by Rebecca M. Alvin
Eben Portnoy, whose work will be showcased in the Local Lens film series at Wellfleet Preservation Hall this Sunday, is currently in the final stages of post-production on a film version of a short story by James Franco, whom Portnoy met at UCLA where he took a class with the famed actor. The 37-year-old Wellfleet native says the film, called Valencia, “is about a group of three teenaged skateboarding kids in the suburbs of Los Angeles that are causing mischief one weekend. It’s set in the mid-90s. That’s sort of the setting and there’s a love story in the midst of that.”
That film, as well as several other shorts and music videos by Portnoy will be shown at this week’s screening, and he will discuss how he came to be a filmmaker and what his cinematic interests are.
Portnoy, who had made films casually with his friends while still in middle school and high school on the Cape, started his professional life as a musician, playing guitar, singing, and writing songs, as well as producing for other bands. “I really enjoyed playing music, but I was doing odd jobs to support that and I really missed being engaged in storytelling and being engaged in visual work, too.”
While Portnoy did (and still does) really enjoy performing, he felt a pull toward filmmaking. “It always seemed to me as kind of like the ultimate art form, and really exciting, but I didn’t know how a person got into it. It seemed really huge and daunting.”
Each of Portnoy’s films in his growing body of work is distinct in subject matter, location, and form. As he completes Valencia he is already working on an entirely different film, his first feature-length documentary, Kaksori, about a traditional form of comedic performance in Korea. The kaksori travel from town to town and entertain for money, sometimes dressed outlandishly, sometimes in drag. Portnoy came upon this story quite randomly.
“My partner’s from Korea, and we were traveling in the countryside and we were on this island in Korea… in this small squid-fishing village that had this singing competition going on, which was like this very official thing and this huge production. And then we heard all this noise on the other side of the waterfront and so we went to check it out and there were these kaksori setting up.” He decided there might be a story there and eventually returned to film the kaksori for this documentary, which is currently in fundraising stage.
Prior to these films, he completed several short films—both fiction and nonfiction. Asked about the connections within this filmography, Portnoy says growing up in Wellfleet has given him a certain respect for physical locations. “Having the privilege to grow up on the Cape, feeling really connected to the place where I grew up, I think in a lot of the films I make the location is a really big character.” He adds, “Also, I think I’m really attracted to underdog characters. There are some [other] themes that are emerging, but I’m just starting out, so I don’t know if I’m ready to talk too much about it. But place is really important and having these underdog characters who we really haven’t seen yet, like strong female characters and having a really diverse cast is important to me…those are some of my ethics, at least.”
His next project is of particular interest, as he says he’d like to do “a lesbian werewolf movie set on the Outer Cape,” called Companion. The film is still in development, but a script has been written. “That’s something I would really love to film in Wellfleet or Truro… It’s not very sensational, it’s really kind of a character piece about this middle-aged poet who lives alone—her partner’s passed away—and she lives alone with her two dogs and then she meets this younger woman who turns out to be a werewolf. But it doesn’t fulfill a lot of horror movie expectations, like nobody really dies, not a lot of blood and guts or anything like that, but the werewolf trope was a kind of interesting way for me to explore the character. Also because I grew up in Wellfleet, I feel like the landscape means a lot to me and the atmosphere in the winter is really evocative and great for this kind of a story.”
The Local Lens series presents Eben Portnoy on Sunday, July 24, 7:30 p.m., at Wellfleet Preservation Hall, 335 Main St., Wellfleet. For tickets ($10) and information, go to the ticket counter, call 508.349.1800, or visit wellfleetpreservationhall.org.