Matthew Porterfield’s latest film, Putty Hill, is an unabashed ode to shared memory and loss and a beautifully realized piece of work, making good on the artistic promise that many critics and supporters saw in his debut. He spoke with BOMBlog’s Pamela Cohn about his work, his turbulent past, and his approach to the technique and theory of making films.
The epigraph at the end of Matthew Porterfield’s first film, Hamilton, is taken from a poem “The Grownup,” by Rilke and it gives a bit of insight into what inspires the young director when making his films: “. . . Till in the midst of play, / transfiguring and preparing for the future, / the first white veil descended, gliding softly”. Porterfield’s transfigurations have been garnering attention, deservedly. Hamilton, a dream-like portrait of a small family in Baltimore, prompted Richard Brody, in his Top 20 Films of the Decade for The New Yorker, to call it “one of the most original, moving, and accomplished American independent films in recent years.”
Porterfield’s latest film, Putty Hill, partially improvised from a five-page scenario, tells the story of a young man’s untimely death which brings together, however briefly, his fractured family and the working-class community in Baltimore in which this young man was born and raised. It is an unabashed ode to shared memory and loss and a beautifully realized piece of work that makes good on the artistic promise that many critics and supporters saw in Porterfield’s debut. The 89-minute Putty Hill ended up costing about $20,000 to make, and was shot on HD Cam in just under two weeks in August of 2009 in Baltimore, the Maryland city Porterfield still calls home and where he teaches film production at Johns Hopkins University. The film premiered at the Berlinale Film Festival this past February and had its US début at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas last month. It’s now being shown at various festivals around the world, and will appear at Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAMcinemaFEST this Sunday, June 13 at 8:45. It is not to be missed. I had a chance recently to sit down with Porterfield for a long talk over brunch in the West Village on a dreary, rainy day before he was off to the next festival, tirelessly and patiently working the circuit.
Pamela Cohn: To me, what stands out about your work, thus far—and I know you’ve only just begun—is a very distinct personal vision. This is exciting to see. You focus on the world you create in a very specific way, an inquisitive, yet respectful, gaze, creating a deeply engaging experience for a viewer. And it’s such a circumscribed world, close, very quiet, intimate.
Matthew Porterfield: I often think of Jonas Mekas’ long-form film, As I Was Moving Ahead, Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty (2001). One of the inter-titles talks about how only the local is the universal—which, in turn, is a quote from something else. It’s been said before, it’s borrowed, but it’s true. I make films that are set in a very specific milieu, and I very much intend to address universal themes.
PC: It’s a challenge to craft narrative based on such, seemingly, mundane experiences or actions. Filmically, how do you realize that? It’s a strange form of transcendence to watch “life go by” on a movie screen and it’s hard to articulate what that feeling consists of, like walking through a dream, the atmosphere just envelops you. I felt that very much in watching both your films. You’re able to express a state of mind; that’s incredibly difficult to pull off. Your work is lush and filled with nostalgia; my sense memory was in overdrive and I’ve never even been to Baltimore.
MP: The way an audience is asked to engage with the subject and the world of my films is very close to the way I interact with the world. I will say probably my greatest strength as a filmmaker is that I’m a very open person and can communicate with pretty much anybody. I don’t know why I have that ability but I’m very open to the universal experience. We’re all going through the same things whether we live in New York, Baltimore City, wherever. It’s very easy for me to get lost in someone else’s life, and quickly. I can make a connection and earn someone’s trust very fast. My films ask audiences to be open in the same way. It’s easy to enter into someone’s life, sit down, listen to them.
I want to learn things from people. Ultimately, I’m interested in learning from others, from their routines, their daily lives. For me, that’s just as fascinating to see on screen as a well-crafted potboiler might be. When I develop a scenario, I fill notebooks with transcriptions of meditations I have in a certain environment or particular location and the characters that inhabit it. And it is often personal and nostalgic. So far, my first two films have been set in a locale that’s really familiar to me. It’s easy for me to imagine scenes set in these particular places that involve characters that are, perhaps, cobbled together from people I know, or knew, or have seen. This focus on what others might consider banal or mundane, allows me to fully craft this world that exists in the real world but lives also on the page. In turn, I can articulate it for the screen, eventually.
These worlds are fully realized because they’re tied to the natural world but also contain their own logic. I thought a lot more about audience in this regard, much more when I was crafting the screenplay for Metal Gods [the title of the feature script Porterfield was developing and meant to make] and, in turn, thinking about Putty Hill. I think less about the way an audience might engage with the world of the film and more about how the craft of the film, the tools that we use, all have certain signifiers and meanings for a viewer. It’s a combination of story and how the story is told. I think a lot about devices like the use of sound or the use of an extremely long take, the photography, the way two scenes transition. I like people to be aware, at times, that they’re watching a movie, but then to use more traditional means to bring them in so they connect emotionally with the characters. I do like to keep them at a distance, too, which I think happens in both films.
PC: I was excited when I first heard you say that Pedro Costa is such an inspiration to you. Not too many reference his work and I think what he does is particularly profound in respect to the relationships he has with his subjects/characters. I had a very similar reaction to watching his films as I had to yours in that I found myself having to quickly tear down a habitual way of watching movies to take advantage of what he’s offering. You offer some of the same things, an intense investment and engagement.
MP: It’s so easy to keep doing the same thing. It does reinforce this kind of complacency that keeps us closed off. Any form of media is an expression. Art is born from it in some sense, from a human or collective of humans. So it’s valid. But I also think it closes us off to experiencing the world more fully. I really believe that cinema has this potential to help us see the world. It’s its own thing with its own rules with which we can engage. I’m into that part of the game.
I believe in it and think it’s important, especially right now. It’s the way we look at other people; the way we experience relationships, places. People are still watching movies on television. On some level when you sit down and turn on the TV, you know you’re watching a movie, a representation of reality. Maybe it’s pure fiction; maybe it walks the line; maybe it’s called a documentary, approaching a different kind of truth. It doesn’t matter. All the things that come into our visual cortex affect the way we interpret the world. In other words, there is meaning. It’s important to honor the subjects in our films just as we would the people we come across in our lives. There’s a moral obligation, maybe you could say an ethical responsibility, to our subjects.
PC: You profile kids who have a particular way of looking at the world and a distinct way of relating to one another that is quite tender. A lot of times, there is no verbal communication at all, or barely any. You represent more of this tribal way of being together, smoking, swimming, sitting around. It’s a lot of fun to talk about genre-bending, disregarding genre altogether, what have you, but what’s important, I think, is the way in which something is visualized, recorded. We recognize the tropes of a sitcom, of a TV movie, of a commercial, of an ad, etc. But maybe we can lose sight of those rhythms that represent a life lived. You capture that really beautifully.
In Putty Hill, you introduce an interloper, of sorts—an off-camera voice asking your characters questions, seemingly out of the blue. The first time I heard it, it gave me an eerie feeling, as if something from another dimension entirely had landed in their midst and just started engaging with them as characters. And they just talk to you as they do to one another without any kind of shift in demeanor or the way in which they communicate. Talk a bit about this engagement you have with your actors, both onscreen and off. What’s the draw for you to work with non-professionals?
MP: In Hamilton, there were a couple of actors who studied acting and drama at an area high school in Baltimore where there’s a strong performing arts program. A couple of them had no experience at all. The female lead, Lena the young mother, played by Stephanie Vizzi, was from the Baltimore School of the Arts but had never been in a film, just done some high school theater. Chris Myers, who plays Joe, was totally self-taught. He dropped out of high school at sixteen. He’d done some professional gigs, cameos, small roles in The Wire, and was in some of John Waters’ films.
I’m open to working with anybody though. My way of communicating probably wouldn’t change with a professional. I definitely cater my way of communicating to the individual actor I’m working with though. Some need a lot from me. Sky [Ferriera], for example, who plays Jenny, or Cathy Evans who plays Cory’s mom in Putty Hill both wanted a lot of information, a lot of back-story, to talk through things. They came with lots of questions. And I took the time to engage. Others became obsessed with what it was they were going to say. So we’d talk through that a lot together. What they said wasn’t so important to me, it’s how everything else fit together, which helped to articulate the naturalism I meant to create.
Ultimately, I know that anyone who’s performing in front of a camera, whether professional or not, wants to feel safe in the hands of the director and the crew, so a real connection has to be made. My natural inclination, if possible, is to give everyone an action; that’s where my focus is. I’m not interested in talking a lot about motivation. I’d rather talk about the fictional history or have them talk about their own life, if that’s what they want to do. Or talk about how their character relates to another, any way for them to connect with what’s going on. They can draw on their own experience. I’d rather they focus on the action.
David Mamet in On Directing Film has this great chapter on directing actors. It’s a transcription of a lecture where he talks about a scene. And in this scene, there’s this guy that comes early to class to meet with his professor before his classmates arrive because he wants to petition him on his grade. That’s the super objective. But in the scene or shot, the camera’s just covering the actor walking down the hall and trying the door, which is locked. He sits down in the hallway to wait for his teacher to come. Mamet asks the students, what do you tell the actor? They give him all this information, all the motivations for this actor to be thinking about and the emotions he’s experiencing, his relationship with the teacher, all this stuff. It’s just a shot of the actor walking down the hall and trying the doorknob, you know? All the actor needs to know, and I believe this too, is that they’re walking down the hall and trying the doorknob. And that’s what you tell him. It’s best to keep it simple and focused on the action. That’s what I did, instinctively, on Hamilton, and I also did that in Putty Hill. In Putty Hill, we opened it up a little more; it was more collaborative. Actors had a chance to shape the dialogue with one another and with me.
There is a concern that if I do start working with more professional actors trained in a certain method, there might be some resistance to this way of working. You honor everyone’s methods whatever their breadth of experience. I’m pretty good at figuring out ways in which to work with any individual. My desire to work with non-professionals came out of a couple of things. In one way, it was born out of necessity. And I wanted to work with young people. I’m interested in regular teenagers in a certain milieu. They’re a part of the environment just like the backyard swimming pool or playground or skate-park. It’s all part of the mise-en-scène, real kids from this real place. I look to someone like Bresson as a kind of shepherd in terms of his instinct to work with non-professionals in his films, the idea of the value of that, the openness.
PC: You describe your work as “narrative realism,” in terms of defining a phrase that might describe this unique genre in which you’re working. It’s a pretty fraught phrase but speaks to this unfiltered way of working with story, and the characters that are enacting that story.
One of the most fascinating characters in Putty Hill is Spike, Jenny’s dad. He’s telling us his own story and I can see why you were so drawn to him and kept after him to appear in the film. He’s got one of those coiled presences—a tremendous amount roiling beneath the surface, yet he’s rather subdued. Maybe because of his drug habit, he doesn’t really respond emotionally to things as we expect him to, but he’s fascinating to watch. He’s such a lightening rod for so much of what’s going on in the overall story. It’s such rich raw material but not an easy feat to direct someone like that. How much control do you really feel you have over that?
MP: I could talk volumes about Spike. Working with someone like that is as much about letting go as it is about maintaining control. In Hamilton, I really struggled to maintain control. It was really important to me that we nail all the scenes. Putty Hill was a very different experience. Maybe because my hand was forced and I had nothing to lose, I relinquished control in a lot of instances. It’s a much more open film; it contains more magic than my first film does because we were open to the possibility of magic. I know how to assemble a strong crew and an interesting cast and a number of good locations. When I began casting for Metal Gods, I was looking for people to fit these roles that I’d written. But along the way, I met all these other people. Spike was one of them. When I switched gears, it became more about them than the characters. Whatever they brought to the screen was perfectly acceptable.
PC: So, in essence then, you might say you became more of a documentarian at that point, another way to interpret the different levels of reality you’re portraying?
MP: I knew there were some things I needed. For example, I wanted Spike to answer some specific questions and I wanted to lead him toward telling the story that he told me the first day I met him, that of the tragic death of his first wife and his act of vengeance. But it was also important to me that it was of the scene, and not an interview like the others. We set it up in such a way so that Spike was tattooing Jeff and I was off-screen telling Jeff what to say to Spike. So I was essentially interviewing Spike. That was the one interview that broke form and it was really important to me because I didn’t want it to be a traditional interview. We did do a more traditional “talking head” interview with Spike and it was very brutal and very sad and very different. It was important that it was his client that was asking the questions, not me.
PC: It’s hard to know what to call those interstitial “interviews” you conduct with your young characters. Because they are kids and we only hear this disembodied voice talking to them, it becomes encoded with all kinds of interesting stuff. They are scenes within the context of the story, but those “interviews,” to me, are really what break form. Who’s the interviewer?
MP: My editor, Mark Vives, says a great thing about it—he calls it “the voice of the film.” Not that of the filmmaker or another character, but the voice of the film itself, asking these questions of the characters on screen. In a sense, I could say that I’m thinking about Godard, or referencing what he sporadically did on that level in some of his films. Masculin Féminin comes to mind where he interviews the young model. He’ll do that periodically. It breaks the narrative up.
PC: It’s always a bit jarring, putting us in much closer proximity emotionally to the people we’re watching on screen. I’m a fan of the fourth wall crumbling, but it’s really tricky to get it right.
MP: That was also something very important to me, something I wanted to pay particular attention to and that, I believe, we nailed in every instance. It follows along the lines of my obsession with scene transitions. I’m always spending a lot of time thinking about how one scene is going to transition into the next. In this case, it was very important to me that we transitioned in and out of the interviews in a way that made it appear more seamless, more organic, that fucked with the audience a little more. If there is a talking head scene, then a narrative scene, etc., they would seem separate, like watching two different films, vignettes that aren’t organically related.
For example, when Cody’s interviewed at the skate-park, he doesn’t just stand up when the interview’s over and jump on his skateboard as we cut to some other scene. It’s the same with the intro to the paintball scene. James gets shot, comes and sits down and slides into an interview. That was the way in which, for me, the sort of documentary aspect mixed with pure narrative would create a cohesive link.
PC: The year before making this film, your life pretty much derailed, both professionally and personally. You’re very open about that aspect of how you brought yourself to this piece, and that what was happening in your life became integrated into the film. Can you talk about that time in your life, the year leading up to shooting Putty Hill?
MP: After studying film at NYU and working a bunch of odd jobs, I stayed on in New York for four or five years. Then I left the industry completely, taught kindergarten, and was thinking about returning to school after four years of teaching.
When I first decided to leave New York, I thought about going to school or moving back to Baltimore and making a movie. I reach these places in my personal life every five years or so that necessitate a really big change and it happens to coincide with my work life in a way. I had no work life, no creative work life so to speak, when I was living in New York. Teaching was rewarding and rich but I had reached a point where I needed to try and make something.
I’d been watching a lot of movies, becoming increasingly more interested in cinematic realism, the mythic potential of realism. The films that really struck me were the kind that lulled me, in a way, operated on this level of dream or trance, films made by Kurosawa, Kiarostami, Ozu, Bresson. I hadn’t discovered Pedro Costa at that point, but he became a great influence, as well. I realized that that was what I was trying to achieve in a sense, or at least I wanted to move in that direction.
Anyway, by chance, we received a bit of success with Hamilton, and suddenly I was in a position to try and make another film. As when I made my first film, when I was ready to make my second, I had nothing to lose—literally.
PC: Always a good place from which to work.
MP: It is. It frees you to an extent. I was very deliberate in approaching Hamilton—everything was scripted, storyboarded, mapped out in detail—and for the most part, we got everything I wanted. As I said, we had good luck with it, some good press. But to make another, it was going to be really hard. I had no money so I was going to try and finance it a bit more traditionally. I decided to write a script where I didn’t think about the economy of the project but just let my imagination go. So it was something that was a bit bigger.
PC: Very close upon the start of production for Metal Gods, the bulk of your financing fell through. You were left with the $20,000 you had raised on your own and you decided to use some of the characters already cast for Metal Gods. You had a loyal and supportive crew in place. You drafted a very brief outline of a film that would turn out to be Putty Hill, which you shot in just under two weeks this past summer in Baltimore. The end result of this wild ride is admirably pared down to a very elegant and transcendent film, which was made while your life, basically, was falling down around you.
MP: My marriage ended right after we shot Putty Hill. I had developed all kinds of bad habits the year leading up to the shoot of the film. That’s when I started drinking heavily, self-medicating. I tried to kill myself. It was heavy. I really went through a hard time. It was a trying year for my wife [to whom the film is dedicated]. From April to early July 2009, when we decided to switch gears and shoot Putty Hill, I knew things were dire. I really reached a hopeless state. I was disappearing on three-day binges, smoking, blacking out, all this culminating in a suicide attempt. It was a matter of survival that I make something. I had people that believed in me, believed in the project. So we decided to just do something totally new with the money we had in place.
Part of that fictional element of Cory and his death has a really personal element. I spent a lot of time imagining my own death and how that would affect all the people in my life. Being in a desperate place that year before shooting, it was easy to identify with this absent protagonist—the dead boy we never see (except in a funeral portrait at the end of the film. The most fictional aspect of the film is the most personal. So yeah, we all pulled together and shot it in twelve days.
PC: And your state of mind, how did it shift when you walked onto your set and started the first day of shooting?
MP: I knew I had to sober up quickly, so I quit drinking. Once everyone started coming to town, especially my producers, Steve Holmgren and Jordan Mintzer, who came the week before to do the pre-production, I stopped drinking. I didn’t tell anybody this, but my life, in a sense, was in their hands. Joyce Kim, Eric Bannat [producers], Steve, Jordan, Jeremy Saulnier [director of photography], and my wife—if it wasn’t for those people, I could not have made the film; I could not have made it through. It was the force of their belief in me and the project and their energy. Because mine was so diverted. Their presences and the things they focused their energies on allowed me to focus completely and utterly on talking to my actors, fine-tuning the scenarios. The shoot was so good. Hamilton was very stressful for me although I always felt positive. But this was a joy, every single day. It felt so good to be working with these people, with these actors. It was amazing.
PC: Well, it’s probably, all in all, a good thing if you don’t repeat that kind of downward spiral, but you won’t be able to duplicate that again, I would suspect, that burst of creative energy that will, literally, save your life.
MP: Yes. . . . This brings me back to Spike. He’s an addict and needs to feel safe during production, just like anyone else. But at the same time, part of earning his trust was that in getting to know him, he could see where I was coming from. I hope this doesn’t change, but one of the reasons I was able to connect with those people in dark places was because I’d been through them. I can sit down with Spike, be with him. It’s not that I’m going to shoot heroin with him, but we understand one another.
PC: What are your expectations, if any, about how this film will be received by audiences? It could be said—and I’m hesitant to say this—but it could be said that this is a film before its time. The appreciation of this work might be a slow build; that is to say, the film will time travel quite well, I believe.
MP: That’s cool.
PC: But you want this film’s time to be now, ostensibly. Where is its place do you think? Have you and Steve and Jordan talked about this?
MP: Steve has an interesting idea I like a lot and it’s something we’ve talked about with some potential distributors. If we do get theatrical distribution, we want to find a way to play in cities in two capacities, as long as it doesn’t take away from theater box office. We’d like the film to play at local universities and high schools—take the film to them instead of relying on them to find the film. It would be part of the tour, these special one night screenings for a specific audience. I don’t know if it’s naïve to think that schools would embrace Putty Hill.
PC: I think kids would embrace the film. They see very few authentic portrayals of themselves in the media, as it is. But how to market to them? Do kids even go to the movies anymore?
MP: They go to the big multiplexes. I think about the ones in Baltimore where kids make a night of it. They’re centered in areas where there are also malls. Those are exactly the groups of kids I want to see this movie. But there’s no way we’re going to play the multiplex in Whitemarsh, you know? I wish we could. I feel like it’s the type of film, if given the opportunity, would really play well with young people. Word of mouth would spread.
PC: So, what’s next?
MP: I could push this work I’m doing further. I have a couple of scenarios that I’d been developing at the same time I was developing Metal Gods. I could return to those. One is an adaptation of an Anne Carson novel, The Autobiography of Red. It would be really tricky. And expensive. I’m looking at the rights though, and they are available.
PC: The rights are expensive?
MP: It would be expensive to make. It would require a bit of money to do right by the story in terms of locations. Part of it is set in Buenos Aires. The production would require a good amount of lighting, nice camera, etc. It’s a more ambitious project, in that sense. I have another story of two foreign exchange students on the eastern shore of Maryland for a summer. That would probably be a lower budget project. Also, since Putty Hill, I’ve been thinking about returning to an idea I had as a student, a short I made about this utopian group home set in Bushwick [Brooklyn]. It falls in line with everything I’ve done since, using all non-professional actors, kids I met. I had been living in a group home for a while when I was a student at NYU. I hadn’t received any student housing and I was on the street.
PC: During the time you were at film school there? You didn’t have a place to live?
MP: No. I lived in Covenant House for a while and made this film with all these kids that lived there and a bunch of other people. I shot it in the apartment I finally ended up finding, which was in Bushwick. Unfortunately—or, maybe for the best—we lost all the sound rolls. I’m not really sure how it happened. But I have all the footage and cut a bit of it together and I have a lot of stills. It looks great. It’s an idea that I think could be interesting and could work in Baltimore and also would allow me to continue this kind of exploration, the line between documentary and fiction.
PC: What’s so compelling about Baltimore? Not personally, obviously, since that’s your home, but as a filmmaker? What’s so ideal about making films in that place for you?
MP: In this crazy way, I feel like it’s America, in miniature. It represents what plagues most cities like it in the US—second-tier, post-industrial, working class city with a diverse population, but divided, stratified along the lines of race, economics, class, all those things. Since opening the lines of communication and bridging gaps is a priority for me in my work, it seems like a place where those things are necessary, essential. I can feel like my work is not just accomplishing an aesthetic, but also, on some level, performing a social function. I feel that in Baltimore, I’m doing good work that might change the way people see things. Physically and geographically, I feel like it’s just really rich.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t think about shooting somewhere else if it made sense economically. I’d love to shoot a film in Reno, Nevada (laughter), which has a lot to offer, too. I don’t know. I guess Baltimore, for me, allows me to get to a place where I could make a film anywhere, but right now, I’m most comfortable working with what I know.
PC: Would you consider directing someone else’s script? Or, perhaps, allowing someone to direct something you’d written?
MP: Sure. I’d be game for either. But, for me, the script is such a means to an end. It’s hard for me to imagine someone taking a screenplay of mine and choosing to direct it. To me, it’s full of this coded information. Metal Gods is a bit different. The screenplay for Hamilton was pretty terrible, actually. But the script for Metal Gods is a good read. I spent a lot of time on it because communicating to other people, besides my collaborators was an important part of getting it made. Whether anyone else would see something in it and want to make it, I don’t know.
One of the things I love about Pedro Costa is that his films are somewhere where Godard meets Bresson. If you think about their careers, Bresson worked tirelessly to perfect an aesthetic while Godard keeps reinventing himself, which is also really inspiring. You have Costa who works with very specific parameters, in a sense. He keeps returning to a certain neighborhood in Lisbon, but approaches each film as a new challenge, with a new language. I think I’d like to have a career that allows me to continue to challenge myself, not continue to do the same thing. How to do that is the big question.
Before we started this interview, you talked about your motivation for wanting to have this conversation, how in talking to different artists, you want to explore how someone gets to a place where they “become a filmmaker.” I feel like, so often, it happens by sheer luck. You know, the cards fall. There are superb filmmakers like Peter Greenaway, and many others, who are architects or come from other disciplines, others who have maybe always appreciated film, critics or theorists who come to it from that place.
PC: Yes, but there are people who can make a film. And there are, distinctly, people who cannot. So, despite the compulsion to make a film, or despite the opportunity to do so, I think there is also innately knowing that that is the particular form in which you can be at your most fluid and articulate.
MP: I think I knew that when I was writing Metal Gods. Now I’m sure of it after making Putty Hill. Actually, at this point, I feel like it’s the only thing I can do. I have no other choice.