Q&A: Filmmaker Matt Porterfield on his Guggenheim Fellowship, creating a sustainable practice and more

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Director Matt Porterfield, right, on the set of “Sollers Point” with actor McCaul Lombardi. Photo by Caspar Newbolt.

For local filmmaker Matt Porterfield, receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship offers room to breathe. The creator of the set-in-Baltimore dramas “Hamilton,” “Putty Hill,” “I Used to Be Darker” and “Sollers Point” is using some of the money he was awarded to pay off debt from his last couple features.

Porterfield’s work has been lauded in The New Yorker, The New York Times and The A.V. Club, and by the late Roger Ebert, but that doesn’t alter the budgetary realities of independent movie-making and its delicate margins.

Of course the fellowship also provides opportunity: Porterfield will use funds to finally film a story on young metalheads, called “Metal Gods,” that he’s been kicking around for years–only instead of being shot here in Baltimore, the story will be set in Tijuana, Mexico, where Porterfield travels about once a month to be with his girlfriend, producer Paulina Valencia. For the director and writer, that offers the freeing sense of being able to work on a more intimate project as he tackles his biggest picture to date, “Check Me in Another Place,” following the exploits of a mid-career New York rapper touring Europe.

Even with all that on his plate, Porterfield says he will remain at Johns Hopkins University, where he teaches classes on film production and theory.

I caught up with Porterfield to talk about “Metal Gods,” the similarities between Baltimore and Tijuana, his other future projects and creating a sustainable movie-making practice.

Baltimore Fishbowl: Congratulations on winning the fellowship. So what does this mean for you?

Matt Porterfield: Honestly it comes at a perfect time. It’s life-changing. It’s support that I need to make my practice sustainable.

I’ve gone into considerable debt during the development process of my last two features, and so the award will help me get out from under that. But I plan to use the fellowship period to develop a new project in Tijuana, Mexico.

BFB: What can you tell me about that?

MP: Well, it’s born out of a desire to make this script that I first wrote in 2007 that I hoped to shoot in Baltimore, called “Metal Gods,” that I still want to make. It’s a story about young metalheads, and I think Tijuana, as a border town, would be a perfect place to adapt that story.

My girlfriend Paulina Valencia is a Mexican producer based in Tijuana. I’ve been spending a lot more time there, I go there about every month. And I’m really eager to work with her and explore the community there further, work with some of her colleagues–filmmakers, cinematographers, creatives–that I’ve met there. It’s a really exciting place. And I think I could tell a story there.

BFB: On its face, I don’t know that people would necessarily see similarities between there and Baltimore. What do you see that sort of makes you think, yeah I can take this story and film it there?

MP: It’s interesting, because my Guggenheim proposal was partly based on the similarities that I think exist between these towns, and their differences, too.

I mean, I think they’re both kind of second-tier cities with a bad reputation. Tijuana is considered the most violent city in the world and Baltimore one of the most violent cities in America. That said, I find the people in both places extremely friendly and warm and wonderful. Both cities are coastal cities. Baltimore has this history on the Mason-Dixon line that creates a lot of historical divisions and Tijuana is right there on the border.

There’s this interesting kind of amalgam in both cities–in the case of Tijuana, there’s this cross-cultural influence, cross-pollination that occurs because there are so many expats and so many people in Tijuana that cross the border daily.

And in Baltimore, I find that we’re kind of this hybrid city in terms of history and mentality, not quite northern and not quite southern. And I guess all my films deal with this. I’m interested in this sort of transient space. This liminal space exists in a sort of physical realm in the stories that I like to tell.

We have “Putty Hill,” which is about a young man who’s died of a heroin overdose and the people that are dealing with his passing, or you know, themes of adolescence in “Hamilton” and “I Used to be Darker.” Transition to adulthood in “Sollers Point.” I feel like I can explore many of those same themes and push them further, perhaps, in a locale like Tijuana.

BFB: Have you like explored the metal scene there? What’s it like?

MP: A little bit, yeah. There’s a huge love of heavy metal in Mexico, and there are a lot of bars, a lot of kids who are listening to the metal that we grew up on, as well as newer thrash and speed and death metal. And I’m really interested in how that translates, how it resonates with young people in Tijuana.

It’s like, you listen to metal, you listen to rap, or reggaeton, you listen to English language and Spanish language metal and rap. It all comes together in this kind of beautiful, inspiring way.

BFB: Baltimore and the Baltimore area has been such a part of your work. So how does it feel for you as a creator to be transplanting yourself across the continent to start work on this production?

MP: I mean, it feels daunting, challenging in many ways. But I had a couple of experiences that have prepared me for this. I made a short [“Take What You Can Carry”] in Berlin that premiered in 2015.

BFB: Right.

MP: And I co-wrote and co-produced a film in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I’m also currently working on a film that will shoot in Europe, mostly in France and Belgium.

So I guess, as committed as I am to telling stories in Baltimore, I’m also interested in seeing, Do the universal themes that occupy me, do they translate? Can I push them outward?

And I feel confidence in this endeavor, only because I’ve met a lot of potential collaborators outside of the U.S. through the international film festival circuit that I feel there’s potential there.

My Spanish is improving, but it’s still not–I’m not fluent by any means. And so language is a big challenge. But in a place like Tijuana, which is functionally so bilingual, there’s this opportunity to tell a story that would play out in both languages, in Spanish and in English, and then switch space in between. And that really interests me, too.

Matt Porterfield on the set of “Sollers Point.” Photo by Caspar Newbolt.

BFB: You were saying earlier about how you had to sink yourself into debt, and I saw your Instagram post where you’re talking about how you’re questioning your process and that sort of thing. Is it that the business side of independent filmmaking is like a scramble? Or what can you attribute that to?

MP: Yeah, it’s hard. I’ve made four features, all of them under a million dollars, and with the exception of “Sollers Point,” which had Jim Belushi and Zazie Beetz, no real, like, stars attached.

So I’m working in this microcosm of the American indie film industry. Occupying that space, particularly because I’m in Baltimore, is hard. I think it’s hard to develop a sustainable career if you’re outside of Los Angeles and New York. I wouldn’t change it for anything, but increasingly I wonder what I would have to do to continue making films here.

I don’t direct commercials. I’m interested in making my work more commercial, if that means reaching a wider audience. But I also don’t really want to make concessions or upset the integrity of the stories that I want to tell. So I find it really, really hard to finance each film. And my next film, the French film, seems so far away, and in many ways it’s so cast-dependent.

And I think, regardless of where you’re trying to tell a story or what story you’re trying to tell, there’s this expectation that you’re going to work with stars because that means something in the box office.

BFB: Yeah.

MP: My work is so dependent on finding new talent, people that we haven’t seen on screen before. I want to keep doing that. And I think that this Guggenheim fellowship will allow me to maybe start developing a film on a smaller scale, a more intimate scale.

It’s a nice contrast, I think, to this French project, which is called “Check Me in Another Place.” It’s a bigger film for me, more expensive because we’re traveling across Europe. It’s about a a mid-career rapper who is from New York, had some albums in the early aughts that reached an audience, some well-revered guest tracks on other artists’ albums, but is struggling to maintain his career in the states but can still find an audience in Europe.

In some ways–I mean, I’m not a musician–I feel very connected to the material. It’s like, how do you continue to make work and balance your career with other responsibilities? The film is about him on tour with his 10-year-old son who’s being raised in Paris with his French mom. It’s a story about family. It’s a story about responsibility. It’s a story about making art. But it’s gonna require a budget that’s bigger. The production model of this film will increase.

And I think there’s this expectation that with each film you try to make something bigger. But if you work in that way, you also find yourself stuck in these long spaces where you’re not making anything at all.

So the fellowship allows me to switch gears and think about something smaller, something that I could maybe start this summer that wouldn’t have the same sort of economic demands.

BFB: Is there a real-life analog there that inspired this rapper?

MP: I wrote it with my longtime producer Jordan Mintzer and a writer named Thomas Chatterton Williams. Both of them are expat Americans raising families in France. So their experience influenced the script, certainly in relationship to Europe and in relationship to child-rearing as an American or an expat in Europe.

But our models were films like “Paris Blues” or “‘Round Midnight” that portrayed the experience of African-American jazz musicians who were exiled, by choice or necessity, in France, where they had a wider audience and found a way to make a living. So we were thinking about that tradition of jazz music and imagining hip-hop in the same way. It’s been around for almost 40 years. Hip-hop itself is approaching middle age.

So, who are these artists? We think about like Q-Tip or De La Soul or Nas or Xzibit or Mos Def, who’ve been in the game for a while. Then on the smaller scale, like Jeru the Damaja or the Boot Camp Clik. Some of them don’t reach much of an audience in the United States, but they can still live off of these European tours–kind of thinking about all those guys that we admire as hip-hop heads.

BFB: What’s the timeline for these? It sounds like you’ve got a lot of irons in the fire.

MP: I’m still trying to process this fellowship and the best way to spend the next year, year-and-a-half. I’m going to go to Tijuana this summer. I’ll spend three months there, I might make a short, I might just work on a feature. And then hopefully we’ll shoot “Check Me in Another Place” in winter, maybe early 2020. And then once that’s wrapped, put the rest of my energy into this Mexican film.

BFB: It sounds like you almost have an open road in front of you.

MP: Yeah. I mean, it’s gonna be huge just to pay off some debt and breathe a little. I feel like things have been so tight for the last three, four years. That economic burden, which so many of us feel, has repercussions. I think it affects my mental and creative life in so many ways. I think getting out from under that will be really huge for me and give me some feeling of liberation.

Because part of my practice is built around the academy. I teach at Johns Hopkins and hope to continue to–that’s my livelihood and feeds me in so many ways.

But the work itself is so expensive; it’s expensive to make films. I mean, I can make smaller films, I can make bigger films, but I don’t think I’m in a position where I can make the kind of films that I was making when I was 20, 22, 23, where we were relying on [chuckles] a lot of free labor and in-kind services. I want to pay the people that work. I want to pay myself. I want to pay the people that I collaborate with.

I think as you get older, you realize that we all want to figure out how to build a sustainable model, and so grants are such an important part of that. Guggenheim is so cool because it’s interdisciplinary, scholars and artists working in so many different fields. One hundred and sixty-eight fellows were awarded fellowships this year. I can’t wait to discover what everybody’s doing.

BFB: Is there some sort of orientation process like that? I don’t know how formal it is in that respect.

MP: There’s a reception on May 6. It’s in New York, I’ll go up and I’ll get to meet–I know one or two of the other filmmakers awarded this year, but otherwise it’s a list of names of people who seem to be doing really incredible things. So it’s cool to be a part of that. I want to learn how other people intend to spend their fellowship period.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Brandon Weigel

Brandon Weigel is the managing editor of Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of the University of Maryland, he has been published in The Washington Post, The Sun, Baltimore Magazine, Urbanite, The Baltimore Business Journal, b and others. Prior to joining Baltimore Fishbowl, he was an editor at City Paper from 2012 to 2017. He can be reached at [email protected]
Brandon Weigel


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