Matthew Porterfield Creates a Laconic Art-House Ode to Northeast Baltimore
The crucial thing to know about director Matthew Porterfield’s feature debut, Hamilton, is that it’s fantastic. The fact that Porterfield’s a hometown boy, or that Hamilton meets world-class art-film aspirations often set but rarely met by indie filmmakers, is just very interesting icing.
Five years in the making, Hamilton began with the kind of life gamble most folks would never dare to make. Having dropped out of New York University’s film program, frustrated by what he saw as an overemphasis on conventional and commercial approaches to storytelling, Porterfield spent a few years in New York teaching kindergarten and working as a sound recordist on friends’ film projects. But eventually the bug to make something big happen bit Porterfield. After narrowing his courses of action down to two dramatic choices, he let fate do the deciding.
“I decided that I was either going to go back to school and try to finish a degree or move back to Baltimore and make a film,” Porterfield, 28, recalls while sitting in the Charles Village apartment that serves as both home and office to himself and his wife, Sara. “So I applied to Cooper Union. It was the only school I applied to, and I tried really hard, the best I could.” He didn’t get in.
His decision thus made for him, Porterfield quickly moved back home and jumped right into the writing process for Hamilton in the fall of 2001, focusing on childhood memories of summer days spent among the pools, porches, and backyards of Northeast Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood (“Welcome Back, Porterfield,” Film, Aug. 25, 2004). Eventually, central characters emerged, and from there the writing process became, for Porterfield, a kind of game, positioning these characters in a variety of situations and letting them do the reacting.
“I don’t like to [walk into] my projects with a theme,” Porterfield says. “And I don’t want to develop an overall arc to the plot. I’d rather think about the characters, think about images, and then see where they go rather than try to fit them into some sort of three-act model. I don’t feel like I have a lot of control over the narrative. Sometimes I do, but there’s so much of it that’s free, which is really nice—it’s almost like some sort of trance state.”
Eventually, a feature-length story emerged. Lena, a New Jersey native who visits Baltimore during her summers, has Joe’s baby, and subsequently moves in with Joe’s mother and sisters. Joe moves to another house in Hamilton to pursue a variety of small jobs, leaving his family and the mother of his child frustrated by the physical and emotional distance between them. As Lena prepares to make a month-long trip with Joe’s sisters to the Eastern Shore, she makes serious efforts to reach out to him and reconnect, but Joe’s needs and wants remain unstated and, perhaps, incompatible with what others want for and from him.
As his script came together, Porterfield involved two crucial collaborators: director of photography Jeremy Saulnier, who shot Hamilton sumptuously on 16-mm color film, and producer Jordan Mintzer, who had previously worked on films by such indie-big names as Hal Hartley. Both of them have long histories with Porterfield: Porterfield and Saulnier, a native of Alexandria, Va., attended the same summer camp in their early teens and didn’t meet again until they both attended NYU; Mintzer, another NYU alum, sat in front of Porterfield in a literature class and intrigued Porterfield with the esoteric film books he always had piled on his desk. (Soundtrack contributor Animal Collective also has a connection with the director; Porterfield has been friends with AC member David Portner since nursery school.)
Porterfield and Mintzer’s shared reverence for French minimalist Robert Bresson proved critical to casting. “I turned to his ideas about the actor as model,” Porterfield says. “And how you allow the ‘model’ to fill the role in a way that actors don’t, because the actor’s trying to play the role.”
Bresson cast his films using nonprofessional performers he found on the street and chose them for their distinctive appearances. Porterfield was able to cast two of his main characters with relative ease—he found his Lena, Stephanie Vizzi, through an open casting call held at the Baltimore School for the Arts; the role of Candace, the eldest of Joe’s two sisters, was written for Porterfield’s godsister Sarah Seipp-Williams—but he eventually resorted to Bresson-esque tactics in trying to cast Joe.
“I had gotten to the point where I was literally approaching dudes on the street and asking them if they wanted to be in a movie,” he deadpans. “I didn’t get anywhere, but I didn’t get beat up, either.” He eventually found his Joe—Chris Myers, a local actor with a few small roles on The Wire under his belt (and no relation to City Paper contributing photographer Christopher Myers)—via a résumé the actor had posted on the internet.
Script in hand and film cast, Porterfield and his crew shot the film in the summer of 2002. In doing so they faced some issues raised by David Gordon Green’s debut, George Washington, which, like Hamilton, relies heavily on visuals and a young, nonprofessional cast. “I like much of [George Washington], but there’s these moments where his dialogue betrays everything,” Porterfield says. “There’s moments where it’s too written, too contrived, where the words he’s getting his actors to speak seem to not even fit in their mouths—but then there’s the opposite, which I think is dangerous when working with amateur actors, where he allows them free-improvisational areas.”
This line of thinking convinced the filmmakers to prune some of the dialogue from their shooting script, and even more eventually disappeared in the editing process. This purge allowed the aforementioned stars—Myers, Seipp-Williams, and Vizzi (who not only worked several weeks in a bakery but also took a pilgrimage to Lena’s hometown of Asbury Park in researching the role)—to shine in scenes both spoken and silent, while preventing any supporting players from creating the kind of stilted moments Porterfield sees in George Washington.
It also lets the visuals and Hamilton’s relaxed pacing take charge, resulting in an art film of the highest order. This is a film that believes you can learn as much or more about a character’s inner space from watching them walk to a destination as you can from the things they do and say once they get there. In taking this stand, Porterfield’s film aligns itself not only with Bresson, but also with works like Gus Van Sant’s art-house comeback trio of Gerry, Elephant, and Last Days; Tsai Ming-Liang’s visually lush What Time Is It There?; Claire Denis’ gorgeous fever dream Trouble Every Day; and Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny.
Coming from a local film scene wherein most indie films mimic either the commercial model or the camp classics of John Waters, Hamilton offers a bold third course of action. Which makes it a bit of a shock when Porterfield begins to describe the next script he’s at work on, a character study about East Baltimore high-school metalheads called Metal Gods. But Porterfield reveals he’s writing the film as he did Hamilton, constructing it from images rooted in memories and dreams, and keeping the dialogue sparse.
Meanwhile, he’s just happy to finally be able to show Hamilton in front of audiences. It debuted recently at the 2006 Wisconsin Film Festival, and while the screening sold out, the real thrill for Porterfield came when appreciative audience members stuck around for the subsequent Q&A. “They seemed to like the film for the same reasons I like the film, which was really affirming,” he says. “People seemed to like that it wasn’t reliant on dialogue, but rather on movement, sound, and color.”
Which is when Porterfield drops a characteristically humble remark that makes his accomplishments with Hamilton, if possible, even more endearing: “It made me feel like, Well, I could try again.”
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