Although Matthew Puccini only graduated from NYU in 2015, his short film “The Mess He Made” has already made its way through the festival circuit and premiered at the South by Southwest film festival, or SXSW, in 2017. The short is an intense 10-minute portrait of a man anxiously waiting for the results of a rapid HIV test — a story that has often been depicted on screen, but rarely with the subtlety and poise of Puccini’s film. Despite its short runtime, much is revealed through the film’s intricacy, finesse and captivating writing. Tisch alum Max Jenkins’ breathtaking performance creates extremely evocative footage. WSN sat down with Puccini to discuss “The Mess He Made” and his blossoming career in the industry.
Washington Square News: What was your reaction to the success of “The Mess He Made”?
Matthew Puccini: The success totally surpassed our wildest expectations of what it would be. “The Mess He Made” featured current NYU students and alumni. It was made for very little money, and those festivals are about the luck of the draw that your film is seen by someone who responds to it and it fits into what they’re looking for that year. It was just the perfect storm in terms of making something that not only turned out well but also appealed to the zeitgeist at the moment that it was circulating.
WSN: I want to ask about Jenkins and casting because he did such an incredible job; how did he end up getting attached to the project?
MP: I was working on a TV show and became friends with the casting associate on the show. [The casting associate] sent me a list of queer actors who are based in the city. [Jenkins’] name was starred because the two were friends, and she said if you want you could send him the script directly. I heard from him the next day, so we were very lucky to have that direct connection and then working with him was a total joy. He is a very special actor because there is no ego, even though he’s had a lot of success at a young age. We were able to offer him a role that was very different from what he was doing at the time. He was used to playing very comedic and in some ways flamboyant gay roles, so to offer him something that was dramatic and subtle really appealed to him. It also appealed to a lot of people who got to see him at SXSW because they got to see his incredible range. If I had any advice to a filmmaker who was trying to cast someone better known, it would be to offer him or her a role they don’t normally get to do.
WSN: One aspect of the movie that’s really incredible is the middle part when Jenkins’ character goes to the gas station and the grocery store. How did you develop that part of the story?
MP: The whole core of the film was inspired by personal experience. I had an HIV scare last summer and was immediately interested in figuring out how to translate that into a film. In terms of those sequences, it came from a place of what is realistic for someone to do in those 15 to 20 minutes and how can we give you insight into this character’s life outside of this moment in a way that doesn’t feel too contrived. It was always important to me that [Jenkins’] character had a family — to have the stakes raised in a certain way by knowing that he had this life he was trying to protect.
WSN: How did you decide on that location of the strip mall?
MP: I’ve seen a lot of medical centers that are attached to strip malls. I loved the idea that in leaving the clinic, there would be other places for him to go. Those places also have that beaten down, bleak, middle America feeling. We made the film for very little money and didn’t have the budget for location scouting. My producer and I were dragging ourselves around the tri-state area on Google maps and looking for HIV clinics that also had the other stores. We ended up with one in Scranton, Pennsylvania and got really lucky because when we called the clinic, we found out it was run by a lesbian couple who started the clinic to provide services to the LGBT community, so they were supportive and open to filmmaking.
WSN: You had such an incredible last frame in the short with that purple wall background — were the colors in the film on purpose or was that just a happy accident?
MP: We had some ideas of what we wanted the palette to be. We wanted it to be very blue when he was outside and sterile inside and have that pop of color at the end with that wall. We didn’t know that wall was going to be there. It was a happy accident that we ended up with something that dynamic as a final frame. That purple wall has become very much a part of the film. It’s our poster and our main still.
WSN: Do you have any immediate projects in the works after “The Mess He Made”?
MP: There’s a myth that if you’re in a big festival like SXSW, your life changes overnight. It definitely gave me validation that I should be doing this. I’ll do another short film, probably with Jenkins again this fall and I’m also in the very early stages of a feature. Otherwise, I want to keep making work that portrays the queer community in ways that are subtle and complicated and don’t rely on melodrama to engage the audience. I’m hoping that’ll be my small contribution to the world.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Oct. 23 print edition. Email Sophie Bennett at [email protected]