In many respects, I Used To Be Darker is the most conventional of the three features from Baltimore native Matthew Porterfield. Though set, as all his films are, against the backdrop of his hometown, Darker jettisons the improvisational approach of Hamilton (2006) and Putty Hill (2010); for the first time, Porterfield is working with an actual screenplay. “Conventional,” though, is a relative distinction, as there’s nothing especially ordinary about this affecting relationship drama, in which an Irish teen runaway (Deragh Campbell) drops in unannounced on her aunt and uncle in Baltimore, only to discover that the couple is in the middle of a tumultuous separation. (Their daughter, played by Hannah Gross, returns home from her first year of college to complicate matters further.) As in Putty Hill, Porterfield uses music as a conduit for messy feelings: Songwriters Kim Taylor and Ned Oldham (brother of Will) play the ex-lovers, and each is granted an emotionally charged performance scene. The result is an unusually sensitive and realistic portrait of not just the Baltimore music scene, but also an imploding marriage.
The A.V. Club: As a portrait of songwriters and their culture, I Used To Be Darker feels very authentic. Did you grow up around musicians?
Matthew Porterfield: No. Both my parents are teachers. My dad’s a playwright as well. But Baltimore has a very healthy art scene. A lot of my friends are musicians. So I guess I was writing about people who are trying to make their creative practice and their livelihoods meet. Baltimore’s not as expensive as New York; it’s a little easier to commit to your craft, which is maybe why a lot of creative types stick around after they leave school. This was written from the experience of just knowing a lot of working artists.
AVC: In both this movie and Putty Hill, music seems to provide a cathartic release for the characters.
MP: Music is such a big part of our lives. I’m not one who walks around with headphones ever, but it’s really interesting that we always have a soundtrack going. When it comes to film, because music is ubiquitous, we rely on it so heavily to carry the emotional weight of a scene. I’m interested in how to explore that, push that, and acknowledge it. So in this film, these characters are dealing with emotions—like those in the karaoke scene in Putty Hill—that can’t all be articulated in conversation. So we let the music do some of that speaking.
AVC: And that’s a lot different than simply setting a scene to music and letting the music do all the emotional heavy lifting.
MP: One of the goals I set out to accomplish—and it was a goal of my first film, Hamilton, too—was to make every musical cue have an onscreen source. We break that rule in the opening credits. [Laughs.] But the rest of the film is all diegetic sound. And then it becomes music that’s part of the characters’ lives. The characters are putting it on; they’ve chosen it. So even if they’re at a party listening to UGK, those choices become the characters’ choices.
AVC: I Used To Be Darker is a very perceptive film about divorce, particularly when dealing with the way hurt feelings can pass among the different members of a household. Abby, the daughter, just absorbs all that hurt. Did you draw on personal experiences when writing the script?
MP: Yes. Abby is kind of me. The experience of writing with Amy [Belk] was incredible. We sat there and we wrote every word together. But we found ourselves kind of identifying with different characters. [Campbell’s character] Taryn is, in some respects, much more Amy’s voice. But Abby is mine. That was my experience: I felt abandoned and betrayed when my parents split up. I was the age that Abby is. I came home from my first year of college and suddenly my parents were split up. We were very close, so there was resentment. There was identification with my dad more than my mom—she left. So I was really able to think about what that felt like and put it on the page. [Laughs.]
AVC: That doesn’t sound easy.
MP: No, it wasn’t. But it was good for me. There’s catharsis there.
AVC: You work almost exclusively with unknown or nonprofessional actors. What are the challenges and rewards of that process?
MP: I love it. I’m interested in finding someone really interesting and allowing them—encouraging them—to bring a lot of themselves to a character. That place where the character and the performer meet is really interesting to me. So casting is crucial. I’ve done all of my own casting up until now. That’s when I’m really trying to make decisions about whether I can work with someone and what they can bring to a role I’ve written. This group, though none of them had been in a film before—their level of professionalism was beyond anything I had experienced. And Kim and Ned, as musicians, are aware of their image in a way most of the actors in Putty Hill weren’t. So there were different challenges in Putty Hill. I think when working with nonprofessionals, it’s about creating a real relationship with the actors and building trust, and helping them realize that they can perform to a certain extent as themselves, and that’s okay.
AVC: When talking about For Ellen, her latest movie, So Yong Kim said something to the effect of “what you see is what you get” with nonprofessional actors, that the process of directing them isn’t quite as collaborative as it is with professional actors. Do you agree?
MP: I half agree. You can’t push a nonprofessional the same way you can push a seasoned actor. To some degree, the “what you see is what you get” thing is true. But Putty Hill was completely collaborative. The actors were writing their own dialogue. Those words are theirs, not mine. When the cameras were rolling, they’d throw something out that was often very surprising.
AVC: About $40,000 of your budget came from Kickstarter. Is it strange selling your movie before there’s a movie to sell?
MP: It was very foreign to me. We did it once before with Putty Hill. We did it to finish that film, when we found out that we had gotten into Berlin. I didn’t like the idea. At that point, it was 2008 or 2009, and there hadn’t been that many campaigns to fund movies. We didn’t really have a point of reference. But one of my producers, Steve Holmgren, was like, “I think this could be really good, it has potential.” It’s just weird to sit down and address this nebulous group of people who are interested in the work you’re doing and might want to support it. But the second time around, after I got my feet wet with Putty Hill, I felt more confident. One of the cool things that happened with Putty Hill, and then again with the Darker campaign, was that we got a lot of support, but also people contacted us through Kickstarter—people who were interested in actually investing and seeing a return.
AVC: Though you were working with more money than you had on previous projects, Darker is still a low-budget movie. Were there scenes or elements you had to scrap because of monetary restrictions?
MP: There’s a scene in a train car that was originally written for a field at night; they pull over and it’s pretty dark, and Taryn goes off to piss. She finds some cows out there. And there’s this exchange between her and Nick [Petr] in this pasture with these cows. And three days before we’re going to shoot, my D.P. Jeremy Saulnier goes, “I would have to get a balloon to light this scene. We don’t have the money, we don’t have the kit.” So it’s like, do we pay to light the scene with cows that we’re not going to be able to direct? Or do we scrap it and shoot somewhere else? I was like, “I know this cool train car. Let’s go take a look at that.” And we threw it together in two days.
AVC: Was your co-writer on board with you making those kind of revisions during filming?
MP: Yeah. That whole night with the train car and driving around, we had this very dialogue-heavy scene in the script. There was a lot of banter between Nick and Taryn—they’re flirting. The actors had memorized it, we got in the van, it’s like 2 a.m. at this point. We’d already shot the train car stuff, but their flirtation in the car was heavily scripted. And the actors knew it. But we start to shoot it—and we’re limited as to where we can put the camera in the van—and it just felt like a sitcom. I was like, “This is not working. We need to figure out another way.” And it’s hard to let go of your baby—something you’ve written that you think is clever on the page, but is not working. We had to pare it back, and figure out what the essence was and how to convey it wordlessly.
AVC: Darker is more conventionally structured than your previous films. Did that happen accidentally or were you looking to make something more traditional?
MP: We didn’t know what we were going toward when we started writing. We had this seed of an idea: A girl gets in some trouble in Ocean City. And we held onto that. In the script, the first 15 pages took place in Ocean City, which is a little less conventional, because we’re asking viewers to get involved in this world, and then we’re out. [Snaps fingers.] We shot it all; we shot 15 minutes worth of footage in Ocean City. But I found that was too much to ask. For us, the emotional heart of the film was in Baltimore. And we needed to get Taryn there as quickly as possible.
AVC: What are your thoughts on the state of American independent film?
MP: I don’t know if I have a pulse on it. In the last six to eight years, technology has allowed an abundance of fresh voices to tell personal stories. That’s really exciting. We’re seeing a lot more low-budget films getting made and playing the festival circuit. But they’re finding limited audiences; it’s really hard to see theatrical distribution, only these new platforms, like VOD and streaming. But then, we accessed a much wider audience with Putty Hill on the Internet than we would have been able to theatrically. And all the international territories we have access to as well, thanks to pay TV. It’s great for filmmakers.
But I sometimes find myself more aligned with trends in international cinema. I have less of a dialogue with American filmmakers than ones from Europe. That said, the DIY ethos doesn’t really exist in Europe. We’re able to break the rules here.