Baltimore-based Matthew Porterfield's second feature, Putty Hill, is a remarkable and meticulously conceived mourning story that gives sanction to the complicated, salient feelings of a community in grief. After a notable festival run (SXSW, the Boston and Atlanta Film Festivals, and BAM's CinemaFest), Putty Hill opens at New York's Quad Cinema on February 18th. Porterfield spoke to me via telephone from his home in Baltimore, during which we discussed his aesthetic prerogatives, his interests in documentary traditions, and his forthcoming projects.
Your unfinished film Metal Gods predates Putty Hill and was later abandoned. Are these two projects in dialogue in any way?
Metal Gods was a film that we didn't find financing for, and we made the decision to try something different, although it seems like Metal Gods is another version of Metal Gods. Now, after having shot the film in a little over a year ago, and having spent the last year touring festivals with it for different audiences, I think it's its own film, although it couldn't exist without that context.
And was much repurposed for the new film?
Most of the key elements were transposed to Putty Hill. We had a complete cast for Metal Gods, and we had a really extensive casting call of over 500 people, mostly youth. But during that process, we'd also seen many people who didn't fit many of the roles we'd written, but who were so interesting that when I shaped the scenario for Putty Hill, I just used them as the basis for this story about a community that comes together to commemorate the loss of one of their own. For instance, someone like the tattoo artist who we see early on; he didn't really fit into Metal Gods, but I met him soon after we put a pause to the project. He was someone really instrumental and very inspirational.
What kinds of contributions did your cast make? Was there much input?
The nice thing about the project, and what was really satisfying about the process of making this film, was that we had this chronology from a five-page scenario that laid out how these characters—these nonprofessionals who were playing themselves—would appear. And the sort of binding and glue that held everything together was this narrative construct. So, within that, that was the rule—that was the sort of fiction they all had to play into. But, within that framework, we spent as much time as possible. We really didn't have a production schedule where we could rehearse the day before or the day of the shoot, so most of my time was spent talking to the performers about their relationship to this fictional character, Cory, and about scenes we were going to try to shoot, and then we started talking about the blocking. I wanted to make it as comfortable and familiar as possible for them, so that they felt free enough to take risks and come up with their own dialogue, and answer questions that were both fictional and related to their own experience.
You function as the film's off-screen interlocutor, though the interview sequences are by no means the only moments when we learn anything about these characters. For instance, I'm thinking of the conversation we hear between the tattooist and his customer. Was their much deliberation behind your decisions about who should be asking questions and when?
I guess that interview with Spike is the one that breaks form, but you're right to identify that as an interview and, in a sense, it was because I was off camera asking questions that the customer ended up delivering while we were shooting. For whatever reason, I always knew that interview would take place early on, and that it would be more of a conversation, that the question-and-answer would be taking place between two characters. For me, there could've been other ways to shoot these interviews, but what I think maybe makes the film interesting is that it creates an amalgam of techniques borrowed from documentary traditions and narrative traditions. I liked moving in and out of these very formal interviews, and it meant to be seamless despite the fact that he ends up being interviewed by another character in the story. I thought it was a nice way to reinforce the organic nature of the questions, even though they are formally outside the narrative lens of the film.
You've mentioned the influence of certain documentary traditions, though is yours an observational technique? Is there an element of curation or editorializing occurring with these interviews?
I think that the interviews themselves serve a sort of formal construction. The voice of the interview—the interlocutor—is somewhat removed or dispassionate. The whole cast, for whom I have a great amount of respect, I knew before we started shooting, from the auditions and rehearsals we held for Metal Gods. I'm self-conscious as a filmmaker toward cinematic realism, and wanted to try something that would allow me to both acknowledge the real lives of these people on screen and the element of performance. And I guess the questions served simply as a very concrete way to acknowledge that relationship, and my relationship to the characters.
Your treatment of young people is refreshing given the peculiar tendency of young filmmakers, at least in this country, toward self-flattery and sentimentality. Some of the so-called mumblecore filmmakers, for instance, run the risk of insincerity.
It's interesting, but I don't necessary have any artistic affinity with that cohort. Yet I do think that Andrew Bujalski is a very sincere, humanist filmmaker, and his films always catch me off guard. I always find myself liking them quite a lot more than I'm probably predisposed to. I loved Tiny Furniture. I thought it was a really honest, personal, risky performance, and a really great scenario. I guess Tiny Furniture and Putty Hill have more in common than they do with someone like Joe Swanberg or Andrew Bujalski, because I think they're both interested in acknowledging the line between fiction and reality, although Tiny Furniture is more of a classical narrative film. Both of us value the sort of objective reality of characters, if you will, in our story. It's just Lena Dunham playing herself, opposite her mom and her sister. It's very personal, but nor is it an autobiography. It's not a documentary. I think Aaron Katz is also doing similar things in his films. They have a palpable look and a real sense of place in his films that's been a real inspiration to me too.
Did the locations influence the style, the aesthetic program of the film? Your images are wide, clean, spacious. What's behind these formal decisions?
I think, first and foremost, it's an aesthetic preference. I put a lot of emphasis on composition and like to rely on wide masters. There's a certain economy in that too. I also like to see what kind of breadth can be captured in respect to both time and place. For example, you have people in their own homes—most of the scenes in Putty Hill feature people in their own environments—who are moving across the spaces they're familiar with because they're theirs. In a way, these master shots are borrowed just as much from documentary techniques as the interviews are. It's a way to respect time and think about time, duration, and space in way that I care about. Stylistically, I feel like I have more in common with certain filmmakers from Latin America and Europe, namely Pedro Costa, whose Fontainhas trilogy is formally rigorous, and who's also shooting people in crisis. I mean, it's a romantic but beautifully dilapidated environment. And then I think of Lisandro Alonso, who also, like Pedro Costa and myself, borrows a lot from Robert Bresson. Lance Hammer, who made Ballast, was talking a lot about Bresson and his influence. You know, all of us are favoring nonprofessionals and approaching a formally rigorous, maybe more minimalist frame.