September 3, 2019
ALUMNI SPOTLIGHT: Matthew Puccini
NFFTY has grown into a wonderful community of over 2,500 filmmakers from around the world. Alumni have experienced success in many areas of the media industry. To celebrate these achievements, we are highlighting NFFTY alumni here!
Matthew Puccini is a NFFTY ‘10, ‘12, ‘18, and ‘19 alumni and Brooklyn-based filmmaker. His work has played at several festivals including Sundance, SXSW, Aspen ShortsFest, Palm Springs ShortsFest, and OutFest. Matthew was selected as one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 25 New Faces of Independent Film and as one of Indiewire’s 25 LGBTQ Filmmakers On The Rise.
His short film, Lavender, which is playing at the 13th Annual NFFTY in the Closing Night: Generation NOW program, was acquired for distribution by Fox Searchlight and received Vimeo’s award for Best U.S. Fiction when it premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. 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, Matthew has quite the career ahead of him!
OUR INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW PUCCINI:
Your short film The Mess He Made screened at NFFTY 2018, and just a few months later your short Lavender was premiering. What was your experience like at Sundance?
Sundance was surreal. I thought I had a decent idea of what it would be like and then promptly had my expectations completely blown out of the water. There’s just nothing that can prepare you for the experience of having your work shown in one of those theatres. The energy at every screening was electric and infectious. You can feel how passionate the audiences are, not just about films but about filmmakers and the creative process itself. I felt so embraced by the folks there and left feeling very humbled to have been a part of it.
You often portray under-represented narratives. What’s most important to you when you share these stories, and what’s your writing process like?
My last few short films have all at least partially been inspired by personal experience, and then a realization that that experience is something I haven’t seen before, or haven’t seen portrayed accurately. So I feel a particular responsibility in making these films to try and approach them with the nuance and care that I often find myself craving. I always appreciate as an audience member when the filmmaker trusts my intelligence and I try to keep that in mind when I’m writing. How can I tell this story in a way that is visual, sophisticated and simple? How can I make these characters feel as fully realized as possible?
The writing processes for Lavender and The Mess He Made were completely different. The Mess He Made pretty much poured out in a single sitting and then changed very little from the first draft to the final edit. I think that was partially because it was a relatively simple film, just about a single character and following them as closely as possible. But Lavender went through massive changes from first draft to final edit. The period of time over which the film takes place changed from several months to a single weekend, and many of the vignettes moved around. I’m often very much relying on a group of very smart, talented friends that I share my writing with to tell me what’s working and what’s not.
What was it like to work with your actors on Lavender and The Mess He Made, and how did they help enhance your story?
I really do think that casting is the most important part of making a successful short film. Great actors can save just about anything. With this film in particular, I knew that it would only work if we took the time to find the right people. The characters were intentionally vague in the script; I wanted there to be room for smart folks to come in and bring their own warmth and personal experiences to these men.
Working with Michael Hsu Rosen, Ken Barnett and Michael Urie was such a gift. I was very lucky that they had all previously worked together, so there was an immediate intimacy and trust in our meetings and rehearsals. They’re all incredibly smart, generous actors who were instrumental in making sure that all three characters felt three-dimensional, and in making the love between them feel real and complex.
You mentioned that having your film screen at NFFTY when you were in high school helped you decide to go to film school. Why was that experience so important for you?
NFFTY was my first time screening a piece of my work for a film festival audience, let alone meeting other young filmmakers. It was eye-opening and inspiring to see the other films in my block and realize that I wasn’t alone in wanting to do this. I had grown up as the only person in my school who was really trying to make movies and it was so validating and humbling to stumble into a larger community of emerging filmmakers. It was a lovely piece of validation at a very critical moment, where I was weighing whether or not filmmaking was a viable career path.
What advice would you give to young filmmakers trying to make it in the industry?
Keep finding ways to make work. If your goal is to write or direct, especially, the only way that’s going to happen is if you are constantly exercising those muscles. It can be so hard to make time to be creative when you’re also trying to survive, but that’s what it takes. I worked as an assistant for two years out of college and it really took me so far away from where I wanted to be creatively. Try to find a job, or jobs, where you have designated time each week to be working on your projects.
On a similar note, I really think it’s important as a young person to make films within your means. Don’t go and spend 100K on a short film; it’s only going to distract you from what’s important, and from what programmers and industry folks are looking for, which is a fresh take and an interesting perspective. Some of the most successful shorts are made for little or no money; don’t go into debt to make your passion project!
And this may be obvious, but if you are trying to make short films, watch other short films! We have so much access now that platforms like Vimeo and Short of the Week exist. Watching other shorts was extremely helpful for me in terms of shaping my ideas into scripts that were actually viable and could be successful in that format. Watch good ones to see what’s working and watch bad ones to see what’s missing. Obviously rules are meant to be broken but I guarantee it will make you a better filmmaker.
And finally, take care of yourself. You have plenty of time. The idea that we have to be successful by any age is crazy, especially in an industry like this. Find other things that bring you joy so that you aren’t deriving all of your self-worth from the inevitable ups and downs of the creative process. There’s a lot of luck involved in getting into a festival like Sundance and that can’t be the way that you measure how you feel about yourself and your work.
What’s next for you?
I just finished post-production on a new short film called Dirty, about a pair of high school boyfriends who cut class to lose their virginities. And I’m finally starting the very intimidating process of writing my first feature film. There’s been some lovely attention since Sundance but I also want to make it clear that it’s not something that changes your life overnight. I’m still struggling to pay my bills every month and am often cobbling together my income from a variety of freelance gigs. I edit, I direct, I do videography for small events. Part of being a filmmaker is having some insane faith in the fact that there’s nothing else you’d rather be doing, even on the days when you’re getting rejected from festivals and swimming in credit card debt!