SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2013
By Don Simpson | February 7, 2013
Matthew Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker contemplates the disintegration of modern family relationships, as everyone seems to be trying to break free of their familiar bonds. Taryn has flown across the Atlantic Ocean to escape from her parents; Kim, Bill and Abby struggle to break free of each other while remaining in very close proximity.
Porterfield’s film also discusses the role that creativity and artistry play in relationships. Kim and Bill seem to have gotten along nicely as a couple as long as they were mutually producing music; but they presumably began to drift apart once Bill gave up on his career in music and pursued a non-creative career in business. Speaking of music… I Used To Be Darker seems especially unique in its use of music. As if directing a lo-fi musical, Porterfield allows Kim and Bill to vocalize their emotions. Their song lyrics permit them to recite expository dialogue but in a completely natural manner; because it makes perfect sense that, as musicians, they would express their feelings about their current situation in song.
I Used To Be Darker is probably the most conventionally-structured, three-act narrative you will ever see Porterfield direct; nonetheless he still finds ways to integrate his typical high levels of realism into the production. There is no denying that Porterfield is the modern master of utilizing diegetic sound and lighting, as well as allowing dialogue and scenes to breathe naturally, thus sharing an unmistakable kinship with Éric Rohmer and John Cassavetes.
We sat down with Porterfield at the Sundance Filmmaker’s Lounge, shortly after the world premiere of I Used To Be Darker, essentially picking up right where we left off almost three years ago with our SXSW 2010 interview about his sophomore film, Putty Hill…
Don Simpson: When I interviewed you at SXSW 2010 for Putty Hill, we talked a lot about the rules that you abided by during the course of that production. Did you approach I Used To Be Darker similarly?
Matthew Porterfield: There were rules in place. I returned to the rule of only using music with an on-screen source, though we broke it during the opening title sequence. The film can be looked at on one level as an exercise in a diegetic score. We have a lot of music in the film; several of the characters are musicians and they are playing original songs. There is just a lot of music in the world of these characters. I had a lot of fun with where the music is coming from in each scene. For example, Dustin Wong — a Baltimore musician — wrote the song for the moment that plays out in the basement when Abby returns home. I wanted the music in that scene to sound like a soundtrack or score, and then have Abby walk over and turn down the volume of the score.
The other thing I knew from the beginning, and stayed true to through the edit, was allowing the musical performances to play out in their duration. We hand-picked these songs, some were even written into the script, so I wanted to honor them. There was a lot of discussion about cutting away to something else, or truncating the performances because some of them do play out a little long; but I thought of the songs as an equivalent to the talking head style interviews in Putty Hill, in that they break up the narrative and give us a look inside the characters. We are learning about the characters from the mouths of the characters directly. It is sort of a direct-address to some level…
DS: I Used To Be Darker works like a musical in that way. The songs allow for expository segments in which we get to hear the characters’ feelings directly from them.
MP: Or a melodrama, in the traditional sense of 18th century melodramas which implied that there was a lot of music. There were references for me, like The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach by Danièle Huillet and Pedro Costa’s Ne change rien, which is sort of an exercise in duration; but also more narrative films, such as Robert Altman’s Nashville.
DS: Was it a conscious decision after Putty Hill to make a more narrative-oriented film?
MP: I wanted to return to a script, and early on Amy Belk and I decided that we wanted to collaborate on something together. This was my first time really writing a script with another writer, while Amy came from a fiction background and had never written a screenplay. It was fun to play with traditional forms; the three-act structure was a challenge for me. This is my third script but in many ways it is my most traditional and tight. It was an opportunity to practice and exercise my storytelling muscles a little bit — and for Amy too. We came at it from different directions, but both of us wanted to tell a good story and work it all the way through; and also figure out how to make reverberations throughout, so we may see something early on and we bring it back later, those kinds of things…
We started showing the script around for feedback early on and got a lot of story advice from friends, producers, the folks at IFP, and informally at the Labs. It was an attempt to write a really tight script; of course in production I was able to throw things away. I think, moving forward, I think I want to be somewhere in between. You know, its hard to finance and package a treatment, which is what Putty Hill was. You need a script to find actors and financing, at least I do at this stage in my career — so there are practical reasons. But in production, those practical reasons can become a hindrance, especially if you are really trying to shoot a certain amount of pages per day. If you are having a difficult time getting “B”, then you’re never going to find your way to “C.” That is somewhat limiting, whereas Putty Hill was much more open.
DS: I am assuming that you also approached casting a bit more traditionally as well?
MP: Its funny, it came about very organically. We saw over 500 open auditions for Metal Gods, which became Putty Hill. Hamilton was a more traditional process, even though we were looking for non-professionals, and we still saw a lot of people. In the case of I Used To Be Darker, Amy knew Kim [Taylor]; Amy introduced me to Kim’s music first and I fell in love with it. I knew Ned from his days in Baltimore and introduced him to Amy. So we started to write fairly early with these two actors in mind, so they were the foundation. And then I met Deragh [Campbell] and Hannah [Gross] — who were from Toronto — at a premiere of Putty Hill in New York at Cinema Village. They just came to the screening and we started talking, and I kept a correspondence with them. I found out that, like the character Abby, Hannah was studying theater at NYU; I thought she was great, so I auditioned and cast her. Then, Deragh told me that she really wanted to read for Taryn, and she told me why, and I cast her soon afterwards. I didn’t really see that many people, it was nice. Then, the rest of the cast was populated with friends from Baltimore.
DS: Where did these characters come from?
MP: The first character was Taryn, who is the first person we meet in the film, so we stay true to that. I had a 20-page treatment about a student from Europe on a summer visa working in Ocean City, Maryland. I used to work there during the summers and I met kids from all over Europe. So we had her in Ocean City, but wanted to bring her to Baltimore — you know, to stay true to form. So, we have this outsider and bring her into this city that I know, and let the audience follow her. We had this idea that she would stay with a family — her family, but a family she has not seen in a while. Then it became about divorce, because Amy and I had each been married and divorced; we wanted to write about our experiences, and it became really essential and cathartic. And my parents got divorced when I was Abby’s age, so I was writing from that vantage point as well. So, in many ways, it is my most personal film. Amy is not a musician, and neither am I, but we wanted to explore characters who are trying to balance a creative practice with the demands of family and marriage and responsibilities in life.
DS: What lessons did you learn from Putty Hill that were helpful while making I Used To Be Darker?
MP: I learned, first and foremost, to trust the cast. I spend a lot of time getting to know the people I am working with before going into production. With Putty Hill, I was so astounded by the level of risks that the performers were willing to take; their insight into the characters. That collaboration during Putty Hill was so affirmative for me, that I was able to trust the cast of I Used To Be Darker from the onset.
I also learned to trust my instincts — to cut and run if something isn’t working. Again, its harder when you have a 100-page script that you are shooting from, but there are still ways to get out of sticky situations. In the moment, with the cast and the creative team, come up with something substantive that is better than what was originally written. We had to do that on several instances — at least three — during the I Used To Be Darker shoot. There were scenes that we had written, that Amy and I both really liked on the page, but they weren’t playing out for whatever reason; so I made the run-and-gun decision to just cut and try something very different.
Also, just trying to stay alert to the present moment for the magic that is happening outside of the script and planned schedule. When something is happening, staying open and attuned because that is the type of stuff that brings life to the film. Putty Hill was all about that…