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Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 Interview – “Putty Hill” director Matthew Porterfield

Putty Hill - At VIFF 2010
by Jason Whyte

“Putty Hill is a study of a working-class community in Baltimore, Maryland coping with the fact of a young addict’s death. The camera follows family and friends in the hours surrounding his funeral, from a paintball course to a backyard pool, through parks and local bars, building an impression of an American city and the struggle it takes to live there.” Director Matthew Porterfield on the film “Putty Hill” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

Yes, this is my first film to play Canada. But “Putty Hill” has traveled quite a bit. It premiered at the Berlinale’s International Forum of New Cinema, and had its North American premiere at South by Southwest. It’s played extensively in Europe and in the UK, Israel, Scandinavia and Latin America. My first film, Hamilton (2006), continues
to screen as well.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I’ve always had a desire to share the voices of people living normal lives outside of the mainstream: skaters, metal heads, addicts, artists, and circus performers and so forth. And I’m inspired by their particular, physical environments. Filmmaking gives me the opportunity to combine both in real time. I’ve been making films for about 10 years. Before that, I taught Kindergarten.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”

I wanted to be David Attenborough.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

I was developing another feature, “Metal Gods”, a coming-of-age tale about a group of high school drop-outs who live and love heavy metal. It was an experience both frustrating and rewarding. Frustrating, because we couldn’t find the money to make it; but we were rewarded through the casting process with all these awesome people. They were the inspiration for Putty Hill and I developed the scenario with them in mind. We had almost no money, but I’d been given a camera rental from IFP and Panasonic for Metal Gods, and we used that to shoot Putty Hill over 12 days in 2009.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

For me, it’s always financial. Yet I’ve found that by working with the limitations of my economy, there’s a way to emerge from the development process with the essence of a project still intact. It imposes a certain rigor on the production that necessitates creativity. And that leads to some really interesting results. My favorite moment of the “Putty Hill” process was the first day of production, when it all became reality and I could deal with the tangible, like with actors, locations, camera and crew.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

Jeremy Saulnier has photographed both my features. We’ve known each other since summer camp, well before film school, so we’re friends first. I smoked my first cigarette with him -- and with that comes a certain respect. Plus, we know how to communicate. After an intensive pre-production process – visiting locations, camera in hand – I’m able to let him work during production and focus my attention mainly on the actors and the overall design of the production. Most importantly, Jeremy knows how to get a lot out of a little, by utilizing natural light and a minimum of crew and equipment. In the case of “Putty Hill”, we shot on HD, because it was economical and afforded us flexibility that film did not. We also saved money by not smoking cigarettes.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

There’s always the question of how much of the film is fact and how much is fiction, to which there’s no easy answer. At our world premiere in Berlin, this guy stood up in the back row and claimed he knew Cory, the young man in the film who’s death triggers the narrative who only appears onscreen once in a photograph. Needless to say, this guy was really upset to find out his friend had died. He believed it. So he was relieved when we told him that he was still alive and well in New York.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Pedro Costa’s “In Vanda’s Room” was a huge influence on me, making “Putty Hill.” I’m watching it again right now--well, not as I answer this question--but in fits and starts, lately. I really like being in the space Costa captures. It’s like following someone down an alleyway and stumbling on a birthday party in the room of a family you’ve never met but that could be your own. Except that they’re all crack addicts…or because they are. And the party is pretty sad. But the way Costa loves his characters really moves and inspires me. The lighting, camera work, use of non-actors and so forth…I could go on about this for a long time.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Professional skateboarder.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

I’ve mentioned Pedro Costa. Claire Denis is another. I wish I could have worked with Patrick Swayze, may he rest in peace. My girlfriend wrote an incredible treatment for a film that would star Swayze as a pianist living in the Philippines. Swayze would have a male lover; there would be all this rain on the rice paddies, long shots of a piano being shipped across the Pacific.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

All press is good press? On the internet, it’s a funny range of respected film critics like Richard Brody at the New Yorker and Ebert to some unknown Scottish movie buff blogging in his boxer shorts. Everyone gets their say, and you hope the positive reviews get read first, but the negative reviews still sting, even when it’s the dude in his boxers who hates on your movie but LOVED Toy Story 3. I like constructive criticism, and think the film industry needs it, but haters out to squash every flower that blooms aren’t making the world a better place.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

We’ve been lucky enough to screen in so many terrific theatres around the world at festivals already this year. I’m just happy to be here! But I’m excited about our theatrical release in early 2011. I’m not sure which theatre we’ll open in NYC, but I’ve spent a lot of time falling in love with the screen at Anthology Film Archives, IFC, Film Forum, MOMA and Angelika.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

This film will respect you in the morning?

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

I guess the same advice I give myself: be open. Be creative with the resources you have. Make it now rather than later. Annie Dillard says, “Spend it all.” Don’t save your best ideas for a time when you can afford them. Use your best ideas up. Then you’ll have room for new ideas later, and they’ll be the right ones for the time at hand.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

“Au Hasard Balthazar”. I relate to that donkey.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/05/10 09:26:21
last updated: 10/05/10 09:27:27
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