On Friday, I had the chance to sit down and talk to Matt Porterfield, a filmmaker from Baltimore, who is gearing up to show his new film, Putty Hill at SxSw next week, and at the Maryland Film Festival in May.
Porterfield showed his debut film at the Maryland Film Festival back in 2006, and was working on a film called Metal Gods until he decided to “pull the plug” several months before production due to lack of finances. With the crew locked and the cast ready to go, Porterfield said “it was either wait a year or shoot another film.” He decided to start a new project with a camera package that he had been given as a grant through IFP and Panasonic for a 3 week rental. The new project, Putty Hill started with just a 4-5 paged treatment in place and was shot in 12 days back in August using both documentary and narrative form.
How do you pick the locations in Baltimore that you want to shoot?
That’s a good question and one of my favorite parts of the process. Having grown up here I have rich memories, palpable memories, there’s a lot of nostalgia connected to certain places, I felt it particularly all those years I was living in New York. I guess that’s why all the scenes I was writing were set in Baltimore city. Typically I’ll start—when I’m writing a scenario, a very specific image tied to a particular place and time. It could be a parking lot, a field or a forest, or a park, the interior of someone’s home, something I’ve seen in passing and for whatever reason retained. And I kind of work in reverse in that it’s the specific locations that inspire the story, the narrative. So In the case of Hamilton I knew that I wanted to set the film in Northeast Baltimore, in Hamilton in the neighborhood where I grew up and on the blocks that were so familiar to me as a kid. So there’s a lot of above ground pools, swing sets, laundromats, like rich sunny greens, flowers, asphalt..just these things that I could see in my mind that I thought were strong visual cues to the story I wanted to tell.
How do you think your films would change if you were to set them somewhere like Philadelphia?
I think about it a lot because the film industry in Maryland is really suffering now because we don’t have competitive text incentives—so a lot of our crew base are moving other places to the Carolinas, Lousiana, Michigan- offers really competitive text incentives. So it’s hard to convince either an experienced production company or a novice private equity investor to give you financing for a project that doesn’t offer a very strong tax return. Films cost so much money if you can get like a 35 percent return on your investment automatically that means you have to raise less but also your investors see that right off the top..so its just more appealing. Anyway long story short, I think about being forced to work in another city and I think I could do it, yet whenever I sit down to write, the stories I want to tell are all set here. I am working on a couple adaptations that might make sense in other places but I feel like the reason why I make films is because I want to explore this particular environment and our sort of unique experience living in Baltimore. I think its very special city and I guess there’s just a lot of things that I try to figure out in my work about living here.
So what was it like showing “Putty Hill” in Berlin (at the Berlinale)?
Amazing. It was crazy. The scale of everything is huge. You know it’s like one of the top 5 festivals in the world, after Cannes it’s the biggest international fest’. And it’s a market too so there are people buying and selling films, and all that was overwhelming. The theaters themselves seat upwards of 500 people, every one. We had 5 screenings and they were always sold out, the Q and A’s were really good afterwards. And across the board from press, Germany and Austria in particular, and audiences just like regular movie goers and industry people alike—we got a lot of really great feedback. And I think it’s being able to premiere on that stage at the level is really going to help us have a really long year. And play a lot of fests international and domestic. We were invited to like 10 right after our press screening, so its pretty cool and the city, Berlin is amazing I could live there it reminds me of Baltimore a bit…its an easy place to live and work as an artist.
So you’re going to SxSw…
Yea, I’m going to SxSw end of next week actually so I’ve never played there, that’s a really great place to premiere, I think it will be a good fit for this film. Better than Sundance or Tribeca or some of the other ones we thought of. I think there’s a culture of filmgoers there who really appreciate like a real grassroots, DIY effort and a tradition of being interested in youth films, regional films and also just films that combine culture and music, and so I think all of those things will appeal to audiences there, at least I hope so.
How do you feel watching the film with an audience?
It’s terrible. I hate it. I really don’t like it, especially the first time. I feel like my energy somehow affects the energy of the room– like it exits my body and like I don’t know..because I’m so anxious—when you see it projected on a big, big screen, bigger than you’ve ever seen it before with a Dolby sound system you always notice things that you want to change, which is good because we’ve gone back since our Berlinale premiere and made a couple changes to picture and sound, so it’s a better film that we are going to play at SxSw. So that’s good but I mean I won’t make a habit of sitting through the film much anymore, I’ll attend our North American premiere and South by’ just because I think it will be really interesting and different to see it with an American audience. I want to.. but yeah you can only do it a couple of times, it’s pretty painful.
What is it like when someone gives negative feedback at a Q and A—having that conversation in front of the entire audience?
I had only one instance—actually no two– two instances in Berlin—someone got up it was basically just a comment ‘your film seemed really long’ and then another woman said, and this I thought was a more interesting point and one that I wanted to explore—-she felt that the way in which we combined traditions of documentary and narrative realism perplexed and bothered her, she didn’t think it was right. Because there are subjects on screen telling stories from their own lives but then there is also a fictional element to the film, and that bothered her she didn’t like not knowing where she stood. And some people are going to experience it that way, so I acknowledged that as totally valid because it is. You know so I try to be gracious, but if it’s an attack you ignore it or make a joke but you also just try not to diminish anyone because if someone is raising their hand to speak up they obviously feel strongly about your film. I mean it’s rare that you have someone that wants to attack you or make you look stupid. The only time I ever felt that was when we played in Vienna and this guy got up and berated me but in German—so I didn’t understand anything he said, but the audience was just like “BOO—-BOO” and the moderator was like “uh.. I’m not even going to translate that.”
How supportive do you think Baltimore as a city has been?
The city I really feel like opened its arms to us. We were given a lot of free services and goods, all our meals were donated by local business. Equipment rental houses that are in town gave us incredible deals. You know everybody just wants to see the industry thrive and when they hear about somebody who is making a small film for not a lot of money and not a ton of resources they are really willing to support it. And I think that’s true of all the arts, that’s why we have so many working artists here. Film is expensive so it’s a little trickier, but there’s such a good music scene and art scene here because the people of the city want to support the local arts scene.
What is it like working with non- professional actors? Do you feel like they get it right away or what do you feel like you have to explain to them?
I do like working with non-professional actors. In the case of Putty Hill really none of them had experience in front of the camera. I think I learned a lot from making this film, and from making Hamilton—I certainly learned from my mistakes that time. I think whether actors are professional or not you have to make them feel safe so they can bring a level of emotional honesty to their performance and take risks, which is what you want. Hamilton, my first film was fully scripted so I was asking on top of a level of performance I was asking my lead actors to memorize and deliver lines. This time around it was fully improvisational and I was I think on the whole more pleased with the results.
I think the performances in Hamilton are quite good, but I felt like more risks were taken in Putty Hill because it was more collaborative in a way. I think sometimes it’s harder to ask a non-professional actor to deliver lines with authenticity, but if you can get them to a collaborative space where they feel comfortable figuring out words they might say that sound good—and fit the scene..there is this possibility for you know magic beyond what you could have ever written. So I feel like both the potential for authenticity and magic, those are the things that draw me to work with non-professional actors. There are other challenges of course but I think they are worth it for the kind of films I want to make, at least for right now.
Are the actors that you work with all from Baltimore?
Almost everyone. One of the leads in Putty Hill, Sky Ferreira is from LA. Zoe Vance is from New York, and her friend Casey too. But for the most part everyone else is Baltimore based.
Do you think it’s helpful for them to be from Baltimore to get the feel of it?
Definitely. For this scenario, because it’s so specifically Baltimore—I think everything about the film, it was important for us to sort of build into the characters of the people who were coming from out of town that fact that they weren’t from here –that they were living somewhere else but here for a period of time. Because like Sky Ferreira for example doesn’t seem like she is from Baltimore, so if she was pretending she was from Baltimore it wouldn’t work but it’s one of those things you could easily change.
Did you give her a tour?
Totally, I originally had her cast for another film, Metal Gods that was set in Southeast Baltimore so I gave her this epic tour of Dundalk—like it’s a funny tour, no one else—no young celebrity visiting from LA would ever get. It was like East point mall, the docks,.. we were all over the place.
How have you used social media/ do you think it has helped you out?
Definitely, it’s great. I feel like I was watching my peers..well filmmakers my age or a little younger around the time we were releasing Hamilton and watching them I feel like I learned a lot. In particular Arin Crumely and Susan Buice, who had this film called Four Eyed Monsters that just went viral. There whole marketing campaign was through MySpace and they did an amazing job and the industry really paid attention to them at the time, this is like 05-06. And so sites that we’ve used now, like Kickstarter which we used to help finance Putty Hill which was kind of based on their model I think it’s tremendous there is so much potential to create buzz and reach audiences through the internet. So we use Facebook now and Twitter and it’s always been important to me to have a really solid website as sort of a home-base and I’m really pleased with Putty Hill’s which is basically a WordPress template that we can add news to and blogs.
You had the actors use their own stories in Putty Hill. How did you explain that you wanted them to share their own experiences?
I talked to a lot of them in the Metal Gods context so they were expecting to have to learn lines so when we switched gears, I had to alert them right away and be like we’re not doing Metal Gods were doing this other thing it’s a little bit different—these are the dates. And the first thing we did was make sure that they were available. And you know that’s probably one of the biggest challenges with working with young people or young non-professionals because they have other jobs and they have lives. It’s like they want to be in a movie but they don’t—it’s not real until they are actually doing it. So getting a strong commitment from them can sometimes be tricky.
I was so pleased and surprised and I don’t know just like moved by so much of what the actors bring to the film, what they do and say. There are instances both in the interviews but also in the more narrative scenes where they come up with stuff that I just never would have thought of and it’s because it’s their voice which in the end is what I’m interested in exploring and bringing to the screen. I guess at some point I identified all this time that I had gone into casting this screenplay that I had discovered people that whether or not they fit the script I really wanted to work with them– who had individual voices that I thought would be great to bring to the screen. So when I didn’t have the script anymore, it was like well now I can just talk to people. These people are really interesting and beautiful and smart..and I think audiences will take to their stories.
Has shooting in familiar areas changed your own memory of certain places?
That’s an interesting question, I think they’ve kind of merged, I’m trying to think of a specific location like Herring Run Park like how many times I’ve been there, but then how many times I’ve seen that scene. And I always thought that when I was growing up that I could never remember if my memories were really memories or photographs that I had seen with my family. You know it’s like I have whole books of photographs from my early childhood, and memories of those photographs, but I don’t actually know if their memories from the time or memories from looking at the photos. So it probably works kind of the same way. I think a lot of times when I remember places, because I’m always thinking about the cinematic potential of a thing or a place—I think about scenes that I’ve written and often times scenes that I’ve never made but are still there in my head like dreams kind of.
Is it ever hard to explain to people that aren’t from Baltimore why you chose a specific location to shoot?
People are usually really stoked on the locations I chose. If they are from Baltimore they are like “this is awesome” and if they’re not they’re like “Baltimore is crazy I can’t believe we are shooting here.” When you see Putty Hill there are just a lot of rich environments on screen, specific locations, and for my students in particular it was a real opportunity for them to see a side of the city that they wouldn’t otherwise know. It could be scary at times or challenging even for my professional New York crew, I don’t want to put anyone in danger. You know you are working with volatile personalities in a hectic environment so it can be tricky but usually at the end of the day people are just really excited for the experience.