Andrew Laumann

Interview: Matthew Porterfield Talks Putty Hill, Pasolini, and More

The soundtrack includes a cello piece, which provides a nice aesthetic counterpart.

It’s something my editor found. You know, I like setting certain rules and trying to capture them for the duration of a shoot of a particular project. When I did Putty Hill, I never imagined a form or a soundtrack. In Hamilton, my first picture, I set out not to have any non-diegetic music, but when I was editing I wanted to try it with music. In the case of Putty Hill, my editor, Mark Vives, happened to be listening to this cello pieces when he was watching dailies from the skate park, and it was one of those serendipitous encounters. He liked it, and tried it out when we were editing, and I thought, “Why not?”

I couldn’t help but think of a film like Mamma Roma or Accattone, where Pasolini uses Vivaldi and Bach in a similar way, I think. Pasolini spoke of spiritualizing the peasants and day laborers on screen with his soundtrack selections.

Pasolini’s work is really exciting. Yeah, Mamma Roma is great. I think it’s an interesting comparison, and well said. You know, Costa does it formally. And in Putty Hill, I do it not just in the combination of music and image, but in the relationship between the frame and the subject too. It’s a tactic that a lot of filmmakers use, including Alonso. I think we have to be careful of running the risk of objectifying our subjects. Certainly, there’s a possibility of romanticizing their lives by showing them through a lens of a kind of high art. I’m self-conscious of that, as well. I try to rely a lot on my own intuition, on what I think about the frame. It’s better maybe not to be too dogmatic about the thinks you’d like to see.

In the treatment, the tavern memorial appears at the end of the film, though the ending in its current incarnation succeeds precisely because it refuses solutions or resolutions.

One of the traditions of narrative that I don’t understand and that we continue to perpetuate is that everything has to have a resolution. Things aren’t resolved in life. It’s strange. But you’re right, there’s something about the placement of the wake scene that’s important. It’s really the point when the audience begins to connect with the characters in an emotional way. You connect to their stores and their lives maybe more than you do during the interview scenes. But in the final third of the film, they fall away. There are so many emotions going on at once, and I think its placement there is crucial because it gives moral weight to the scenes that follow. And that final scene in the dark room—we stay with them there, you can’t see a lot, it’s downbeat.

One of the songs included in the karaoke scene was “Wild Horses,” which was later redacted from the film.

It was a struggle. We were all stressed out. It was a music rights issue, and we pushed it as far as we could despite three or four very firm no’s from ABCO, the Stones’s publishing company. And we were all up against the wall with the Dolly Parton song, which Sky sings, and which was important. So we were pushing hard, and finally had a breakthrough with our music supervisor, whose friend was able to access Dolly in the studio while she was recording and tell her about the film. When she agreed, that was a major breakthrough. If we had to lose one or the other, the one I would prefer to lose was “Wild Horses.” And then we made the decision to go forward and try to get back into D’Mitri’s Bar, where we shot and recreated the scene and brought the essential cast back. We didn’t need everybody, because we could just cover it in fairly wide shots. And then we all rounded up a bunch of promising public domain songs. And the song that ended up replacing “Wild Horses,” originally appearing at the opening of the scene, is “Amazing Grace.” We had an okay morning and had some stuff we could use, some hymns. But this guy came in, and no one was willing to try “Amazing Grace,” but this guy was. He was one of the guys behind the bar. We shot about five takes we needed, got the coverage we needed, and moved forward. It’s really emotionally resonant, I think. The combination of luck and stubbornness of pushing through this thing that none of us wanted to do. But I’m really pleased with it. Because we never see the funeral, “Amazing Grace” transitions us in as a reminder of what came before. “Wild Horses” is a beautiful song and melancholic, and I wish it was still in the film, but “Amazing Grace” is, in many ways, more fitting. It suggests the funeral, which is what I like about it.

The singing gives these characters a collective outlet in a way that reminds me of the final moments from Altman’s Nashville.

I was thinking about that film a lot. I love that film. It’s one the best films that I’ve ever seen that ties together music. There’s a potential for a diversity of emotions to come across if you have a cast of characters that you’ve been watching for 75 minutes. There’s been a kind of super-stylized realism throughout the film that’s brought to a whole other level of feeling.

America is, in some respect, also an important figure in this film.

I like working in a very small window. I like to be able to focus on the microcosms, the specifics of the people who populate the film and the neighborhood I grew up in. You look at the film in its final form, and there are a lot of themes that exist that I wasn’t thinking about going in. You know, it’s not a film about drugs, but you could look at that way. An anti-drug message, or about the plight of America’s post-industrial cities, where job prospects and broken homes and insufficient education are realities. If you’re looking closely, you don’t have to stretch very far to incorporate some big, very universal themes that are distinctly American. So, sure, we tried to make a comment about the American working class in a broad sense, but it wasn’t something we had in mind, but I’m glad that it functions on that level.

Are there any American filmmakers who have been particularly important to you?

Well, Altman’s films continue to inspire me. He’s a true maverick filmmaker, but in no sense a grassroots filmmakers. His films are epic, they’re big. Even his more recent films, I take a lot from those. I like Barbara Loden’s Wanda, a real beacon of American neorealist cinema. Not too many people working now, however. I don’t feel an affinity toward a lot of my colleagues in the American indie scene. I like Azazel Jacobs a lot, although I haven’t seen Terri yet, but I’m really looking forward to it. I liked The GoodTimesKid and Momma’s Man with, of course, his father. I draw a lot of influence from the American avant-garde. Big favorites again are Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery, which is an amazing movie.

What are you currently working on?

I’m getting geared-up to finish a screenplay with my collaborator, Amy Belk, who has a background in fiction writing, so she’s new to the screen. It actually owes a bit to Nashville. It’s not the central focus of the film, but the main characters: a husband and wife, both working musicians, who are going through a separation and then a divorce. And the other movie is about a young woman from Northern Ireland in 1920 who leaves home for Ocean City, Maryland. She’s completed one year of school, but she’s not ready to go back home. She gets into a little trouble in Ocean City and she decides to go stay with her first cousin. I like where the script is, but we’re just starting to send it out to different producers and readers. It’s an interesting thing to do because it’s so performance-driven, and we would really be looking to use more serious actors on this potentially, and also some nonprofessionals as well. We have two musicians in mind for the mother and the father, which would add another dimension to it. And the other thing that’s been percolating for a while is a project about a man who’s in his 30s and under house arrest. He’s been released after a drug charge. He moves back in with his parents. It draws a lot from Rear Window, it makes a homage to that film. He’s physically trapped and watching the world around him. It’s being co-written, as well, and it’s something I’ve been excited about for a while. It’s an idea that I like, with characters closer in age to me.

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