Berlin Q&A: Director Matt Porterfield

Matt Porterfield P

The Baltimore-based filmmaker discusses his Berlinale entry "I Used to Be Darker", his canny use of music and bribing his benefactors by getting tattoos on his own body.

With his third feature I Used To Be Darker -- screening in the 2013 Berlinale Forum -- 35-year-old director Matt Porterfield, returns again to the environment of his previous films, Hamilton (2006), and Putty Hill (2011), which were all shot and produced in and around his hometown of Baltimore.

The domestic-scaled drama follows 19-year-old Taryn (Deragh Campbell), who flees to Baltimore after she finds out she's pregnant to seek refuge with her aunt Kim (Kim Taylor) and uncle Bill (Ned Oldham). Once there she only finds a situation of more uncertainty and confusion, as the couple is in the midst of a combative split and Taryn’s college-age cousin Abby (Hannah Gross) has distanced herself from the turmoil by preparing her move to New York.

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In Berlin, Porterfield sat down with The Hollywood Reporter to talk about the current state of Indie-cinema in the US and his innovative reward system (tattoos) for Kickstarter contributors to his films.

The Hollywood Reporter: What draws you to the suburban environment in your films?

Matt Porterfield: In the big picture, place informs me very much, and each of my films explores the diversity American middle-class, that’s something that interests me. Baltimore is a good template as sort of a second tear city with lots of divisions along the lines of class and race, there’s lots to sort of talk about. But I don’t want to talk about it directly, so it becomes the fabric, and part of the context in my films.

THR: What makes communication or how people do not communicate with each other such an important topic for you?

Porterfield: Non-communication is a paradoxical fact in the world we live in now. We face real challenges communicating directly nowadays. There are always lines of communication open -- we are Skyping, we are text messaging constantly -- and we moving further away from connecting with real people in real time and actual physical space. 

Maybe to see people on screen not really talking with each other is what alienates some audiences from my films. Because you go to the movies to see people talk about things that we don’t really talk about in our daily lives necessarily. I’m interested in cinematic realism and a degree of naturalism, and I want the audiences to approach the characters that are fictive and part of a collective imagination, a bit more like we approach the people that we meet. We enter a narrative mid-stream and we might walk away from somebody in life and then not really know what happens. I like to go to the movies and have that experience, it’s more like life. Very often, movies are driven by conflict, by having the characters assert their will. In my films, people very often haven’t quite made up their mind yet, I don’t want to see them assert their will but watch them trying to figure it out, that feels more true to life for me.

THR: The characters in Darker communicate a lot through music, and I think also the title of the film is taken from a song?

Porterfield: Yes, from a song that meant a lot to me when I was going through a separation. “I used to be darker / then I got lighter / then I got dark again / something too big to be seen was passing over and over me”. Personally, I’ve experienced a lot of sadness and then moments when the light shines through, and I think that’s true for most people. Besides, I really wanted to touch upon the music topic because the characters in the film are not performing for one another but communicating with the audience that way. They are characters as artists, and I really can relate to this. They may be failing personally, be vulnerable in their relationships or perceive their weaknesses there, but have a certain confidence communicating through their art.

I am always interested in the fine line between the diegetic use of music and non-diegetic stuff imposed on it, and I think Darker is an exercise in diegetic music.

SUNDANCE REVIEW: I Used to Be Darker

THR: Despite their seemingly being stuck in lethargy and static environments, your characters always also have a lot of hope in them. Where does that come from?

Porterfield: I don’t know if I have an answer to this question, but it is definitely true, certainly in Darker, Putty Hill, and to a lesser extent maybe in Hamilton. I don’t know where it comes from but I believe in the potential for people to sort of transcend their condition, their routines. I believe in the human ability to keep moving forward despite odds that might feel bigger than life at a given moment, in that resourcefulness to draw upon inner strength and move beyond difficult situations, and to heal, and to grow.

THR: The choice to use non-professional actors in your film is not just budget-based, correct?

Porterfield: Right, I simply follow the rules of cinematic realism, so it makes sense to me to use non-professional actors. Of course, it’s also off my economy, but that collaboration with people who are new to the screen excites me, I think; it’s a given. If you are going to make truly independent pictures, you have to really be aware of your economy, every phase of the way, and unfortunately, I find that the dominant industry of the studio industry or the big Hollywood-Indies that are so prevalent and receive a lot of exposure in the US, is the standard that Indie filmmakers, even on my level, try to uphold. This doesn’t necessarily trickle down. We should be breaking the rules and be making our own rules instead of following those rules, because we can’t.

THR: So how do you view the current situation for independent filmmakers in the U.S.?

Porterfield: I think the thing that is special about the Indie-scene in the United States, is that you can retain the ability to green-light your own projects in the US. If you set a date, you can build everything around it, bring in collaborators, find your financing -- you can make a film. It’s just kind of about committing to the act of making the film. True independent films can be made with very modest budgets and at least play very well in the U.S. festivals, and for the lucky, play well internationally as well.

THR: Speaking of financing, is it true that you get a tattoo of the name of anyone who gives you money for your films?

Porterfield: I don’t know that I will do that again... But for Darker, we did a Kickstarter campaign to raise some money to get us to production, so I got the name of the film tattooed on my arm, and that act became a kind of a slogan saying “For a thousand Dollars I tattoo your initials on my arm.” I have three people’s initials on my arm now.