Roland Park Blues
Matthew Porterfield’s third feature focuses on the personal and the universal
Published: September 25, 2013
Though the naming convention behind Matthew Porterfield’s I Used to Be Darker differs from that of his previous films (2006’s Hamilton, 2010’s Putty Hill), one might argue that Darker could be called “Roland Park.” The leafy northern neighborhood provided a backdrop for the film, premiering at the Charles Theatre on Friday. (It also played at this year’s Maryland Film Festival, see “I Used to Be Darker,” Feature, May 8.) But to label Porterfield’s latest work “Roland Park” would be a disservice in a way, for its depiction of heartache and tension and tenuousness resonates so deeply that it’s deserving of a different, less-located name.
The neighborhood did help to inspire Abby, one of the film’s central characters, however.
“I was imagining a sort of archetype of the kind of girl that I knew growing up in Baltimore,” Porterfield says in a recent interview. “You know, private school-educated, interested in the arts, theater, fiercely independent in so many ways.”
Indeed, in Darker, Abby—a rising sophomore in college, returning home for the summer to her parents’ house and their barely dissolved marriage—takes her indefinitely sojourning Irish cousin, Taryn (Deragh Campbell), to a Dope Body concert at the Copycat Building. There, Abby encounters a male friend, off of whom who she bums a cigarette, casually lighting it up inside. Hannah Gross, the actress who played Abby, wears the Roland Park bravado well. “I love her performance,” Porterfield says. “I think Hannah just brought so much more to it.”
She does. Gross possesses the cool, but not despicable, demeanor of a 19-year-old who drinks red wine at dinner with the family, who sulks slightly in summer boredom by her backyard pool, who knows she will go places but can’t quite yet, who bitterly resents her mother (Kim Taylor) for shattering the picture-perfect household in which she was brought up.
But Abby’s character derives from something more personal than the girl behind the counter of the Evergreen Café. “I was really just writing about my own parents’ divorce,” Porterfield says, “’cause I was Abby’s age—in between my first and second year of college—and resentful and sort of half-independent.”
In 2010, when Porterfield started working seriously on Darker, he was somewhat stalled on a few ideas. He had written the start of a movie, set in Ocean City, in 2007: “I just knew this character was going to land in Baltimore, I didn’t know what was going to happen.” The Hamilton native spent summers working there and had met “all these foreign students who had visas and wanted to live in the States for three months. And they always lived in these shitty beachfront towns, like Ocean City. I mean, I grew up going to Ocean City, I love Ocean City. I just think it’s funny their first exposure to America is Ocean City, Maryland.”
He showed the three-year-old idea to his then-roommate, Amy Belk. “Then we just started talking about it. It wasn’t like we were, ‘Let’s write a script together.’ I mean, we were living together, she’s a writer, I love her writing, so we just opened up a conversation that kind of became a collaboration and once we started, it was like we wrote every word together.” They wrote at home, in cafés, and in bars around the city.
At the time, Porterfield himself was working through the residual emotional effects of a 2007 divorce (Belk had had a similar experience), and from there they came up with a destination for their Ocean City character (or Taryn). “It seemed simple enough to just have her land in the midst of a breakup and explore that. It was something we could both write about.”
As one often does when in a clamber of emotional distress, Porterfield relied on music, in his case, Bill Callahan’s Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle. “It really got me through, I really connected with it,” he says, “And when we started writing about this couple, I shared— Amy knew Bill Callahan but not this record. So we started listening to it a lot, two songs in particular: ‘Too Many Birds’ and ‘Jim Cain,’ which is where we got Darker’s title.” (The song shows up in the film, in a late scene.)
Certain songs figured as centerpieces of the movie, so Porterfield and Belk would find “a place in the story for that to happen,” and Callahan’s music was “not only part of our headspace but part of the world that we were creating.” As a result, the two characters breaking up became musicians—Porterfield went so far as to ask Callahan to play the father figure in the movie (“he declined”). Throughout Darker, real-life musician Kim Taylor (her character has the same name) plays and sings music, as does Ned Oldham (who plays Bill, Abby’s father and Kim’s husband [and real-life former member of Baltimore-based band Anomoanon and brother of Will aka Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy]), though Bill’s character has largely given up music professionally.
Like Abby, Bill is drawn from someone in Porterfield’s past. “Maybe my dad a little bit,” he says of Gordon Porterfield, a retired Baltimore City Public Schools teacher. “He’s not a musician but he’s a playwright, poet, he’s written a couple novels, largely unpublished. He maintained a healthy creative practice, probably more than Ned’s character in Darker. But I guess I always wonder what would have been different for him if he hadn’t had kids and married so young, had to support a family.”
Darker captures all of these personal threads and weaves them together, somehow amplifying them to speak to a broader audience. Even as one spots the now-removed rusted-out streetcar on Clipper Mill Road or a vaguely familiar lawn in Roland Park, even as we think of a would-be musician we know or a young Park School graduate, the emotions elicited by Darker trump any such circumscriptions. As with Putty Hill and Hamilton, Porterfield says, “I like to think these films, they’re super-local, but they have a kind of universality about them—maybe this one the most.”
Matt Porterfield will be at screenings of I Used to Be Darker at the Charles Theatre at 7 and 9:15 p.m. Sept. 27-28. Ned Oldham will also be on hand for a Q&A and a short acoustic set on Friday’s screenings.
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