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Writers at Work: Matthew Porterfield (right) with Tickner Writing fellow Sam Cheney
Writers at Work: Matthew Porterfield

The A.J. Downs Writers at Work Series brings professional writers to Gilman to read from or examine their work in assembly, visit classes, and meet with faculty members.

During Upper School assembly on Wednesday, December 8, Tickner Writing fellow and English teacher Sam Cheney introduced his personal friend and Gilman’s Writers at Work guest: film writer and director Matthew Porterfield. He listed Porterfield’s many accomplishments and accolades, including how his most recent film, “Sollers Point,” was called one of the best movies of the year by several publications. 

Then Cheney said, “Before all this, Matt was just a regular high school student like you all. ... Matt is a powerful example of the fact that creativity is a result of hard work. A result of clocking in and trying every day to make something.”

Porterfield’s presentation gave students and faculty an insider’s look into the process of starting with an idea and turning it into a feature film. He talked about beginning with just an image and asking himself questions about it to create a scene, taking students through an exercise to illustrate this point. A photograph from his slide deck of a woman driving a car appeared on the screen. With the audience’s help, he started to build a story around that image. “She’s driving a red car, wearing a red shirt. Maybe red is her favorite color.” He pointed out elements of the image that could give clues about the scene: a sticker on the window, a handicapped tag, and the expression on her face. “Where is she going? … Where is she coming from?” he asked the audience.

When Porterfield starts to put scenes together, he begins with a prose-form description. He showed an example of this from the opening scene of his latest film, “Sollers Point.”

Eventually the scene takes the form of a screenplay, which includes a “slugline” — information about where and when it takes place. The first scene of “Sollers Point” takes place in the main character’s bedroom in the morning as he’s waking up.

To figure out what the bedroom should look like in the movie, Porterfield gathered images and shared them with the production designer. The final look of the bedroom, with walls covered with photos and graffiti, is clearly inspired by the photos Porterfield had presented to her.

The audience had access to view the movie before the assembly, but when Porterfield then showed a clip of the first scene, they viewed it through a new lens, having a much deeper sense of what had gone into conceiving and constructing it.

Finally, Porterfield displayed a production timeline: from idea to development to pre-production to production to post-production editing to distribution. He explained that a type of writing occurs throughout all the phases, including one at the end: “a writing that takes place in the collective imagination” of the audience.

Watch the assembly here.


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