When can a filmmaker be said to have ‘a touch’? Ernst Lubitsch had a touch, but what exactly was this? A penchant for comic timing, for finding just the right way to stage a visual punch line or to tickle spectators with a clever romantic resolution after several scenes of thwarted pleasure? ‘Touch’ was Hollywood’s name for Lubitsch’s skill, that particular quality that marked him as an auteur.
Matthew Porterfield’s growing oeuvre has little to do with the grandeur of classical Hollywood cinema, its studio system, stables of stars and craftspeople, its wide releases, and popular reception. His features—Hamilton (2006), Putty Hill (2010), and now I Used to Be Darker (2013)—are studiously small, his actors non-professionals, his releases reserved, like many American independent films, for the festival circuit and only the most cinéphilic of cities and cinémathèques. But Porterfield, too, has a touch, one that is becoming more evident with each new production.
The ‘Porterfield Touch’ traces its lineage perhaps more to what French critic André Bazin once described as the “cinematic ‘tact’” and “image facts” of the Italian neorealists. In the first case, he was referring to the particular tactility of the postwar “Italian camera,” which was “almost a living part of the operator, instantly in tune with his awareness,” much like a newsreel camera. Through the second, he articulated the filmmakers’ ability to embed action within its “material context,” to replace analytical shot breakdowns, the kind that force associations, with fragments of “concrete reality in itself multiple and full of ambiguity.” Filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini excelled, Bazin argued, at returning characters, often non-actors, to their natural surroundings. (1)
Porterfield’s touch requires cinematography (by Jeremy Saulnier) that is more sensitive than sensory and reactive, but “image facts” abound. And here, “tact” has something to do with the alternation between tactful proximity and respectful distance that the Johns Hopkins University film production professor maintains to his working class and lower-middle class protagonists and their Baltimore milieu. The image fact à la Porterfield celebrates understatement and quiet revelation: the boyish young man in the green t-shirt who is too big for the dirt bike he rides in and out of frame at the beginning of Hamilton; locals poignantly mourning the death of a teenager through the poor acoustics of a dive bar’s karaoke system in Putty Hill; a boy and a girl filmed through a sliding patio door, talking at a party just after she has taken a pregnancy test in I Used to Be Darker. There is no need to hear what they are saying.
Often, it is not the dialogue that conveys authenticity in Porterfield’s films, but the silence between characters, their body language and gestures, their clothing, and the way they navigate familiar terrain: a river bank, a sidewalk along the highway, a lawn, a basement, a park, or a bedroom. It is enough for the boy in Hamilton to sit in a church pew, sandwiched between his mother and half-sisters, as his estranged girlfriend takes their crying baby outside, audible but barely visible through the frosted glass behind the boy’s head. It is enough for a forty-something musician (Ned Oldham), recently separated from his wife (Kim Taylor), to jam defiantly with his friends in his basement studio at one moment and to revisit the space once the instruments have been removed in I Used to Be Darker.
Another director might insist too much on his or her part in the creation of this life-like fictional world, but Porterfield’s genuine concern for his characters and actors, his incorporation of their suggestions and experiences into his stories, steers clear of narcissistic reflective pools. His awe at human banality, a delight in the profoundly mundane heroics of daily life, betrays a lightness of touch and minimum of intervention in the world before the camera that only smaller films, in their resourceful blending of truth and fiction, can achieve.
At the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, we met for a conversation on I Used to Be Darker, which premiered in January at Sundance. I had just come from a screening of the internationally co-produced action love story The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman (2013), which, on the indie spectrum, seemed the antithesis of Porterfield’s film. For one thing, Fredrik Bond’s cast included stars like Shia LaBeouf, Evan Rachel Wood, and Mads Mikkelsen. Porterfield’s youngsters Taryn and Abby were played by newcomers Deragh Campbell and Hannah Gross, who had known each other since childhood; his musician couple Kim (Taylor) and Bill (Oldham) sang and played music that the actors had written in their professional lives beyond the film. Bond’s film traipsed flashily across Bucharest, extolling cinematic artifice at an Eastern European discount; Porterfield returned to his Baltimore haunts and sought to examine an inopportune intersection of a divorcing couple, their daughter just home from college, and their pregnant niece, who left Northern Ireland without telling her parents.
Perhaps the virtues of Porterfield’s still-low-budget artistry might be summed up in the way the cast and crew celebrated their opening in the Berlinale’s Forum section. At a club in Berlin-Mitte, Taylor and Oldham played songs like Taylor’s “American Child,” which she also sang in character in the film, as well as their other music and classics of Americana such as “Amazing Grace.” Because the actors had never truly relinquished their identities upon entering Porterfield’s Baltimore, they could also stand at their Berlin microphones with all the ambiguity and multiplicity of at least four kinds of performance: the everyday self, the professional musician, the American abroad, and the film character. If Porterfield’s touch is one that promises characters who can walk off your film screen and onto your sidewalk, the concert’s extension of the emotional world of the film proved just that.
I am always struck at the Berlinale by the range of films representing ‘American independent cinema,’ many of which would never even show at the same theatres in the U.S. How do you see the contours of your work against this backdrop?
I think of myself a little bit as a modernist in that I value form as much, if not more, than content and narrative. Certainly not more than the characters or the story because I’m interested in the world, in creating a reflection of life onscreen and trying to make that reflection somewhat authentic. Maybe “authentic” is a bad word choice, but just “honest.”
Where do you locate this “honesty”?
In the collaboration between myself and the cast, in the degree of respect and distance that I try to show the actors. If you give a little distance, while still creating a really safe environment for actors to take risks in, they’re more willing to flex a bit, try things out, come into their own, and find that right balance between whatever they’re drawing upon from their own experience, their own life story, and this character, a limited, but hopefully believable, fictive construct.
Hamilton and Putty Hill were still very much aligned with a nearly documentary sense of people and places. I Used to Be Darker seems to learn from this in order to create a consistent level of fictional performance. André Bazin referred to the “amalgam of players” in Italian neorealist films as the benefit of having actors and non-actors work together. (2) Each would expand the performance of the other to a realist level. In your current film, you are using all non-professional film actors, but together they manage to hit a similar note. How did you go about your casting process?
I think the amalgam is a dangerous route that I haven’t necessarily taken. I’ve seen other films that follow a long tradition of casting seasoned, named talent with people who are new to the screen, and I’ve just always worked with people who don’t have any film experience. None. In I Used to Be Darker, I feel like there’s a level of professionalism to the performances beyond my previous films because Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor are both working musicians and have a sense of their bodies and voices in space. Hannah Gross, one of the young actors, was trained in theatre. Deragh comes from a theatre family. So there was a way that we could all meet with a certain understanding of the boundaries between the actors’ real experience, how much they were performing as versions of themselves, and the fictional elements we were trying to incorporate in the world of the screen. Putty Hill, which had a predominantly younger cast of folks who could never have imagined being in a movie, required a different kind of preparation. But across the board, my work begins when I’m casting. I do all my casting myself and try to make real connections with people in real time. Of course, in the initial meeting, we’re documenting them with a camera so I can go back and see what filmic potential a given person might have. But the groundwork is really laid in that first conversation, when I’m asking them about themselves. And that translates into a language you develop, something that’s different for each actor. They don’t all have the same strengths and weaknesses, but what I think is universal is that you need to create a safe zone on production and in the weeks leading up to production, so that we feel really comfortable together and so that the actors are willing to take risks.
That seems like one of the greatest challenges of smaller productions: to get non-actors and specifically young people to open up and reveal themselves. The presence of a camera can often change their delivery. What are your methods for coaching this kind of cast into that capability?
I’m somebody who can’t be in front of a camera at all, so I have a lot of empathy for people who try. Already in Putty Hill, as soon as I decided to cast someone, I was spending time with that person outside the world of the film. I was visiting the place where they live, where they work, and building a relationship of trust. I then tried to begin a dialogue around the film and give them material. Putty Hill wasn’t scripted; it was just a treatment with a biography of this fictive dead kid that everybody fabricated around. I Used to be Darker was a feature script. I got them that material early, talked to them about it. Once we had our four leads, we brought everybody together in Baltimore the spring before we shot for a traditional table read. But that’s really the only rehearsal we did, that preliminary, collective look at the material. Of course real relationships were being formed through this, so when we called everybody in, just days before production, it was kind of a reunion. Everybody had been living with the material for a while, Deragh Campbell with this accent that’s not her own.
She’s not from Northern Ireland?
No, she’s from Toronto, but her Mom’s from Belfast. She knew the accent, but she also worked with a dialect coach of her own initiative. Sometimes actors come to me with ideas about how they might prepare for a role. In Putty Hill, Sky Ferreira decided to write journal entries in character, and those were really formative for the interviews in the film. That whole device was born from those entries. For I Used to Be Darker, everyone arrived, and I was really pleased with the scheduling, which was so important. You can’t shoot everything sequentially. There are certain things you have to prioritize: location, costume company moves, things with the cast. We take all of those elements and try to put together the smartest, most organic schedule that we can. We shot for three and a half weeks, and it was cool because we had Ned Oldham, Deragh, and Hannah Gross together for a week. Kim Taylor came in and did a lot of work with Ned. Deragh and Hannah stayed on and supplemented some of those scenes. And then there was a week that Kim had alone with the girls, and I felt this was all very true to the family construct. Structuring things this way actually supported the real relationships because these parents have separated. And these actors are coming at different times, each forming bonds with the other actors. Hannah and Deragh’s relationship was cool because they had known each other since they were three years old. Their families were friends, so it was exciting to me to bring that real relationship to the screen and see how it translated. One of my goals is always to try to allow as much of the real lives of these performers to play into the formation of their characters as possible.
This mixture of self and other also becomes apparent in the way your actors trust and navigate their environments.
We try to choose environments they know. Putty Hill was full of the homes and work spaces and places that these actors frequented. That’s key to making them feel comfortable, to be in an environment that’s not foreign.
This intimacy and trust between characters and environment largely gets conveyed through the camera’s familiarity with the profilmic space. Cinematography and framing in particular are important in your previous films, even if their unscripted quality might suggest a certain openness or unfixedness. In the opening of I Used to Be Darker, you introduce the predicament of Deragh’s character, Taryn, with a minimum of narrative information—a view of the boardwalk, the back of a person’s head. How did you balance the narrative elements you wanted in pre-production with your strong visual orientation in production?
I Used to Be Darker is definitely the most fully evolved screenplay I’ve ever written. I did this one along with Amy Belk, who comes from a fiction background, so it was her first screenplay. But it was really a good collaboration. We literally wrote every word together. With scripts, there’s a constant process of writing things that are very literal and having characters say what’s about to come next—which you want to avoid—and then paring everything back. But in transitioning from script to screen, you’re making choices in production about how much to show. And in the edit you find that things can be shown very simply. I would love to find a way to synthesize screenwriting logic and the logic of production and how it all comes together in post-production. But you’re fighting against yourself and dominant forms of storytelling. Does a filmmaker know what we’ll like as an audience watching a movie? All our preferences and dislikes? I try to make sure that we’re not pandering and not withholding too much purposefully. For the subjects I think that sometimes implies distance, but the more I can tell visually, the more exciting of an experience it is for the audience. That shot of Ocean City is an interesting one because the whole sequence, on paper, was 15 pages, and then we shot it all. The first assembly was 12 minutes long. There was so much that just hurt the overall rhythm and balance of the film. It was very expository and unnecessary. We could just pare down and go back and find the seed. We just needed to introduce the character, who’s of another place, and bring her into the world of the film, and that could be done fairly efficiently.
Right, even down to details like the bartender at the party who, like Taryn, has a French accent. I immediately thought of young, European women transplanted as au pairs to American suburbia or coastal recreational and resort areas, like Ocean City. Even this otherness feels very organic to the places where you shot.
You build this whole world and spend some time building a logic, and that informs the process. It’s all information you can use with your actors even if it’s not stuff we ever see onscreen, so there’s more subtext. In the two-hour window onto this world, this can all be evoked. It’s there subtly.
Authenticity or ‘honesty’ is also crucial to the way you incorporate Kim and Ned’s real profession into the film. At several points, both of their characters seem to forego verbal communication for music whether playing passive-aggressively or poignantly avoiding the instruments that could give voice to their frustrations. This provides the film with another layer of emotional noise and silence, far more evocative than a non-diegetic score. How did you work with them to shape that part of the story?
I’m not a musician, but I think I can identify with a struggle to communicate. It’s easier sometimes to communicate through your work, your practice than through interpersonal, daily life. We wrote the script with particular songs that are played onscreen in place. We knew these songs because Kim had recorded them, and Ned had released them. They existed in the world, and that was cool. We found a place for “American Child” that seemed to fit, and “Days Like This” gave us the perfect last words for Kim and for the film. A couple of the choices were a little more collaborative. We let Ned choose the song he plays before he smashes the guitar, and in the song he plays with Jack on drums, he put words that my father wrote, a collection of poems from the 1970s, to music. It was fun. We could go to them and say, “We love your music. We respect your craft. We’ve heard one or two recordings of these particular songs and think they fit the world of the film. Would you be willing to transpose these songs that are personal in your lives to the life of the film and allow them to be sung by these characters? Will you sing them for us as you perform these roles in this fictive world?” It’s a nice way to blend documentary and fiction, not unlike we do with the interviews that punctuate the narrative in Putty Hill. The renditions of these songs that we’ve documented are some of the best recordings that exist, so I think we’ve found a way to showcase Kim and Ned’s talent as singer-songwriters. It feeds them and us the same way.
Right. I think we’re also so used to biopics’ reduction of musicians to the same formula: “Johnny was young and had a problem with his father and then went off to become a musician…” In your film, music is not tied to narratives of fame and fortune, but to the banal everyday of its practitioners, to their emotional experience, a space that’s not prefabricated. And that’s a cultural niche (like your films) that Kim and Ned’s music also fills.
Taryn and Abby are at a particularly vulnerable age in the film—that moment when teenagers become young adults. How has your time at Johns Hopkins University influenced all the work you’ve been doing on and with young people in Hamilton, Putty Hill, and I Used to Be Darker?
In general, I’m drawn to characters in transition, so I often write about youth. And I’ve been a teacher for years, so I write with the youth in mind. I’ve taught every age, from 3 to 20, so I think I remain connected to young people and their process of development. It may seem like they have media power, but that’s only because of their position in the marketplace. I create content that is not market driven and is subsequently, ideally, more respectful and meaningful to humans of all ages. I also learn a lot from my students and have had the pleasure of collaborating with students from my university on my last two films; we also had a number of students on Hamilton. I love that place where learning and practice intersect. It’s nice to have people learning on production whether they’re students or recent graduates or friends or artists who’ve never worked on a film before. There are always a number of people who are new to filmmaking who work on each of my films. I think it brings an energy, a hunger, and a levity to everything. We are craftsmen, but we’re not just workers on a job, dialling in. We’re creating dialogue on set, where we’re thinking about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and taking a little extra time to help somebody get up to speed or at least figure out how to perform a task efficiently. In the classroom my practical experience is something I have a responsibility to share, so I try to do this without talking too much about my own work. I think it’s exciting to be still engaged with theory and practice on that level where you’re trying to read montage theory and figure out what it means in practice or reading Bazin and making sense of him for the first time and seeing the films he’s talking about and getting a sense of the language. Being connected to that as a filmmaker is really valuable, really informs my craft and feeds me. It’s much better for me to be teaching and making films than doing only one or the other.
In your press kit you mention that you and Amy Belk “wanted to honour” your experience and all that you learned about “how complex and full of life even the dying of a marriage is.” What you make clear in your film is that divorce is not just about two people but a number of intertwined relationships. How did you come to this philosophy and the kernel of this story?
It was personal. I feel like there are lots of things I was never able to say to my ex and my parents. I’ve been through two divorces—the divorce of my parents when I was about Abby’s age and then again in my late 20s and early 30s. There was a lot left unsaid and for Amy, too. We wanted to communicate on a personal level something of what we were feeling at the time and also to show some empathy, if belated, to our exes, to our parents, to the people we haven’t been able to fully reconcile with in life, but somehow remember and honour through this story, this film. I haven’t fully communicated everything that I was feeling when my parents split up directly to them, but writing Abby brought me closer to articulating or conjuring some of that emotion. Writing for Bill and Kim was interesting, and I think it was important that Amy is a woman and that we could kind of play off each other. Our goal was to create a really balanced look at this family, in which they all had the chance to share their voices.
And you do handle blame and narrative identification very delicately in the film.
We found that audiences tended to identify with one or the other of the characters. And it’s not as if their allegiances shift, but they do tend to open up to the other characters, and over the course of the film, they’ve identified with each of them in some way. For Amy and me, both of our experiences of divorce were probably closer to Kim’s. We initiated the separation. It was really important to us to let everybody else speak first and then to try to articulate where we were at that particular time in our lives. Kim’s song “Days Like This” does it really nicely. I don’t think we ever said this to each other, but that’s how we intuitively organized the story.
As with the music, much of the film’s communication of these complex emotions comes not through dialogue but through the geography of Ned and Kim’s respective houses. All the characters seem to dance a circuitous path around each other’s pain. For instance, as Kim plays “Days Like This,” you don’t see Abby and Taryn returning “home.” Instead, it’s just suggested aurally beyond the door. Kim’s performance, the spectator’s own act of listening, and Kim’s awareness, in character, of the girls’ presence beyond the frame combine in a small and subtle moment of vague reassurance.
Maybe what you’re seeing is a predilection on my part to keep these little interactions action-based or gesture-based. Too much weight is given to dialogue, which doesn’t really feel true to life. We can’t always articulate what we want or need, but we can rely on gestures more easily. Making coffee for Nick outside is a small gesture; performing music is a large gesture. Bringing the waffle iron back is a gesture, too. We’re always trying to stay open to the potential of little gestures to tell a lot.
Will your next film also take place in Maryland?
We’re here at the co-production market for a film we want to shoot next summer about a guy on house arrest living in Baltimore. I’m trying to shop it around. I don’t know how feasible co-production is with this film, but we’re learning about it. This market gives us the opportunity to talk with European producers and funds, but it’s not that easy for American independents to set up co-productions with Europe. The Germans have been the easiest.
Matthew Porterfield is a guest of this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival. I Used to be Darker is screening at MIFF on Friday 2 August and Sunday 4 August.