With his new movie Memphis, opening Friday, Tim Sutton, who lives in Park Slope, confirms his status as a major new American indie filmmaker.
The film retains the engrossingly elliptical storytelling rhythms of Sutton’s 2012 debut, Pavilion, the lightly connected narrative of which tagged along with a few different adolescent boys as they spent their summer vacation in upstate NY and Arizona. In Memphis, soul singer Willis Earl Beal plays a same-named character, undergoing a creative and spiritual crisis. A self-proclaimed “wizard,” a mystic who can conjure worlds from his mind—that is, an artist—Willis wanders through city streets and woods, into and out of churches; Sutton’s narrative attention strays as well, DP Chris Dapkins’s camera gazing up at the sky through the leaves of trees, or spending a little time with Willis’s friends and possible family members (the relationships are never quite clear, but a boy on a bicycle, who may be his son, is at the very least a parallel story of spiritual open-endedness rendered with laid-back, elliptical cinematic poetry). Beal’s own music is on the soundtrack, organ lines and other stray instrumental tracks trying to cohere into a melody, just as the film’s editing rhythms never quite cohere into a narrative, and Willis never quite resolves his wizardry into art. To build on an observation from Ben Mercer’s review in The L, it’s impossible to tell, by the end of the film, whether we’ve just watch Willis lose himself, or find himself.
Sutton answered some questions via e-mail over Labor Day weekend.
Thinking about Memphis in relation to Pavilion, I felt that the earlier film had a drifting, open-ended aesthetic appropriate to its adolescent, transitional subjects; whereas this one has a seeking, contemplative feel matching a story of spiritual and artistic restlessness. But I also suspect I’m just using different words to describe the same things: reflectively paced, elliptical scenes; ambiguous relationships; ambient drama. Is there an aesthetic difference (or maturation, on your part, as a filmmaker?), that you’re conscious of between the two films, or am I working backwards from content, from themes and scene textures, to describe a consistent form?
It’s a really insightful question and one I think on a lot. The two films are absolutely related—from the broadstrokes of cinematic form, non-actors, and a lack of interest in a more traditional narrative right down to the very literal fact that I consider the first shot of Memphis (the kid in his own world, parked on his bike) to be a continuation of Pavilion. That the souls of both films are really one. Both films are meant to be experiences that conjure up more of a state of grace to the viewer (or sense of boredom, to some) rather than just the act of watching a movie. Deliberate differences were a few: As you point out, working with Willis is not at all the same as working with more anonymous teenagers. He has a tremendous will and endless well of creativity that, at many points, led the storytelling. This was always by design as I never would have asked him to get involved and then fed him lines or structured the process in a way that stilted his ability to be himself or to achieve a sense of naturalism. At the same time, this story has an arc—and did in the original story—and a path—albeit crooked and overgrown—and it was my job to make our paths meet and get really as deep, as contemplative, and as beautiful as possible. It was the same with Pavilion but I consider that film to be a ball of yarn that you roll out on a bare floor, you know? It is a pure form of minimalism. Memphis is a river—the currents change constantly.
In terms of your method, of nonprofessional actors improvising directly from a detailed “scriptment,” how was the production process different this time around? Especially as you’re working with a cast of adults this time, including at least one established artist in his own right?
The process was very similar—incredibly similar—with the two films. The main difference was that with Pavilion I had zero support and zero safety net. Nothing. I drove the van, I had to make decisions like what we would have for lunch while framing shots with Chris. At the same time, I could do anything. The story could go anywhere at any time, I just knew I had five shoot days in upstate New York and five in Arizona. We went out to Arizona without a cast. It was purely jumping into the ether. With Memphis, I had incredible support and ample prep time. The project was financed by the Venice Beinnale—with more than twice the budget as Pavilion—and my producer John Baker was integral to getting the project into a space where I could work purely creatively. We had a great street casting team, a really talented production designer in Bart Mangrum, etc. As far as working with the nonactors—it was similar to Pavilion. I have a plan for the scene, I set the stage, Chris and I create a frame, I give the characters an understanding of where they are, what the vibe is, and then let them exist in the shot as people, not “talent.” I’ll point out certain ideas as we continue or do a different take or change the angle, but my goal in these films is to find moments of natural meaning, beauty, or understanding—not to fill in blanks—and a way to do that is to start from a very clear point and then let is go forward without controlling it, letting collaborators gain some control. With Willis, no different. Casting matters, and how you treat people in front of and behind the camera matters just as much.
Continuing on the process, I’m curious about nailing some the pragmatic considerations that go into making a film you’ve described as being like “vapor.” Like, for instance, the scene where Willis wakes up in a strange house, then takes the broom outside to fence with it: what did the script actually say? How did you and Willis talk about what behavior should happen? What else did you attempt in that scene that didn’t make it in?
The broom was not in the script. That was all Willis in the moment. But when you make a film like this then the real pleasure—the glory, in a way—in all of it is when you have created a space for anything to happen and to then let them bloom, and maybe even let them rot. That’s the real beauty of cinema, to me at least. So, the arc was deteriorating—narrativewise—as in, Willis was losing control, getting lost, the feel getting darker, the whole thing was supposed to become unhinged. With Willis, and within this kind of filmmaking, that sense had to be authentic. Willis was getting deep enough into it all that he at times forgot we were making a film. He was in that room and talking to one of the “squatters” and I said something and he became furious because he thought the conversation he was having was real. A bit later he picked up the broom. He took it outside and we caught him doing these military-like exercises. I then said that he was going to walk to town with the broom. That he was a menace with a broom. Because that’s what he was becoming. So that feeling of deterioration and menace was in the script, but the vehicle that turns it into something intense was that broom.
And, in the editing room, when you’re ordering scenes, picking one shot of a kid coasting on his bike instead of another, making a sound bridge here, et cetera… I know that the process (much like Willis’s, as we see in the film) is intuitive, and you’ve used jazz as a metaphor for the kind of feel-based improvisation, but what are the actual words that you and your editor use to discuss the desired or captured effect of your choices?
Seth Bomse [the editor] and I have worked out a kind of dialogue that leans toward creating the moment—realizing what makes that moment special—be it how a shot develops, or a piece of dialogue or a sound— and then linking these moments together in a way that the viewer never questions the film’s world—its beauty and authenticity. We work very hard making sure that characters’ “arcs” work toward the emotional story but the real principal is create the world, and the world becomes the story.
Also in terms of editing, what is the relationship of the finished film to the “scriptment”? How much do story elements enlarge, diminish? Does the structure change much?
It’s almost all in there, just in a different language. With this kind of filmmaking I find the idea of “bringing a script to life” quite false and way easier to mess up the final product. Writing and filmmaking are two entirely different skills, arts, languages. The scriptment is there to inform collaborators on the ideas and style and ethereal substance of what you want the film to be. It’s to get people to feel what you feel. But the film has to be made in production. It has to be conjured by people who feel that what they are doing, together and in a certain place, means something. That it can live.
When you’re casting, how do you actually go about “finding” or “discovering” the people who you’ll eventually give the space to create moments within the film? Give me an example of how you met someone in the film, and what you saw in him or her…
It’s really just instinctual and harder to explain. The main boy, Devonte, we found at a roller skating rink. During his audition (which was not a dramatic audition), his attention span just wandered away after a bit and he was no longer there, he was so unself-conscious that he could have cared less—THAT fascinates me and, even though that makes the process of working with him extremely difficult and without much of a road map, that is what makes him so special to watch. He’s a phantom.
Are there works of literature you feel the film is in dialogue with? I thought about Emerson and the other Transcendentalists, given Willis’s frustrations with denominational services, and his spiritual forays into nature… Or is there another tradition of American mysticism you’re thinking of?
I didn’t set out to connect it that specifically to the Transcendentalists but I am honored by any comparison. I’m kind of a nature and spirit worshipper and where Willis ends up is definitely his own Walden. It was also just tapping into the idea that there are many with a third eye and that third eye sees a different path toward a sense of salvation. When I sat down to write the story the only music that somehow allowed me “in” was Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece, on repeat. It just had such a lovely drift through a shadowy Eden that it swept out my head.
You studied ethnomusicology, I know. What aspects of your reading or training there have been influential or relevant to your approach to your sort of hybrid-fictional style of representation on film?
I kind of buckled under the fact that ethnomusicology creates stories or descriptions from the gathering of tons of data. I liked what Alan Lomax did, which was digging up a living past and letting the music and musicians and front porches speak for themselves. I just felt most natural and passionate when I was mixing the ideas of music and musicians’ ideas and process with my imagination.
Has the film gotten laughs? How conscious were you and Willis that certain scenes (perhaps his early self-description as a “wizard,” which comes before we have much grounding in the film’s mysticism) might be funny?
That opening wizard bit gets a big laugh every time—which I love. But I love even more the feeling that, three fourths of the way through the film, everyone who is still into it is facing the mounting argument that Willis actually IS a wizard.