Matthew Puccini on Making the Queer Film He Wishes He’d Grown Up With

Matthew Puccini on Making the Queer Film He Wishes He’d Grown Up With

Despite the preponderance of tales of coming of age and sexual awakening in American independent cinema, it’s still rare to encounter a movie that deals with experiences of intimacy between young LGBT characters in a way that feels honest, candid, and tender rather than tragic and traumatic. When I served on the short-film jury at this year’s (sadly canceled) SXSW, I was excited to see Matthew Puccini’s Dirty, which tackles the story of a disappointing first sexual experience between two queer high school students (played by Morgan Sullivan and Manny Dunn) without shying away from the explicit nature of its subject while also landing on a note of sensitivity and humanism. With the help of nuanced performances from his leads and beautiful handheld cinematography, the director, who is twenty-seven, set out to make the kind of queer film he would have wanted to see in his teenage years. I talked with him recently about the making of the film and some of the movies that have influenced him, including Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, which is paired with Dirty for this week’s short-and-feature program on the Criterion Channel.

Tell me about what led you to make Dirty.

Growing up, even in a pretty liberal area in California, I don’t think I ever saw queer sex represented on-screen, outside of porn. So much of my sexual education happened through gay porn, which is still extremely white—and hairless and spotless and pleasurable for both partners from start to finish. I remember walking into my own first sexual experiences with other men in college and feeling a particular shame, even disappointment, when they didn’t go the same way. It felt exciting, and like wish fulfillment, to create a film where queer sex is portrayed positively but also honestly, and where I also explore that shame and what happens to it when it’s met with kindness rather than with the expected disgust or rejection.

Your work in the past has usually dealt with queer experiences. Have you been influenced by specific queer filmmakers and stories?

I’ve definitely been inspired by gay filmmakers like Ira Sachs and Andrew Haigh, but also by Lynne Ramsay, John Cassavetes, and more recently Hirokazu Kore-eda and Joanna Hogg—filmmakers who present contemporary life with a lot of restraint and leave room for ambiguity and the intelligence of their audiences. You’re never being hit over the head with what you’re supposed to feel; you’re often just being made privy to these very incisive observations of relationships. Keep the Lights On and Weekend were revelations for me because they showed that the type of quiet human drama I love could be made about queer characters. It feels so obvious now, but at the time so much of the representation I saw was either high camp or deeply tragic.

When I was on the SXSW jury that gave Dirty an award for acting, what struck me about the performances was their authenticity and naturalism. Can you talk about casting your two leads? Was it important to you to cast queer actors?

I worked with a casting director named Freya Krasnow, whom I’d also collaborated with on my two previous short films. We started the process in the traditional way, putting together lists and reaching out to more established actors. But I think there was always a nagging feeling that for a short like this, where you want it to feel so real, having a recognizable face on-screen would take away from the story. So we posted on Backstage on a whim, and Morgan and Manny were truly the only two candidates we ever brought in. They just seemed to have this innate understanding of the material and were somehow able to create this feeling of intimacy, even against a blank wall with their iPhones. And when they were in the room together for the chemistry read, they nailed it right away. I remember having them step out of the room for a second and turning to Freya with this big, wide-eyed grin on my face. It’s such a thrill when you find the right actors, because up until that point I’m always terrified that I’m not going to be able to find them in time.

It was important to me to work with queer actors. Many other people have articulated this more intelligently, but I do think there is an additional layer of authenticity that comes from having queer actors in queer roles. It meant that Morgan and Manny were able to infuse some of their personal experience into what I’d written, and I think that’s why the relationship and the performances feel so real. I was lucky that they both were very open from the beginning. I think, as queer people themselves, they felt particularly invested in telling this story well and in advocating for the dignity of their characters.

How did you work with them to create a safe space on set for the sex scene?

We eased into the sex scene very gradually. I think initially the three of us just got together and talked for a while. Then maybe the next time we started reading and talking through the scene, and then finally we started to block it a bit, just the three of us, and always constantly checking in with each other to make sure everyone felt comfortable with and clear on what we were setting. I have to credit Morgan and Manny again; they both came into the process with open arms and were very willing to try things. There was a sense of goodwill and excitement among the three of us that allowed us to transcend some of the awkwardness pretty quickly. I normally don’t like to rehearse too much in advance, but with that scene it was obviously so important for all of us to be on the same page beforehand. And despite what I hope was a fairly sensitive approach to building that scene, I still think it would have been enormously helpful to have had an intimacy coordinator involved in that process.

On set, we tried to keep the bedroom scenes in as closed of a set as possible. I believe it was just our cinematographer, Matt Mitchell; our sound mixer; and me in the room while we were shooting, and we’d quietly make adjustments as we went and didn’t have tons of people flying into the room between takes. There was a scene that took place before they begin to kiss which got completely cut, but I think the actual sex scene ended up being pretty close to what was scripted. I don’t think there was a ton of improv in terms of the actual dialogue, but obviously both actors added so much in terms of those little beats, glances, and pauses that say so much more than what was on the page. In the edit we just tightened it, trying to find the right pacing, but the performances were there in almost every take. Matt’s handheld work is just wonderful; he would find frames as we went, shooting a hand clenching sheets or the small of Manny’s back, that became so key in the edit to create the feeling of the world falling away during this moment.

I read you wanted to shoot on 16 mm but decided against it for budgetary reasons. But the cinematography still has a lovely, romantic feel to it. Can you talk about working with your DP to create that look digitally?

Matt was such a passionate and active collaborator. He came into our first meeting with all of these wonderful ideas about how to make the most of a limited budget. He first pitched shooting on 16 mm as a way to give the film a timelessness and a texture that would elevate what is really at its core a very simple story. There was a bit of heartbreak when that didn’t work out, but Matt owns an Alexa Amira that he’s quite familiar with and was able to craft a similar look and feel. We set a few guidelines for ourselves: naturally lit interiors when possible, soft window light, creamy skin tones, shadows and silhouettes, and frames within frames. And then, in the sex scene, we knew that we’d very much be reacting to what the actors were doing. On set, it was a combination of compositions that we’d shot-listed and others that were spur-of-the-moment. The scene in the auditorium was made up on the day; we’d intended to shoot it outside and then were walking past this gorgeous space as we were loading into the classroom, and we quickly reblocked the scene so that we could take advantage of that space.

I really like the title. I read it in the literal sense but also as a reference to the unfortunate reality that queer sex—and in fact all sex—is still considered “dirty” by some people, and the internalized shame and fear can color our experiences. Can you speak about how the title came about?

That one means a lot, because I’m usually terrible at titles! But in this case it felt obvious from the beginning of the writing process that it should be called Dirty, for many of the reasons you stated. I liked the idea of starting the film by setting the audience’s expectation that they are about to witness something “dirty,” and then gradually peeling that away and meeting that expectation with tenderness and real intimacy instead. Our main character, too, goes from furtively watching gay porn in his bedroom, where sex is this forbidden and secretive act, to being comfortably out in the world with his boyfriend at the laundromat. We see his own perception of himself go from being “dirty” to being “clean.”

What role did the Jacob Burns Film Center play in producing the short?

They have this incredible program called Creative Culture, spearheaded by Sean Weiner, which supports emerging filmmakers over the course of ten months as they make two new short films. You’re given access to production resources and insurance, but even more importantly you’re inducted into this community of other artists who you meet with once a week to workshop and develop your projects. It feels like free grad school, in a way. Before being accepted into the program, I had made one fairly successful short but was feeling stuck in the aftermath of that festival run. It’s such a strange period after college, when you’re still trying to make things and take risks in a medium that’s often prohibitively expensive. To be given that space for the better part of the year was life-changing. It allowed me to make both Dirty and my previous short, Lavender, and cement who I am as a filmmaker and what I’m trying to say with my work. Even if neither of those shorts had done well, the experience would have been formative. I wish there were more programs like that in the U.S. for young filmmakers. We all need that space in our lives where our art and our ambition are taken seriously.

I’m curious how creative people have adapted their practices during the pandemic. What have you been working on, and have your plans changed in this strange time?

I feel like there are two groups of people right now: those who haven’t been able to write a word since the pandemic started, and those who are having the most prolific period of their careers. And I am definitely in the former category. There have been a lot of false starts for me as I’ve moved toward making my first feature film, and much of the past few months has been spent going down rabbit holes with different versions or angles on the themes I’m interested in exploring. But I think within the past two months I’ve at least arrived at what I hope will be the character and the framework for what I want to make next. It’s a bit darker and lusher than my shorts, but it has similar themes. It feels exciting to finally be inspired again, and I’m hoping that I’ll be finishing a draft just as the indie filmmaking world starts to peek its head out again. I’m a slow writer, though, and have tried to embrace that recently rather than beat myself up about it. For me it’s often many months of sitting with something, letting it percolate, and then the actual writing of the thing happens very quickly and all at once. The best thing we can do for ourselves is not panic when we don’t feel inspired and, even more importantly, not compare ourselves to the people around us. The more that I wean myself off of social media and trust that I’ll get to where I need to go at my own pace, the more enjoyable that journey becomes.

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