Matt Porterfield premieres new film at festival

I Used to Be Darker

Directed by Matthew Porterfield

There was no clapping at the end of the Sundance premiere of Matthew Porterfield's new film, I Used to Be Darker. It wasn't that the audience didn't like the movie; they were just hypnotized by the last image, one of a number of long, single-shot musical sequences that blend a concert-footage style into the movie's sublimely realist narrative. Porterfield's latest effort is a bit of a departure from the docudrama style of his 2010 feature, Putty Hill. This film feels more traditional yet maintains the personal and intimate feel of his other working-class stories, all centered in Baltimore and its suburbs. Porterfield took a break from the bustle of the Sundance Film Festival to chat a bit with City Paper about his newest film.

City Paper: Most people think of Sundance as a film festival, but for the filmmakers it's also a business conference.

Matthew Porterfield: That's definitely part of the intent for me. Meeting with people in the agency world, with producers, possible investors, that's always on my mind. There's been some opportunity to socialize at events throughout, but I have not sat down and had any meetings. My first goal is to bring the film here, my hope is that it does well and that we're able to sell it, but I also want to get people interested in what I'm doing and what I'm working on next.

CP: Your work is very local, about Baltimore, filmed in Baltimore. Do you still feel tied to the larger film industry?

MP: It's another cool thing about the opportunity of bringing a film to Sundance. It's my first time here, playing here legitimizes me and my films to the industry. Putty Hill got me on the radar of some people in New York and L.A., but most of our investors have been from Baltimore.

CP: John Waters has said that his work, the work of Barry Levinson, David Simon, and your films, together, create a kind of cross-artist documentary about Baltimore.

MP: It's cool to be included in the conversation. Baltimore's not an industry hub; there's not that many images of Baltimore onscreen. But we're lucky to have some very good ones, John Waters, Barry Levinson, The Wire. People all over the world know Baltimore because of these films and these filmmakers.

CP: Both in Putty Hill and I Used to Be Darker, you have a central character coming to or returning to Baltimore. Does that help you usher the non-Baltimore audience into your setting?

MP: I think so. I like the idea of an audience discovering something with the character as they watch the film.

CP: There are several long shots in I Used to Be Darker. In one, Ned Oldham plays an entire song and then destroys his guitar. How many guitars did you have to smash?

MP: We only smashed one. But we bought three.

CP: Did you smash the other ones for fun?

MP: One went to our production designer. The other we had the whole cast and crew sign and gave it to Ned as a gift.

CP: Does shooting digital make those kind of long takes easier?

MP: Definitely. I'm really happy that I was able to shoot my first film, Hamilton, on 16mm. It still affects the way I work. I like a kind of economy. That's one of the reasons why I favor these long shots. The scene at the dining room table, we didn't shoot any coverage at all. I asked my cinematographer if we should try and cover the scene, but sometimes once you go in, you tumble down this rabbit hole. The palpable energy of that scene comes across better in a single take. And yes, the digital format makes that much easier.

CP: Do you see the larger digital transition in both production and distribution/exhibition offering you new opportunities or presenting any new dangers?

MP: For reasons of archiving, it's relatively scary. We've been lucky that there were 35mm prints made of Putty Hill for exhibition in France, and we took one for ourselves. So there is a film print that exists. Which makes me feel a little better than just the zeros and ones in terms of longevity. The digital print costs much less, but it's still a cost we cannot absorb. So hopefully we'll get a distributor and they will pay for that.

CP: Does it make you hopeful that more people will be able to see your films?

MP: Yes. Video on Demand and other things make it so we can sign a deal and see it broadcast in all these little territories that would never be able to get traditional distribution.

CP: Putty Hill is very much a Baltimore movie. But I Used to Be Darker seems like a film that could have been set anywhere. Are you going to continue on that trajectory, away from more documentary kind of films about Baltimore?

MP: My next film is called Sollers Point, and is more in line with Hamilton and Putty Hill in that it's about a specific neighborhood and that neighborhood has a specific character that's important to the film. But then I have another project I think could be shot in any second-tier city in America. It depends on the story, but I still have a couple I want to tell that are very specific to Baltimore.

The 35 mm print of Putty hill premieres at the Baltimore museum of art on feb. 24

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