Filmmaker Matt Porterfield discusses the degrees of accessibility of his films and the process behind his most recent project I Used to Be Darker.
For a guy whose breakout film sometimes felt like a once-in-a-lifetime intersection of Nan Goldin and Andreas Gursky, Matt Porterfield talks about his characters with unexpected kinship. Putty Hill’s tiptoeing reveal of Baltimore’s loneliest working-class peripheries—one fragment at a time, local color simultaneously embalmed and isolated by Porterfield and cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier—finds no obvious echoes in I Used To Be Darker. Cowritten with Amy Belk, the new feature retains Porterfield’s earlier, almost militantly 1:1 realism; that said, the filmmaker has deftly surprised the (many) heads who merely anticipated a (slightly) more expensive still-life docudrama by cranking out his most verbose—and thus, emotionally messy—picture yet.
The film opens on Taryn (Deragh Campbell), a shiftless 19-year-old visiting the Jersey shore from Northern Ireland. After slashing an oil painting of a beach at a despondent house party, she flees these interminable days to surprise-visit her cool indie musician aunt Kim (Kim Taylor), her husband Ned (Ned Oldham), and their same-aged daughter Abby (Hannah Gross). What Taryn doesn’t realize is that Kim and Ned are in the middle of a brutally painful divorce, making nearly every scene in Darker a study in pent-up volatility or compassion, bruised and unrequited family allegiances. The film opened a limited run on October 4.
Steve McFarlane Gotta say, you had me feeling bad for Taryn from scene one. Who puts on “Swishas and Dosha,” at a party?
Matt Porterfield Aha! When she escapes from that party, it’s the most proactive she is, really, in the whole film. In some ways, UGK was a pretty big influence—I mean, not directly on the material, let’s say, so much as an inspiration for me. I’ll give you an anecdote: a week or two weeks out from production, we were still finalizing some private equity deals but we had no money in the bank. Driving south on 83, the Jones Fall Expressway, listening to UGK’s “Gravy”:
We grind to eat, and eat to live
This shit for real, these ain’t no tricks
Today’s agenda, get that dough cause the clock is tickin, time is pressin
No second guessin, make your mind up, step your grind up and get that pay
At the end of the day that’s about commitment, and that’s when I decided to get the film’s title tattooed on my arm. I wasn’t “whipping my Mercedes” though; it was a ‘95 Volvo.
SM Your Kickstarter campaign—which began about three weeks before you first started filming—included video of getting that tattoo, “live.”
MP Yeah—I had the idea to get the tattoo, and like two minutes later I picked a former student from Johns Hopkins, and that afternoon we were doing the video. Inspired by UGK.
SM I remember right when Putty Hill was released, you and Steve [Holmgren, executive producer] were all amped up to do a high school film called Metal Gods—yet you raised the money to do Darker instead, on this incredibly compressed timetable, kind of a one-shot opportunity. Tell me a little about that?
MP We definitely played chicken—which you always do, I feel, when you’re trying to finance little films like these; putting together private equity, maybe a little grant money, thinking about crowd sourcing, etc. You set a date—you have to, because you’re working with the schedules of your cast and crew, a lot of whom are getting paid less than they normally would. In this case there was equity from as far as San Francisco. Celia Mingus, Charles Mingus’ ex-wife, put in the first sum and then we had a New York-based executive producer who came in.
The rest was local equity, contacts you just kind of build up. You tell them what you’re doing, and try and get it off the ground, multiplied with their investments and willingness to throw down. It’s a weird balancing act.
SM The crowd sourcing campaign was almost to match, then?
MP Well, We weren’t sure about any of it. We were hopeful we would get these agreements in place, to have a little bit of money. The Kickstarter goal was 40K, and we reached it halfway through production. Same with Putty Hill—raise enough, shoot the film, and then worry about post. But it happened that Kickstarter created some momentum for the movie, even for securing equity outside of the actual pledges. So we raised our total budget before we finished shooting, which is a nice position for us.
SM So, getting into the actual movie—one of the things that’s so striking about Putty Hill is the willful breaking down of the “story.” Your dramatic scenes become these muted interviews, or vice versa, but the film’s overarching format is never clearly established. But Darker was shot per the screenplay. That’s a first for you, right?
MP Amy and I cast Kim and Ned as we were still writing. So we shaped the screenplay with their songs in place, and then when we cast Hannah and Dara, we brought everybody together for a table read, I think like two months before we were scheduled to shoot. We read all the way through it once over the course of two days, and just had a talk about it; began to think about how scenes might be blocked, we got notes, we realized what was working and what wasn’t. During shooting, it was my expectation that everybody would memorize the lines that Amy and I had written but some scenes lent themselves to more improvisation. All the actors had risen to the challenge and knew the material—this wasn’t just a more ambitious script.
Putty Hill had no script. Darker was more ambitious than anything I’d done before, so there was a cause and effect, like if we changed A_ that meant we had to change _B in the second act, and that prevents you from getting to C, that kind of thing. So there were a lot of changes where the actors came up with their own stuff. There were a lot of scenes where what we’d written was abandoned in the moment. Those instances have some the most interesting energy in the film, so I’d like to keep including improvisation in my films.
SM So if the songs wrote the characters before you did, then what you’re saying is that I Used To Be Darker is . . . a rock opera?
MP It’s a melodrama, I think, but yeah. The screenplay is based on pieces that the real Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham had written. We tried to choose songs that resonated with the characters we were imagining, so we opened up our characters’ personalities to the collective imagination of the cast—and pretty early, a good two months before we shot anything. We were all kind of thinking about these characters, the actors bringing their own words and experiences to it.
SM Whenever people are hanging out and talking in the film, the actual emotional undercurrents of what’s going on—in the house, in their lives, whatever—isn’t said aloud. On the one hand, that’s just smart drama. But on the other—this isn’t meant as a dis, mind you—the characters seem to be speaking around their problems, often in clichés. How self-conscious did you want them to be?
MP We reflected on all sides of it; the scene where Ned receives Taryn, in particular, is one where we see these layers shedding. Ned is trying his best to put on a good face, as an uncle, who has a daughter of his own, and he wants to show some strength. But there’s something going on beneath all that that’s ripping his life apart, and so, how do you do it? The only way he can operate, the facade that he’s manufactured, is in platitudes. I think that suddenly he realizes he needs to communicate the essentials, and that caps the conversation: he orders another drink, she realizes she’s stepped into something she didn’t anticipate.
He’s an interesting character to me. Ned has a lot of pathos, and we roll with him through his ups and downs—he’s trying to be a lot of different things at once, but he’s in crisis, you know?
SM By the time the film ends, I felt more for him than I expected. Kim invites empathy from her first appearance, but Ned’s character—short-tempered, brusque—I figured there’d be a Big Moment where the balance was shifted permanently in Kim’s favor, and it never happens.
MP Really? I talked to so many people who had the opposite experience. Many people have yours, but many others really only identify with Ned from the beginning, because he’s the one being left. He’s the one who’s really emotionally raw, and it isn’t until the very end—when Kim takes Taryn in—that Kim begins to tell her side of the story. This makes me feel like what Amy and I set out to do—which was to create a balanced portrait with no clear protagonist—we succeeded in doing. People are identifying with these different characters and have a relationship with each of them that changes over the course of the film. It may be different for one person than another. I feel like we’re connecting. I feel like Ned’s performance, for me, really didn’t come alive until the cameras were rolling. I was always unsure of how it was gonna work with him, but when we got on set, it was a little bit unexpected for me, too, I guess.
SM It’s a little like Ophüls, like a game. You have this supposedly innocent youth walking into a kind of complicated adult situation—I caught myself realizing that my first question was, “Who is she gonna side with?”
MP That was the experience we wanted audiences to have; we wanted to set up the audience to identify instantly with a character in a situation that she immediately leaves, and enters a new situation involving three other people. We identify immediately with Taryn, but then suddenly it’s not her story any more, and we’re kind of witnessing this other story, at least at first, through her. That shift was interesting to me: from Taryn as a character to Taryn as a sort of eyewitness.
I feel like too often these stories about divorce or breakup are rendered from the screen. There’s as a protagonist, an antagonist, black and white, someone’s right and someone’s wrong. I just fundamentally don’t believe that, having been through it. I felt like Amy felt the same way. We were both writing from the perspective of the leaver—from the perspective of Kim, really. We’re the Kims in the story. Which is maybe why she tends to get the last word, but with empathy for Ned’s experience too. Because we wrote together, there’s a blurring of these very distinct, balanced gender lines happening. We wanted to write something for ourselves but also for our exes, to honor a situation that’s not easy, that’s complicated.
SM In terms of Abby coming into womanhood and wanting to become an actress, does that happen in parallel with her parents’ breakup? Is that some kind of escapism? I love that she runs away to New York City and then just comes back, without the dreaded “New York sequence.”
MP (laughter) We’d written a New York sequence, and then it was like, “Oh, we don’t need this!” She’s into theater, into performance, but a different kind—she’s into musicians. New York, she’s only been there for a year but it’s offered her a lot. She has independence and she carries a lot of that back with her in Baltimore. I think even if she sensed that maybe this was a long time coming and understands it and maybe even on some level understands the breakup as a good thing, but she’s surprised and resentful too.
SM Something I hear more and more often, as a socially approved concept: not every divorce is a tragedy. It’s not unheard of, for people to say getting divorced was maybe ultimately the right thing for their parents, even though it’s so hard.
MP I never asked the characters, in the writing, to take a hardline stance on that—you don’t really know. The title of the film ties into that; the characters are in a period of darkness now, and they’re going to pass through it, but the cloud is going to return. I think it’s not a physical darkness but something else, sometimes it’s bigger than anything you can see or even articulate. That’s part of why I like the title, borrowed from Bill Callahan, so much.
SM In Putty Hill you get a scene or a vignette or just one shot, but there’s gonna be a bigger dynamic at play, and nobody is directly addressing or even aware of it, but it’s sort of organizing the people in the frame. Did you want to put more of that kind of stuff in this film, or scale it back?
MP I feel like there’s a tension in this film. Amy and I, the way we communicate couldn’t be more different: she comes from a fiction writer’s background, and in her work and her life she’s extremely articulate, very good with language. She’s always talking about things, through things, expressing herself in language. And I’m not—I don’t really do that, there’s a reason I make films. I want to communicate through the images.
I didn’t have a co-writer for Hamilton or Putty Hill; there’s a continuity of vision. In this case, Amy and I wrote every word of the screenplay together, so when we were writing she was figuring things out, helping the characters work things out in words, which is not really my style. So the dichotomy comes into play: my direction is a little more distanced, which allows a little bit of remove.
SM I was looking very much for that kind of lightning-in-a-bottle approach here, but you stuck to the words on the page. Did you struggle with the literary-ness of this script? Did it send you running, or did you take it head-on?
MP It definitely set the shooting schedule, which is, I don’t know, not as enjoyable for me. I would love to get to a place where I could finance, if it’s appropriate for the film, an expanded treatment, cast that, then work out the dialogue with the actors. Introduce more, allow more improvisation. I think that’s kind of my goal. That said, I think where I am in my career right now, it’s just not possible. I would spend months and months working through drafts and drafts of a treatment—that was really all we had, in Putty Hill’s case.
For the new project I want to shoot next summer, I was working on the treatment and I’m excited about it, but I know that to get it made, I have to write a screenplay too. So I’m in the middle of the second draft now. All this is to say, there are advantages and disadvantages of this approach; the screenplay forces you to flesh things out in your mind, but then if you’re working off the treatment, it allows for more of the “magic,” the lightning in the bottle that you described. It’s a balance I’m going to keep playing with.
SM Abby is the one who shows Taryn around—she’s participating in all these scenarios, a house show, a football game on a field, some parties, where Taryn can’t fully jump in. She’s kind of hovering. One thing both this movie and Putty Hill have in common, is that your camera is more interested in people’s bodies doing the talking than the people are. Swimming in the creek there, in the pool here—they’re brief, but they’re almost out-of-body moments.
MP If you watch Hamilton, you’ll see—my goal in making that film was to think it out as a silent film, to do as much as I could do through gestures, body language, facial expressions, and really pare back dialogue. There’s almost none in Hamilton. I think it’s because I perceived my weakness in writing dialogue. For Putty Hill, the cast came up with their own language and their own words, so it wasn’t really me. I’m much more interested in that. Physicality is much more important to me—that’s what I cast for. I feel like I can work with anyone if they have a physicality on camera that’s compelling, a way of moving or an expressive face or whatever.
SM So your disinterest—until Darker, anyway—in dialogue is actually an old insecurity?
MP Well, I definitely always work with a rigid kind of economy in mind. The economy of my own ability, my own talent, and certainly we’re operating on modest budgets, so an economy of resources. There’s very little excess in the films because I’m always trying to do the best I can with what I have. Emphasize the stuff that makes life a little awkward maybe.
SM I think a lot of American independent films of the last 10 years have embraced personal awkwardness, or situational awkwardness, to challenge the Hollywood screenplay structure. But Darker is so smooth.
MP It’s true, Darker is a little more polished. I’m talking about formal awkwardness. I think Putty Hill is a formally awkward film, and there are a lot of awkward performances in Hamilton, but there’s a way in which that’s respected. The actors don’t feel awkward, even if they come off as awkward, so I guess by awkward I just mean exposed. In Darker less so, but in the other films the seams are exposed—you can see the bones.
SM I guess I would say the scenes in Putty Hill are about exposure or disclosure, but in Darker it’s the characters who are actually worried about being exposed to each other, being vulnerable.
MP It’s a different kind of awkwardness, you’re right. We see a lot of American films that are a lot of characters behaving awkwardly.
SM Metal Gods would be far bigger than Darker, right? Is there a sense in which you’d say you’re still “earning” that style?
MP Well, I have another film I’m pushing forward on that I’ve been writing for the last year or year and a half. Yeah—I want to wait on Metal Gods. It’s a big cast, a young cast, probably a combination of young professional actors and nonprofessionals. The casting itself, the first time around—before we bailed and made it into Putty Hill—was so laborious and time-consuming and hard. So I just think that I’m not ready for it yet; it’s really an ensemble. Darker is too, but for the next one, I want to focus on one character. I’m interested in a really intimate character study.
SM In terms of your actual audience, how’s it going with Darker?
MP Well, I think it’s a more accessible film; some people really loved Putty Hill, loved this, and are happy to see me taking a step in a different direction. Some of the people who really advocated for Putty Hill are nonplussed. But, what I am finding, I would say, across the board is that more people are connecting emotionally with this film.
SM Putty Hill was kind of an art-object to some people.
SM Is that what you wanted? Or for Matt Porterfield, is Putty Hill every bit as accessible as Darker?
MP Oh, I think Putty Hill is less accessible. I mean, I know that now. I had these dreams on some level, when I was making it—still sort of the Metal Gods mindset—that if we could just expose it to, you know, the wide swathe of teenage audiences out there, it would really resonate. But the fact instead is, most—I mean, there are maybe special teenagers who would get into Putty Hill—but I think most find it really fucking boring.
SM Say that again? (laughter)
MP I’ve learned that now. All to say, I think your expectations—whatever they are—are tempered by the actual release. Once you see the film go out into the world, it has its theatrical release—which may be limited—but then you kind of get down to wider audiences on VOD, DVD and stuff, and that’s where you really see whether or not you made an accessible film. Putty Hill was not that. You get your cinephiles and a lot of people in other countries who are interested in importing these sort of alternate visions of America, different views on American cities. They’re into it, but in the U.S. itself . . .
I don’t think we’re going to meet them, but I have different expectations now to be perfectly honest. I feel like this is a film that can perform in the middle of the country, connect to people in their mid-to-late thirties through fifties, in a personal way, that Putty Hill didn’t. I don’t know. We’ll see. I like a different audience, but connecting with an audience emotionally—that actually feels really good.
SM I guess that’s why people do it! So you’re not looking to reconnect “harder” with the same audience, which I think is to your credit. Does that mean Baltimore was going be more of a character in Darker than it actually ended up being?
MP It’s a much more subtle Baltimore story, I guess. We got a profile in our free alt-weekly and they really honed in on Roland Park, which is the dominant neighborhood represented, an upper-middle-class neighborhood. Eh, maybe solidly middle-class. God. Whatever that means.
I Used to be Darker plays at IFC through October 17.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, programmer and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. A head programmer at Spectacle in Williamsburg, his writing has appeared in publications including Slant, The L and The Brooklyn Rail. His film SHIRT TERMINATORS debuted at the 2013 La Di Da Film Festival.