Like Matthew Porterfield’s minimalistic-to-the-max first film, Hamilton, Putty Hill, which opens at Cinema Village tomorrow (along with a host of related events), is a formally sophisticated, realistically raw portrait of mostly adolescent life in northeast Baltimore. The director spoke to us by phone from Baltimore, where he teaches film at Johns Hopkins.
Your films are about working-class people in a way that very few American movies are. Your characters are smart and self-aware, and they take care of each other in a way that working-class people do in life but not so much in the movies. Tough stuff happens—the narrative thread that ties Putty Hill together is a death by overdose—but this isn’t poverty porn. So how much were you thinking about class when you made this movie?
That’s a priority for me, sharing a picture of white working-class America with great accuracy. So is portraying adolescence. Too often when we see adolescents or the working class onscreen, in second-tier industrial cities like Baltimore, it either comes across as cultural tourism or pornography, as you say. It’s romantic, too lyrical. It doesn’t feel connected. Maybe that has to do with the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. I have the privilege of making films in Baltimore in a neighborhood that I know really well. I’ve grown up there.
Class is still the big divider in the U.S.—it’s the thing we can’t get ourselves to talk about. We all think we’re divided along the lines of race, and we are: Baltimore is a very racially divided city. But I think as a nation, class is the big divider. Everybody thinks they’re middle class, but there’s such a big bracket there, and not everybody’s making the same or can afford the same amenities within this so-called middle class.
Your work, especially in Putty Hill, reminds me of directors like Jia Zhangke, Rahmin Bahrani and Laurent Cantet, who also work with nonprofessionals to create an interesting mix of documentary and fiction. Another thing you all seem to have in common is being less interested in story per se than in conveying a very concrete sense of character and place and class. Do you identify with those guys?
Yeah, definitely. I do. Of the three filmmakers mentioned, Jia Zhangke inspires me the most in terms of form. Still Life is the example that jumps to mind, because it really does walk a line between documentary and fiction.
The characters in Putty Hill are all versions of the people who appear on the screen, and they were all created collaboratively. I had a very loose scenario going in, but all of the dialogue in the film was improvised. All the good stuff—all the funny stuff—the actors came up with themselves.
There’s a tradition, practiced by Hollywood, the big independents, the Oscar nominees and the Spirit Award winners. There’s also—and I find it more internationally than I do in the U.S. right now—a divergent path of filmmakers who are still working in a narrative tradition. I’m not an experimental filmmaker, or a filmmaker working in the tradition of the avant-garde. At the same time, story is not at the forefront of what I do. There are other things: character, mood, environment, location, whatever.
Raul Ruiz wrote this really great essay in his first book about conflict theory. When I first read it a few years ago, I identified with it immediately and realized it was something that I’d always felt, which is that we put, as storytellers, so much emphasis on conflict that it leaves out all these other kinds of stories. As a filmmaker, I’m less interested in conflict than many. I think there are stories to tell that don’t necessarily include a strong protagonist and a strong antagonist.
And there does seem to be, all over the world, a real interest in what Robert Koehler has tagged the cinema of in-between-ness, this gray area between documentary and fiction. I feel like there are a number of filmmakers—Pedro Costa, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jia—who are making films that are trying to blend a number of elements, that are true to life, but that are also blending myths or narratives with nonfiction.
The way you sometimes break into a scene to interview one of the characters in Putty Hill felt new to me, though of course it’s done a lot in mockumentaries. Had you seen it before in a feature like this, or did you just invent that technique on the set?
I hadn’t seen it before, but now I’ve gone back and watched a couple things that did it before I did. So I didn’t invent it, but I found it for myself.
It sounds as if you often just feel your own way as a filmmaker and then find other people who’ve done the same thing.
Yeah. I don’t watch a lot of movies—probably not as many as I should. I guess I watch enough to draw influences off of and still stay free enough to discover stuff for myself.
Hamilton and Putty Hill were both shot right around where you grew up in, and you skated at the park where we see some of the kids in the cast. Yet you’ve got a very intellectual approach to film that is not shared by your cast, and your dad was part of an experimental theater when you were growing up. Did you grow up in an arty family? Were you just one of the skaters or were you kind of skating and watching and making movies in your head about it all at the same time?
Both of my parents were teachers, so they put a lot of value on education. They’d both received secondary degrees themselves. We lived in this pretty blue-collar neighborhood, but they sent me to a private school that was totally on the other side of town, with kids who were really, really wealthy, so I had a really good education that did place a priority on the arts. My dad is a playwright and poet, and he’s written novels. I learned from him — not only from his creative energy and aesthetic but also his dedication and commitment to his craft. I grew up skating but also painting.
Casting was important, since the characters in the film are so closely based on the people who play them. What drew you to the people you picked?
Casting is one of my favorite parts of the process. It was pretty extensive leading up to Putty Hill, because I was casting another film called Metal Gods and I needed a big cast with some strong performances from nonprofessionals. [When Metal Gods got sidelined, Porterfield quickly arranged to make Putty Hill instead, writing his treatment for some of the locals he’d auditioned for Metal Gods.] We held formal auditions, which we advertised thorough social media, people on the street—anything. I found Cody [Ray, who plays a skater with a soul patch] on MySpace—at the time it was relevant. Actually I found Cody’s brother, but he’s a twin. His brother didn’t come to the audition, but Cody came with his friend Dustin, who plays the guy who talked in his room about doing jail time. I liked the way they spoke and how they interpreted the dialogue I’d written and made it their own. They auditioned really strong for never having done it before.
Sky [Ferreira, who plays the dead boy’s cousin, Jenny] I found by reading an alternative teen magazine. I thought she was just really interesting. She had a real sense of herself on camera, of her own presence.
Spike [Charles Sauers, who plays Jenny’s tattoo artist father] I met in a bar around the corner from where I lived. He was shooting pool. I was in the habit of asking people who looked interesting if they wanted to be in a movie, so he asked about the movie and started telling me about himself. He’s been through a lot in 30-odd years, and he speaks about it with authority, but also with a kind of openness. He doesn’t condemn anyone.
I thought the performances in Putty Hill were very strong—much stronger than the ones in Hamilton. Did you work with your actors differently in this one? How much of getting good performances from amateurs comes from casting the right people and how much from creating a safe space for them to work in and giving them helpful direction?
I feel like it’s both of those things. I think the cast in Hamilton was capable, but it was a very young cast, and I didn’t give them the attention that they needed to take risks and bring their performances to an emotional place. The other difference is that Hamilton was completely scripted, and I asked these nonprofessionals to memorize and recite lines that I’d written. Putty Hill was completely improvised. And I spent more time with the cast on Putty Hill, even though we had less time to shoot. I had worked with Jeremy [Saulnier, the cinematographer] before and we knew how to communicate with each other better. I had a lot of confidence in my whole team, so I could direct more energy toward my actors.
I read that you made this movie for just $20,000. How does that kind of budget free you and how does it limit you as a filmmaker?
We shot it for about $18,000, but we had to double that to get through post-production and make it to Berlin, and then we had to get some equity to get to some other festivals and pay some deferred wages and music rights and so on. Altogether, we spent under $100,000, which is still microbudget.
The thing I don’t like about working with a budget of that size is that I can’t really pay people. Some people aren’t getting paid at all, including me, and then other people are making far less than they would command on a regular shoot. So it’s really hard to continue to work with the caliber of collaborators I’d like to work with. As my friends get older, they have families, mortgages. I can’t expect them to keep working for no pay, deferred pay, or less pay than they normally make. And I’d like to pay myself.
But with a smaller budget, you don’t have as much oversight. You can go in and try something kind of wacky—in this case, shoot a feature film with no script and work with non-professionals. As soon as you get a bigger budget, there are contingencies. Even with a budget of $250,000, you need an actor who has a name, and the more ambitious and bigger budget you’re trying to command, the bigger name you need.
And with a bigger budget there are more crew positions, so there’s more division of labor. In a film like Hamilton or Putty Hill, where you’re working with a small crew, everyone’s wearing multiple hats and willing to do anything. It feels more collaborative.