at the end of the film in which Gina's walking along a tree-shaded sidewalk beside a broad road has frustrated several local viewers attempts to identify it; it looks like somewhere in California. But Harrill says that and most of the rest of the filming took place on Middlebrook, some of it in an unnamed factory, some of it in a UT-owned warehouse.
Editing took a few more weeks. By fall, 2000, Harrill was pleased with the results, and ready to submit it to festivals. He sent Gina, An Actress, Age 29 to three, and aimed high: internationally famous festivals in Rotterdam, Clairmont-Ferrand (in France), and Sundance. Launched by Robert Redford and named for one of his best-known characters, Sundance has become America's best-known film festival, the place where many critics and industry insiders see large and small films for the first time.
Just being accepted into one of these three festivals would have called for a celebration. "I thought we had a good film on our hands," Harrill says. "But statistically, it's hard to get your hopes up. Getting into just one festival was not a complete shock. But we got into all three. That was a huge surprise."
Gina was, in fact, the only short film made by anybody that got into all three of those international festivals.
Harrill attended Sundance and had a swell time. "It's almost so big you don't know how big it is," he says of the festival, which is spread around the city. "It's kind of like going to Atlanta." He's not sure he made it to all the A-list parties. "I didn't meet any stars," he says, "but I met a lot of filmmakers that I admire." He had intended to leave after the third of four screenings of Gina to embark on a planned trip to Europe to follow the film there. But then he changed his mind. "It was received warmly," he says. "All four screening sold out. It made sense to stick around."
He did, and he's glad he did, because he won. He recalls only "joyit was really exciting." He went up and accepted the award on behalf of everyone who'd worked on the movie. "You don't work on it to win an award," he says. "But it sure is nice when people acknowledge your hard work."
Short films don't get much attention on Ebert and Roeper, but the few critics who did review it were more than kind. The independent-film internet magazine indieWIRE called Gina "a low-rent miracle."
For almost a year, Harrill has been trying to get used to extravagant compliments. Some people don't get it. "They say, 'This should be used as a union training film,'" he says, shaking his head. "The nicest thing I hear is that it felt real to them. That's a real compliment to me."
They've kept coming. The Sundance winner was the shoo-in for the top award at last year's ValleyFest, Knoxville's own film festival. Just last month, Gina was shown at a festival in Rio de Janeiro and also tied for Best Short Film at the Santa Fe Film Festival. Those who want to see it can order a videotape copy at [email protected]
But Gina hasn't yet landed Harrill on the fast track. He's found that all directors, even the decorated ones, have to hustle for money. He's currently trying to raise money to shoot "Christmastime," the second installment in his five-part feature. He keeps his cards close to his chest, and doesn't offer many hints about the plots of the unshot segments.
In the meantime, Harrill has taken a departure from fiction to shoot a documentary he calls "Brief Encounter With Tibetan Monks" about the Buddhist holy men who visited Knoxville for a show at the KMA in October. The film was Harrill's submission to Underground Zero, a national arts project that's a response to the events of September 11. Harrill expects his documentary to premiere at San Francisco's Cinamatheque next month.
But for now, it's back to work at UT. He's got students who need attention.
January 10, 2002 * Vol. 12, No. 2
© 2002 Metro Pulse