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Based on a True Story: Director Cambria Matlow discusses her new film, ‘Why Dig When You Can Pluck?’

The Portland-based filmmaker's first narrative feature screens Thursday, June 27, at the Tomorrow Theater.


Sol Marina Crespo as Spring in “Why Dig When You Can Pluck?”

It’s practically a truism that only the most fortunate people can be great artists and great parents. For most of human history, this has been demonstrated by men who’ve devoted all their energy and attention to cultivating their genius while leaving the distracting business of rearing children and maintaining a home to women. Rarely, if ever, do such men seem to have felt conflicted about this imbalance. In other words, it’s hard to imagine a father making a film like Why Dig When You Can Pluck?

In writer-director Cambria Matlow’s first narrative feature, a family of three takes a trip to the Oregon coast. Spring (Sol Marina Crespo) is a filmmaker using the trip as an occasion to brainstorm ideas for her next project. Her husband Clay (Patrick D. Green) and 9-year-old son Mateo (Mateo Taylor) have other ideas. Neither can see much beyond their own immediate gratification, and both expect Spring to put down her notebook and cater to their whims. In sharply focused black-and-white scenes, the resentments among the three swirl and bubble to legitimately cringe-inducing effect. (These guys are clueless, condescending, and unappreciative!) But this isn’t a simple takedown of male cluelessness—Spring has her own issues.

Mateo Taylor, Patrick D. Green, and Sol Marina Crespo in “Why Dig When You Can Pluck?”

Matlow drew upon the dysfunctional dynamic of her own family during a similar trip, making Why Dig a semi-autobiographical cri de cœur on behalf of every woman conflicted about how to follow her own creative path while continuing to inhabit the inherently patriarchal expectations of family life. It’s also a major step in the Portland-based filmmaker’s career, which has pinballed from Africa to Vermont to Oregon while maintaining an impressive thematic consistency and a high level of craft.

It was during a trek along the fabled Camino de Santiago years ago that Cambria Matlow realized she wanted to be a filmmaker, she relates. “I was into photography, and while I was on this 500-mile-long walk in Spain, I had a revelation that film was just pictures that moved. Instead of just taking a picture, wouldn’t it be cool if I could just track what my eyes were doing?”

During an unsatisfying stint studying film production at Burlington College in Vermont, Matlow was invited by a friend to travel to West Africa to shoot a documentary. “I left film school, raised money by writing letters, bought film equipment, gathered up two friends, and headed to West Africa for three months,” she recalls. The result of that adventure was the documentary Burning in the Sun (co-directed by Morgan Robinson), which chronicled the efforts of a young Malian man to start a business in his home country manufacturing recycled solar panels. “It’s a bit of an anomaly compared to my other work, but I’m really proud of it,” says Matlow. The film won several awards, including from the Santa Cruz Film Festival and the Indie Spirit Film Festival.

After tiring of the stress of living in New York City, Matlow moved to Oregon in 2010. Originally from Southern California, she had been living on the East Coast for over a decade. “I wanted more nature in my life, but I didn’t want to go back home, and Portland was a whole lot cheaper, too,” she says. “If Portlandia had come out before then, I might have been dissuaded. The hype might have been too much. But that’s not what happened!”

Ever since her time in Vermont, Matlow, an avid snowboarder, had envisioned a film that would explore that world. That idea became Woodsrider, a portrait of 19-year-old snowboarder Sadie Ford as she spends one winter camping alone with her dog outside Government Camp on the slopes of Mount Hood. Woodsrider is both an intimate portrait of a unique individual and a result of Matlow’s interest in reflecting on her own experiences through film. “Shortly after coming to Portland,” she remembers, “I got pregnant and had a kid. And that gave Woodsrider a melancholic tone that I don’t know if I realized at the time.”


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Writer-director Cambria Matlow

In contrast to Burning in the Sun’s talking-head, journalistic approach, Matlow’s goal in Woodsrider was to create a more cinematic feel while still allowing reality to craft the narrative. “I wasn’t chasing a story; [Ford] embodied the story that I wanted to tell. At first, she was supposed to be a doppelganger for an early me, but in reality she was totally unlike me and in many ways much, much cooler,” Matlow laughs. The film had its world premiere at the Eastern Oregon Film Festival three weeks before the election of Donald Trump, and screened at the now-defunct Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival the following month.

Woodsrider wouldn’t be the last time that Matlow productively mined her own life for cinematic inspiration. For a segment of the anthology Canopy Stories, in which a dozen Portland filmmakers ruminate on the importance and meaning of specific trees, Matlow made the half-hour No More Dope Parties. In it, she focused on a pair of sequoias in Glenwood Park near her home, and provided first-person narration that touches on some of the same topics as Why Dig When You Can Pluck. “It’s about being a mother and being an artist and the tension between the two,” Matlow says. “These trees were in the park that I had to walk through every day to take my kid to school.”

Why Dig When You Can Pluck “came out of the pandemic in a lot of ways,” says Matlow. “I decided it was time to do things that scared me, the things that I’d always been too chicken to do.” First up was a music video. Next was a narrative. “Truthfully, I was scared. I don’t want things to be bad, and so many things, from bad acting to bad writing, can ruin a movie.” Initially, the idea was to shoot something that would reflect her own experience as a parent, whether it was a murder mystery or a family drama, at a hot springs. “I seem to pick a new different natural environment for each of my films.”

Mateo Taylor in “Why Dig When You Can Pluck?”

In June of 2020, with her husband and son, Matlow took a family road trip, partly as a pandemic-era vacation and partly to location scout for her next project. After a week of an enjoyable tour of Eastern Oregon’s hot springs, nothing had happened to spur any writing. “It was great, but there was no drama!” says Matlow. After that the family camped on the beach in Brookings, and, as Matlow tells it, the nugget of Why Dig When You Can Pluck? was born in that moment. “It was literally something my husband said to me when we were sitting on the beach, and I just couldn’t believe he had said that in that context.” (Once you see the film you’ll understand what she means.) “But I wrote down that sentence. And I eventually realized this was the script being born.”

Once that script was finished in 2021, Matlow faced the challenge of casting roles that were based on her family members. She didn’t want actors who would simply imitate her and her husband, so she wrote up very detailed character descriptions. She worked with Rachel Mossey of Weeble Mountain Casting and cast a nationwide net for a lead actor. (For budgetary reasons, casting for the husband and son was restricted to local actors.) “Sol made me cry during her audition,” says Matlow. “Rachel had given me advice to choose the best actor, not necessarily whoever seemed the most like the part. And the things that Sol’s face did, she just had a gravitas to her.”

Black-and-white cinematography, by Ben Bach (who happens to be Matlow’s husband), gives the film a hint of mythos. On that fateful summer road trip, Matlow was taking a lot of black-and-white photos. “Light and shadows and contrast were really doing it for me visually. And for story reasons I really wanted to emphasize the heat,” says Matlow. “When the world is reduced to black and white, and you’re not distracted by the color of the world, you can really focus on the characters and the microdynamics between them.”

I referred to Why Dig When You Can Pluck? as Matlow’s first narrative feature, but in fact its running time is 51 minutes, leaving it shorter than a traditional feature but much more expansive than a typical short film. On the film festival circuit, most short films are 20 minutes or fewer, while features are almost always over 70 minutes, leaving the film potentially in a programming twilight zone.


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But, says, Matlow, this is how long the film needed to be to say what it says. It was initially going to be a short, with a 27-page script going in. But during the editing process, she ended up with a 63-minute version. But that version was “bloated,” including an entire ending that was cut. “Some people suggested cutting it way down, but it wouldn’t be the film that it is if I’d done that. I knew I was taking a risk with this length, but I got a piece of advice from a well-known producer in town. They asked if I owed anyone money, and I said no. So he said, ‘Just do what you want. This may be the last time you’ll be able to do that.’”

Besides, Matlow isn’t one to blindly conform to arbitrary standards. “The fact that there are these recommended time limits really irks me, because it’s very much about programming and how many tickets can we sell. So I’m a rebel in that way. Normalizing making a film the way it needs to be made would be good.” Despite the fact that, with a running time twenty minutes longer, the movie would have different opportunities in the festival and distribution worlds, it’s also true that in a streaming era, those traditional standards and definitions increasingly cease to apply.

It’s become cliché to quote Roger Ebert’s statement that cinema is a machine for empathy, but Matlow’s work emphasizes the truth of that sentiment. “I think in the wake of everything going on with the pandemic, it felt really important to tell my own truth.,” she says. “It was a time where so many people felt alone, and it felt really important to be able to speak my experience out into the world. Because I know doing that can make people feel less alone. And it made me feel less alone, just by speaking these things that I couldn’t say out loud.”

(Why Dig When You Can Pluck? screens on Thursday, June 27, at the Tomorrow Theater. The screening will be preceded by Lindsay Baltus’ live storytelling piece Pregnant in the Archives and Tacoma-based director Zack Weintraub’s short film Rad Dad. Following the screening, Matlow will participate in a Q&A moderated by Portland producer Jessica Daugherty [Pour the Water as I Leave]).

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Nine Muses Law and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.


One Response

  1. “For budgetary reasons, casting for the husband and son was restricted to local actors.” What a way to disrespect local talent.

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