Shot in 12 days on the outskirts of Baltimore, Maryland in the summer of 2009, Putty Hill is the second film from director Matt Porterfield. He grew up in the area and made his first film, Hamilton, in the same location. Born from the ashes of an unproduced script called Metal Gods, he used a five-page outline as the basis for the narrative of Cory, a kid who has just died of a heroin overdose. Family and friends gather from around the community and outlying towns to mourn, and subsequently try to piece together his final days.
What elevates the skeletal story is Matt's own singular style. Using a mixture of fiction and documentary, he routinely breaks the fourth-wall and begins asking characters in the scene what they knew about Cory. Kids at the skate park remember him stopping by to do tricks every now and then. A sister from out-of-town barely recalls the last time she saw him. What begins to emerge is that no one really knew the kid at all, and Matt's off-camera questioning acts almost as a stand-in for Cory trying to figure out what he's left behind.
The haunting mood is accompanied by the immaculately composed frames of quasi-rural life, coming across as an equal mixture of Jon Jost and Pedro Costa. Coupled with the languid tone and documentary passages, the film possesses a peculiar atmosphere, one that will cause you to recall shots or character gestures days after you've seen it. It's also one of the more honest depictions of youth in recent memory. The film premiered at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival, spent a year traveling the festival circuit, and is now being released stateside. I sat down for coffee with Matt in the East Village--just a few blocks away from Cinema Village, where Putty Hill begins it theatrical run tonight.
Vice: First of all, congratulations on the film. It's had about a year's worth of festival play and it's now getting officially released. How many times have you shown it in New York?
Matt Porterfield: Our only public screening was at BAM Cinemateque in June. We also played with Tiny Furniture and Cold Weather, which was just picked up by IFC and released. We were also picked up by Cinema Guild.
You went to school here at NYU, right?
Yeah, I went from '95 to '98 and then dropped out. Studied psych for one year, then I transferred into the film program for my last two years.
I was really happy to see that you went back to your hometown and scooped up all these local people to make Putty Hill. I think there's a belief among some people that if you want to do films, you need to be in New York or LA to do it. Did you ever have a feeling of "I can only get this done if I'm in New York"?
I was such a mess when I was a student. I learned a lot at NYU and a lot of it has been useful, but ultimately I was frustrated with the program because of its oppressive narrative. I mean, you go there if you want to make narrative film. And I'm a narrative filmmaker, but at the time I was more interested in experimental, experimental documentary, and avant-garde stuff. I wasn't drinking the Kool-Aid at the time that you have to be in New York.
I left NYU and I started teaching, actually. I took four years off and taught kindergarten on the Upper West Side. And then I got hungry to make something. I was writing scenes for about a year, and none of them were set in New York. It was a really easy decision that if I was going to try to make a movie, I was going to try to make a movie in Baltimore. That's an area I know. So I moved back in '02 or '01 and started work on Hamilton. That took about a year to write and almost four years to edit after we shot it. But it wasn't until I went around trying to make my second film that I realized it's important to spend some time in New York and LA if you want to get your movies made. If you're trying to command a modest indie budget, that requires money, and money often comes with talent, which is not something you can easily secure if you're working in isolation in Baltimore.
That said, I want to continue working in Baltimore because I have a lot of resources that I don't have in New York and don't have in LA. One of the things I love about Baltimore is that you can do a lot with a little. There's a true grassroots DIY ethos there. People are making shit, and it's kind of by any means necessary. There aren't that many feature filmmakers, it doesn't draw people in who are interested in that industry, it'll never be a hub, but it's a great place.
I think as a filmmaker, you're always try to find a balance between your work, your art, and the marketplace. And if you have one foot in the marketplace, ie in New York, and one foot in this place that is very invigorating, I think that's a good place to be. It's a balance that you want to achieve and I think I've found that in Baltimore.
Both Hamilton and Putty Hill had a very defined look that usually comes out of a strong collaboration with the cinematographer, which seems rarer and rarer in American independent films these days. Or maybe I just don't see enough.
Yeah, Jeremy Saulnier (cinematographer) and I went to school together. Actually, first we were at a YMCA summer camp when we were 13. I smoked my first cigarette with him, but I don't smoke anymore. I think, at least in America, there's just a lack of distinctive mise-en-scène. That sounds really pretentious, but I think it's actually true in the US.
I don't go to a lot of festivals, so I don't see a lot of stuff unless it comes to New York, but Putty Hill seems off the map in terms of everything else that comes out. It's an American film but it's very influenced by non-American styles. Does the regional quality hold up when it plays overseas—is that one of the first things in their minds too, this regional quality that you don't normally see represented?
When we play internationally, I'm always eager to see how the film is perceived in a new territory. American media is a big influence. Seeing visions that are off the map are really interesting to audiences all around the world. For Baltimore, The Wire kind of paved the way because that is everybody's point of reference. Putty Hill is gritty, but it's also a very different version of Baltimore. It's kind of cool that people are open to this little town.
Obviously you don't sit in on every single screening at these festivals, but has there been anything that you've caught on the 50th viewing that you didn't see before? Maybe an emotional cue that you didn't see the first time?
That's a good question… I don't know. Consistently, the most remarkable or surprising scene that gets me every time--and this doesn't fully answer your question--is the first scene with Spike, where I try to break form in several ways, where I have a character on screen essentially interview him. All the other interviews are conducted by me, off camera. And I'm always struck by the two players, Jeff and Spike, and their comfort and ability to deal with what was actually a very difficult shooting situation. I was asking the questions, Jeff was repeating the questions, Spike was then answering the questions, and then Jeff was responding. We didn't rehearse it, and it actually works. I like it when we break form in little ways.
One of the things I enjoyed was the frank portrayal of the kids. They're clearly misfits, but not sensationalized at all. I think it's fair to say that, in some aspects, Putty Hill is a teen film.
How about the drug use? The central character dies from a heroin overdose. When you came to these actors and started talking to them about the film, did they ever think, "Oh my God, this is going to be the next Kids"?
If anything about my filmmaking is programmatic, it's that I want depict youth, and this white, American, working class experience that I know a little bit about. And that I too often see misrepresented in the media. Kids love Kids. Sky Ferreira (Jenny) knew Kids. I tried showing her movies that were more along the lines of what I wanted to emulate. Street Wise, for example.
I just saw that two months ago.
What'd you think?
It was great, especially the little stuff, like when the kid glides down the abandoned hotel in his roller skates and flops down onto the bed.
That was a real point of reference for Putty Hill. We're dealing with behavior that is relevant, but not necessarily culturally condoned, like drug use, promiscuity, teenage-sex. It's weird. These behaviors are not condoned by the adult world, by the gatekeepers of culture, yet the adult world exploits them all the same time. So, when you depict them, you have to be really careful.
That reminds me of the scene at the creek. It felt so natural, did you talk to the actors before and say, "act like we're not here."
I knew that I wanted to shoot in this idyllic little spot just because it's such a cool place to hang out. We took a hike, got some beers and a little bit of food, and we just chilled there. Some of them knew each other, some of them just met, but they were all around the same age. They started hanging out and we walked away and started shooting really wide and then slowly moved our way in. By the time we were right on top of them, they were just hanging out. We were just watchers, witnessing something we didn't have to direct, it was directing itself.
That scene has one of my favorite shots, when Zoe is laying on the rock and she starts doing this playful hand thing with this guy. It's literally just like six seconds long, but it says so much. There's so much mystery in that moment.
That's really insightful that you caught that though because it's true to their real relationship. Walker is someone she brought to the production. He's the guy who makes the tag later in the film. He's a New York kid, born and raised. He's in love with her and they're best friends. It's all real.
Was there ever an idea to shoot an actual funeral scene?
Never thought of it. There was some reorganization with the edit, but in the treatment everything happens the day before the funeral. Then, as the last scene--which is now the penultimate scene--was the karaoke bit. We reorganized it so we have the trip to Cory's house as the last scene.
When Cory dies, everyone has these half-remembered impressions of him. There's an adolescent fantasy kids have where they imagine who would show up at their funeral if they died tomorrow. Of course, in that fantasy everyone hopes for full attendance. The way you depict it comes closer to reality. At Cory's funeral, there was this collection of relatives who hadn't seen him for a while, and one or two other people. Was that scene based on personal experience?
I can answer this candidly. A year and a half before we made Putty Hill was this really hard year for me. I was abusing alcohol. I was having a recurring mood disorder. It was really dark that year. I spent a lot of time imagining my own absence. Not exactly my death, but just thinking about what it would be like no longer being here. Death was on my mind so it was easy to get myself connected in a palpable way to this idea of someone's passing. I was able to go there. The character I identify with the most is Cory: the one character you never see. I've always been interested in a storytelling standpoint in which you get to know a character through their absence.
Putty Hill opens tonight in New York. It's playing at a ton of places throughout the weekend, and guest speakers will have a chat with Matt after each screening. Go here for full info.
7 PM: conversation w/ Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation), Matt Porterfield, the PUTTY HILL crew and Sky Ferreira in attendance
9 PM: conversation w/ Yance Ford (POV) and Esther Robinson (ArtHome, Danny Williams: A Walk Into the Sea), Ross Kauffman (Born Into Brothels) and Matt Porterfield