In the wake of a project that fell through, Metal Gods, writer and director Matt Porterfield pieced together his original cast and crew, and returned to many of the same locations, to develop a new story: Putty Hill, which will have its North American premiere this week at Austin's South by Southwest festival. What began as a five-page treatment about a young man's heroin overdose and the eve of his funeral was soon cultivated into an interlace of fiction and non-fiction that observes, as well as unfastens, from the genre of unscripted narrative realism. At times, the film's stripped-down manner appears strained, as though expecting ruined beauty to creep from the cracks of a weathered street, or simply materialize in the dim lit mess of a teenager's dirty room. But, for the most part, Jeremy Saulnier's photography captures Porterfield's childhood Baltimore neighborhoods–swimming pools, bars, skate parks, churches and overgrown yards–and anchors the story of a community on the brink. Largely improvised, Putty Hill's documentary-style interviews depict characters broken by an untimely death, speaking with veteran candor and foregone absence.
I spoke with the film's lead, Sky Ferreira, about her initial involvement and role as Jenny in Metal Gods, and the eventual transition to Putty Hill.
DURGA CHEW-BOSE: For the initial Jenny, written for Metal Gods, you wrote journal entries in order to prepare for the role. How did you prepare for this younger, more vulnerable version of Jenny?
SKY FERREIRA: I didn't. I just had to jump into the situation and watch my surroundings for a week. I watched the people around me, their manners...The guy playing my father, I had never met him. I just watched some footage of him.
CHEW-BOSE: Spike [Sauers]?
FERREIRA: Yeah, met him only the day of.
CHEW-BOSE: What was your immediate reaction to your surroundings?
FERREIRA: I just sat in Baltimore and didn't talk to anyone and just watched. I'd only been once to do a screen test. I was very intimidated. It's very different from LA. I mean certain parts of LA are like that, everywhere is a bit like that but...It was a culture shock. I mean, I'd never been to trailer park before!
CHEW-BOSE: Since this film is done in documentary style, was it difficult to integrate yourself with other teenagers your age? Was it at all seamless?
FERREIRA: Kind of. It was always a bit awkward. I got into a fight once; that was scary. I was in the car with Matt's [Porterfield] wife and I was on my way to the trailer park just stopping by, just to get a feel for what's around, and we drove like maybe forty-five minutes outside the city. There was a group of girls in this park and they saw me in the car and just started screaming so much shit at me. I got some pretty dirty looks some of the time.
CHEW-BOSE: And this was your first feature role, right?
FERREIRA: Yeah. I had done some shorts but nothing serious. I had really liked the idea of Metal Gods because it was based off of Streetwise, the documentary. That's how I first started because I watched that movie like twenty times over, and I just paused it and would watch everything [Tiny] would do with her hands, her face...
CHEW-BOSE: Did you ever hesitate during production and wonder what it was you were doing? Or did you always fully believe in this project?
FERREIRA: I always believed in Matt Porterfield. We got along really well and we had a lot of similar tastes in film.
CHEW-BOSE: Like what?
FERREIRA: Christiane F, and also The Fabulous Stains. And of course, Streetwise.
CHEW-BOSE: Because of its approach to realism, most of the film was unscripted and conceived in production, right? How did that shape your interpretation of the character? And did you have much say?
FERREIRA: Well I got to help with the casting, and because the script wasn't completely finished I was able to help develop the character of Jenny. That was pretty insane.
CHEW-BOSE: Are you interested in doing some of your own writing?
FERREIRA: I don't know yet. Maybe in the future? I definitely have ideas of my own.
Putty Hill’s North American premiere is March 14th at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, TX.