“A lot of the film is about the artistic process, but it’s really about someone searching for the meaning of life and trying to save his soul,” said filmmaker Tim Sutton of his spiritual and abstract second feature Memphis, premiering at BAMcinemaFest this Sunday. As the follow-up to Pavilion, his dreamy 2012 directorial debut, Memphis once again showcases Sutton’s affinity for capturing the ineffable beauty and hypnotic power of amalgamating haunting imagery with emotionally potent sound. Rife with raw humanity, rich with folklore, and steeped in mythical imagery that peers deep into the soul, the film was developed through the Venice Biennale Cinema College, but has evolved with each step of production.
Bringing to life an incredible depiction of the blues that blurs the lines of reality, we’re presented with a viscerally moving portrait of an artist, existing in a very specific world told through the depths of its leading character. Starring singer and poet Willis Earl Beal (who also wrote and recorded the soundtrack) in his film debut, the cast is comprised of non-actors plucked from the streets of Memphis to tell the story of a singer drifting through the city, possessing an incredible ‘God-given talent’ and connection with nature that exposes the mysticism inherent in everyday existence. Told in fragments and shot with lavish beauty and color that reflect the strong emotional hues of its setting (shot by cinematographer Chris Dapkins), Memphis further establishes Sutton as one of the most interesting voices working in American independent cinema.
In anticipation of the film’s screening this weekend, I sat down with Sutton to chat about his connection with Willis, melding artifice and reality, and the exploration of spirituality. And as a bonus, Sutton also shared a look inside his sketches and storyboards for the film, which you can see for yourself below.
Being so deeply enriched by its character and sense of place, did you conceive of the idea for Memphis before meeting Willis and how much of your interaction with him informed the spirit of the film?
I met Willis after I had written the piece, so I had a short story or a treatment about a character who is a singer, who is both down on his luck but also at the height of his fame and talent and sort of has this third eye. But he wants to not sing and not be with people and not fulfill this more textbook vision that people have for him, and he wants to disappear into a different dimension. So I wrote that with the idea of folklore. There’s a children’s book writer named Ezra Jack Keats who did a book about the legend of John Henry that was this weird, almost mystical, version of him, the guy that helped build the railroads. So I kind of matched that with this idea of these old soul singers that have these incredible voices, the voice of God, but end up in unmarked graves somewhere. When we started casting, I wanted to work with a singer, not an actor. I met with some actors that were pretty well known and it seemed fake, and everybody would just be looking at them as an actor, and then I met Willis. My producer, John Baker, knew about him. He was opening for Cat Power and I’m a big fan of her, so I saw a little clip of him on Pitchfork and he was singing on his grandmother’s back porch in Chicago. It’s the most incredible footage you’ve ever seen and his voice is so incredible, and in between the verses his eyes are closed and he’s sort of exhausted and staring through his eyelids, you know what I mean? I was mesmerized. So I met him, he had just moved to New York at that point, and so he and I met and then I sent him the story, and he really, really connected with it. From then on it was unspoken that he was going to do the film but we weren’t really going to rehearse the story. We met eight or nine times in New York and we would go to bars and we went upstate once and we would go on walks and get on the bus and talk about stuff. Willis really just has a third eye, and just being around the bar and listening to him talk for four hours at a time really informed the character more than anything I had ever written.
From developing the script in Venice, to meeting Willis and shooting the film to structuring it in post-production, it feels as though the film was born many times for you and changed with every step. What was your approach going into a project that could be so malleable?
The approach to the story was always, in writing it and sending it to John Baker or to other collaborators, I really kept insisting that everyone know it was going to change drastically and that it was just the idea of telling this kind of story. Willis really understood the character and it was very clear that I would never give him any lines to speak, I would name him Willis Earle Beale and this not character’s name that I had written. Asking Willis to play a role would not only be contrary to my style and what I was trying to do, but it wouldn’t be very good. The idea that Willis plays a version of himself all of a sudden became the movie. What happened down there is still in the story, but if you went back and read the story now, line for line it’s there, just in a new language. So every part of the project was catered to the people we met, and that had not only to do with Willis but it has to do with the actors that we got down there. My DP Chris and I, knowing that every day we’d have a set plan and storyboards that we’ve constructed from scratch every day, we’d go and do the scenes as planned, and every night we’d talk to the crew and go in different directions and then I’d go out and write a new outline and new storyboards and start the next day, fresh. So people like to say that the film is completely improvisational, but it’s kind of a living process. It’s born every day and it’s not like we’re going all over town trying to come up with ideas, we very much have a plan, it could just go either way because we’re moving and structuring the whole feel that it could go in totally different directions. We did know that if one day Willis woke up and ditched us and went to New Orleans, I always said I would make the movie about the kid. So I always knew that whatever film I was presenting would be whatever film presented itself.
Although there was a structure and plan while you were shooting, did Memphis and Pavilion alike really come together for you in the editing room?
With Pavilion as well there is a real arc to the film. So with this, there’s a very specific structure that starts in the church and with Willis deciding he doesn’t want to record. He eventually decides he wants to go from one house to another, one couch to another, and then decides to go to the woods. It’s really up to me and Seth, my editor, to make sure that it’s organic. So there’s a lot that I put in that Seth helped me wean out of the way. Originally I had five or six kids and I just had them hang around, and we whittled it down to the one that made the most sense. At first I was like, no I love all these kids and we are going to keep them, but it wasn’t streamlined and really take you away from what Willis is doing, so we decided to just bring it back to the one kid with bits and pieces of other kids to streamline the story – Willis on his way down through the depths.
What I enjoy so much about your films is how you’re able to seamlessly blur the lines between reality and fiction, giving artifice to the real world and bringing realism into constructed film sets.
It starts out in a pragmatic way, which is that it’s really impossible to make a low-budget movie that is all artifice. It takes a really magical director or script to do that. But I think there are two ways of making low budgets, I mean there are lots of ways, but there are two sort of forms. You can be like The Celebration, where you have a great script and a great cast and there’s one event, and then there are films that just build worlds and where there’s a line blurred between what’s real and what’s imagined—like Gummo and George Washington, and Ballast, those films are totally influential. But with a low budget and real people, I find it really, really interesting to be on this unbalanced ground between what’s them and what’s directing. I had no interest in making a music documentary or even a movie about a musician, I wanted to make a movie about a searcher. A lot of the film is about the artistic process, but it’s really about someone searching for the meaning of life and trying to save his soul. I don’t want to be totally cliché about it, but when you meet a person like Willis, I want it to be Willis. He’s a fascinating person and he really is trying to find something else. But these people in Memphis, I mean, they’re myths, man. The guy that drives him around, he has more mysterious wisdom than any five people I’ve known in my entire life. I can put them in front of a car that’s not theirs and I know that I can get that car to translate as theirs, but what they do in the frame is very much up to them. So I just help these people become mythic versions of themselves, like the woman, Constance, or the kids. To me it’s like, if I am able to creatively envision these people in a certain light and I give them freedom in the frame, they come across as these heightened characters. If I had given people scripts, both movies would suck and you wouldn’t have seen them. I think these two films transcend their budgets and their genre because we don’t have anyone forcing a certain story or point of view.
How did you go about immersing yourself in the community you were shooting in, and in what way did you go about finding the people that would populate the film and bring it to life?
I always knew that if we couldn’t get the money, if we went down with just Willis, a few crew members, and a Cadillac it would make for a very, very interesting movie, which would be even less streamlined than it is now. I knew I wanted to shoot in Memphis, I had been there a few times and had really, really radical experiences there—one was as a really young 20 year old and one when I was older and went down there with Chris to do a different kind of film job. Then we came up with this story and we knew we had to go down to Memphis, and the thing about people in Memphis is they’re all very excited to get their actors and crew members some work. What we were really trying to avoid was crew members and actors, so we sent down this street caster who did some of the casting for Beasts of The Southern Wild and she went down there with her boyfriend at the time for like three weeks and went to roller rinks and bars and malls and high school dance contests. We held an open call and a bunch of people who are in the film come from finding them in their homes and in the street. We knew if we had some kids and we had a girl and someone to drive around with Willis we could make something interesting happen. If you don’t care about dialogue in the way I don’t really care about dialogue, you can make something really cool and creative and strange and mystical. I knew that there were really a lot of amazing people in Memphis, and I knew that if you meet a guy working at a local lunch place who spent eight years in prison and has literally the face of a Roman statue and no one has ever asked him to do anything besides sit on a street corner, you’re the face, you’re gonna carry Willis’s soul to the end, and he’s deep enough to understand that.
There’s a very strong spiritual presence that runs throughout—was that something you knew you were looking to capture or an aspect you stumbled upon while actually spending time down there?
Well, I didn’t think I was going to make a Christian movie, but then it became this sort of Christian movie—the good parts of Christianity. I’m not religious, but I’m a super spiritual person, and when Willis talks about being a wizard, I certainly understand and agree with what he’s saying. If you go to Memphis and make a movie that doesn’t include the church, you’re not really telling the story of Memphis. There’s a church on every corner, and the history of black music is also the history of the black church. So for authenticity’s sake, but also to guide the story in terms of nature and animism, and worship that’s all in the script, but it’s kind of both how Willis and I live. I’m not looking around for magic and stuff, but in nature there’s an unknown power that is on this other side of a curtain that we can’t see, and Willis has the same thing. But you need to make it accessible to people that maybe don’t feel that way and are unsure as to how to express it, so when you talk about magic to the production designer, or with Chris it’s really about getting people to believe in stuff, in an exploration of spirituality, you have no idea where it can go. You have to get people just as much into the strange exploration and mysticism as you are, and I got lucky with that because I think everyone got that.
There’s a very strong visual language and style to your work that brings so much richness to the films. Can you tell me about how you and your DP, Chris, collaborate?
Well, a lot of our relationship was really solidified with Pavilion, where there are moments storyboarded and guided by me, and then he makes it his own, or he follows through with my vision completely. Then there are times when I’m in an entirely different van and I trust him completely. With Memphis there’s more of that direction of having a plan and storyboards and it’s about focus and look. I let Chris take control over different scenarios because he also had a very strong relationship with Willis, and the more I set something up and then walked away, the more it became really Chris’s eye, and Chris has such a tremendous eye for color and for nature and for peoples’ movements. So we didn’t watch anything, and we both love William Eggleston, so to have a color rich thing was a little bit of him, but we both love color, trees, and long tracking shots where you’re just hanging out. So there’s some conversation, but our main rehearsal for Memphis was Pavilion, and we hadn’t been on a set together since Pavilion.
How has it been bringing the film around to different cities and festivals and seeing how it plays to those audiences? Pavilion had its New York premiere at BAMcinemaFest back in 2012, so how does it feel to be back here?
Venice was really treacherous because it’s not like they put the film in competition or highlighted it, and it was also in a pretty rough cut form. There was no Q and A or introduction; it was a really isolating experience. Sundance has incredibly passionate audiences; I had six screenings and each one was sold out, which is so rare. I had really good Q and A’s. But the thing about Memphis, which I learned from Pavilion, is that my films are not for everybody. With Pavilion I said that but I didn’t believe it, but with Memphis I’m much more prepared for a specific kind of reaction. Some people just really love it and feel like they’ve been on a journey and others feel like it goes nowhere and is obnoxious. In London people responded with lots of passion and empathy. For Pavilion to be at BAM, that was such a tremendous experience for me, not just because that’s where I live, but because that was an audience ready to see something in a new way. If people are into it and open minded, they can get something bigger than a movie about it, and a New York audience is one as good as you can hope for.
Sutton’s notebooks while shooting Memphis: