Matt Porterfield, like many SXSW filmmakers, came to his film, “Putty Hill,” in a roundabout way. A slice-of-life piece, largely improvised, “Putty Hill unfolds as “[a] young man dies of a heroin overdose in an abandoned house in Baltimore. On the eve of his funeral, family and friends gather to commemorate his life. Their shared memories paint a portrait of a community hanging in the balance, skewed by poverty, city living, and a generational divide, united in their pursuit of a new American Dream.” [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
Director: Matthew Porterfield
Screenwriter: Matthew Porterfield
Producers: Jordan Mintzer, Steve Holmgren, Joyce Kim, Eric Bannat
Cast: Sky Ferreira, Zoe Vance, James Siebor, Jr, Dustin Ray, Cody Ray, Charles “Spike” Sauers, Catherine Evans, Virginia Heath, Casey Weibust, and Drew Harris
Cinematographer: Jeremy Saulnier
Editor: Marc Vives
Porterfield on his humble beginnings…
I never imagined making films, but I fell in love with a NYU film major as a freshman studying psychology, nodding off in my lecture classes. I’d been very interested in theater in high school and as a child my life revolved around David Attenborough’s “Living Planet” and “Life on Earth” (I didn’t have a TV, but I was allowed to watch nature programs with my grandparents). I also remember discovering Diane Arbus’ first monograph at a very young age. These things are not unrelated: my films are studies of the human animal and its environment, with a particular emphasis placed on psychology, performance, objectivity, and diversity of experience.
Porterfield on the journey to “Putty Hill”…
I spent two years, from 2006‐2008, writing a screenplay about teenage metalheads living in southeast Baltimore. In 2009, I began casting. The script was never shot because financing fell through; but, determined to push forward, I wrote a new scenario based on the specific people and places I found in the process of developing it. I’m interested in trying new approaches to cinematic realism, so combining techniques of documentary and narrative filmmaking seemed promising. Because the scenario was only 5 pages on paper with no written dialogue, I had no idea going in how long the film would be. At the very least, I knew the dialectic would be enough to sustain a short.
On making a collaborative, spontaneous film…
I wanted to give my actors, all new to the screen, a chance to collaborate and share their individual voices. Together, I hoped to paint a portrait of a particular urban environment and explore themes of memory and loss. I guided the cast through the narrative sequences, but granted them freedom to develop dialogue and action throughout. For the interviews, I asked them to answer questions by drawing on their own experiences. We combined the very precise approach to mise en scène used for interviews and narrative scenes with more spontaneous doc‐style reportage throughout, further blending the lines between forms of documentary
Porterfield on his challenges and bringing the film to SXSW…
The biggest challenge was working within our limited economy. We had a great crew, $20K, and a three‐week camera rental from IFP and Panasonic. That was all. Luckily, Baltimore really supported our effort and we received many in‐kind services and goods, from labor and equipment to food.
I think SXSW is going to be the ideal North American premiere for “Putty Hill.” Though I’ve never been, what I understand from filmmakers who have is that the audience in Austin is open and adventurous. And they appreciate a good DIY effort. Plus, there’s the music connection: one of our actors, Sky Ferreira, is a 17‐year‐old pop vocalist poised to blow the fuck up.
Porterfield on his inspirations and future projects…
The inspiration for my current work is Pedro Costa’s Fontainhas series, particularly “No Quarto da Vanda” (2000), for its simple, economical, but revolutionary approach to cinematic realism. More directly, “Streetwise” (1984), by Martin Bell and Mary Ellen Mark was an important reference. The authentic voiceovers that weave the narrative line in their documentary about Seattle street kids inspired the interview device used in my film. Also, we looked carefully at the epic dinner scene in Cassavetes’ “Husbands” while planning the penultimate post‐funeral scene in “Putty Hill.”
I’m interested in literature as source material, so I’m working through a screen adaptation of Anne Carson’s “Autobiography of Red” as well as a short story by Amy Belk called “Awesome Cousin Car Rental.” I’m also developing an original screenplay about two foreign students working in a beachfront amusement park on Maryland’s eastern shore – it’s a psychological drama/thriller, so a bit of a departure for me. Then there’s “Metal Gods,” the coming‐of‐age tale about high school metalheads I finished in 2008.