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Directing Isn’t About Controlling Everything, But Learning When to Let Go

Indie veteran director Matthew Porterfield writes about how on his fourth feature “Sollers Point” he made a better film by remaining open.

“Sollers Point”

Oscilloscope Laboratories

Editor’s Note: Matthew Porterfield is an independent filmmaker who has made four feature films, including “Hamilton,” “Putty Hill,” and “I Used To Be Darker,” which have screened at Sundance, the Berlinale, SXSW, and the Whitney Biennial. His films are all set in his hometown of Baltimore, where now teaches at the Film and Media Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University.

Porterfield’s new film “Sollers Point” – which is being distributed by Oscilloscope Laboratories and opening in New York this Friday – tells the story of Keith (McCaul Lombardi), a twenty-four-year-old newly released from prison and living with his father (Jim Belushi) under house arrest in Baltimore. IndieWire recently ask Porterfield to share with our readers what he learned making his fourth feature.

When I began making movies, I imagined I’d work best when I had it all figured out. I thought it required unwavering vision to carry a project through from beginning to end. To a certain extent it’s true: the seed of an idea is nurtured and grows exponentially with the amount of energy it’s given. But what I’ve learned over time, and with each new project, is that filmmaking is as much about letting go as it is about asserting control. Along the way, from casting through location scouting and during the shoot itself, I’m presented with variables that require flexibility, a willingness to bend, and an openness to new possibilities.

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I wrote my new film “Sollers Point” with a thirty-eight year-old actor in mind for the lead. Then I came across a twenty-five year-old named McCaul Lombardi. We met and connected instantly, the way that actors and directors sometimes do, and I rewrote the script for him. Keith, played by McCaul, changed the tone of the film entirely, and for the better. Sometimes you write a script for a particular actor and it all works out. Other times a person appears that you never expected and presents a world better than you’d imagined.

McCaul Lombardi and Matthew Porterfield on the set of "Sollers Point"

McCaul Lombardi and Matthew Porterfield on the set of “Sollers Point”

Caspar-Newbolt

During production, scenes don’t turn out as expected for a multitude of reasons. Even when everything lines up just as you’ve anticipated, the feeling you hoped for in a scene might not be realized. Or a scene that seemed inconsequential might suddenly appreciate value. On “Sollers Point,” we shot a small night scene as scheduled. It was fine, not great, but I knew as we were filming it that it was going to be the end of the movie. Not the end as scripted, but something different. A week later, we went back to the location and tried the scene again. It was far too late and everyone was tired, but the possibility that presented itself a week before suddenly became manifest. We acted on intuition, deviated from the schedule, and produced a lasting image far better than what I’d written.

The first assembly of “Sollers Point” was two hours and fifteen minutes. It included lots of scenes I loved. Many of these were the scenes I’d spent the most time writing and fought the hardest to achieve in production. There was a sex scene and a scene we rescheduled twice because of rain. There was a scene that made me laugh out loud every time I watched it. There was a scene in a beautiful location we had to steal. But these scenes were eventually cut, left behind, because they didn’t serve the story as a whole. Perhaps the editing process, more than any other phase of production, requires the most letting go. You’re dealing with the actual material, which differs so much from the vision that lives in your head. Something occurs on location, with its very own time signature, so that the pieces don’t fit together as you thought they would.

Sollers Point

“Sollers Point”

Oscilloscope Laboratories

I don’t always start with a script, but when I do it takes a long time to write. When I’ve finished, I feel a commitment to what’s on the page. I think about the process of making “Sollers Point” and in retrospect I wonder how much a script serves a filmmaker. It means a lot in terms of financing, and it gives you a precise path to follow though development and into production, but it also limits the amount of space you’re given to improvise and move with the changing tides of each day. It requires a rigidity to actualize. I think the less-scripted films I’ve made, “Putty Hill” and “Take What You Can Carry,” contain as much life and accuracy as the films I’ve made from screenplays. That said, I know I will continue writing and working in the traditional way. I enjoy the process and value the pre-visualization that screenwriting allows. The challenge will be to remain malleable, to stay present, to let go when needed.

If I could go back and say something to my younger self, it would be: embrace the moments of greatest distress and uncertainty, treat them as gifts. The moments when things don’t align the way you expected are opportunities to expand. Nothing is precious. Everything about filmmaking is a beautiful, ridiculous, expanding possibility. There is always more than you imagined, your vision is limited, and life and matter are richer than your mind. You should spend more time listening and watching. And you should feel free to doubt everything you thought you knew.

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