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Behind the Title: Unit9 director Matthew Puccini

This young director has already helmed two short films, Dirty and Lavender, that got into Sundance. And he still finds time to edit when his schedule allows. 

Name: Director Matthew Puccini

Can you describe Unit9?
Unit9, which has headquarters in London and Los Angeles, is a global production company that represents a team of producers and film directors, creative and art directors, designers, architects, product designers, software engineers and gaming experts. I’m based in Brooklyn.

Puccini on set of Dirty

What would surprise people the most about what falls under the title of director?
These days, there’s a certain element of self-promotion that’s required to be a young director. We have to figure out how to brand ourselves in a way that people might not have had to do 10 to 15 years ago when the Internet wasn’t as prevalent in how people discovered new artists. I constantly have to be tip-toeing back and forth between the creative side of the work and the more strategic side — getting the work seen and amplified as much as possible.

What’s your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of directing is the collaborative aspect of it. I love that it offers this unique ability to dip into so many other disciplines and to involve so many other incredible, wildly different people.

What’s your least favorite?
The salesperson aspect of it can be frustrating. In a perfect world it would be nice to just make things and not have to worry about the back end of finding an audience. But at the same time, sometimes being forced to articulate your vision in a way that’s palatable to a financier or a production company can be helpful in figuring out what the core of the idea is. It’s a necessary evil.

Why did you choose this profession? How early on did you know this would be your path?
I fell in love with directing in high school. We had an amazing theater program at my school. I started off mainly acting, and then there was one show where I ended up being the assistant director instead of acting. That experience was so wonderful and fulfilling and I realized that I preferred being on that side of things. That happened parallel to getting my first video camera, which I enjoyed as a hobby but began to take more seriously during my junior and senior years of high school.

What was it about directing that attracted you?
I fell in love with working with actors to craft performances. The whole process requires so much collaboration and trust and vulnerability. Over time, I’ve also grown to appreciate filmmaking as a means of filling in gaps in representation. I get to highlight human experiences that I feel like I haven’t seen properly portrayed before. It’s wish fulfillment, in a sense; you get to make the work that you wish you were seeing as an audience member.

Puccini on set of Lavender

How do you pick the people you work with on a particular project?
I began making work while I was in school in New York, so there’s a wonderful community of people that I met in college and with whom I still work. I also continue to meet new collaborators at film festivals, or will occasionally just reach out to someone after having seen a film of theirs that I responded to. I continue to be amazed by how willing people are to make time for something if they believe in it, even if it seems like it’s far beneath their pay grade.

How do you work with your DP?
It always just starts with me sending them the script and having a meeting to talk about the story. I might have some preconceived ideas going into that meeting about how I’m thinking of shooting it — what my visual references were while writing the script — but I try to stay open to what they imagined when they were reading it. From there, it’s a very organic process of us pulling references and gradually building a look book together of colors, lighting styles, compositions and textures.

It could be as specific as a frame that we want to be completely copy or as general as a feeling that an image evokes, but the idea is that we’re figuring out what our shared vocabulary is going to be before we get to set. My number one need is knowing that the person is just as passionate about the story as I am and is able to tailor their shooting style to what’s right for that particular project.

Do you get involved with the post at all?
Definitely. I’m very involved with every stage of post, working closely with the department heads who are running the show on a more granular level. I love the post process and enjoy being involved as much as possible.

I also work as a video editor myself, which has given me so much awareness and respect for the importance of a good edit and a good editor. I think sometimes it’s easy to waste time and resources on shooting coverage you’re never going to use. So as a director, it’s important even before starting a project for me to think ahead and visualize what the film really needs so that I can be as efficient and decisive as possible on set.

Dirty

Can you talk about Dirty? What was it like getting it ready for Sundance?
We found out that Dirty got into Sundance last November. Obviously, it’s the call of anyone’s dreams and such a wonderful feeling and boost of validation. We had finished the film back in April, so it had been a long time of waiting.

From November to the festival, it was a rush to get the film ready. We got it recolored and remixed, trying to make it as good as possible before it premiered there. It was a bit of a whirlwind. The festival itself was a really special experience. It was incredibly powerful to have a film that, in my mind, is somewhat doing things that are really pushing the boundaries of what we’re seeing on screen and getting to share it with a lot of people. There’s a gay sex scene in the middle of the film, and to have that celebrated and accepted by an important part of the film community was really special.

Can you describe the film?
Dirty is a tender coming-of-age film. It follows two queer teenagers over an afternoon as they navigate intimacy for the first time.

What about Lavender? Do you have a distributor for that?
The film was acquired by Searchlight Pictures out of Sundance last year. They released the film on their Vimeo and YouTube channels last spring. They put the film in theaters for a week in NYC and LA in front of a feature film they were showing, which actually qualified it for the Oscars last year.

Can you describe that film?
The film is about a young gay man who is growing increasingly entangled in the marriage of an older couple. It is the portrait of an unconventional relationship as it blossoms and ultimately unravels.

What is the project that you are most proud of?
To me Dirty and Lavender are both equally important. I don’t have an answer. I’m grateful for both films for different reasons and they are all part of one period of my life — exploring these ideas of intimacy and loneliness and queer people seeking connection. In some ways they’re almost two attempts to answer the same question.

Name three pieces of technology you can’t live without.
My laptop for all of the writing and editing I do. I try to watch a lot of movies, so I enjoy my TV. And even though I’m trying to wean myself off my phone as much as possible, I still rely on that throughout the day. Obvious answers I know, but it’s true!

What do you do to de-stress from it all?
I find that watching movies and seeing a lot of theater are often the best ways to get inspired and excited about making new work. I’m trying to meditate more. Starting the day with something like that and building out some introspection into my routine has been really helpful. And therapy, of course. Gotta have therapy.


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