SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | April 2, 2010
I am a real sucker for cinematic realism (for example: Italian neorealism, British kitchen sink realism, Robert Bresson, John Cassavetes) so writer-director Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill is right up my proverbial alley. The setting is a poor, working-class suburb of Baltimore that descriptive adjectives such as decrepit, depressing and boring seem to fit best. There is nothing of merit or worth here. It seems like no one works – with the exception of drug dealers. This is a place that the U.S. economy left behind a long time ago. This, dare I say, “white trash” community – of tattoos, dreadlocks, torn clothes, skaters and BMXers, graffiti, paintball, video games, and drugs – finds itself in Porterfield’s sympathetic hands. It truly feels as though Porterfield is one of these characters, as if he knows them and understands their lives – honesty and delicacy prevail throughout this film.
I met up with Porterfield at the Austin Convention Center to chat about the collaborative nature of his sophomore effort – Putty Hill (which screened as part of SXSW 2010’s “Emerging Visions” series) – and his unique brand of cinematic realism.
DS: Something that really intrigues me about Putty Hill is the high level of realism. Did you set any specific standards for yourself, the cast and the crew to achieve this?
MP: When I made my first feature film, Hamilton – which is also an attempt at cinematic realism – I did set strict rules for myself to follow, like Bresson’s model. No score, only diegetic sound of an onscreen source; the approach to the aesthetic, as well, was really pared back – a kind of an economy to the aesthetic. This time going in – because the circumstances were so different – the only devise in place was the interviews with the cast. That served to make all of us aware that we were attempting, self-consciously, this exercise in realism. All of us were aware of the mechanism and aware of the fictive and truer elements of the film and how they kept intersecting – and I think that’s the experience that the audience has as well. I didn’t give the actors too much back story. I had gotten to know most of them while casting another feature script that we were planning to shoot – Metal Gods – so I had already earned their trust. I told them about the fictive character Cory who ties all of their worlds together. I told them that I would be off-camera interviewing them and if I asked questions that they could answer truthfully from within their own life than I encouraged them to do so. I have an aesthetic sensibility that favors long masters and working that way – and I use non-professionals principally – allows every scene to have its own internal breath and potentially a little bit of magic; and those things contrast well with the more traditional documentary style interviews throughout, so its like this dialectic at play.
DS: The documentary format works especially well because so many of the characters seemed so naturally introverted, so the only way these characters would speak – especially to reveal personal information – would be if a third party intervened.
MP: At the time we were shooting there was a question on all of our minds regarding how this would play out and work together. I didn’t really see it until we started cutting. I like that the questions aren’t too probing, that they maintain a respectful distance from the characters. I think that’s appropriate. I could have dug deeper but it just didn’t feel right. On some level it’s just appropriate.
DS: Did you ever consider why the documentary team is present?
MP: I never thought about it. We are aware so often of everything within the frame; but everything that is outside of the limits of the frame, well, that’s a whole other story. In this case, I never thought about the physical presence of the crew or how the audience might imagine them – even though we were there in real space. I guess I think about it as a disembodied voice – a voice coming from the camera – asking questions in the voice of the filmmaker, maybe the voice of the camera, but also the voice of the audience; but not as a physical body needing any reason to be there.
DS: Personally, that was something I really admired about Putty Hill – that you didn’t feel the need to associate a body with that voice.
MP: Or explain why its there.
DS: Exactly. I also admire that you didn’t show any flashbacks of Cory. Most Hollywood filmmakers would have felt the need to show the audience flashback footage of Cory. In my opinion, flashbacks would have dissolved any concept of realism.
MP: I would never even consider flashbacks.
DS: So, you weren’t even tempted?
MP: No, not at all. It’s funny. I teach at a university in Baltimore. I try not to project my aesthetic onto my students. All I can really do is free them to see the tools that we have at our disposal as filmmakers. The real physical tools – the camera, the sound – and how we can use them for effect. Almost always their first script includes voice over narration, flashbacks, and all these tools that they are used to seeing in big movies. But I try to get them to use other techniques. Putty Hill sort of has a voice-over, but it’s different…
DS: I would never really think of it as a voice-over.
MP: Me neither.
DS: A lot of the actors were carryovers from Metal Gods – how did you approach them initially for Metal Gods and then how did you bring them over to Putty Hill?
MP: I cast my first film Hamilton, and like Metal Gods it was an ensemble cast of teenagers for the most part. Metal Gods is about young people, so we held auditions at area high schools. I was inspired by the stories I heard from the casting of Paranoid Park – how the casting agents in Portland, whom Gus Van Zant was working with, used MySpace and also advertised public auditions. So I kind of followed that model. We set up a MySpace page just for casting the movie and then used that as an internet reference point. I had some friends helping me, so in addition to seeing people on the street we would find people via the internet. We just did a lot of digging around. We printed postcards, so we would flyer the street or hand them out at malls. We had these more formal auditions at high schools that I was able to set up – focusing on the high schools with performing arts programs – and then we tried to use every means that we could to publicize the public auditions around town. We had about six of those altogether. I saw upwards around 500 to 600 people probably. Along the way I met some kids that I really wanted to work with but I wasn’t certain how well they’d fit or how they would handle the Metal Gods material. So when our hand was forced and we switched gears, it was really liberating then to create a scenario just using the people that I wanted to see on screen as a sort of thread or inspiration. It was a long process starting in November 2008 in casting Metal Gods – and I spent about a year on that – so I had a database of names and some people that I had gotten to know a little bit through call-backs. I took a casting credit on Putty Hill. I think that’s something I would love to do if I were to work in film; that and locations are the two things that I would be most interested in.
DS: And you mentioned that you didn’t really coach the actors, but so many of the performances are so consistently quiet and toned down – so that just came naturally with the actors that you chose?
MP: There’s a certain way in which I feel like I’m learning more – and I’ve definitely learned a lot between my first and second picture – ways of working with actors. One of the most important things is that I’ve honed a way to communicate with actors that conveys the kind of energy on set that translates on screen. It’s a balance. You have to give a non-professional actor enough information to feel safe and secure. Some will ask you very directly for specific things that they need, but then also don’t give them too much information. You could very easily crowd their heads with directions. So I try just to focus on the reality of the action. If we’re shooting a wide master, than it’s really about getting them comfortable with a few key actions that they can then focus on. Like that scene where the mom is playing the guitar in the kitchen – that’s an example of something that really just came about organically. I knew I wanted to shoot in the kitchen. I knew Cody was going to come in. I planned to have his girlfriend and his baby there. But mom happened to be there that morning playing guitar, so I decided to keep her in the scene – pretty much where she had been. And it was just a matter of giving Cody specific movements to get him from point A to point B. Then, in running through it together we came up with lines. It wasn’t so important to me what they said as long as they were comfortable with the dialogue and it felt natural. It was very collaborative in a way that my first film wasn’t. In Hamilton, everybody had lines to learn; this way there was nothing except complete freedom.
DS: Let’s talk about your use of sound. In some scenes you use noises that almost blur out the audio – there’s the scene in the tattoo shop during which you wound up having to use subtitles because the sound was so obscured.
MP: I think traditionally we would have shot that scene without the tattoo gun turned on and then just added that in post, to get the dialogue; but you can’t do that when you’re working the way we were.
DS: In my opinion, it just added another level of realism.
MP: Exactly. The whole film was an exercise in the perception of objective and subjective cinematic reality – if there is such a thing – and just playing with the audience’s awareness of that relationship. I was selective. There is dialogue in scenes that we chose not to bring up because it wasn’t important. Sometimes we keep the relationship between camera and subject realistic and other times we don’t. There are scenes that we broke our own rules – like the scene where they take that long walk and we can hear the dialogue all the way. But then there is that scene in the woods, where you can’t hear anything the girls are saying. It was just a matter of scene by scene what felt right – what we wanted to highlight. And then, in post, it was just trying to create just the right balance. Bring down some of the treble on the tattoo gun so it’s not too annoying for an audience but maintains its integrity, and we chose to subtitle really because I was thinking about the audience and my mom in the theater – she wouldn’t pick up anything if she watched that scene. For me, it’s an example of what is important. What’s important is what they are saying as well as everything else, so it needs to be intelligible. In this case, subtitles were the answer. And then of course being the second scene of the film adds that sort of extra “is there a documentary feeling?” Subtitles again reinforce this idea that we’re blending the lines between fiction and non-fiction.
DS: Who is the audience that you made Putty Hill for?
MP: I really wanted to make a film that would play well with audiences of young people. And then I was thinking about, I know this sounds silly, but kids in the suburbs who miss out on stuff – basically the subjects of the film. If it’s not a film that they would go see and enjoy then what’s the point of making it. I think its challenging cinema and I realize there are some things that might throw an average American audience off. But at the same time, I think there’s enough there to hold onto. I made choices with that audience in mind. I make films for young people. This is a film that I would love to see play in the theaters where people from this community go. I think it’s a totally accessible film.
DS: I’ve heard stories about the financing of this film. Basically, you wound up collecting what you could from whoever could give whatever they could give – which isn’t that typical in the world of film making. You’re typically looking for larger sums of money from smaller groups of people. How did your process of financing come about and did you find any benefits to doing it this way?
MP: It’s just another element of this film that felt really collaborative. We tried to finance Metal Gods in a more traditional way. We talked to a lot of production companies and had a lot of meetings with a lot of smiles. And I went to people that I knew locally in Baltimore who had made large equity investments – not necessarily to film. But the money that we did find came mostly from friends, family, and some was our own. The most we saw in a single chunk was probably $5,000 from someone who threw in a kick-starter and took an executive producer credit on the film. The rest of it was little bits and pieces. And it is a nice way to work because you think about those people when you’re making the film and promoting the film. It’s another reason to do good by the film, to finish it. Sometimes you reach a point where your head is in the clouds and you can’t find the will to push through; you don’t have the reserve, you’re just exhausted. But when you have a lot of people giving you money and believing in your project – and that’s outside of the great collaborators on the crew and cast – it’s a reminder that there are people that believe in the project and want to see it get made. It’s another reason to get up in the morning.
DS: Did you intend any specific economic or political message with Putty Hill?
MP: That’s always on my mind. I am very aware – having grown up in Baltimore and lived there as an adult for almost ten years – that it’s a very stratified city, like so many American cities, along the lines of race and class. Despite the fact that in the city proper there’s diversity – in that we all live on top of one another. Those lines of communication are severed. There was a purpose – and it’s maybe the reason that I stay working in Baltimore – I would like to portray the diversity of experience onscreen of a very particular place that I know and love. As artists working in America it is important to show other visions of America; and a city like Baltimore, that can be a tool to bridge gaps and open lines of communication. It’s about a place that I know very well, so anything about the particular economy of that world is just part of the realism that we were attempting.
DS: You definitely show a segment of the population of the United States that is rarely represented onscreen.
MP: I think we see some things that are really true to the experience. The actors themselves are still all looking for work, there are single mothers – these are things that appear in Hamilton too. When I’m writing I don’t think “I need absent fathers in the script.” If it’s a character that’s in my mind – or in the case of Putty Hill it is the characters being themselves to some extent with some fictive elements thrown in, there is all that extra depth of character without being super explicit. One can watch the film and learn a lot about these people and this particular place.
DS: There is also the degradation of the family element in Putty Hill. Though most of the family lives close to each other, they just don’t communicate. Nobody really spoke to Cory. Nobody really knew him…
MP: And the guy that was most connected with Cory in the film is Dustin – and they had that jail time together. It is crazy to think that they had to be in prison together to really connect at that level. It’s true that a lot of the characters in Cory’s family don’t have much to say. I think that’s just true. I was meditating a lot on the idea of loss and what a family would go through if they lost someone.
DS: And because they lost someone that they did not really know, the characters react differently than if it was somebody that they were really close with.
MP: It’s almost like he was lost already…or dead already.
DS: And Putty Hill also exemplifies the dark side of drug abuse.
MP: I think the actors did a really good job of conveying that by drawing upon their own experiences. Some of the actors came from broken families and had gotten off track in life. Sky, Virginia and Cathy approached their characters the most like actors. Instinctually they needed to know a lot. They needed information about their characters and their relationships with Cory. Some of the other actors – especially the young men – were fine with the minimum. Cathy and Virginia really drew upon their own experiences and asked me questions and tried to figure out what their relationship to Cory was. I think that’s a nice way to have your actors work.
For more information on Matt Porterfield and Putty Hill please visit: puttyhillmovie.com
Don Simpson’s review of: PUTTY HILL