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How Light from Light’s team used “emotional research” to build an unusual ghost-hunter story

Jim Gaffigan, Marin Ireland, and director Paul Harrill on their hard-to-describe drama.

Marin Ireland in Light From Light.
Marin Ireland in Light From Light.
Grasshopper Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Paul Harrill makes movies about meaning, about the way humans’ spiritual, emotional, and relational lives intertwine. His 2015 feature Something, Anything was the story of a young woman who experiences an existential and spiritual crisis, then upends her life in pursuit of something greater.

So it’s no surprise that his newest film, the slow and meditative Light from Light, is about people looking for evidence that something exists beyond the material world, while also keenly doubting there’s anything to find. Marin Ireland plays Sheila, a single mom and a skeptic about the supernatural who lives in Tennessee and who, oddly enough, is a ghost hunter. She meets Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who thinks his late wife’s spirit may still be in his house, and agrees to help him figure out what’s going on.

It’s an extraordinary and thought-provoking film for skeptics and believers alike, and has garnered critical praise since its Sundance premiere in January. I caught up with Harrill, Gaffigan, and Ireland in New York to talk about what they each brought to the film, what they learned, and what they took away from the experience. And also, ghosts. (Our conversation has been edited and condensed.)

Alissa Wilkinson

The title of this film comes from the Nicene Creed, right?

Paul Harrill

Yes! I was raised in the Episcopal church, and so I’ve said the Nicene Creed countless times.

For a long time, this script was just called “Untitled Ghost Story.” That phrase, “light from light,” appeared to me as a potentially resonant title, because it speaks to mystery. The phrase itself is mysterious. And the film is obviously, on a very concrete level, dealing with the issues of darkness and of light.

Alissa Wilkinson

It’s an interesting choice, because this isn’t really a movie about religion, per se. In fact, it’s a really hard movie to describe. It’s a ghost story, kind of, but it’s almost the opposite of a horror film. And it’s really about these characters going through extraordinary personal pain and transformation, rather than encountering scary spooks and spirits.

Jim and Marin, how did you prepare to play those roles, and what did you bring to these characters?

Jim Gaffigan

People think — and understandably, if we’re logical beings — that [believing in ghosts] is all silliness. But emotionally, at our core, whether we are sitting at the funeral of someone or in an AA meeting or praying for an audition callback, there is a certain mysticism that we as humans embrace. My mother died 30 years ago, but there’s moments where, I can’t even articulate it, where her presence and something of our relationship is still with me.

It’s so easy for us to be dismissive of ghost stories. A ghost is funny, right? Our intellectual side is like, “Come on, you guys.” But there’s also part of us that’s like, just the notion of miracles, the notion of good and evil — we can sit there and go, “There’s no such thing,” but then we’re like, “You know what? Bin Laden was evil.”

It’s a blurry mess for me. That’s what I love about the questions presented in this movie. It doesn’t have an agenda. It plays with our expectations, maybe our preconceived notions of what a ghost hunter is, what grieving has to do with our communication.

If you describe it as a ghost story, it’s a bad description. But it is a ghost story.

Paul Harrill

It’s the best description you have. It’s a bad description, but it’s the best description you have.

Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan in Light from Light.
Marin Ireland and Jim Gaffigan in Light from Light.
Greta Zozula; courtesy of Sundance Institute

Marin Ireland

I remember when I was preparing for it, I was like, “I guess I should read about being a ghost hunter.” I asked Paul, “What’s the best book?” He suggested one, and I was reading it, but I was like, “This somehow doesn’t feel at all relevant.” Normally, I’d be like, “Okay. I get to learn how to be a ghost hunter for this movie.” And eventually be talking to interviewers about like, how I learned to use a particular ghost-hunting tool.

But [ghost hunters’ stories] started to feel completely irrelevant to what I was actually going to be doing in the movie. I realized that what was actually happening with my character is that she’s looking for meaning. Is there something bigger than me? Is there some use that I have? She’s concerned with those ideas. Is there a way that I can be of use to people in this world? Is there a way that I can access something genuinely profound in the world? Can I actually access that?

Are we just moving through the world half-sleeping? How do we access something miraculous together, and what does that feel like? Can that feel mundane, or does it have to be a bolt of lightning, or a ghost showing up? Can it be something else?

That’s something genuinely terrifying to ask in your own life. Can I be of use to another human being? Can I ever access something profound? Is there a way to have meaning in my life without changing the world necessarily?

That’s the terror of this movie: Can you connect with something bigger than you?

Alissa Wilkinson

That connection thing is one of the biggest mysteries of being human, right? Even how you connect with your characters as actors and artists.

Paul Harrill

When we were preparing and going through the script in, like, coffeehouses — I feel like I probably said this out loud to each of you [gestures at Jim and Marin] at one point or another. I would never claim to know everything about these characters. I think we’re told as writers, in screenwriting books and stuff like that, that you’ve got to know everything about your characters. You’ve got to be able to answer all the questions.

But I feel like it’s actually perfectly acceptable to not know everything. People are fundamentally complex and mysterious. Some things I could probably figure out, but it’s more interesting for it to be a collaborative process with Jim or with Marin. I have my version of the character; Marin then takes that and it makes Sheila hers. Characters are mysteries, and they need to remain mysteries for people to be able to bring themselves to the film.

Marin Ireland

Yeah. I always used to tell Paul, “I’ll maybe know how to play this character the day we wrap.”

Paul Harrill

We filmed the first scene last. I remember you saying it that night, “I’m so glad this is the last thing we’re filming.”

Marin Ireland

Especially because the first scene is a long story about myself. I was like, “Oh, I can tell this story now, because it was the last day.” At like three o’clock in the morning or whatever on the last day — my favorite time to shoot. [laughs]

Alissa Wilkinson

I’m actually really interested in the particularity of the place in which the film is set and where you shot. If you go to an independent film festival, half the films are set in Brooklyn and the other half are in LA, often for totally legitimate budget reasons. But a movie like this is refreshingly different.

Paul Harrill

I grew up in East Tennessee. I live there now. I’ve lived elsewhere, but it’s my axis mundi. You have to tell a story someplace. A short story can be set anywhere, but in film you actually have to film the scene in a particular place. Locations are important, and so is being in a community where I know the characters. Even if I don’t know the woman who works at the rental counter, I feel like I’m in that community. I don’t know those fish hatchery guys, but I know there are guys in my family who worked at similar kinds of places.

It’s not about writing what I know autobiographically, but it’s about feeling comfortable and to write, to explore something truthfully.

2019 Sundance Film Festival - “Light From Light” Premiere
Gaffigan, Harrill, and Ireland at the movie’s Sundance premiere in January 2019.
Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images

Jim Gaffigan

Yeah. I’m from a small town in Indiana. In Eastern Tennessee, we were on the edge of Appalachia. Being a person of faith there is more common than where I live now; I’ve lived in New York for 30 years. But in Eastern Tennessee, it’s more common to be a person that goes to church than one who doesn’t go to church. That would inform Richard’s feeling that he was not really a believer, that he was someone who was a reluctant participant only because of his wife.

By the way, it depends on the community, but there is something about that area that is just more ...

Marin Ireland

Ghosty. Everybody is super into ghosts. We talked about it very casually.

Jim Gaffigan

We could be dismissive of that, saying it’s superstitious. Or we can say it’s an openness.

So that geography, I think, is really important.

Also, I think what Richard wanted in life and what he got is informed by that area, as opposed to, like, being an actor and a comedian in New York City. It was interesting to play this guy who wanted kids and never had them, and to be a guy who has kids who doesn’t want them. [Everyone laughs; Gaffigan’s stand-up comedy often leans on his experiences with being a father of five.]

No, I’m joking, obviously. But that’s what I love about acting: There are different scenarios, different versions of you, because you can only play versions of yourself, really. Richard is a scenario that could have played out, I think, for me.

Marin Ireland

I have a story. I watched Paul’s movie Something, Anything, and there’s that important scene with fireflies. [In the film, a woman experiencing a spiritual crisis encounters the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains at a pivotal moment in her life, and it’s a profound experience for her. The fireflies only synchronize for a brief season every year.]

I asked Paul, “That’s real? They synchronize every year?” He was like, “Do you want to go?”

I flew down for like 24 hours. I had to do it. We didn’t know if it would be too early, but it was the only 24-hour period I had. But I felt like I had to go.

Two of the film’s producers had just shown up also, and so the four of us went into the Smoky Mountains. I’d never been to Tennessee. I get there, we hike up into the Smoky Mountains, and I felt like I was around ghosts. It’s pitch black, and then the fireflies all start blinking at once.

Nobody’s moving, nobody can have flashlights because it disrupts the fireflies. You can feel people’s presences around you, but also just the experience of feeling like you’re watching like a silent miraculous thing. It felt like a miracle, and it was silent, and beautiful, and completely organic. That, to me, was something that no reading of ghost hunter books or walking around Tennessee or whatever could have done for me. I felt steeped in something that feels really part of the place.

So, I don’t understand Sheila without that location. She feels to me just like that area. It feels like that’s who she is.

Paul Harrill

Yeah. It’s like emotional research, or something. That was what mattered.

Marin Ireland

Plus, some of them are called blue ghost fireflies! I was like, “What are those blue ones called?” Paul said, “I think you call them blue ghosts.” I was like, “Come on, Paul. That can’t be true.” It was.

Alissa Wilkinson

So, was there anything in particular that you took away from the experience of making this film? Something you’re hanging onto for the future?

Jim Gaffigan

Well, for me, I am a slow-talking Midwesterner. Typically, when I act, inevitably the director will be like, “Can you just pick up the pace?” Whereas with Paul, he was like, “That’s good. You go slow.” [everyone laughs]

The pacing of this film adds an authenticity to the characters’ experiences, and so I think my takeaway was that silence is a great way to communicate intimacy. I didn’t know that.

Now, I’m trying to teach my kids that.

Marin Ireland

You don’t have a ton of time to make these kinds of [slow and contemplative] movies, and invariably, you are putting your trust in the director, editor, writer, whoever it is. I felt, in some ways, way more vulnerable than Sheila during most of the scenes, which was a really interesting experience for me as an actor. I remember being like I’m just putting all my trust in Paul because I’ve had an emotional experience watching his work and reading this script.

When you’re shooting these scenes, it’s slower and stiller. And you’re like, I guess this is working, because Paul’s happy. And after we wrapped one particularly emotional scene, we felt really good. It was like good clean work, like ran a marathon or something. Satisfying, like we climbed a mountain or something.

I felt like the movie allowed for a different kind of opening in the work for me than I had experienced in a long time. I felt the capacity to give myself over to the thing itself, to whatever mysterious path it was going to be, and that can be rewarding. It was really amazing and special for me.

Paul Harrill

Light from Light is not for everyone. It’s definitely not for everyone. Some people are going to come into it hearing “ghost story,” and they’re going to be wildly disappointed or frustrated with what they get. For me, learning to be comfortable with that was one step.

But then, something’s been happening. It first happened at Sundance, but it’s happened a few times since, where people will come up to me or just share with a theater full of people about the cathartic experience they just had, processing some kind of loss or some kind of trauma by watching this film. And it’s very powerful. I was not at all prepared for how deeply it could hit people, even though I’ve poured myself into the movie. Everyone did. To see that is incredibly gratifying, and it feels like the work was all worth it.

Light from Light opened in select theaters on November 1.

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