Matt Porterfield’s latest feature, I Used To Be Darker, opens theatrically in New York City on Friday, October 4 at the IFC Center and a week later in L.A. at the Sundance Sunset 5. It’s already screening in Baltimore, MD at The Charles Theater. Filmmaker Onur Tukel recently spoke to Porterfield.
I loved Matt Porterfield’s I Used To Be Darker. It’s easy to say that. It’s poetic and understated, features beautiful photography by Jeremy Saulnier and incredible performances by its lead actors, Kim Taylor, Deragh Campbell, Hannah Gross and Ned Oldham. The sound design is rich but economical. The editing is tight. It’s flawless. But well-made movies don’t impress me anymore. I need to connect with what I’m watching. I very much connected with I Used To Be Darker. On the surface, the film is about divorce. Kim, a singer/songwriter, has just left her husband Bill, and their daughter Abby is not happy about it. Bill isn’t happy either, but he’s also bitter because he abandoned his own musical ambitions to provide for the family. When Abby’s cousin Taryn arrives to their home unexpectedly, we’re allowed to observe their lives for a few days. I’ve never gone through a divorce. My parents stayed together and I’ve never been married. Still, the idea of getting hitched terrifies me. I make films, I paint, I draw and write stories. I don’t know if I do these things well, but they keep me going. And I’ve always feared that being a husband or father would take time away from doing these things. Art takes commitment. Marriage takes commitment. I imagine doing both is exceedingly difficult. And that’s the main reason I found I Used to be Darker so intriguing.
Onur Tukel: Were your parents artists, musicians?
Matthew Porterfield: Both of my parents were teachers and my dad is a novelist and playwright, also a poet — largely unpublished — but he’s been writing his whole life. He taught English at a junior high school in Baltimore and he’d wake up every morning at 3am and type on his Royal typewriter for several hours before he had to go into work. In the 70s, he staged some work and was a big part of the avant-garde scene in Baltimore. He had a couple of plays staged in London and New York. He’s never had any of his work published but he’s still going. Every day.
Tukel: Did you have the lead actors in mind when you were writing, particularly the parents, who are musicians?
Porterfield: I knew Ned Oldham, who plays the father, and my co-writer, Amy Belk, had gone to college with Kim Taylor, who plays the mother. Amy and I started writing the screenplay with their songs in place, using the music as a spine. It gave us a window into the emotional life of the characters.
Tukel: The film is about a family, but the family members spend a lot of time apart, in separate rooms or locations, with other people. Someone always seems to be leaving. Taryn has left her home in Ireland to come to Ocean City. Kim has left her home behind to live with a group of musicians. Abby leaves Baltimore to go to New York. The father is by himself in his big house. One of the saddest scenes in the movie is the father playing guitar alone in the basement after his wife has collected her musical gear. Initially, I was excited for the father. Now that he’s single again, he’s going to have more time to play music, to flex his creative muscles. Later, as he’s sitting with his ex-wife, he’s drawing a picture. When he breaks the guitar, I wasn’t sure why. Was he angry that he’d sold out his creative ambitions for a big house and a domesticated life? Perhaps the song reminded him of the marriage and all the things he’d sacrificed for it.
Porterfield: It’s clear Ned is experiencing frustration because he hasn’t been playing music regularly, for quite a while. But when he starts playing music again, and even drawing, it’s almost reactionary, like saying to his wife, “Fuck you, I can do this too. This is a part of my life as well.” But he does smash the guitar, and maybe that’s because it doesn’t feel real anymore. Maybe he feels he’s posturing. It’s definitely emotional. He’s frustrated. And I think you’re picking up on something interesting here. When the characters are creative, they are alone. Maybe that’s a sad statement to make about the creative life. You have to choose your practice over other people sometimes. It’s certainly been that way in my experience.
Tukel: That was the profound way that I connected with your film. I’ve always been terrified of marriage, of domestication. I always assumed it would take me away from painting or filmmaking. I’ve got a day job that pays the bills, so that takes up time. And when you have to work and be a husband/father, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for creative expression. Like the characters in your film, you’ve gone through a divorce. When you were married did you find it challenging being a filmmaker and a husband? Did you think your filmmaking played a role in the divorce?
Porterfield: When I was married, I did feel perpetually [pauses] compartmentalized. I was conflicted. My ex-wife was very generous and mainly supported the both of us. She taught kindergarten and still does, so her creativity and her livelihood were one. At that time in my life, I wasn’t teaching. I was working in restaurants and struggling to get my first film made. I was very frustrated. I often felt like I was making choices between my marriage — my relationship with my wife, responsibilities with her, our house, all the things we shared — and my creative work. And I always put the work first. But there was a fair share of guilt that came with that. At times, my wife was the sole breadwinner as I was focusing on my creative ambitions. I felt like I wasn’t providing enough for the both of us. It’s interesting how we often seem to be battling these projections of who we should be.
Tukel: I assume your father was probably very frustrated as a writer trying to stage plays and get published. Did you notice this growing up?
Porterfield: I was aware of this. He was always sending out manuscripts to publishers and agents and he would receive weekly rejection letters. This happened throughout the 17 years that I lived with him. I think my dad’s a brilliant writer but it was really his persistence that inspired me. I learned from his dedication and his willingness to accept rejection, though I know it was extremely hard for him. He would always get a bit melancholy after receiving a rejection letter. But still, it was inspiring. I had a model for the creative process. It’s why I’m able to do what I do.
Tukel: I’ve read a lot of novels by Richard Yates and this movie reminds me of his work. His characters are often creative types who struggle with their lack of success in the arts.
Porterfield: Amy Belk (co-writer) is a fiction writer and she’s trying to balance her life in the same way that you and I are. We’re all experiencing the same thing. We work really hard. We get to the point where perhaps we’re going to break through, but not quite. We find a little bit of success it doesn’t free us from our day jobs. The grind continues. I’m a fan of Revolutionary Road and Yate’s short stories and I know Amy likes Revolutionary Road, so I can see the comparison.
Tukel: What was your writing process like with Amy?
Porterfield: At the time we wrote this, we were living under the same roof, so we wrote every day together. I had a seed of an idea for the story, then I started filling up notebooks, which is the way I work when I’m brainstorming. Then Amy and I spent about 3 to 4 months writing a treatment. I like to go from notes to the treatment, find the arch of the narrative, get it all down from beginning to end with all the transitions in prose form. That’s how I write, with less focus on the dialogue. And then we began work on the screenplay. And that was a lot of fun because the dialogue became a conversation between Amy and I. We would play the roles that we had written. We wrote everyday, at home, in cafes. Sometimes, we’d play ping-pong and bounce ideas back and forth.
Tukel: Oh, that’s interesting, so when it was time to write a scene, like the dinner between Taryn, Abby and her father, where they’re sitting around having wine, you and Amy would actually role-play, and talk out the scenes as these characters, to see what they would say.
Porterfield: Totally. I would usually play Abby, because my parents split up when I was about her age. I was able to channel that petulant, difficult relationship that she had in particular with her mom. She was also an amalgam of girls I knew growing up. Amy would mainly focus on Taryn and Bill, the father. And I’d say we both shared Kim, the mother. That might be a reason why we give Kim the last word in the movie after spending so much time building the audience’s empathy with Ned.
Tukel: The craft of the film is flawless. When you direct, do you have a particular vision in your head? Do you storyboard every shot? Do you block out every footstep? Do you micromanage your actors? I assume that you would be tempted to do this, since this is the first major role for most of them. The acting is so good, so natural, and I’m curious if you keep things loose on set or are you very specific about what you want.
Porterfield: I don’t storyboard. I’ll take a lot of still photographs in the locations where I want to shoot, then I’ll bring Jeremy Saulnier in a couple weeks before production for a set visit. We make sure the camera fits in all the locations that I’ve chosen and that we’ll have no problem lighting it. He’ll let me know if something is going to be impossible. We try to get that conversation out of the way early.
For the cast, we brought everyone in for a table read about two months before the shoot. And I had never done that before and it was very helpful. Amy and I were able to go back and make changes to the script based on the reading and the notes we got from the cast. These actors were all new to the screen and didn’t have a lot of set experience, but I was very impressed with their level of professionalism. They came prepared, with all of their dialogue memorized. But there were many instances where I let them go way off-book and come up with things that were very much their own. There was no line that was too precious. Ned, who plays the father, favors a little more improvisation than Kim, who tended to stick to the text. Hannah Gross was always quick to tell me when something didn’t feel right. And Deragh, who is from Toronto, not Northern Ireland, worked a lot on mastering the dialect. She was familiar with it because her mother’s from Belfast, so she helped assure that Taryn’s lines were accurate.
Tukel: So some things were tight, some scenes played loose. I’m assuming that the scene where Abby helps Taryn with the dress and they just can’t get it zipped and they’re laughing and struggling with it. That was unplanned?
Tukel: Were there any other scenes that played out differently than you’d expected or were accidental or unplanned and that maybe surprised you.
Porterfield: I learned a nice lesson in the scene where Taryn and Nick are in the back of the van, driving back from the concert. We had written that scene with a lot of banter back and forth between the two of them. It was really late at night when we shot that scene and it was clearly not working. It was preposterous. So I abandoned it all. And then we had Taryn put her head on his shoulder. And just like that, three pages of dialogue were conveyed in a gesture. So it was a nice reminder that sometimes the simplest way to convey a scene is the best.
Tukel: How many times did you shoot the scene where Ned smashes the guitar?
Porterfield: We only did it once but we had purchased three guitars. He nailed it on the first take.
Tukel: Great scene. Lots of great scenes.
Porterfield: Thank you.
Tukel: What kind of movies did you watch as a teenager? Dramas? Horror films? Silly comedies?
Porterfield: I was really into David Lynch and also, anything that showcased American subculture, films like Repo Man, Liquid Sky, Decline of Western Civilization, Suburbia, the documentary Streetwise, that was the kind of stuff I was drawn to. I would go to the video store and choose titles that had skaters or punks in them. I also liked science fiction a lot, which I’m less interested in now. But David Lynch was my first favorite director. After seeing two of his films, I knew that I had to see all of them.
Tukel: Did you ever see River’s Edge?
Porterfield: Oh yeah, I love that movie. Similar to Stand By Me, when that came out. That was a big one for me. I had a Stand By Me birthday party when I was eight-years-old.
Tukel: Do you go to the movie theater much now and do you ever see big Hollywood movies?
Porterfield: I don’t see Hollywood films that often. I tend to see repertory films or stuff from the avant-garde.
Tukel: And do you watch much television?
Tukel: Do you read a lot?
Porterfield: I mainly read books that are recommended to me. I tend to read a lot of theory, especially regarding film, since I’m teaching it every week.
Tukel: Do you have a desire to get married again and have kids eventually?
Porterfield: I would get married again and I’d love to have kids.
Tukel: Final question. Do you have a contingency plan if filmmaking doesn’t work out for you?
Porterfield: I want to keep making films. And I’m not making money off my films now so I think I can continue if I have to. I’m very lucky to be employed at a university, teaching film. That’s my livelihood. And if I can keep balancing it — teaching film, making films — that would be nice. I don’t have a ton of responsibilities now, I don’t have children. If that happened, my attitude might change. And I’m not saying I don’t want to see profit from my films. They’re modest in scale and it’s a competitive industry. But film is the most exciting art form. It combines the visual arts, performance, sometimes music, and it’s observational, and that’s what I like about it the most. Through observation, through the process of making a film, you learn about the world. So I don’t think I could ever stop now.
Onur Tukel is Brooklyn-based filmmaker and children’s book writer/illustrator. He’s currently in post-production on the vampire comedy Summer of Blood. You can see his work at simiannation.com.
Matthew Porterfield is a filmmaker and a lecturer/teacher at Johns Hopkins University. Matthew splits his time between Baltimore, MD and Brooklyn, NY. “I Used to Be Darker” is his third feature film.