Location Matters: How Matt Porterfield Uses His Hometown to Illuminate Universal Stories
In 'Sollers Point,' writer/director Matt Porterfield returns home to shoot a fourth film in Baltimore.
A delicately concentrated study in naturalism, Matt Porterfield's Sollers Point is as much about its physical setting as it is the characters who inhabit it. Set in Baltimore, Maryland (and its surrounding locales), the film tells the story of Keith, a 26-year-old softspoken, conflicted soul completing his one year of court-ordered house arrest.
Hoping to avoid the troubled crowds he often attracts, Keith swears to get his life back on track. He looks for odd jobs and attempts to make amends with his former girlfriend (Zazie Beetz) and prove to his father (Jim Belushi) that he's neither a disappointment nor a future statistic in a city filled with social unrest.
Try as he might, once deep-rooted feelings of loss breed anger and jealousy, and Keith takes matters into his own hands, potentially jeopardizing his unrealized future. Unassuming in its depiction of Baltimore's underserved communities, Sollers Point, the fourth feature from Porterfield to be set in the filmmaker's home city, avoids broad strokes by honing in the beating heart of one specific family.
As the film currently plays in limited release, expanding to additional cites over the next few weeks, No Film School spoke with Porterfield about getting the film off the ground, "stealing" a location, the dangers of shooting scenes involving stunt work, and the advantages to casting locally.
No Film School: How did this project come to fruition? What was it about this story that made you want to turn it into your next feature?
Porterfield: The story started with me thinking about a friend of mine who was under house arrest, with ankle bracelets, on home detention. He had limited mobility: he'd go outside, stand on his front porch, and friends would come by and meet him. He could use the phone and the internet, but he wasn't allowed a lot of movement and so I was interested in that scenario, and the transition that one makes coming out of prison.
NFS: Was it a long pre-production process? In my research, I saw that you had the screenplay participating in markets as early as 2013.
Porterfield: The script took me about three years to write, and it participated in a couple markets before it was finished, maybe prematurely. But along the way, we did meet a French co-producer at Le Bureau Films, specifically Gabrielle Dumon, who came on board and helped us find some public funding from France through the CNC (National Center of Cinematography and the Moving Image). That provided money we could use for development and production to be paid back in France during post. That was probably the most vital thing that came in from those early co-production markets. Then it was the typical story of trying to find private equity over months and months while still beginning pre-production, casting, location-scouting, locking crew in place...It's a hand-to-mouth kind of thing, “If you build it, they will come” mode of pre-production that we have employed in all of my films. This was no different.
"I felt perhaps we'd be able to shoot in the summer of 2015 but we just didn't have enough money in place."
NFS: I believe you shot in the summer of 2016, but how early on did you know that that was going to be the summer to go into production, that it was now or never?
Porterfield: Well, we had already pushed [the shoot] once. I felt we'd be able to shoot in in the summer of 2015 but we just didn't have enough money in place, and so I went and co-produced a project in Buenos Aires, Argentina. So then it was, alright, let's do [Sollers Point] next year, and so we set the date and we were able to realize [it].
NFS: The film is, in many ways, a father/son story and I imagine casting those roles was quite a challenge. They have to give off a troubled history that can only be implied nonverbally. How did McCaul Lombardi and Jim Belushi enter the project?
Porterfield: Casting is always a puzzle like that. We worked with Kate Geller and Jessica Kelly out of Chrystie Street Casting, a casting agency in New York, but we had heard of McCaul Lombardi through the grapevine. He had just finished Andrea Arnold's film, American Honey, and although we hadn't seen it yet, we found that he was from Baltimore (which was intriguing) and I liked his look. We set up a meeting at a diner and sat down and talked about the script. He'd read it and had watched my previous films and was really enthusiastic. I liked him right away. We signed him on and then went about looking for an actor to play his father.
Jim Belushi was on our list of names for the father, but he really jumped out due to his working-class roots in Chicago and his experience, period, is just so vast, from film, to television, to improv theater, and so, we brought them both in and then we began filling in the supporting cast around them.
NFS: Keith is often coming-or-going from somewhere, running into a slew of characters throughout if not Baltimore then the surrounding Maryland area. In writing the screenplay, did you find that your supporting characters influenced where you would shoot, or did you have specific Maryland locations in mind that you then sought to place the characters in?
Porterfield: That's an interesting question, but we had the locations first, they came first in this case. The supporting characters were all scripted with action taking place in a specific locale, and so we tried to find people that fit that world.
NFS: Given that much of the city is racially segregated, the film has to indicate its geography through its characters. How did you work on incorporating the social aspects of the city into your movie?
Porterfield: I tried to stick to the logic of the city that I know. It's a very divided city along lines of race and class, and I'm aware of the divisions, and so I just tried to honor them and show the fabric that's already in place, while emphasizing the lines that intersect rather than the places of division. I was really interested in pairing the views that whites and blacks have in this city.
"There's the reality of any location and it differs from what you imagined and what you put on paper."
NFS: Regarding the locations, do you find that the location dictates how you shoot the scene? What advantages and limitations did you discover in setting up shop in these existing, familiar locations?
Porterfield: Definitely. There's the reality of any location and it will differ from what you imagined or what you put on paper. One location that we struggled to find was the first crackhouse that Keith visits to buy a gun [from the character of Wasp]. We found a dilapidated house that appeared abandoned but it was really hard to locate the home-owners. When we finally did, they were generous and willing to let us use it. But entering the building, we had questions about the viability of safety in the locations, and we had to get some people in there to test the structure, to make sure it was going to be okay to bring a film crew and equipment into the location. Even then, when we got approval, there was a lot of stuff that had to be moved around and rooms that remained off-limits to us.
Another really crucial location in the script was the intersection where Keith drops off Elaine the second time he picks her up, where there's a methadone clinic, and then the Baltimore Cemetery. The Baltimore Cemetery doesn't give anybody permission to shoot there, so we had to steal the location, and it's a very busy intersection, so we had to deal with pedestrians and car traffic and everything else that comes when you're shooting on busy streets. So, all those things presented challenges that we were lucky enough to overcome. Other times we were forced to bend and sway and rework the script to meet those challenges, too.
NFS: Regarding that scene where Keith visits his deceased mother at the Baltimore Cemetery, your camera is pulled so far back, it's as if we're allowing Keith a moment of privacy amongst a sea of tombstones.
Porterfield: I always imagined treating that scene in a very wide shot; I never imagined we'd go in for a close up of him at the grave. It was good because we weren't granted permission and we had to steal the shot.
We positioned ourselves, just the three of us—me, the cameraman, and the assistant camera—(I don't even think we had sound on that day) at the far end of the graveyard and opposite the gate, so McCaul could drive through the gate and land at a pre-determined spot, and it worked. I think it works beautifully, as best it could.
"There's something lived-in when you've got an actor that knows the place."
NFS: What role did Baltimore casting play in the film, and how were local Baltimorians integrated into it?
Porterfield: I worked with a former student of mine, Abby Harri, on all of the local background casting for people from the DMV (Delaware, Maryland, Virginia). There's a couple of good acting sites where you can pull resources—Dragonuk Connects is one—and of course, there's a local Backstage and there's Craigslist, but we also did a lot of hand-to-hand, street-team style casting.
We'd approach people on the street and ask if they wanted to be extras or featured in a scene. There were so many additional roles (it was a huge project) but I found that there was a lot of talent, just amateur or semi-professional actors in the area, who were really wonderful and creative and enjoyed the work. It was a fun process putting the supporting cast together.
NFS: What do you feel the choice to cast locals adds to the finished film? Even if, as an audience member, we may not be aware of this choice, what do you think it brings?
Porterfield: I feel like one of the reasons I've worked with non-actors for the majority of my films up until this point, is because there's something lived-in when you've got an actor that knows the place. Baltimore is a destiny for telling stories with themes that are universal, and then there's a lot of stuff you don't see in my films and part of that fabric is the past. When you have someone that knows a place specifically, it comes across. You just feel it, they fit, and it makes sense, you know?
We tried to make logical choices. If we had someone, like a white working-class character in a rural neighborhood in Baltimore County, then we would look for an actor from that area. It's not always necessary but I think you can feel it on a film.
"The trick there was, first, setting up the frame in such a way that you could have a van come off-screen to surprise the audience."
NFS: The film features several bursts of violence, one early on in a parking lot where a driver runs over Keith's shopping cart and all hell breaks loose. It makes the audience jump, and I was wondering if you could take us through how you prepped and timed the execution of that scene.
Porterfield: We worked with a stunt coordinator on this film named Rick Kain, who's a local. He's incredible, and he was another true collaborator on the project. I always knew that I wanted the van to hit Keith's shopping cart in a wide shot so that it would startle the audience; we would see it happen in real space and real time. The trick there was, first, setting up the frame in such a way that you could have a van come off-screen to surprise the audience and then, of course, there was the issue of safety and timing.
We practiced a lot with Rick driving before we put our actor in the car, and one of the things we realized was that it was important for McCaul (as Keith) to let go of the cart upon impact. That was the most important thing, and then we had to clear the other cars away from the shopping cart so that there was no damage done. We didn't know which direction the cart would fly. Of course, McCaul follows the cart, and we followed him with our camera. So, it was a little bit of a dance, for sure, and safety was our first concern. But it wasn't the most dangerous shot we attempted in the film.
NFS: What was the most dangerous shot?
Porterfield: I would say the most dangerous shot was where Keith drives the car into the Chesapeake Bay. There was fear that the windshield might bust, there was the throttle that could occur upon the driver hitting impact, and there was the threat of the car sinking. So, we had a scuba diving team as well as some safety experts on location, and it was probably the trickiest thing that we pulled off. We saved it for the last day of shooting.
NFS: What did you shoot on?
Porterfield: We shot on the ARRI Amira.
NFS: I believe this is your first feature without Jeremy Saulnier as your DP?
Porterfield: That's right, yes.
NFS: He's gone on to have a really strong career as well. How did you work to find a new DP for this feature and what was it like beginning that new relationship?
Porterfield: I worked with Jeremy Saulnier on three features and not only is he a collaborator, he's a really good friend. The thing is, he's directing principally now, writing and directing, and so it was time to look for a new cinematographer. I found Shabier Kirchner through a producer friend of mine, wrote him immediately, and took a look at his reel. I thought he was a very-gifted-with-lighting cinematographer but also a great operator, both of which were important on this film. We started talking about it and he was very thoughtful. We walked through the whole process together, the whole script, and we storyboarded everything. It was a real deep collaboration and I would certainly work with him again.
The other thing is that he's just a wonderful spirit. Jeremy always inspired a lot trust and hard work from his crew, and Shabier does the same thing. In some ways, that's the most important thing you can have: a cinematographer who is a lovely person that people want to work for at all levels of production