Matt Porterfield is back following his critically acclaimed sophomore
feature “Putty Hill,” with the affecting drama “I Used to Be Darker,” which premiered at Sundance
this year before playing at Berlin and winning Best Narrative Feature at
the Atlanta Film Festival. The Baltimore-set
Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham as two musicians struggling to end
their marriage on graceful terms for the sake of their college freshman
daughter Abby (Hannah Gross). The film is now playing in Baltimore,
and opens across the country on October 4th. Below, Porterfield shares an exclusive scene from the film, one that features French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos, who would later go on to win the Palme d’Or for her devastating performance in “Blue is the Warmest Color.”
The first three minutes of “I Used To Be Darker” take place in Ocean City, MD. Taryn (Deragh Campbell) and Camille (Adèle Exarchopoulos, Palme d’Or winner for “Blue is the Warmest Color”) are foreign students – one from Northern Ireland, one from France – working for the summer at a boardwalk amusement park. They’re roommates, who’ve become friends, in the United States for the first time in their lives. Taryn’s been talking to this local boy, who happens to be the son of her employer. She discovers something big that she wants to tell him, so she goes to his parent’s condo, where he’s throwing a party, and brings Camille along for support. Things don’t go as planned and Taryn gets mad. He shows indifference and she reacts violently. Her actions set the whole movie in motion: she can’t face the consequences, so she flees to Baltimore to find solace with her aunt’s family. But things aren’t so easy there either. And that’s where the real story begins.
In 2007, I wrote twenty-five pages of a script set in Ocean City, where I used to work summers as a teenager. I made friends with all these kids from Europe, the UK, and Spain, who were there on temporary visas, hanging out in this rather tacky seaside town. There was a definite cultural divide, but here we all were, trying to make sense of the United States and make the most out of summer and the service industry. And I wrote this scene around a very personal (and embarrassing) anecdote: in high school, I was dating a girl who dumped me at prom; during Senior Week I attended a party at her parent’s condo and got so drunk that I took a kitchen knife and slashed all the starving-artist, beach-scene paintings that were hanging on their walls, one by one, until a friend caught me and told me to leave and I climbed out the window. Years later, this seemed like a good scene and a really good symbolic expression of frustration.
In many ways, this was the most ambitious sequence in the movie. Jeremy Saulnier shot the whole film handheld and lit each scene with a combination of available and artificial light. In this instance, it was important for me to create a clear distinction between two worlds, the one outside where the locals are hanging out having a great time, and the interior space that Taryn and Camille inhabit. The door that separates them physically and the sound mix definitely serve to articulate this, but the cinematography is what really illustrates the divide. There is very little dialogue exchanged, but the world and the relationship between the characters is established through the mise-en-scène. We shot in my best friend’s grandparent’s condo and solicited all the extras from the region. We purchased paintings in duplicate from the Ocean Gallery and the art department built reinforced backing behind each canvas to protect the walls. We had to buy prop knives and bind them with tape so that Deragh wouldn’t cut herself (she still did). And we took a chance on the rights to the UGK song (“Swishas & Dosha”) that plays in the background. Then, to make matters worse, we built a bonfire and waited for the sun to fall to just the right point, so that we only had twenty minutes to shoot the whole thing.
I wish we could’ve included all the scenes we shot in Ocean City in the final cut, but I think in the end this scene functions as an evocative prelude. It gives the story an extra breath that keeps audiences wondering about the life beyond the frame.