Interview: Matt Porterfield's local work strikes universal chords

Filmmaker is rooted in Baltimore, but his vision has taken him around the world

  • Director Matt Porterfield in Caroll Park bike and skate facility, one of the settings from his film, "Putty Hill."
Director Matt Porterfield in Caroll Park bike and skate facility,… (Gene Sweeney Jr., Baltimore…)
March 03, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Matt Porterfield is a hard-knocks poet — a rhapsodist in black and blue — whose work gains strength from its Baltimore roots.

Porterfield located his first two movies, 2007's "Hamilton" and his current "Putty Hill," quite ruthlessly in the Baltimore neighborhhoods that give these films their names. So acute is his focus on authentic textures and characters — and so revealing are the epiphanies he ignites on the fly — that these tales of working-class endurance and rebellion have reverberated around the world.

He's become a sought-after talent. "Putty Hill" opened at the Berlin Film Festival. When I got in touch with Porterfield a month and a half ago, he was in Lebanon acting for an Algerian filmmaker friend, Tariq Teguia, who had asked him to play an American neocon in a movie called "Ibn Battuta." The film was named for the most famous and revered Arab travel writer of medieval times.

Back in Baltimore, Porterfield explained that Teguia's protagonist is contemporary — a refugee traveling through the Middle East in search of citizenship and his own identity.

"He gets involved with some shady Americans trying to launder money through Lebanon — and that's where I come in," he said. "It's a minor role, but it's reoccuring. Appearing in front of the camera is very different from working in back of it — I had only acted in high school theater. I have no chops!

"The government fell apart a week after I left," Porterfield recalled. "The area I was in was Hamra — pretty diverse, not run by any particular sect or piece of the government. A lot of artists live there of many different ethnicities. I had to stay a lot in my hotel, because that was the principal location, and it's also where I stayed. But I could go up to the rooftop or walk to the sea. Everyone was waiting for a war to start. We were never sure what was going to happen next. But it was a great experience."

Porterfield may have to do more traveling to finish off his acting gig. But for now, he wants to concentrate on opening his own movie. "Putty Hill" made its New York debut to great acclaim two weeks ago. Now it comes Baltimore. Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland, Omaha, Neb., Los Angeles and Nashville, Tenn., will follow.

For those who've followed the film locally since its regional premiere at the Maryland Film Festival, it's been a long wait. Porterfield explained, "We didn't want to have it get lost at the end of the year; we didn't want to go head to head with other independent films we knew were coming out, and we didn't want to compete with the Oscar nominees or the coverage of [the] Sundance" film festival.

Staging Q&A's and other events in each new location, Porterfield is trying to build on the attention he won on the festival circuit in 2010. Cinema Guild, his distributor, expressed interest in the film about a year ago, after it played at the Austin, Texas, music and arts festival, South By Southwest. It also continued to play internationally, Porterfield said.

"We wanted to see how wide we could extend our festival run," he said. "At the same time, we had to raise a litle more money to pay outstanding debts, to tweak our sound mix, to obtain music rights — some we got, some we didn't."

The loss was the song "Wild Horses" — "We never got close to the Rolling Stones to ask permission. Our only point of contact was Abkco [the Stones' publishing company], and they had no interest in quoting us a figure — so we had to try to find something emotionally similar. Luckily, we found someone who could do a killer, heart-wrenching version of 'Amazing Grace.'"

Dolly Parton granted permission for the film to use "I Will Always Love You," asking only a $5,000 donation to her literacy charity. Porterfield's films often feature characters who are struggling to find things to believe in. But Porterfield said this week, "I believe in Dolly."

Michael Sragow

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