A Conversation with Paul Harrill

Paul Harrill is an Independent Filmmaker whose film Quick Feet, Soft Hands will be airing on various PBS Stations across the US over the next couple weeks.  More about that at the end.

What’s your background in film/video?

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and there are no professional artists or creative types in my extended family, so deciding to become a filmmaker was maybe a little unusual. Especially because I started making films well before things like DV and Final Cut Pro made it more accessible to everyone.

But people were always telling stories in my family, and I was movie obsessed as a kid, so I guess that’s what led me into it.

As far as experience, because I didn’t have access to so much as a Super-8 or video camera, I began by writing screenplays on my own. Then, when I went to college, I started making Super-8 films thanks to a loaned camera from a friend. Then I made some videos. And that work got me into Temple University’s graduate film school.

Temple attracts great students and has long tradition of supporting independent, alternative work. Plus, it’s a lot less expensive than places like USC and NYU. It was a good fit for me.

While I was in film school, I just managed to miss the advent of digital video and Final Cut Pro, which I guess I’m ultimately happy about. I made some movies in 16mm and learned that way of working.

At some point, around the time I started exhibiting my work for the public and around the time that I started getting money for projects, I grew from thinking of myself as someone that wanted to be a filmmaker into someone who was one.

You made Quick Feet, Soft Hands with some funding from ITVS.  What it was like working with them?

ITVS funded the bulk of “Quick Feet, Soft Hands.” The way I secured the funding was via their Open Call process, which happens a couple of times a year.

The thing that made working with ITVS appealing to me was that they provide major funding for projects but, at the same time, they give filmmakers a lot of creative control.

So I had final cut. They didn’t ask to have input on casting. Basically, the things that a commercial production company would probably get involved with — maybe even meddle with — ITVS didn’t interfere.

They weren’t laissez-faire — they read drafts of the script, watched edits of the movie, and gave notes on both. But they paid for the movie I wanted to make.

So the way you work with them is sort of the way a filmmaker might work with a production company, and it’s sort of like getting a grant. Because it’s a mix of collaboration and yet retaining creative control. At least, that was my experience.

As far as things other filmmakers could learn from my experience, that’s a good question.

First, since applying for funding from them begins much like a grant application process, I’d say all the normal rules of grant writing apply: Read the guidelines carefully, work on the application well in advance of the deadline, write with precision, and proofread, proofread, proofread.

Beyond that, though, for ITVS you need to understand what kind of work they support. I have more than a handful of unproduced scripts, but this was the one that I thought matched with their sensibility. It’s not a sports movie; it’s about the American experience — specifically, the attempt to move up from one’s economic class. Sports is just the backdrop. So, I was careful about selecting this specific project.

But that’s true of any funder — whether it’s a production company or a grant or an investor — you’ve gotta understand what they like, what they’ve already done, and what they’re looking for now.

Quick Feet, Soft Hands has been running on PBS, how has it been received?  Are you getting any feedback?

The film’s been picked up by a number of stations — which is great. But as far as feedback from audiences, most of that has come from the festival screenings, screenings at universities, and venues like that — far more so than from the television screenings.

The nature of television is that the audience and filmmaker don’t interact they way we do with work that’s shown in public screenings or on the internet. For someone that’s mostly been accustomed to screening work in cinemas, it’s a little weird to know — “Well, the movie’s on TV in San Francisco or Lexington or wherever tonight.” The upside, though, is that lots of people have the opportunity to see my work this way.

What was your biggest budget item?

Cumulatively, it was salaries for the cast and crew. This was the first film of mine where people were paid, but it was still a “for love and art” kind of project. No one got rich from working on the film.

If the Tennessee Smokies baseball team hadn’t gotten behind the project, I’m sure the biggest budget item would have been art direction and location fees associated with the baseball team. But they got behind the script and basically gave us access to anything we wanted. I was initially nervous that they wouldn’t like the story, since it’s not really upbeat. But they actually appreciated the fact that it didn’t romanticize things. They were like, “Yeah most of these guys are never gonna make it!”

Is there anything you would do different next time?

Oh, sure. There’s always stuff — either from the way it was made, or the finished film — that I look back on and think, “I’d do that differently now.” But that’s just the nature of filmmaking. One of the things that I love about filmmaking is that the films I make stand as snapshots of who I was while you were making them.

My next film will likely be made with a smaller crew and probably with a more extended shooting schedule, which I prefer since there’s more time for reflection as you work. But shooting “Quick Feet” this way just wasn’t possible. We had to work around a real baseball team’s schedule, actor schedules, and so on.

Is there a feature in your future?

I suspect so, but I hate talking about projects until they’re concrete. I pretty much will tell you anything about a movie I’ve made, and nothing about a movie I want to make. It drives my friends crazy. Next question?

Is there a film that was a huge influence on you?  What is it about this film that influenced you?

I’ve been asked this before, and it’s tough to name just one film, or even one filmmaker. One film I haven’t answered before, but which was important, was “Bicycle Thieves.” “Bicycle Thieves” isn’t my favorite film by a long shot — it’s not even my favorite Neo-Realist film — but I do love it.  I was 19 years old and I remember seeing that movie, and learning how those movies were made, and I realized, maybe for the first time, that there was not only an alternative to Hollywood, but that tradition had existed for a long time.

That film led me to explore all of cinema, not the narrow range of stuff I had been watching, and, probably most importantly, it let me know that the stories I saw around me in my life, in my world, could be interesting enough.

Where can I buy copies of your films?

www.selfreliantfilm.com/dvd

We just released the DVDs to institutions, so they’re not really what individuals will want to pay for them. But eventually we’ll sell them for individuals on the website. Ashley and I also sell DVDs of our work at all of the screenings we attend.
“Gina, An Actress, Age 29” is available to view on The Auteurs (now called Mubi): http://mubi.com/films/22436

This just in from Paul himself…

It looks like Quick Feet, Soft Hands is going to be broadcast on over 100 of the “PBS World” affiliate stations around the country on Friday July 9. It’ll play a lot of big cities including NYC, LA, Philadelphia, Boston… down to tiny stations in South Dakota, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. A lot of stations are showing it 3 or 4 times that day, including in prime time.

If people want to find out whether it will screen in their area, they search this page by zip code: http://ww.itvs.org/television?film=quick-feet-soft-hands

Alternately, they can check their local PBS World station schedule for airtimes. (A list of all PBS World affiliates can be found here: http://www.rabbitears.info/search.php?request=network_search&network=PBS+World)

Paul Harrill is an Independent Filmmaker whose film Quick Feet, Soft Hands will be airing on various PBS Stations across the US over the next couple weeks. More about that at the end.

What’s your background in film/video?

I grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and there are no professional artists or creative types in my extended family, so deciding to become a filmmaker was maybe a little unusual. Especially because I started making films well before things like DV and Final Cut Pro made it more accessible to everyone.

But people were always telling stories in my family, and I was movie obsessed as a kid, so I guess that’s what led me into it.

As far as experience, because I didn’t have access to so much as a Super-8 or video camera, I began by writing screenplays on my own. Then, when I went to college, I started making Super-8 films thanks to a loaned camera from a friend. Then I made some videos. And that work got me into Temple University’s graduate film school.

Temple attracts great students and has long tradition of supporting independent, alternative work. Plus, it’s a lot less expensive than places like USC and NYU. It was a good fit for me.

While I was in film school, I just managed to miss the advent of digital video and Final Cut Pro, which I guess I’m ultimately happy about. I made some movies in 16mm and learned that way of working.

At some point, around the time I started exhibiting my work for the public and around the time that I started getting money for projects, I grew from thinking of myself as someone that wanted to be a filmmaker into someone who was one.

You made Quick Feet, Soft Hands with some funding from ITVS.  What it was like working with them? 

ITVS funded the bulk of “Quick Feet, Soft Hands.” The way I secured the funding was via their Open Call process, which happens a couple of times a year.

The thing that made working with ITVS appealing to me was that they provide major funding for projects but, at the same time, they give filmmakers a lot of creative control.

So I had final cut. They didn’t ask to have input on casting. Basically, the things that a commercial production company would probably get involved with — maybe even meddle with — ITVS didn’t interfere.

They weren’t laissez-faire — they read drafts of the script, watched edits of the movie, and gave notes on both. But they paid for the movie I wanted to make.

So the way you work with them is sort of the way a filmmaker might work with a production company, and it’s sort of like getting a grant. Because it’s a mix of collaboration and yet retaining creative control. At least, that was my experience.

As far as things other filmmakers could learn from my experience, that’s a good question.

First, since applying for funding from them begins much like a grant application process, I’d say all the normal rules of grant writing apply: Read the guidelines carefully, work on the application well in advance of the deadline, write with precision, and proofread, proofread, proofread.

Beyond that, though, for ITVS you need to understand what kind of work they support. I have more than a handful of unproduced scripts, but this was the one that I thought matched with their sensibility. It’s not a sports movie; it’s about the American experience — specifically, the attempt to move up from one’s economic class. Sports is just the backdrop. So, I was careful about selecting this specific project.

But that’s true of any funder — whether it’s a production company or a grant or an investor — you’ve gotta understand what they like, what they’ve already done, and what they’re looking for now.

Quick Feet, Soft Hands has been running on PBS, how has it been received?  Are you getting any feedback?

The film’s been picked up by a number of stations — which is great. But as far as feedback from audiences, most of that has come from the festival screenings, screenings at universities, and venues like that — far more so than from the television screenings.

The nature of television is that the audience and filmmaker don’t interact they way we do with work that’s shown in public screenings or on the internet. For someone that’s mostly been accustomed to screening work in cinemas, it’s a little weird to know — “Well, the movie’s on TV in San Francisco or Lexington or wherever tonight.” The upside, though, is that lots of people have the opportunity to see my work this way.

What was your biggest budget item?

Cumulatively, it was salaries for the cast and crew. This was the first film of mine where people were paid, but it was still a “for love and art” kind of project. No one got rich from working on the film.

If the Tennessee Smokies baseball team hadn’t gotten behind the project, I’m sure the biggest budget item would have been art direction and location fees associated with the baseball team. But they got behind the script and basically gave us access to anything we wanted. I was initially nervous that they wouldn’t like the story, since it’s not really upbeat. But they actually appreciated the fact that it didn’t romanticize things. They were like, “Yeah most of these guys are never gonna make it!”

Is there anything you would do different next time?

Oh, sure. There’s always stuff — either from the way it was made, or the finished film — that I look back on and think, “I’d do that differently now.” But that’s just the nature of filmmaking. One of the things that I love about filmmaking is that the films I make stand as snapshots of who I was while you were making them.

My next film will likely be made with a smaller crew and probably with a more extended shooting schedule, which I prefer since there’s more time for reflection as you work. But shooting “Quick Feet” this way just wasn’t possible. We had to work around a real baseball team’s schedule, actor schedules, and so on.

Is there a feature in your future?

I suspect so, but I hate talking about projects until they’re concrete. I pretty much will tell you anything about a movie I’ve made, and nothing about a movie I want to make. It drives my friends crazy. Next question?

Is there a film that was a huge influence on you?  What is it about this film that influenced you?

I’ve been asked this before, and it’s tough to name just one film, or even one filmmaker. One film I haven’t answered before, but which was important, was “Bicycle Thieves.” “Bicycle Thieves” isn’t my favorite film by a long shot — it’s not even my favorite Neo-Realist film — but I do love it. I was 19 years old and I remember seeing that movie, and learning how those movies were made, and I realized, maybe for the first time, that there was not only an alternative to Hollywood, but that tradition had existed for a long time.

That film led me to explore all of cinema, not the narrow range of stuff I had been watching, and, probably most importantly, it let me know that the stories I saw around me in my life, in my world, could be interesting enough.

Where can I buy copies of your films?

www.selfreliantfilm.com/dvd

We just released the DVDs to institutions, so they’re not really what individuals will want to pay for them. But eventually we’ll sell them for individuals on the website. Ashley and I also sell DVDs of our work at all of the screenings we attend.

“Gina, An Actress, Age 29” is available to view on The Auteurs (now called Mubi): http://mubi.com/films/22436

This just in from Paul himself…

It looks like Quick Feet, Soft Hands is going to be broadcast on over 100 of the “PBS World” affiliate stations around the country on Friday July 9. It’ll play a lot of big cities including NYC, LA, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston… down to tiny stations in South Dakota, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. A lot of stations are showing it 3 or 4 times that day, including in prime time.

If people want to find out whether it will screen in their area, they search this page by zip code: http://ww.itvs.org/television?film=quick-feet-soft-hands

Alternately, they can check their local PBS World station schedule for airtimes. (A list of all PBS World affiliates can be found here: http://www.rabbitears.info/search.php?request=network_search&network=PBS+World)