The Voice of the Film: Matt Porterfield Discusses Putty Hill, Oral Language, and Filmic Reality

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By Carlos Valdes-Lora

When Matt Porterfield wasn’t busy teaching screenwriting, film theory and production courses at Johns Hopkins, he found the time to make a feature film. Putty Hill, writer/director Porterfield’s sophomore feature, was shot at a lightning fast pace during the summer of 2009. A true fusion of fiction and documentary forms, the film is described by its director as having an “approach to realism in opposition to the anthropological, lyrical, and romantic currents present in most of the genre.” It’s a film centered on the people in Baltimore whose lives intersected with Cory’s, a fictional character in the film story who has suddenly died of an overdose. Family and friends of the recently deceased converge in Baltimore for the wake. The narrative connecting the dots is a fabrication, but the people, and the personal lives they often share with the viewer, are anything but.

It’s been less than a year since then and already the film has been accepted by the Berlin International Film Festival’s Forum for New Cinema, The Viennale, SXSW, and many others. Very soon the filmmaker will be visiting South America to play Putty Hill at the Buenos Aires International Film Festival, but more on that later.

I met with Professor Porterfield at the university’s media lab, where he had been duplicating some DVDs. At intervals during our conversation, the duplicator spat out freshly authored screeners ofPutty Hill. I started with something to help jog his memory.

CARLOS VALDES-LORA:     What was the first film you ever recall seeing?

MATT PORTERFIELD:     It was a film called Lili starring Leslie Caron. It was an American musical. My dad really loved the film so he would get the 16mm print from the Enoch Pratt library and somehow had a projector, maybe it was from the junior high school where he was teaching at the time. I remember him showing it in this particular room, my grandmother’s guestroom. That was the first movie I remember seeing. I remember a particular emotional response to the film.

It’s a bittersweet film. Parts of it are very sad. It’s about a young woman who joins a carnival and falls in love with this one carny who’s a puppeteer with a bad leg, and for some reason he’s really resistant to her. There’s heartbreak and it really seems like it’s not going to work out but then there’s this beautiful reconciliation involving the puppets – the puppets played a big part in the film. It’s very colorful, probably in Technicolor, with beautiful music and Leslie Caron really struck me. I remember watching it in my house, I’d probably been to the theater before, but watching it my own home was a special thing, and my father had such a connection to it.

CV:     The production paradigm you established for Putty Hill is really very compelling: the on-the-fly re-appropriation of the Metal Gods story, an outline-like script and its remarkably short production schedule. What really inspired you to make this decision, and do you think the success of Putty Hill makes Metal Gods, despite being a great script, a moot point for you personally?

MP:     I think [the] decision to switch gears and make something was out of total necessity; I reached a frustration level that was so great with the development of Metal Gods and the disappointment of not being able to realize it as we’d hoped or planned. It was really important for my health, and everyone that had committed already so much energy to making a feature in the summer of 2009, to shoot something. The inspiration was definitely everything tangible that I’d found put into place developing Metal Gods – the cast, the people, the places, the precise locations, and yeah some of the themes.

It’s hard to say whether Putty Hill makes Metal Gods a moot point. It definitely fills the same need or filled the need, so there’s not the same necessity to make Metal Gods now. But I think I could readily return to the script, make another pass, another draft incorporating some changes, and give it another shot, but I wouldn’t go through the same process all over again.

I would say more for the filmmaker it fills the need. There are some other themes in Metal GodsI’d like to explore, this idea of first love, a coming of age tale and the exploration of this subgenre, heavy metal culture and music, which is still something I’d like to spend some time on. For me it was really important to make something last summer, and with Putty Hill I think I grew a lot, faced with these unexpected challenges that the film presented.  So going forward, I’m working on a couple different scenarios, but Metal Gods is still one that’s on my mind.

It would be so different now, too, ‘cause Putty Hill was improvisational, no written dialogue…collaborative. Filmmaking is always collaborative, but Putty Hill was unusual to the extent of the collaboration involved. If I were to revisit Metal Gods I would uphold the script, but I would be open to working with more experienced actors which would challenge me in new ways.

CV:     With a film like this I imagine it being difficult to really envision how it’s going to end up from the start, unlike the conventional narrative style, where most decisions are locked down in the preproduction phase early on. What surprised you about the final product; what didn’t you expect? What weren’t you able to achieve?

MP:     I think we went in knowing at least the precise locations; we’d scouted those ahead of time. So Jeremy [Putty Hill’s director of cinematography] and I knew sort of what to expect in terms of lighting and scenic design and I had a sense of how I was going to block actors in physical space, so we had that to our advantage.  I knew that I wanted to stay open to whatever sort of magic surfaced the day of the shoot; for example, in the kitchen where Carol is playing the guitar, or the second tattoo scene in Spike’s apartment. The energy in those scenes was largely unplanned and came about in the moment because we were receptive, and working in a kind of open construct.

The thing that surprised me was how well I think the talking head interviews went, the more traditional documentary scenes, where there’s an off-screen voice addressing the characters directly and asking them questions about their lives and about the life of this fictive character, Cory. How well those scenes work with the dramatic scenes.  In crafting the scenario, I was certainly thinking about how to cut in and out of those, but I think with Marc Vives’s [Putty Hill’s editor] help in cutting the film it really works well.

I think it was really important to make the transitions as seamless as possible in order to push the boundaries between documentary and fiction as filmmakers, but also for an audience. If we had chosen instead to intercut these talking head scenes with the narrative I think that wouldn’t have been as fun, but also the differences would have been too distinct.  But by carefully transitioning out of one and into another and vice versa I think it’s a stranger experience; it becomes more of an amalgam. The degree to which that worked was somewhat of a surprise.

And the consistency and strength of the performances… I didn’t know what we’d get. I knew we were going to light for wide masters so we could cover the scene, the dramatic scenes, which is how I approached Hamilton [The filmmaker’s first feature], too, in that I’d be working a lot with the actors on set to craft the blocking and what they were going say. But I was surprised with the level of dialogue that was generated in the moment, such as Virginia’s monologue about the funeral, and the level of emotional honesty that Dustin and Cathy brought to the scene at the wake– the actors’ willingness to take risks. The performances are really strong and that’s what comes across, much stronger than in Hamilton because I think the actors were given a certain structure in which they felt [safe.] But we gave them a lot more freedom, too.

In terms of what we didn’t pull off. There were a couple of scenes we had to cut for the overall rhythm, like Dink’s interview at the skate park where he talks about the bigger picture. That pushed us too far outside the Cory narrative and that surprised me, I thought we could go as far as we wanted in that direction, but when you introduce a narrative you have to sort of hold on to it or you lose the audience. But overall going in with few expectations – I had fun and didn’t face a lot of disappointment. I’m very pleased with the film.

CV:     The film’s emphasis on rich location sound and the de-prioritization of dialogue reminds me of the location specific sound of some films such as Godard’s Vivre sa vie, a fore-grounded theme of which is the tension between the film image and oral/written language. Your films almost exclusively feature an emphasis on naturalistic dialogue that is often so real it rarely serves to advance any sort of narrative. What are your feelings on this tension between oral language and the cinematograph?

MP:     We come from these literary traditions, they were introduced with the talkie, and it took some of the burden of the filmmaker to tell the story through the images. So dialogue in a lot of mainstream films is largely expository.  I watched Armageddon for the first time last night –seemed like a good Easter film– and it is actually a very visual film and entertaining and moves right along, but anything the characters say or speak is used to further the narrative, for the benefit of the audience. They’re not speaking to one another; they’re practically speaking to the audience.

I think Godard is a good example of a filmmaker that I love and certainly an inspiration. It’s funny I certainly wasn’t thinking about him at the time when I was directing Putty Hill, but going back I think films like Masculin féminin or Two or Three Things I Know About Her, where he does in a very formal way kind of like experiment with language, do influence me. Godard’s obsessed with language and the image and where they meet.

I tend to approach dialogue as another element of the mise-en-scene and less of a storytelling technique. It tells us about characters, about their relationships with one another, and it has a sort of ambient value. In both my films there’s an attempt to be true to a kind of vernacular that’s of the environment. Like location or wardrobe or the lighting of the scene it works to further the filmic milieu that is based in a particular reality. In Putty Hill it takes a step further because there are these interesting Brechtian relationships between the actors and the filmmakers, the actors and the audience, where they’re literally breaking the fourth wall, but the wall is also unclear because it’s represented by this off-screen voice, which is sort of best described as the voice of the film rather than the voice of the director. It’s as if the voice is the film, or the actual celluloid, as if it’s coming from the frame. So somewhere there we have language and the physical frame meeting on the same plane. And I don’t know that I’ve really seen that before, I think it’s one of the more interesting things about the film. I think always more about the frame than about the words that the characters speak, but bad dialogue can always betray you.

CV:     What have you gleaned from the experience of directing mostly young non-actors, who are not only called to improvise lines germane to the fiction but also called to share personal and intimate stories about their own lives. What about the things you learned could you apply to other projects regardless of their form or approach?

MP:     This time around I trusted my actors more. I gave them more time, though not really in preproduction, as it were.  I think they all felt they had what they needed: enough information.  Directing actors is all about conveying information, you can do it in a tricky way, by saying the opposite of what you want, you can do it in a very forthright manner, or you could withhold. There are lots of techniques, but you communicate with each actor differently.  That was reinforced for me this time around. Actors, whether they’re experienced or non-professional, need to feel safe, so you do your best to give them what they need. As a rule I like to give them as little as possible because I think they can get clouded thinking about too many things without the tools to manage them and it affects performance. At least this is true of inexperienced actors, but I think it’s true of professional actors too. Like Mamet says in On Directing Film, if you focus not on the super-objective but just on the action of a scene, whether it’s a character opening a door or someone crossing frame, two people shaking hands, a kiss, sometimes you get more than what you could ever imagine. I like to give my actors less.

That said, in Putty Hill, because they were drawing on their own experience throughout–but in particular during these more documentary scenes where I was asking direct questions about their lives–safety was even more essential. They also needed to know that there was no wrong answer to any question that I asked, at least when it came to their own story. They could disclose as much as they wanted, they could withhold if they wanted. I was going to try to remain at a respectful distance. There were certain facts that needed to be conveyed about Cory, so I tried to give them each a minimal biography so they had a sense of what their relationship to him might have been. That’s what the majority of our conversations were centered around, how they as characters related to this boy who died, who none of them know in real life.  In those conversations I found them approaching this construct not unlike the more experienced actors I’ve worked with. They were doing the same work: thinking about their own experience, thinking about people they may have known in their own lives, and drawing upon that to give them answers, to allow them to speak with confidence about this boy who doesn’t exist. I think that’s the same work that actors do. A good actor is able to take a role and make very visceral connections with their own lives. It was instinctual for all of them.

CV:     What are your thoughts on the role a soundtrack should play in a film such as Putty Hill?

MP:      Soundtrack as in music?

CV:     Yes.

MP:     In Putty Hill I didn’t’ really set myself any rules going in. With Hamilton I followed the Bressonian model of only music with on-screen sources, until the very end when I broke it. That’s part of the fun, setting rules going in and breaking them later because somehow you’re challenging yourself and the material by creating conflict. Like dialogue, lazy filmmakers rely on score and music to carry the emotion of a scene. It can serve an expository use or an emotional use. In mainstream Hollywood films the soundtrack is overused. It’s just another tool and I think we should be aware of its potential as a storytelling device, but if we’re really interested in the craft, and on some level all filmmakers are asking questions of the craft as well as the story and how to convey the story to the audience through the craft, you want to try to use it in a way that doesn’t pacify the audience and keep them challenged. Godard does that for sure, he’ll come up with a beautiful traditional refrain and uses it in a contrapuntal way, working against the narrative and I think that’s interesting. It’s cool to let the audience be aware of the mechanism, it’s better than making them aware that they’re being manipulated, and overuse of score will do that. You become removed and resentful.

Marc introduced the [music] and used it in a sort of Godardian way, throwing it in at times where there wasn’t necessarily much emotional weight; random times where it helped the move or rhythmically matched the onscreen action. It’s used only four times. Marc used the same score and cut it up and threw it in over the opening credits to suggest that someone was playing the violin in the neighborhood where Cory died. So he introduces it earlier there. And I let him roll with it. Though I didn’t imagine Putty Hill with music at all, he had been watching the dailies and felt that there was a connection to the [the music]. In the case of the skate park it’s a rhythmic connection and it totally matches the rise and fall of movement. When working with collaborators, elements they introduce may not be the elements you would necessarily think of but used in an interesting way, music could add a second or third life to the material.

CV:     Are there other projects you are working on?

MP:     I had a couple scenarios that I was working on around the same time I was developing and writing Metal Gods.  At one point I hit a wall and took a break and I began an adaptation of a novel called The Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson, which I might have shared with you in the screenwriting course in 2008. That would be a real challenge. It would be expensive, hard to adapt, but something that I want to keep returning to. I don’t see it as my next move, but as a dream project. I definitely want to direct it. It’s definitely a hard adaptation. There’s a lot I’d like to remain faithful to, but there a things that I think would be hard to render on screen. It’s a verse novel so how to reconcile… The rights are available but whether or not Anne Carson would be interested in a filmic adaptation of that I don’t know.

I also have a script that’s sort of half-written; right now it’s at a point of transition. It’s about some young students from Europe working at an amusement park on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Maryland. The first third takes place there and then they make a move to Baltimore. They get in some trouble and end up staying in with the family of a friend and it becomes this triangle of manipulation. It’s a sort of psychological drama that will be a departure for me.

And then pushing the Putty Hill model in a further direction and thinking about revisiting this sort of scenario that I wrote when I was a student. It was about this utopian group home in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I shot the short in 98’ and I was thinking of expanding it and shooting it in Baltimore. It’s been along the lines of La Chinoise.

I’m always interested in doing a contemporary adaptation of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love. Some of the themes there I incorporated into Metal Gods, but that could be its own story.

CV:     What are you currently watching?

MP:     Pedro Costa. Definitely. I’m excited I might have a chance to meet him when we play this festival in Lisbon. He’s Portuguese. Clare Denis’ most recent work has been real exciting, 35 Shots of Rum. I’m waiting to see White Material, which hasn’t yet been released. It premiered at Cannes last year. I’ve been trying to catch up on stuff that I’ve been missing at film festivals but hearing a bit about. It looks like Maryland Film Festival has a good program this year.

I’m finding my likes and dislikes are stronger now. There’s a lot of stuff I go see because people tell me it’s good, but usually I know going in whether I’ll like it or not. Usually I’m right. I like being surprised, but I find I have a pretty good sense of what to avoid.

In terms of TV I’ve just returned to this episodic BBC show released in the early seventies calledUpstairs Downstairs, I like those BBC shows.

Also Ben Rivers, an English filmmaker who does interesting humanist docs about people living on the fringe of society, utopian visions, he’s really interesting.

CV:     How has your experience with Putty Hill at film festivals differed from your experience withHamilton?

MP:     It’s been very different. Our world premiere was Berlin, which is a huge festival. On the whole, I enjoy attending the international festivals more than the regional festivals, with the exception of Maryland and I’m not just bullshitting.  I really enjoy the Maryland Film Festival because this is where I make my films. This is an audience that’s important to me and who I want to share [my films] with. But a lot of the regional festivals I just find that they’re small in scope, they program the same shit, they don’t take really good care of their filmmakers. This was actually true to my surprise of South by Southwest; I was really disappointed with their selection. The music component of their festival is ‘pay to play,’ and though you don’t really have to pay to play your film at South by Southwest that same ideology carries through. That said. I don’t regret playing the film. I think it was a great North American premiere for us; audiences were really responsive. But I had to lead my own Q&A’s, which I don’t mind doing, but filmmakers had to introduce themselves which is kind of weird. Berlin on the other hand– and this is true of any international film festival I played– they take great care of you. They make sure you have a place to stay, transportation provided if you want it; there are meals, tickets to any screening you want to see. I’m looking forward to getting to travel to more international festivals later this month and later in the year.

With Hamilton I probably applied cold to sixty-five festivals, and it continues to play, mainly in museums and institutionally. But festivals altogether we probably played about twelve. This time around, because of our premiere at Berlin, we had people there after our press screening coming up to us, inviting us to festivals immediately. People flying me out, putting me up, and none of that happened with Hamilton. It’s pretty cool to be in this place where prestigious festivals are approaching us, inviting us, including us in competition, and also providing services like airfare and accommodations. It’s pretty rad.

In terms of audiences I’m just happy to play anywhere and it’s all different. The Germans like different things than the French, who like different things than the Americans. I’m going to Argentina next week. I don’t know what to expect there; we’ll see.

CV:     When can we see Putty Hill?

MP:     You can see Putty Hill at the Maryland film festival, May sixth through ninth. They will probably give us three screenings. We’re working on distribution and hopefully we’ll have a release theatrically in late summer, early fall. So, hopefully in a theater near you.