It’s been a year since Matthew Porterfield premiered his Baltimore-set tour-de-force “Putty Hill” at the Berlin Film Festival. The microbudget film drew considerable acclaim and went on to play at festivals ranging from SXSW to Edinburgh, Atlanta to Thessaloniki, Boston to Buenos Aires. But a funny thing happened on the way to the movie’s theatrical release: Music rights.
In the version of “Putty Hill” that appeared on the festival circuit, a crucial karaoke scene — in which the characters coalesce to memorialize a young man’s death — opens with a local bartender’s rendition of the Rolling Stone’s “Wild Horses.” Says Porterfield, “We weren’t totally naïve. While we were shooting, we knew it was going to be tough to get the rights. But we decided to put it in our original final cut because we thought it was the perfect way to enter the scene.”
That pitch-perfect scene-setter soon clashed with the realities of intellectual property rights. Working both separately and through a handful of music supervisors, “Putty Hill” producers tried to get permission to use the song through the Stones’ record company, ABKCO.
“I even went by their offices and hand delivered them the DVD,” says producer Steve Holmgren. “I showed them all the great reviews, but they had little interest in the film, and they didn’t like the usage of the song.”
They also tried reaching the Stones directly through various sources, from Stephen Kajik, director of the Rolling Stones doc “Stones in Exile,” to a producer’s friend who was friends with Mick Jaggers’s son. “It was a last resort,” says Holmgren, “because sometimes the labels don’t like it when you go to the musician directly.”
None of it worked. Porterfield was forced to reshoot and re-edit the scene.
For a movie that, at its core, deals with tensions between authenticity and artifice, documentary and fiction, the decision to alter the “reality” of that key culminating sequence was a difficult one. But like many independent filmmakers with limited resources, Porterfield was forced to adapt to the industrial pressures of music copyright laws.
Music rights issues have long dogged indie filmmakers. Uncleared scores can keep a film out of official circulation indefinitely (see Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” Larry Clark’s “Ken Park” or Derek Cianfrance’s “Brother Tied,”) or force filmmakers to self-distribute and become anti-copyright activists, such as Nina Paley’s DIY release “Sita Sings the Blues.”
Peymon Maskan, a music supervisor on indies such as “A Good Old Fashioned Orgy” and “Alone With Her,” says there’s an inherent problem for independent filmmakers because record labels and large publishers don’t have a lot of provisions for the indie world.
“They don’t build their fee structures based on the way independent films get distribution nowadays, so there’s this huge disparity between the way young filmmakers get their money back and the way labels expect to get paid,” he says. “It’s not easy for them to take any risk. If the film ends up not being good, or it ends up having negative connotations towards the song, the publisher doesn’t want to jeopardize their relationship with the artist.”
Veteran music supervisor Tracey McKnight (“Adventureland,” “High Art”), now Lionsgate’s head of film music, is more optimistic. “I’ve always felt that where there’s a will, there’s a way,” she says. “My advice is to make the movie you want to make and make your case as passionately and as clearly as possible early on. You’d be surprised as to how many calls you’d get back with approval from labels and publishers.”
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the “Putty Hill” experience. Inspired by Martin Bell’s seminal 1984 documentary “Streetwise,” Kent MacKenzie’s 1961 neorealist “The Exiles” as well as the work of Jean-Luc Godard, Ulrich Seidl and theater director Bertolt Brecht, who all mix realist and formalist techniques, Porterfield says the quasi-nonfiction quality of “Putty Hill” places the film in “tricky” territory.
Porterfield’s priority was always to capture the lives of the people in the impoverished neighborhood of Baltimore’s Putty Hill with as much honesty and emotional truth as possible. “I was much more focused on my subjects and was interested in stories from their lives, and honoring them, and treating them with respect,” says the writer-director, who teaches film at Johns Hopkins University.
Of the pivotal scene, “I wasn’t in a position that day to really control as much I would have liked what people sang,” Porterfield says. “I just wanted performances and to create an environment that allowed the locals to sing and shine with the principal cast.”
While most of the actors were locals and unknowns, the film stars one notable up-and-comer, model and singer Sky Ferreira, who coincidentally broke out last year with a Capitol Records contract (her single “Obsession” appeared on TV’s “The Vampire Diaries”). In the film, Ferreira sings an affecting karaoke version of “I Will Always Love You” (cleared, after the fact, with an aggressive appeal to rights holder Dolly Parton).
Holmgren admits one reason the production stuck with “Wild Horses” for as long as they did was a desire “to go against the system.” He acknowledges that other filmmakers might be more willing to push the boundaries of fair use — and if they had self-distributed the film, they might have kept the song in and taken their chances with the record company.
But in making a pact with distributor Cinema Guild, they had no choice but to reshoot. Porterfield and a small crew returned to the original location, Dimitri’s Tavern, in November and, that afternoon, a guy at the bar ended up singing what Porterfield calls “this killer version of ‘Amazing Grace.'”
“I think what we pulled off has the same emotional resonance as ‘Wild Horses,'” says the director. “It’s a crackly version of Elvis’ ‘Amazing Grace,’ so it’s like rock and roll, but downtrodden.” And while “Amazing Grace” has far different connotations than the Stones song, Porterfield says the lyrics’ spiritual quality works because the group is, after all, gathering together for a funeral.
To integrate the new scene, they added extra cutaways, close-ups and color-corrected some business cards with After Effects to match the original footage. (Even when pursuing documentary-like veracity, digital tools can come in handy.)
With Putty Hill opening in New York this Friday, the story ultimately has a happy ending. Looking back, however, Holmgren has this simple advice: “Rule number one for independent filmmaking: not to use uncleared music.”