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Matthew Porterfield

The local filmmaker talks about his latest project, and it's not the one everyone expected

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/27/2010

Select scenes from Putty Hill

Charles Theatre Feb. 1 at 9 p.m.

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The second feature by local filmmaker Matthew Porterfield is almost finished--though not the one you may have heard about. Although his debut feature, 2006's Hamilton, continued to screen through last year (at New York's UnionDocs, at the Philadelphia International House), since late 2007, Porterfield and his writing/production partner Jordan Mintzer have been talking about their next production, an ambitious, fully scripted feature titled Metal Gods. And everything appeared to be proceeding apace. Auditions were held in November 2008 and last March and May. Screen tests were teased at last year's Maryland Film Festival. Press about the in-progress movie appeared in the Baltimore Sun and Baltimore magazine. The blog and the movie's web site documented the movie's pre-production every step of the way. Shooting was slated to start last summer. And then, well, it didn't--at least, not entirely. In a statement of Porterfieldian artful economy, a Sept. 21 blog post read: "It's official: We shot a feature film in Baltimore this summer. Keeping it under wraps for the time being, but working on the picture edit. Very close. Super stoked." That entry's headline: "Putty Hill."

Shot on the fly over 12 days last summer when Porterfield and his producers realized that full Metal Gods funding wasn't coming, Putty Hill is making its world premiere at the Berlinale's International Forum for New Cinema in early February, but Porterfield is currently in the home stretch of final postproduction and is reaching out to his local peers. On Monday, Feb. 1, Porterfield holds a sneak-peek screening of select scenes from Putty Hill at the Charles Theatre to publicize his and his producers' fundraising efforts. City Paper caught up with Porterfield at a Charles Village coffee shop.


City Paper : Tell me a little bit about how Putty Hill came to be. Was it something that you already had or something you had to improvise during Metal Gods and turn something you had into something else?

Matthew Porterfield: More of the latter. We had planned to shoot Metal Gods in the summer of last year, 2009, and when we saw that we weren't going to be able to raise the money necessary to do it right we decided, well, we could try to do it on the cheap, put it off entirely, or use the funds we do have, the resources we have, and put something else together--and quickly. So I began a scenario in June that imagined a lot of the cast that we found and had worked on for Metal Gods in a new scenario. And it was pretty open. In the end, the shooting script was just a five-page treatment. So no written dialogue, and it freed me to work with some of the characters and a lot of the locations that hadn't made it into the Metal Gods scenario but were inspiring or really interesting for me to consider.


CP : When you say some of the Metal Gods characters in a new scenario, do you mean the actual characters in a different storyline or just we have this cast and crew locked down, let's do a totally new story with what we have?

MP: I guess when I say characters, well, Metal Gods was a full script and required a level of performance. For the most part, we were going to use a lot of nonprofessionals, but there was this level of performance. In Putty Hill, it's more self-conscious and the people we see onscreen are, for the large part, playing themselves. The narrative construct at work is that there's a character that we never meet onscreen, he's 23, and he dies of a heroin overdose before the film begins. Like Hamilton, it takes place over a couple of days. We learn about this character and the larger community through time onscreen with his families and friends, and there're narrative fictional scenes intercut with more traditional documentary-style talking-head interviews. So it plays with this dialectic between what's fiction and reality and how much of what we're seeing is true. This character doesn't exist. There wasn't a young man who was 23 who was connected to all these characters. But for the most part, the performers are answering most questions as themselves. So there's this level of authenticity, and also risk involved as well.


CP : How was it making that shift? Going from a scripted project with, I imagine, a shooting schedule and locations, to something a bit more loose?

MP: I had to put a lot more trust in all my collaborators, in particular the actors. That said, I gave myself a lot more time to work with them, more certainly than I had when working on Hamilton.


CP : A lot more time in terms of rehearsals or preproduction for Metal Gods? In terms of working with them on Putty Hill?

MP: Sort of both. Luckily, the foundation was in place, because I had spent a lot of time with all these actors in preproduction of Metal Gods. We really moved forward as if we were going to shoot it--we were already developing character and earning their trust, eliciting performances by getting to know who they were. A lot of weekends, a lot of hanging out, just getting to know one another. So there was this foundation. When we put Putty Hill together, there was no time for rehearsals--all I had was the time I had been given on a given shooting day. And, for the most part, I tried to occupy my time on the set with the actors and let my crew, my DP, everyone else, handle the logistical and technical aspects.


CP : So where does Putty Hill stand right now? It's been cut, and you're still trying to do a final post--color correction, sound, titles?

MP: Yes. The picture's locked and we're getting to the--like, we've gotten to where we're getting a lot of work for free. Like my editor, he's cutting the film for free, and I'd like to pay him. I'd like to pay everybody. What we're trying to do right now is finish the film and allow us to represent in Berlin. And then, Berlin is a market, and we'd like to go in there with all our ducks in a row and be prepared for a potential sale. Because we made this film for not very much--we shot it for $20 grand.


CP : Only $20,000?

MP: Yes. Hamilton I shot for $40[,000] and finished for about $80[,000], so we're already working for a smaller budget. And that's where I want to work moving forward, as long as I can--controlling the means of production, being able to continue to work and stay independent and work with the resources that are available to me. I had this exciting opportunity where I tried to develop a script that was a lot more ambitious and expensive than Hamilton [and it] sort of reminds me that there's so much more you can do when you try something different. You really do a lot with a little.


CP : Is Metal Gods completely off the table? Or is it just on the backburner?

MP: It's something I would really like to still make, but in some ways Putty Hill satisfies part of that need. My hope is that Putty Hill is my second film to play festivals, so through continued exposure, if there's a good festival life for Putty Hill, I'm hoping there's someone who will help me make my next film. Whether that's Metal Gods--I have a couple of other scenarios that I'm developing that would certainly cost less. I would love to do Metal Gods, but in many ways it would require going back to the drawing board.


CP : I was going to ask, because it sounds like you had this cast and this thin window of opportunity with which they'd still be kids.

MP: Yeah. The protagonist in Metal Gods is a 14-year-old kid, and he's 15 now, and he's in Putty Hill, but he's getting older. The window there is tight. So I don't know what will happen with it. It's definitely my first fully developed feature script, so I'm happy I went through that process.

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