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Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

Hands-on Filmmaking

Watch the trailer for the 2010 film Putty Hill, directed by by faculty member Matt Porterfield.


Catching Matt Porterfield in his Gilman Hall office is not an easy task, because the lecturer in Film and Media Studies is rarely in one place for very long—even his beloved Baltimore, the setting of both of his feature films, Hamilton and Putty Hill.

This past summer, for example, in between frequent trips to New York City (where he works, lectures, and networks) Porterfield flew to Chile in August for the Santiago International Film Festival awards. There he shared the awards for best international film and director, for Putty Hill.

The film—about the lives of friends and acquaintances of a dead young man named Cory— is a sparse, almost documentary-like examination of mostly young people. Released in 2010, it drew raves from reviewers. Roger Ebert gave it four stars, and The New Yorker's Richard Brody wrote: "If there's an independent cinema, [Putty Hill] is it, and if there's a new director, here he is."

Porterfield has achieved what might best be described as a sort of "working fame," a level of recognition that puts him on a lot of wish lists for film festival panels and directors, but not the kind of commercial success that changes his life.

At Hopkins, the 32-year-old director tries to impart his experience and skills by creating the sort of coursework that embraces the good and corrects the imperfect of his own film school experience at New York University.

In the Hopkins Film and Media Studies program, "students get hands-on with the equipment right away," he says. "My approach is to get kids working. And we spend a lot of time on the generation of ideas." Five of Porterfield's students served as interns for Putty Hill, a movie he made on a shoestring budget of $18,000, paid for almost entirely by credit cards and small individual donations.

Michael Arnst

Matt Porterfield's 2010 film Putty Hill, seen here being filmed, drew rave reviews and has play at film festivals in Berlin, Vienna, and Buenos Aires.

Photo: sophie toporkoff


His first film, Hamilton, was shot and edited for $45,000, with money he had saved through working all kinds of jobs. Released in 2006 and named for the Baltimore neighborhood in which he was raised, it is a slow, contemplative work about people thinking and talking about life. That film, which drew some good critical reaction, will be available soon on DVD.

"I want to teach kids how to make independent films, and that it can be done," says Porterfield. "One of the things I love about the Hopkins program is that it's film-based," he says, meaning that the focus is on the totality of skills (photography, writing, film studies) that it takes to make a film. "It comes from a theory and critical background," he says.

For example, he says, "I'm teaching a class with [lecturer] Meredith Ward, a theory and practice workshop. So Meredith reads Soviet montage theory with the students, and then we produce a montage. I remember finding it hard to tie into theory as a student; this really gives them a great opportunity. We have students here really able to combine the craft of filmmaking with the theory and history of it."

When he's not teaching, Porterfield stays busy honing his craft. A 2010 Janet and Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize finalist, Porterfield made some short films on Super 8 and 16mm that were on display at the Baltimore Museum of Art in July, and he has created a couple of music videos for local Baltimore bands.

"I'm also working on a short about a utopian group home in West Baltimore," he adds.



Related Links

Trailer for Hamilton

Film and Media Studies Program