A beguiling amalgamation of documentary and fictional narratives, Matthew Porterfield’s second feature “Putty Hill” has been making waves on the film festival circuit since debuting at the Berlin International Film Festival last year.
Porterfield, who divides his time between making films and teaching screenwriting and production at Johns Hopkins University, earned rave reviews with his first feature, the delicate, meditative drama “Hamilton.” His second feature script, “Metal Gods,” a coming-of-age tale centered on a group of Baltimore metalheads, was selected to participate in the Emerging Narrative Program at IFP’s Independent Film Week, where it won the the Panasonic Digital Filmmaking Grand Prize.
Porterfield was set to start shooting “Metal Heads” in 2009, but when financing fell through “Putty Hill” was born. Cast with many of the same actors, “Putty Hill” uses a young man’s untimely death to build a portrait of a close-knit community living on the outskirts of Baltimore.
Porterfield spoke with indieWIRE from his home in Baltimore.
So “Putty Hill” came as a result of a feature you were trying to get together, “Metal Gods,” falling through, correct?
Yeah. It was naive, but I thought if I worked real hard with a crew in place, I’d eventually find the money. I simply couldn’t find the financing in time so we decided to switch gears. So we created this new scenario, which is “Putty Hill.”
“Putty Hill” is composed of scenes where your actors share deeply personal stories from their own lives in extended monologues. How did you gain their trust to share such revealing moments on screen within the fictional construct of a story?
I think it was the time we spent together in pre-production, during the development of “Metal Gods.” People that I had cast in “Metal Gods” had already begun rehearsing before the film fell through. No one that appears in “Putty Hill” had ever acted in front of a camera together. It was priority that we get to know each other. So I spent a lot of time in their homes; got to know them, their families. We had a connection, a friendship.
How did you find these non-actors?
We tried different things. We posted an audition call on MySpace. That was pretty fruitful. On MySpace you can really fine-tune a search and find people within a certain age range with certain interests. We also printed postcards and handed them out of the street. Some people we just approached on the street.
You majored in Psychology at New York University as an undergrad. What led you into film?
I did a year as a psych major, but I did eventually transfer into the film program there at Tisch. As a young person, I knew that movies cost a lot of money. The means of production seemed so far out of reach. That’s how I understood it growing up. Then when I was at NYU studying psych, I had some friends in the film program and saw what they were doing. I took a chance in transferring. I got into Tisch with a short one-act play that I had written. That was kind of the beginning. I learned that this was something that I could do, that anyone could do really.
Did your one year studying psychology in any way inform the filmmaker you’ve become?
Maybe. I can’t say that I retained a lot of what I learned. I think the reason I went into psychology is probably the same reason I went into film. The focus in my films is people.
The film is quite dark, not only in look but in content. What inspired you to make it?
Certainly the people that I met in casting “Metal Gods.” I found them so interesting that it was a priority for me not to blow an opportunity to work with them on film. The neighborhood was also a key inspiration. The dark subject area that you mentioned was something that I could connect with on a personal level. Going through some real hard times in the years leading up to making “Putty Hill” and spending a lot of time imagining my own death — I was able to connect to this idea of a community mediating on this character’s absence.
Do you see yourself exploring similar terrain in future work?
I learned a lot making “Putty Hill,” principally with regard to my relationship with actors. I think I’m a lot stronger than when I made my first film, “Hamilton.” I hope some of the things I learned will translate whether I work with non-professional or professional actors. I don’t think it’s that different necessarily. Moving forward, I’m less interested in asking my cast to recite words on a page. I’m more interested in having them lend their own voice.
What do you make of your film getting lumped into the “fake” documentary category with the likes of “Exit Through the Giftshop,” “Catfish” and “I’m Still Here”?
I actually like that “Putty Hill” is acknowledged both as a narrative film and taken seriously in documentary circles. I like the blurring of the lines. In the search for cinematic truth, I don’t think it’s an either/or. We can find truth in both and yet both are contrived to a certain extent. So it’s an honor to be considered on the same side as these boundary-pushing docs.
What do you have planned next? Still trying to get “Metal Gods” off the ground?
I’d love to and I’d shoot that in a heartbeat if that came together. I just finished a screenplay with my partner called “I Used To Be Darker,” also about family. It takes place in Baltimore. I’m also beginning work on a screenplay about a young man on house arrest.