Out in the Street

Matt Porterfield brings Baltimore to Omaha

“I had no plans to make a film like this,” says director Matt Porterfield. He's speaking from Los Angeles, where he's promoting his latest picture, Putty Hill, which has its Omaha premiere on Friday at Film Streams. It's his second feature, after Hamilton in 2006 (which will screen on Sunday), and it has gotten quite a lot of good attention lately, not least from Richard Brody of The New Yorker and from Roger Ebert. Putty Hill is mysterious and moving; a fully realized work. It feels complete and confident — like a great film from a great director. But without such an unusual combination of circumstance, luck and pure talent, it might not have ever happened. The movie he had planned (and still plans) to make was called Metal Gods, a coming of age story about a “group of small time punks and drug dealers”. “We decided we were just going to cast (Metal Gods) and find locations and do all the development work in hopes that we'd find the money,” he explains. “But it was still hard to find the financing. We had to switch gears and try to do something else that incorporated the people and places we wanted to see on screen.” Those places include the unkempt streets of Porterfield's working class Baltimore neighborhood. And the people are the non-professional cast that populates Putty Hill. In the film, we learn that a local kid has died from an overdose. And then we go out to meet the neighborhood. There's Cody (Cody Ray), who presides over a local skate park, telling us a bit about his recently deceased acquaintance and a lot about the kids who frequent the park. There's also Zoe (Zoe Vance), who's just arrived back in town, not so happily, to attend the funeral. Sky (Sky Ferreira) has returned for the funeral as well, and is staying with her estranged ex-con father Spike (Charles Sauers), a blonde behemoth of a man who does tattoos in the living room. We watch them (and several others) playing paintball and going swimming. We hear their hushed conversations, in a darkened, smoky bedroom or while wandering through the trees. And we join in at the wake, one afternoon in a local bar, as they all gather to remember their friend. A voice frequently interrupts these observations and poses questions directly to the characters. They aren't always able to reveal much about the kid who died, but they indirectly reveal volumes about themselves, their lives and their world. Hamilton, Porterfield's debut feature, is set in the same neighborhood and focuses on the relationship between Joe (Christopher H. Myers) and Lena (Stephanie Vizzi), which has become strained since the accidental birth of their son. But like Putty Hill, Hamilton is more concerned with the observation of behaviors, environments and the passing of time than with psychoanalysis or explosive dramatics. These films were cast with people from the area, mostly non-professional actors, a simple necessity for many small pictures, but still no small feat to pull off. “You have to make your cast feel really safe, and in an environment where they're able to take risks,” he says. “It's a tricky proposition for people to be themselves or perform versions of themselves, especially if they've never done it on camera.” But on the same note, he adds, “You can do different things with non-professionals. There's a lot of potential that excites me. Potential for some kind of more objective truth, maybe, or authenticity.” Both films feel very much like companions to one another, but the shooting circumstances were very different. Hamilton was fully planned while Putty Hill grew out of improvisation. And the first was shot on costly and less-forgiving 16mm film, while the latest was shot on HD video. “Its true that when you shoot film, especially on a low budget, you really have to be careful. You can't do a ton of coverage. And that worked for Hamilton. I think I learned some things and found a kind of minimalist, formal aesthetic that I wanted to continue to play with,” he says. “(Putty Hill) was a lot more collaborative in some ways. Hamilton was very clearly mapped out, and Putty Hill was just five pages on paper, and I think it lent itself to shooting on HD. I don't think we could've pulled this film off shooting on 16mm or something like that.” A week of meeting with friends, other filmmakers and watching HBO's “Eastbound and Down” are on the agenda in California before he heads to Omaha with these two remarkable pictures. Of L.A., he adds as only a true independent director would, “It's beautiful here, but I wouldn't want to make a film here.” Putty Hill is playing at Film Streams, 1340 Mike Fahey Street, from April 15 – 21. Director Matt Porterfield will be present for a Q&A following the 7 p.m. screening on Saturday the 16th. Hamilton is playing on Sunday, April 17 at 1 p.m..Visit filmstreams.org for more information.

posted at 09:56 pm
on Sunday, April 10th, 2011

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