Among this year’s best American independent films—on view at Brooklyn’s second annual and already influential BAMcinema-FEST, June 9 through 20—Aaron Katz’s Cold Weather, Matt Porterfield’s Putty Hill, and Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture share little in outward appearance. But whether slacker-mystery, docu-art-cinema, or anti-rom-com, the films take up similar themes (wayward young people) and display a formal inventiveness (merging naturalistic acting with stylized aesthetics) that breathes new life into low-budget cinema.
In Cold Weather, Katz, 28, combines witty twentysomething aimlessness with long, contemplative takes of his Portland milieu. With Putty Hill, Porterfield, 32, juxtaposes documentary looseness with rigorous, exquisitely composed cinematography in the dilapidated neighborhoods of northeast Baltimore. And in Tiny Furniture, Dunham, who just turned 24, casts herself as a confused post-grad, who moves in with her mother and sister in their Tribeca apartment (where she lives in real-life)—a minimalist white loft and studio space captured in sharp angles by up-and-coming ace cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes. Mumblecore, these aren’t.
The three filmmakers—who all shot their movies on a shoestring budget, ranging from $20,000 (Putty Hill) to a few hundred thousand (Cold Weather)—have crossed paths on the festival circuit since their movies were screened at South by Southwest in March. (Sundance, in a gross oversight, passed on both Putty Hill and Cold Weather; Tiny Furniture wasn’t ready in time.) They’re also familiar with one another’s work—Porterfield has shown Katz’s 2007 feature Quiet City to students at Johns Hopkins, where he teaches film—and talking to the directors all at once, as I did on the phone last week, yields some revealing synchronicities.
All of your films employ mixed modes. Cold Weather and Tiny Furniture play around with genre conventions, and Putty Hill mixes documentary and fiction.
Katz: I love the idea of mixing things that are traditionally not from the same place. And from what I know of Lena’s work, there’s a heightened element of realism for comedic purposes, but, essentially, it’s dealing with real people, and I think that connects all of our films. We’re trying to find the real people and not deal in clichés.
Porterfield: Because I’m interested in realism, I am really self-conscious about it. Going into Putty Hill, I was very conscious of wanting to keep the audience on the edge of their seats and make them try to figure out what it was they were watching, whether it was social realism or documentary, and what is true and what is fiction.
Katz: One thing that I like about Putty Hill is that a lot of it is formal, but the people in it are allowed to be themselves. It’s great how casual everyone is. I’ve become a big fan of: “If you’re shooting in a place and you need a guy who works at the place, get the guy who works at the place.”
Dunham: For me, forgetting that I’m watching people act is such a thrilling sensation. That’s what I look for when watching movies. . . . I’m a total movie geek, but I can’t get into movies like Nicholas Ray’s. I’ll go with my friends and they’ll say, “Bigger Than Life—that was incredible.” And I was so distracted the entire time by watching James Mason act in that fashion.
Katz: I totally agree about Bigger Than Life. I do like some Nicholas Ray movies, but I was so off-put by that one.
Dunham: I was watching it with a boy who I wanted very much to think I was cool and have a crush on me, but the whole time I was like, ugh, yawn, bring a book, I can’t deal with this. . . .
Your films all deal with a lost young generation. As filmmakers at a time when the economy and the indie infrastructure seem to be crumbling, do you feel adrift, too? Do you feel like you can build sustainable careers?
Porterfield: I think about that a lot. Putty Hill was really liberating, but I’m still in debt. I would just like to figure out a way to continue working on films that have a modest economy so that they’re economically feasible and I can maintain the freedom that I want. I’d like to be in a position where I could pay my collaborators—and my rent.
Dunham: We’re also lucky that we know how to make movies this way. But I’m sure if you asked us what filmmakers’ careers we would like to emulate, those careers aren’t really possible anymore because of the changing landscape of distribution.
So how do you plan to continue making films?
Porterfield: I’m trying to figure out how to get money for the next one. I think I need to get better and more creative at grant writing.
Katz: My head is still reeling with Cold Weather. But I have one script that could be made for a small amount of money, and another one that’s a period action thriller comedy, with ocean liners and stuff. . . .
Dunham: That sounds awesome. I’m also writing a script with a Tiny Furniture–size budget, and some concepts that are bigger. I will say that in making a small movie, there’s something that feels both dangerous and safe about it. It’s exciting and renegade, but you don’t have to feel like a crazy 10-year-old driving a school bus.