Arts-donation website helps Matt Porterfield turn his new film into a cliffhanger

With one work week to go, Baltimore's youngest auteur hopes to raise the funds to finish a feature

  • Director Matt Porterfield (right) goes over the scene with Jeremy Saulnier (center), the Director of Photography. On the set of the film "I Used To Be Darker," in Roland Park in Baltimore City.
Director Matt Porterfield (right) goes over the scene with… (Josh Sisk, Special to The…)
August 07, 2011|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

"I Used to Be Darker" is meant to jump from the blocks at full speed: A 19-year-old discovers that she's pregnant, grabs a knife and exacts devastating revenge on the cad who knocked her up. After she loses her job overseeing bumper cars at an Ocean City arcade, she high-tails it to Baltimore.

The film's writer-director, Matt Porterfield, and his co-writer (and partner), Amy Belk, pack a midsummer day's nightmare into a vivid streak of incidents. It could be the perfect lift-off for the rest of the story – and no one doubts Porterfield's ability to pull the sequence off. "Hamilton" and "Putty Hill," his first two features, demonstrated his skill at delivering keen emotion on the run.

But Porterfield, who is shooting the rest of the script in Baltimore, has bet the completion of "I Used to Be Darker" on his ability to raise $40,000 by Aug. 13 through Kickstarter, the website for creative entrepreneurs.

He scheduled the Ocean City sequence for September. If Porterfield doesn't reach his Kickstarter goal, the movie may have to work without it.

"We don't have enough money to shoot Ocean City," Porterfield confessed during a break in the filming on Wednesday. "All top of the line [talent], cast included, are deferring their fees. We're not in a position to start editing."

As Samuel Johnson said, "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully." Kickstarter operates on a similar principle. If a project doesn't meet its goal on deadline, no money passes hands. The pressure can be intense. But it can also generate startling sums of money in mere days.

In two and a half years, Kickstarter has become the go-to website for filmmakers, musicians, puppeteers, graphic novelists — any artist or entertainer who wants to market-test an idea and at the same time fund all or part of its creation and promotion. (Kickstarter runs on 5 percent taken off the top of successful campaigns; Amazon, which processes the payments, takes an additional 3 percent-5 percent.)

Porterfield's Kickstarter push to ready "Putty Hill" for the Berlin Film Festival brought the website regional and global attention in early 2010. The producers of "On the Ice," winner of a Maryland Filmmakers Fellowship and, like "Putty Hill," a critical hit in Berlin, are now using Kickstarter to raise $80,000 to open their film in 10 cities.

Local artists of all kinds have placed all their chips on Kickstarter — and won. Graphic artist Steven Parke waged a successful campaign to finance printing of a myth-inspired fantasy called "Medusa's Daughter" in both novel and graphic-novel versions. (He and his co-creator, Jonathon Scott Fuqua, eventually hope to print a third version "aimed specifically at teens with reading issues.")

Still, when Porterfield started his "Putty Hill" campaign, he had already shot his movie. For Porterfield, to start shooting "I Used to Be Darker" with nothing but a Kickstarter page behind him, without any money in the bank or film in the can, is the act of a hot quarterback hoping to achieve one more victory with a Hail, Mary pass.

As Baltimore filmmaker Skizz Cyzyk ('Freaks in Love") said with affection, "I have a lot of confidence Matt will make his deadline….He has done a great job of spreading his name and work all over the world. He's the winning team, and everyone wants to get behind the winning team."

As of Friday afternoon, the Kickstarter page for "I Used to Be Darker" had gathered $21,576 from 279 donors. Typically, the bulk of the backing comes during the first and last weeks of a campaign.

Porterfield launched his Kickstarter campaign for "I Used to Be Darker" just under three weeks ago. "I was trying to piece together more traditional sources of financing and I didn't have any in place," he said. "I didn't want to lose the crew, cast, everyone who was expecting to shoot. I felt good about the investments we were hoping to seal, but I knew they weren't enough to get the film in the can."

Even if you're a Kickstarter veteran like Porterfield, you can't post a project with a snap of the fingers. It requires a video to sell the idea — and rewards that pull in donors at levels from $1 to $10,000.

Porterfield said, "I was driving on 83, listening to these two Texas rappers, Underground Kingz, and I was inspired to get the name of the film tattooed on my arm — to do this right now. And then, two minutes later, I was like, oh man, this should be the Kickstarter video. Why not get the tattoo and make the 'ask' the same time?"

He didn't consult anybody because he didn't want to get talked out of it.

First off he sent Amy Belk a picture of the tattoo "and she was like, wow … she was pretty shocked but supportive." Then he told two of his producers, Steve Holmgren and Ryan Zacarias, that a film student had recorded his tattooing and helped him edit it into a video.

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