Brooklyn-based filmmaker Matthew Puccini has proved himself to be a master of the narrative short film: his most recent, Dirty, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was an official selection of 2020’s SXSW Film Festival, where it received a Special Jury Award for Acting. His short film Lavender premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival; before that, his short The Mess He Made premiered at SXSW in 2017 and was a finalist for the Iris Prize.
Puccini is a 2018 Sundance Ignite Fellow, a member of the 2017 New York Film Festival Artist Academy, a recipient of the Richie Jackson Artist Fellowship, and a Creative Culture Fellow at the Jacob Burns Film Center. Adobe Create’s managing editor, Charles Purdy, recently spoke to Puccini about his work.
Charles Purdy: Thanks for making time to speak with us! I actually saw The Mess He Made at the Frameline Film Festival a couple of years ago, here in San Francisco, and I think Lavender was in Frameline recently too, right? I didn’t see that one there, though.
Matthew Puccini: It was there, and we were supposed to bring the latest short, Dirty, there as well this year. Of course, that couldn’t happen. But Frameline is important to me, having grown up in the Bay Area, and Frameline having been one of my first introductions to queer cinema. It’s amazing as a filmmaker to screen at the Castro—it’s one of the most beautiful theaters in the country, I think.
CP: I agree. I honestly can’t wait to be at the movies there again. So, to start, tell me about yourself as a filmmaker.
MP: For the most part, I’ve been making work about queer people and about the queer experience—work that tries to approach and center queer characters with more nuance and tenderness and complexity than they typically get in mainstream media. And a lot of my work is very character-focused—it’s about studying people and how they handle situations…I’d say that I’m typically less concerned with plot or conflict than with character.
CP: What I’ve seen of your work has been very much about romantic or sexual relationships between men who love men. Is that fair to say?
MP: I think exploring relationships is definitely at the center of my work. I’m fundamentally curious about how two people navigate—or three people, in the case of Lavender—those dynamics, and what about them is specific to queer people and what is universal. In Dirty, I included a young trans character; I’m trying to always be pushing for more representation of the queer community while also recognizing that I’m a white cis gay man and don’t want to be overly telling other people’s stories. It’s a weird but important balance, I think, of trying to find ways to open up who we’re seeing on screen while also making sure that the representation is nuanced and true to real people’s experience.
CP: In your films, you seem to create space where queer people are relating to one another, and not necessarily addressing the divide between the queer world and the non-queer world, which is often a focus in LGBTQ+ filmmaking: there’s a level of explaining queerness or addressing queerness in relationship to straight society.
MP: I grew up with queer films that were often coming-out stories or had tragic elements related to intolerance or violence from someone in the straight community. And while that obviously happens, and those stories must be told, I’m interested in what happens when queer people are left to their own devices. What are the more mundane, but also infinitely interesting, things that happen when those outside forces aren’t at play, when people are living their lives? What are the sources of conflict then? The little heartbreaks and triumphs that come from just stumbling through life in a way that so many straight characters on screen get to do all the time?
CP: You graduated (from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts) in 2015 and are quite accomplished as a filmmaker already. I’m curious to know, five years in, how things are going in terms of what you thought your career would look like. How different of a filmmaker are you now—if you are at all?
MP: If myself five years ago was able to see where I am now, I think they would be, for the most part, very happy with how things have turned out. To have had success with these three short films is a huge validation and a big gift to a young filmmaker. But then of course in the present, I’m still wrestling with the same anxieties waking up every morning and wondering if I’m good enough, and if I’m able to take the leap into the longer projects I’m hoping to get off the ground in the next couple of years…. It’s a very long road to becoming an established filmmaker. And the process can be very daunting if you look too far ahead. I’ve always tried to trust my gut and make only the things that I feel really passionate about. In terms of whether interests have changed over that time period, I don’t think they have. If anything, I’m learning how to be more in touch with myself and how to access a personal place on a more regular basis. While that used to be something that felt like it happened in fits and starts, it now feels like a familiar headspace…. I feel that I’m getting more in touch with my own creative process with each passing project and each passing year.
CP: I’d love to talk a little bit about your latest film, Dirty. Why were you passionate about the subject of a young couple’s first sexual experience?
MP: I was inspired by a bunch of different personal experiences—sort of a general feeling that I had throughout my first couple of sexual experiences of just not knowing what I was doing and never having been given the tools to even find that information. I was really hungry as a high school student to see queer sex represented on screen outside of porn. So this was very much something of an active wish fulfillment, as well as taking the “losing your virginity” story and reframing it around queer teenagers.
CP: Dirty won a jury prize for acting at SXSW this year. How did you cast it? I’m curious about how you work with actors and how much you allow them to improvise—and how much you improvise, as a director—on set.
MP: I spend a lot of time making sure that I’m casting people I’m going to be able to trust, so that when we’re in rehearsal and on set, I know that their instincts are great and that they’re going to be the best advocates for the dignity of their characters. This makes my job much more of a conversation with them, to absorb their ideas and their thoughts into the scripts. I definitely am not a purist—I don’t trust myself enough at this stage to write something and then have that just be the be-all and end-all. I’m always, up until the last minute, trying to stay as open as possible to the people around me.
For Dirty, it was kind of hard to find Morgan and Manny, the two central characters…because we were looking for actors who could believably play high school students and who were queer and who were going to be comfortable with a steep level of intimacy on screen. The list of known, young, queer actors who can play high school students but are over the age of 18 is already pretty short. And the few we reached out to were all pretty nervous about taking a risk on a short film that could easily go the wrong way if it wasn’t handled sensitively. But then we posted on Backstage and asked people to send in self tapes. Morgan’s and Manny’s tapes immediately stood out…. And when I brought the two of them in together for a chemistry read, it was just like lightning in a bottle. They just were both already so close to what you ended up seeing on screen.
I would say a big part of the performances that I get out of actors is casting—just making sure that the people are really right for the roles. And then everything I’m doing past that is just trying to form a relationship with them in the month or the weeks that we have before the shoot, so that they feel comfortable with me and trust me and can be really honest with me. Especially with Dirty, it was so crucial that both actors felt that they could, at any moment on set, pull me aside and tell me that they weren’t feeling comfortable with something.
CP: When you’re shooting, do you like to shoot a lot of takes and make decisions later in the edit suite, or are you pretty clear going in what you want to capture? How do you work with cinematographers and editors?
MP: I try to have a shot list prepared and make sure that all the coverage I am planning to get on set is stuff that I’m actually planning to use. I don't believe in getting coverage just for the sake of having it. And if there’s a way to shoot a scene in one or two shots, that’s usually always a preference of mine. I would rather do multiple takes of a shot to get the exact right performance than cobble a shot together from a bunch of takes—that said, some things do require a couple shots in order to cover properly. It’s definitely always a conversation between myself and the cinematographer and trying to cover our bases while also pushing ourselves to do things that are visually interesting and not just safe. And in terms of editing, I try to let the editor do their first pass on the film with very little input from me, to give them space to go in and do a rough cut based on the footage and the script—it’s really interesting to see how they improvise and how they interpret the footage that you have. That’s been helpful because they will come in and cut a scene in a way that I never imagined it being cut, but that clearly uses the best takes and is focused on performance, rather than on any sort of fancy camera move or bit of vanity that I might have gotten attached to in the filming process.
CP: It’s a weird time to talk about what you’re working on next—but what’s your next project, or what are you excited about? What kinds of topics are you hoping to explore?
MP: I’m directing and helping to edit a short documentary called Queer Elder, which is a bunch of interviews with LGBTQ seniors at the SAGE Center in Midtown Manhattan, an advocacy group for queer seniors. The film is a portrait of an older generation of queer people, and we ask them about how they have seen the community change over the years, and advice that they wish they had had, and that they would give to younger queer people, and just their reflections on their lives. That’s been a piece that we’ve been chipping away at over the past several months, though it has obviously been put on pause until we’re able to be back in the same room as them again. And then I’m writing, finally, my first feature. I've been pretending that I've been writing a first feature for probably a year and a half or two years. But now I’m actually in the middle of my first draft—it’s queer-themed but maybe a bit darker than the shorts.