How One Director is Giving Important Stories a Voice

Featured in Creativity
Photo by Michael Beckert.
How One Director is Giving Important Stories a Voice

Matthew Puccini is a Sundance Ignite fellow and LGBTQ+ filmmaker creating narrative and documentary shorts with the ability to change our perspectives — and make us feel. With an eye for strong, vivid characters and the innate ability to capture the complexities of human vulnerability and intimacy, Matthew is already making an impact on the film world.

We were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to Matthew about his experience as a 2018 Sundance Ignite fellow, his upcoming short films, and the importance of authentic storytelling.

Being a Sundance Ignite fellow is a very unique opportunity — how has the Ignite Fellowship impacted your work?

Being chosen as an Ignite fellow was such a special moment of validation for me. I had spent the better part of the past two years working as an assistant, and was starting to feel very discouraged and lost. Being accepted into this program played a huge role in giving me the confidence to leave that world and focus on my own work. I feel like I have this really lovely stamp of legitimacy and a true support system through the program, composed of both mentors and peers, as I continue to try and establish myself.

Photo by Michael Beckert.
You just wrapped production on your third narrative short, “Lavender”. What have you learned from this production?

With “Lavender”, I learned a lot about my own writing process. I started with a totally different script than the one I ended up shooting. My big takeaway is that, by the time you’re on set, you should be at a place with your script where you’re able to defend why each scene is there, and articulate how it’s pushing the emotional arc of your characters forward.

Don’t overwhelm yourself with fancy equipment and an enormous crew. Don’t write something that is going to cost $100,000. Lower the stakes for yourself so that you can really focus on what matters — telling a simple, well-crafted story with a clear voice.

I love the conversations that I had with my cast on this film; they deepened my own understanding of the material and forced me to articulate the type of movie I wanted to make.

Which parts of the filmmaking process do you enjoy most?

Working with actors is always my favorite part. If you cast the right people, they come into the room with tons of questions and will challenge you to defend every word of what you’ve written. I love the conversations that I had with my cast on this film — they deepened my own understanding of the material and forced me to articulate the type of movie I wanted to make.

Photo by Brandon Roots.
What can you tell us about your new documentary short, “Marquise? What inspired you to tell this story?

The piece follows an actor, Marquise Vilson, as he makes his off-Broadway debut in a play called “Charm. Marquise is an out trans man but had spent many years living stealth in Atlanta before moving to New York to do this show. I was interested in exploring his transition from a very private life to a very public spotlight.

I was in another mentorship program with Marquise’s cousin, Mosi Singleton, but had actually seen Marquise’s play independent of knowing that they were related. So it felt too good to be true when I found out that she knew him personally, and was thrilled when she asked me to co-direct the documentary with her. I loved the show when I saw it, and I am excited to help Marquise’s story reach a larger audience.

If you put in the work to making characters feel real and relatable, you’re increasing the chance that an audience member will be receptive to whatever issue you’re trying to address.

How would you describe your approach to communicating LGBTQ+ issues through your films?

I always start with trying to present a character who feels specific and complicated. I tend to lean toward a more naturalistic style of filmmaking — where I’m observing someone without judgment as they navigate a situation, and leave plenty of room for an audience to arrive at their own conclusions. My hope is that whatever theme or issue I’m exploring feels like a natural extension of the emotional life of my characters. If you put in the work to making characters feel real and relatable, you’re increasing the chance that an audience member will be receptive to whatever issue you’re trying to address.

Image source: Brandon Roots / "The Mess He Made".
How do you tell stories that are authentic to you? How do you balance sharing the story of your community while not speaking for everyone?

My past two films have been inspired by personal experiences, but definitely evolved to include things that I hadn’t experienced firsthand. I think it’s always a matter of being very careful, doing your research, staying humble, and surrounding yourself with smart, talented folks who can advocate for the dignity of each of your characters. I also think it’s important to make it clear that you’re not trying to speak for everyone. In my opinion, it’s impossible for one person or filmmaker to speak for an entire group of people, especially one that’s as diverse as the LGBTQ+ community. So a big part of the answer for me is being aware of my own limitations as a storyteller, and working to create more opportunities for more folks from more walks of life to be able to share their own stories.

Why are inclusive storytelling and representation in film so important?

There is enormous power in seeing yourself represented on screen. It can be hard to imagine what your options are unless you see those depicted in the media you consume. And film is such a populist medium — it has the capacity to reach the homes of people around the world — so it has a responsibility to accurately reflect what our world looks like.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to be spending the summer finishing post-production on both “Lavender” and “Marquise”. I’ll also be making a new short film in the fall as part of the Jacob Burns Film Center’s Creative Culture program. The real goal, though, is to start writing something longer. In the meantime, I feel like I’m frantically trying to catch up on mountains of queer history and culture — whether that means reading “Dancer from the Dance or watching To Wong Foo — for the first time —  I feel like I’ve been left this enormous, incredible inheritance and am slowly trying to sift through and make sense of all of it, so that I can eventually add something meaningful to the conversation.

Photo by Jacqueline Harriet.

Interested in Sundance Ignite? Enter the 2019 Challenge. Find out more about Matthew’s upcoming work here.

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