Director Matt Porterfield's new movie I Used to Be Darker makes its local debut this week at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore. It's his third feature, and the lecturer in the Krieger School's Program in Film and Media Studies employed a few students during its shooting before taking it to the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. Strand Releasing recently picked the film up for distribution, with a tentative release slated for October.
Following his slice-of-life debut Hamilton and the improvisational Putty Hill, Darker deceptively looks like a conventional drama of marital strife. It follows how the separation of Bill (singer/songwriter Ned Oldham) and Kim (singer/songwriter Kim Taylor) affects their college-age daughter Abby (Hannah Gross) as witnessed by Abby's cousin Taryn (Deragh Campbell), the daughter of Kim's sister in Ireland. Porterfield co-wrote Darker, which gets its title from a song by Bill Callahan, with writer Amy Belk, and underneath its family-drama surface is a quietly powerful look at people trying to balance the mundane demands of husband, wife, and parent with the more elusive ambitions and needs of the artist.
Darker screens twice at the Festival, Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.; a premier after-party takes place after the Saturday screening at the Metro Gallery featuring musical performances by Taylor and Oldham's band the Anomoanon, in addition to Guy Blakeslee, Dave Huemann, and Walker Teret (tickets available online). Porterfield also introduces the Saturday screening of the immersive documentary Leviathan at the festival.
The Hub caught up with Porterfield to talk about shooting in a wide-screen format, working with musicians as actors, and how teaching has influenced his filmmaking.
After seeing the three movies you've worked on together, I have to confess I have a total crush on your director of photography [cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier], and not just for the quality of the images but shot selection. There's few conventional set ups in the movie, even in situations where you're expecting a traditional approach to a conversation between two people. Could you talk a bit about images? Do you storyboard with locations already scouted? How did you go about creating the visual look of the film?
I should preface by saying Jeremy is a DP but also a director in his own right, and his second feature is going to premier at Cannes at the Director's Fortnight. It's called Blue Ruin. I saw a fine cut of it. It's awesome.
The way we work together now, having made three features, we have a kind of short hand. Typically Jeremy will come down [to Baltimore] just for a scout two to three weeks in advance of production and we'll visit all the locations together. I [will have] already taken stills and sent them to him but then he'll come down and take his own and we'll talk about the practicality of every location. Sometimes I'll pick a space that's too small for the camera body plus all the lights and actors and all that. So it's as much trying to get a sense of the space and the mood of the space as it is just making sure they're spaces where we can actually work.
This time around we didn't have that luxury. [Jeremy] came down a few days before production and I sent him a lot of pictures but one of the homes that I had chosen to shoot in just didn't work from a production standpoint. Usually I do a pretty good job. But [production designer and art director] Bart Mangrum didn't like it and Jeremy didn't like it so, OK, we hustled and found what plays as Ned Oldham's house in the film. And the other [main] location was the house of my friend Geoff Grace, who's also in the film.
A lot of [Darker] is a chamber drama that takes place between these two interiors. We try to visit them ahead of time and Jeremy knows that I favor the wide master [shot], really for the actors, so performance can play out in duration and you don't have to do a bunch of takes. It saves time, it's economical, but it also creates an observational distance that I appreciate. So we tend to talk a lot about the master [shot]. On location we talk about the frame and where we want to place the camera. And then Jeremy will set about lighting the scene while I set about blocking the actors. And he's incredible because he honors naturalism and he's a great lighting cinematographer. He brings in artificial lights but he wants to emphasize and exploit what's already there.
This film he had some interesting suggestions and choices that I was happy to try. For one thing, it was his idea to shoot on the Arri Alexa, which is Arriflex's digital camera. It's probably about three years old now, [and] it's their first [major] digital camera and I think it's the most filmic of any available. We decided to shoot with that and to shoot a [wide-screen] 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which I was hesitant about.
Because it's so wide and austere. But we made the decision that if the film was shot entirely hand-held then it wouldn't be as cold as it might be if it were on sticks the whole time. And Jeremy's an incredible camera operator, too, because he's a real workhorse and some of those shots play out for three or four minutes and it's all hand held. And I think that adds some real intimacy to this format, which is not a format that I'm necessarily drawn to.
It's funny to hear you say you were hesitant about shooting wide because, as you say, you have a predilection for the master shot and in this movie that breadth of screen compliments the story you're telling. In the movie you see a lot of people in domestic spaces and they're people lost in their domestic lives. So the wide-screen shots capture people in the places where the meaning of those places is changing around them. You just called this a "chamber drama," and it is a movie about a marriage falling apart, but it's specifically about a marriage of artists. Were these people going to be artists from the get go?
Yes. My co-writer, Amy Belk, she's a fiction writer, I'm a filmmaker, and having both been married and divorced we could relate to two creative people trying to balance their responsibilities as providers and parents, though we're not parents, with their creative goals as artists. And I think we decided that Bill was a musician first because we were using Bill Callahan's record, Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle, as a beacon. And then Amy introduced me to Kim [Taylor], who she had gone to college with, and Kim's music. And I thought it would be really interesting to write about two musicians, even though Amy and I don't play music.
I appreciated that they each did get a scene with them doing what they do—Bill and [co-star] Jack [Carneal] playing music, Ned playing music by himself, Kim playing a few times, and even Abby has a monologue. Was that a way to offer an insight into these people in a way aside from what they do and say?
Sure. And I was really writing Abby from the place of my adolescent self. She goes to NYU like I did, she goes to the Park School like I did, she's studying theater, I studied film. Her parents divorced at the same as [I was] when my parents got divorced, so I can identify with her attitude. I spent a lot of time in that [Park School] theater and for a while I've been trying to get a character to deliver a monologue directly to the camera, so it seemed like it could fit in this story. I tried to write it in another one and it never made it. There was a scene like that in Metal Gods but we did it in Darker. Sometimes I just recycle scenes. [laughs]
How was it directing Ned Oldham and Kim Taylor? Because they're both quite good, and sometimes musicians can have their own way of going about things.
They were both naturals and maybe with musicians there's already so much professionalism already there. They're aware of their voice, their body in space, they can channel and deliver. But their styles, the way they handled the materials, was very different. They both drew on their own lives and their own experiences. They're both happily married with children but they were able to draw on that. And the way they handled what we'd written was interesting. Kim would usually prep for the scene by herself, taking some space. We were rehearsing—and I don't tend to like to rehearse too much—but she would really hold back. And once the camera rolled she'd find that emotional center.
Ned likes to go off book. He knew all the lines but for him, it was important to maintain spontaneity. So we tried to honor both of their processes and it works for both of their characters in scenes together. There's a natural tension between their acting styles that works for the characters, I think.
Very much so. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Kim comes back to the house to return the waffle iron to Bill and they have this quietly devastating conversation. It's a beautifully mundane scene. Everything they say seems to have 15 different meanings—these are two people who know each other very well, who genuinely love each other, and in that moment absolutely can't stand the sight of the other.
Amy and I were both writing from experience there. And that was actually a scene where they stuck pretty close to the script. And I think that was one of our best scenes on the page and they really nailed it. I wanted to try to capture the sadness, the anger, the combination of emotions when you know something is over but—I don't know, you're trying to move on and maintain some self respect.
Following the difficulties of Metal Gods becoming Putty Hill, was Darker a smoother production for you?
It was. We shot 23 days in Baltimore and three days in Ocean City and Ocean City was a little rocky. It's only two minutes on screen but it was 15 pages in the script. And we had 15 minutes worth of content. It's not that it's not good, it just didn't fit the whole.
And that happens. There were scenes [from the entire movie] that we ended up scrapping, not throwing away entirely but some big scenes of dialogue that weren't necessary and weren't working. But from working with Putty Hill where the dialog was entirely improvised, I had the courage from that to take [dialog-heavy] scenes and throw them away and find the essence of the scene.
For example, that moment [in Darker] where Taryn is in the backseat of the tour van with Nick and her head's on his shoulder. That was this four-page scene of dialog that we tried to shoot at 2 a.m. and it wasn't working for multiple reasons. And we realized that Taryn's head on his shoulder conveys the same thing.
Has teaching influenced your filmmaking or thoughts about filmmaking at all? And if so, how?
I think so. I've always been obsessed with film as an object that exists in the world and trying to craft something that feels as fully realized as possible, but through my experience as a teacher and growing up with educators—both my parents are teachers—I learned that the [filmmaking] process is as important or more important [than the object itself]. And I think that keeps me going when the films don't necessarily realize the potential that we dreamed for them. We can take what we learned and react to that. And I hope to instill that in my students.
This narrative production class that we're teaching with Hopkins and MICA students, it's all about process. It's kind of the most ambitious collaborative process that students at either university might get involved in. They're assigned roles, they're producing and directing original scripts, working in groups of five. They're not going to be able to realize all their dreams but along the way I hope they learn how to get a little closer to that and how to work with others. Because film is a collaborative art and working with students reinforces that for me.
I was wondering about the collaborative process of film education, because filmmaking by its very nature is social labor, and collaboration is something you really only learn by doing it. And learning how to realize what's in your head as a screenwriter is learning how to work with and communicate to other people. You can't just write something on the page and make it happen.
And it take years to realize that, I think. In my experience at NYU, I think one of the reasons I left was that I felt my peers had unrealistic goals and also I didn't feel like there was enough emphasis placed and time spent on the genesis of ideas. I don't think most college students arrive to film school with a bunch of great ideas for original scripts. They're derivative and there's nothing wrong with that, but [I think film school should] try to get students to connect with something that's image-based but also personal and spend time on that. Otherwise we'd just keep telling the same stories over and over again.