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

We discussed his aesthetic prerogatives, his interests in documentary traditions, and his forthcoming projects.

Interview: Matthew Porterfield Talks Putty Hill, Pasolini, and More
Photo: Andrew Laumann

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.

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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