Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 5, 2020

Prof. Matt Porterfield talks movie-making in B'more

By Alex Neville | February 12, 2009

Matthew Porterfield is a true Baltimore filmmaker. He was born in Baltimore, he was raised here, and it is from this city that he draws inspiration. It is the setting for both of his films.

His first film, Hamilton, was released in 2006 to considerable praise from the critics.

"For a 65-minute feature shot on 16mm and released theatrically in three cities to receive coverage in every New York press outlet - that's unheard of. The fact that the press was all good makes it a total coup," he said.

Perhaps the critics were pleased to see something that owed little to Hollywood conventions. When asked about his favorite filmmakers, Porterfield confessed, "I have a great fondness for personal, experimental, avant-garde filmmakers, as well as a deep love for the more traditional, formal, narrative-driven directors."

Some of the more familiar names on his list of favorite directors include Hitchcock, the master of the suspense film; Jean-Luc Godard, father of French New Wave films; Robert Bresson, the so-called patron saint of cinema and David Lynch, a surrealist with great skill at creating discomforting imagery.

His list of favorites also includes some esoteric filmmakers like Kenneth Anger, a filmmaker with an interest in the occult who has ties to both Led Zeppelin and Anton LaVey, and Jonas Mekas, an American avant-garde filmmaker and writer for the Village Voice.

Porterfield says that despite the difficulties involved with creating a career in the film industry outside of New York or L.A., he enjoys practicing his art in Baltimore.

"What you sacrifice in terms of proximity to the industry you make up for with creative originality. Real, regional cinema is capable of the kind of authenticity that Hollywood can't often approach." On the blog for his latest project (a film called Metal Gods), there is a link to a documentary that perfectly illustrates his point.

The documentary is called Streetwise. It is an intimate portrait of the lives of several homeless teenagers in Seattle. Without voiceover narration, dizzying camera tricks, cheap wisecracks or expensive special effects, Streetwise manages to capture the reality of the teens' lives and the emotions they feel, a goal that Porterfield set out to meet when he began working on Hamilton.

"I wanted to explore the complex, conflicted emotions associated with these relationships. When I wrote the screenplay, I kept this in mind and approached visual storytelling as a challenge. I was determined to focus on the image and its potential to convey what I thought was better left unsaid," he said.

In addition to his work as a writer and director of motion pictures, Porterfield teaches. He is a professor in the Hopkins Film and Media Studies department, and he teaches classes on screenwriting and film production. He certainly brings plenty of practical experience to the job. Like one of the overworked apprentices to a B-movie maker of olden days, Porterfield has been exposed to every stage of the filmmaking process.

"Because of the extended process and the division of labor inherent in film production, it's possible to become very myopic and focused on one stage of the process, like screenwriting, casting, editing or marketing. In order to teach, I have to be flexible and familiar with every facet of making a movie, and in class we go through the whole process in miniature every semester. It keeps me on my toes," he explained.

When touring the country with Hamilton, he was asked sometimes about his new project, Metal Gods. The producer would joke, "It's Hamilton, but with sex drugs rock 'n' roll!" But that description wasn't all that far off from what Metal Gods would become.

Keeping the realism of Hamilton as well as the use of music and poignant visuals to tell a story rich with emotion, Metal Gods will be "kicked up several notches," according to Porterfield. "It's a teen romance set in southeast Baltimore among a group of delinquents and misanthropes who live and love heavy metal."

So what is it that these delinquents and misanthropes find so inspiring in heavy metal music?

"Power. A lot of the kids in this story are dealing with feelings of powerlessness. And metal culture, to a certain extent, provides rites of passage that are more palpable and empowering than any of those presented by popular culture. The music is cathartic, too." Metal Gods is currently in development, with production scheduled to begin in July.

Metal Gods may be his current project, but Matt Porterfield seems confident it will not be his last. "My goal is to continue making films. And, with practice, I'd like to become a better screenwriter. I hope to always remain open to alternative methods of production and new ways of seeing."

When asked if he had anything he'd like to say to students considering trying one of his classes, he simply said, "I take this very seriously." Those who have taken his classes are already aware of this, but they also know of his tremendous passion for and knowledge of filmmaking (just check out the responses on RateMyProfessors.com).

On the art of filmmaking and his attraction to it, he said, "Filmmaking combines the plastic, the performance, the literary and the sound arts into one art. Plus, it's collaborative: It's a social art. And it provides me an opportunity to articulate whole worlds in three dimensions, which is highly seductive."

For more information on Matt Porterfield's latest projects, check out his Web site, which features a regularly updated blog: http://www.hamiltonfilmgroup.org.

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