I first saw Tim Sutton’s directorial debut Pavilion this past June on a languid summer’s night. It was that moment just before the dire heat of summer sinks its teeth into you and the air feels like electric sugar. As I sat and watched the film in my family’s backyard on my laptop, everything around me took on a quiet sense of wonder. It was an ineffable moment, processed much better emotionally than articulated, but a rare sense of calm fell over me, stirring up nostalgia for the ennui of youth before the cumbersome burdens of adulthood. And that’s where Sutton’s Pavilion lives, inside those brief moments of wonder and stillness that make adolescence magical.
In the same vein as Gus van Sant’s Elephant or Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, Pavilion plays out almost silently as it tells the story of Max, who leaves his lakeside town to live with his father in suburban Arizona. Sutton puts the camera on the pulse of a feeling, creating something hypnotic, exposing the mystical in the mundane aspects of teenage life. There’s a gentle grace that pervades the film, juxtaposed by the raw and natural performances of its central characters. You allow the film to wash over you like a hazy dream that’s so subtle you might not even be cognizant to its effect until the credits roll and you’re jolted back to reality.
And after running the festival circuit at home and overseas, Pavilion has finally landed in New York for its theatrical debut. The film premieres tomorrow night at IFC Center and is certainly not to be missed. Back in the summer I chatted with Sutton about to see what inspired this story, capturing the essence of youth, and weaving his way through the festival circuit.
How did you come up with the concept for this film? Was there something that sparked the idea?
Years ago, a kid I knew mysteriously drowned in a lake in my hometown in Upstate New York. It was a brutal death in this serene and sheltered space, and it ripped a hole in the town for years. While Pavilion is not about this kid, his story and his absence was just lodged inside of me, part of my memory and, for lack of a better word, soul. Years later, when I wanted to make a film about kids, I thought of trying to tell a fictionalized version of his story, but what connected me to the actual filmmaking was imagining the kid’s friends just going about their lives without him—wandering through a summer with an infinite sense of time and space. The film I realized I wanted to make was simply about youth: the unexplainable mystery of the lives of youth in an ethereal landscape.
Where did you get the funding to make the film?
The shooting budget was provided by two friends outside of the film business, and I put in what I could. The end of post-production was funded by our Kickstarter campaign. It was and is a tiny, tiny amount of money.
Visually, the film was stunning. Did you want the landscape and the cinematography to take on the largest role?
First I have to say that Chris Dapkins is one of the most unique cinematographers out there right now, and the film would not have worked without him. At their most lovely form, films are just moving images connected together, so creating something quiet and beautiful was the story I pitched to him more than anything else. As a filmmaker working at Getty Images—they sell images, not sound—all of my shoots for three years were essentially silent short films. I used this time to develop a shorthand on how to cover scenes in an observational way that captured a sense of reality from a very artful and mannered eye. Very little said in the film matters as much as the colors and frame and geography of the lakes, trees, desert, sprawl, and the faces and bodies of our kids.
You managed to capture a very specific feeling of youth that’s at once ephemeral while also really lasting. When you see it, you can still feel it. Is that something you were going for?
I know just enough about kids to understand that they are a total mystery—in many ways unknowable—and yet everyone, at one point in their life, was a kid. It is a universally shared experience. This paradox fascinates me. I didn’t want to tell my own story of being a kid as that would have been simple nostalgia, so a key was to visually describe what youthlooks like—what they do, where they go—rather than trying to figure out what they think or writing lots of dialogue and forcing too much of a recognizable plot that would have felt unreal. While every scene in Pavilion is completely by design, it works because the story feels grown rather than constructed. I also think that through camera and blocking and the edit, a naturally slowing down of time is what really links the audience to the film and its characters. You can show a kid climbing a tree for a few seconds and cut to another shot and its one thing. But if you watch the kid in that tree and stay with him up there, let him be, let the breeze come in and leave, in essence sit in the tree with him, you begin tofeel the film rather than simply watch it. That was the goal, at least.
In line with that, you focus on a lot of tactile elements like the sounds of the bike wheels or the dripping of water. Was sound a huge part of it for you?
I wanted the sound of the upstate New York part of the film to have a different tone than Arizona. Crickets dripping down from the trees and lake water rippling transformed into the buzz of bike spokes and the electricity of street lamps at night. My editor Seth Bomse is really to thank for the film’s creative nuance of wild sounds, and then Tom Paul of Gigantic Post then came in and deepened the textures and brought even more life to the soundscape.
How did you go about scoring the film? The music worked in a way that really captured the essence of the images.
It’s so awesome you dig the score; it is Pavilion‘s pulse. Sam Prekop is an artist I’ve admired for years, and I’ve also been lucky enough to collaborate with on videos for The Sea and Cake. I knew a long time ago that I was going to get Sam to score the film, and the images and ideas for the film’s look and feel developed out of his music. The film did not need an overpowering score or a giant sense of drama; it needed something really delicate and yet something that reached into the sublime. I flew to Chicago, rented a hotel room, and he and I watched the film together; he really connected to it. From there, he would send tracks and I would give feedback and, at a certain point, I felt really strongly that a theme had developed and, to me, this theme raises the emotional level of the film in a stunning way. Having his voice enter the film when it does always makes me lean back into a deeper state of wonder. That voice is so incredible.
Where did you find the actors for the film?
I had worked with Max on some short projects and pretty much realized right away that he was a natural and would be the focal point of the film. The other kids were found by chance or were hanging around, and so we cast them. Max’s dad is really Max’s dad. My old babysitter plays a part—that kind of thing. Arizona was quite a risk because we went out there just with Max and his dad (who didn’t know he was going to be in the film, he just thought he was a chaperone) and we went looking for “friends” for Max. If we had found another group of kids, it would have been a different story entirely. But we found Cody, another natural, and we just entered into his world.
Everything was shot so well and sort of perfectly constructed visually, but the dialogue was natural and raw. That juxtaposition was great. Did you write a complete script for them, or was it a lot of improvisation?
I wrote a story, which I showed Chris just so he knew what kind of film I wanted to make, but we never referred to it on set. I offered the story to the kids, but they frankly weren’t interested. They wanted to make a movie and didn’t necessarily want to read the story, which was better in the long run, as the story was able to come out day-to-day. Each evening we would sit around and I would bounce ideas off of crew and take their insights, and then I would organize the next day by outline, letting the time of day and quality of light dictate which scenes came when. Some storylines stuck and some I let fade away, giving the film this natural progression and sense of amble. There are definitely key pieces of dialogue that I fed the kids during certain moments of impact, but much of the talk is them, as it should be.
As an independent filmmaker, what were your expectations going into making the film?
That is such a great question because it could have gone so differently. I just I knew I really had to make this film kind of now or never. At the same time, I felt pretty confident within the restrictions (ten shooting days, non-actors, tiny crew, micro budget) that I could inspire the people working with me to go all the way and make something artistic and unique, something really worth the time and effort. I did not necessarily think I would be premiering it at SXSW and BAM CinemaFEST and having people ask me what my next film is going to be. The most important result is that the process of making this film has connected me to a group of artists and collaborators whom I believe in and who, in return, believe in me, and that quite literally lights up my life.
PAVILION trailer from v r on Vimeo.
Pavilion opens at IFC Center this Friday (3/1).