Director Tim Sutton’s gorgeous first film, Pavillon, drew viewers deep into its dreamscape of a world. His second film, Memphis, is likely to do the same. Musician Willis Earl Beal appears in his film debut at the head of the cast, offering a trancelike and soulful performance so natural it causes the audience to question the supposed fictional genre in which the film resides. Sutton’s almost plot-less, philosophically driven narrative creates a film that tiptoes on the edge of reality — are we watching something real? Or is this just a film?
Shooting in a way that is almost documentary-style, Sutton masterfully walks that tightrope existing somewhere between reality, magic and the depths of our dreams, our souls and our cinematic expectations.
My initial point of interest after seeing the trailer was the cinematography.
Well, Chris Dapkins… I’ve made two films with him and he’s very interesting. He’s a bit of a professional hermit.
Maybe that’s a good thing.
Yeah. Well, the thing is, Chris turns down a lot of work and I think essentially is more interested in verite work; like a documentary filmmaker. And he and I just have a good relationship. We did a lot of short projects that had no destination. So we really got this ability to work together, trust each other… Some shots I would absolutely micro-manage and with other shots, I’d be in a van somewhere else and he’d be doing it. So there was this great trust and a similar kind of aesthetic. But I do think he’s probably the best cinematographer in America. I really do. And he either turns down work or he’s just under the radar.
How did your relationship with him begin? How did you recognize the aesthetic similarity between the two of you?
Well, I was an art director at Getty images for four years and I was in the footage department. I basically had a small budget — but I had a budget — and I had a subject, but I had no sound. So I met Chris on someone else’s shoot and immediately — I’m from upstate New York, he’s from upstate New York, different places — but we just had a similar vibe. He’s very strangely quiet person; I’m a little bit more talkative. We just starting liking being around each other so I hired him to be the DP on four or five shoots where we had a little story to tell. It was silent and it was just he and I and maybe an assistant. So we got this language together of really kind of ethereal, elliptical, narrative storytelling that felt like it could all be documentary. And so when I wanted to make a film, we started talking; I knew that I wanted to make a film about youth and I knew that the story was nothing, the story had nothing to do with anything. It was just a kid who lives in one part of the country and all of a sudden he’s living in another part of the country.
I’m much more of a filmmaker that asks people what they think, that allows actors to inhabit the space in a way that they want to and in the same way; I’m open to collaborating with people who have ideas. Not, “Do this, do this, do this.” When I was 26, I was probably, “Do this, do that, do this,” and I wasn’t accepting of other people’s ideas. Now I’m a little bit older and I’m more looking to empower other people’s talents and Chris as a cinematographer just has an unbelievable sense of light and texture.
The lighting — specifically — is just so beautiful.
Well, the lighting, yeah. But also there will be moments where all of a sudden he’ll know where to go thirty seconds before it happens. And then it happens. He has a cinema sense and there are times where I get his attention and he goes with me. Sometimes he’s a solo dancer and sometimes we’re doing this ballet dance together, you know. But working with him, that’s filmmaking to me. Bresson said that his filmmaking was cinematography. And I truly believe that. I love the idea of sound and sound editing and I believe that makes a big difference in my filmmaking but essentially filmmaking is image built upon image built upon image with not a lot of explanation. But by the time you get done, you’ve been through something.
Why do you think you go in the direction of documentary-style filmmaking with your work?
I don’t consider myself necessarily a great director of actors but I do know how to make people feel comfortable in the frame. And I’m a fictional storyteller; all the movies are fiction. But I like the idea that, within that fiction, there is this kind of sense that the ground is not firm. Or, the idea that things could happen at any minute that I don’t have control over or that the audience doesn’t have control over. I like documentary. I mean, I like verite documentary; I don’t like the other stuff. But for me it was this idea that it could go back and forth between moments from, “Oh, this is such a beautiful construction” to “Oh my god, this is really happening; what’s going on?” That, to me, is really interesting filmmaking. And the process is about discovery and so the product is about discovery.
I’m curious about the way that you approach writing a script. If it feels like a documentary, I’m sure you leave a lot of room for ad-libbing and unscripted dialogue.
Yeah. I officially fed one line to people in Memphis. One line. I wrote like a forty-five page story — it had dialogue and I worked hard on creating this arc, a very simple arc about someone who starts here and goes out and almost decomposes into nature. And I write that thing so that everyone can understand the kind of movie and the kind of feeling. So I show that to my DP and my producer. I show that to the Venice Biennale because you don’t get funding unless you have the document. And I showed it to Willis. And then, I take that away and we start building scene by scene.
So, I knew I was going to do a church scene. So, the first day you walk to church, you go to church and you go to a bar afterwards. Then we create that and then what happens is, we say, “Okay, where are we now?” The next day he has to go here, here and here. So my production team is planning two days ahead but they have to be super flexible. At the same time, they might say, “You know what, we didn’t get that place, can you do it in another place?” And I have to say, “Yeah.” I have to be flexible too. So, it’s building as you go. But that’s what gives it that liquid feeling… I’m much more interested in going in a natural state. I’m not working with actors so people have to go through that. They can’t just show up and go, “Oh, we’re shooting the last scene first.” That’s not how I do things. I want to start at the beginning.
Well, it’s interesting because the story itself seems like it would lend itself very well to a protagonist-driven, character-development film. But your take is closer to reality and to what people really experience.
It’s absolutely realistic; it’s like life. People don’t talk all day. Sometimes you just spend a lot of time just watching these kids at the park, just watching. And then, at a certain point, you’ll feel comfortable having watched and you’ll move onto the next thing. And, for me, it’s almost hyper reality — films like Memphis — because you don’t have someone walking with you down the street saying, “And then, you’re going to meet this person and he’s going to give you directions to the next...” You just go and things just happen.
It’s hard for a mainstream audience. But for the right people, it creates an experience; it almost creates something to wear.
The very beginning where Willis states that he is a sorcerer and that he has dreamed his life into being. It was really great. Is the idea of magic and what is essentially now known as “the secret” something you’ve always been interested in?
Absolutely, I believe in magic, for sure.
And the next question people say is, “Give me an example of magic.” And it’s not that. The ideas that there are people and there are places that have profound gravity or they have profound attraction… well, Memphis is off the charts; it’s a fucking vortex. And Willis is not lying; he is a sorcerer. He’s a wizard and I believe in wizardry.
That opening, it gets laughs, right? It always gets laughs and I’m like, “Just wait!” You watch it and you’re like, “This isn’t a typical talk show” and people laugh and I like that but three quarters of the way through the movie, it’s not for laughs, it’s for real. He’s trying. Like many people — wizard or not wizard — people are searching for the elusive, and the elusive is elusive; that’s what’s so elusive about it. You can almost touch it but you can never touch it. And that, as an artist or a person, is what puts me in a trance. And Willis is absolutely searching for a glory that is undefined because you can’t define glory. So, for a certain kind of viewer, it puts you in a place of experience. And you bring as much to your own experience within Willis’ experience, or my experience of the experience of Memphis and you come out having been on a journey.
How did you meet Willis?
My producer John Baker found him. He was opening for Cat Power at the time and we both dug Cat Power. We started doing research on him and it was so clear that I had written this character that had already been born and living. And then, there was this one clip that we saw of him performing a song on his grandmother’s porch. It was on Pitchfork and he was singing. His voice is, I mean, Otis Redding, tremendous… But, in between the verses, he was in a different world. He was in an absolute trance and that was when I was like, “That’s the guy.”
What was your first meeting with him like?
We met at a Chinese food restaurant in the Upper East Side with his nurse wife and it was bizarre. He always orders cutty sark and they never have it because no one does cutty sark anymore. So we sat there and we drank some drinks and we talked about the process. He had read the script.
Was he immediately responsive to it?
Yeah. He was like, “Everything I’ve always wanted to say is in the script.” And I was like, “I know, isn’t that weird?”
I come from an absolutely opposite place than he does but somehow, artistically and at that moment, we were right in the middle. And his wife was just very concerned that it was going to be a detrimental process. Because you ask this guy to lose his mind in a way, and to disappear, and Willis has a back story that is real. And my whole goal was that it was always very much about someone breaking through… breaking through to I don’t know, but still breaking through. So, we met at bars. I took him to a cabin upstate for a half day and we just sat and talked and we drank a lot of drinks and smoked a lot of pot and just talked. That was our rehearsal.
I got lucky; I got extremely lucky. And the film would have been very interesting with someone who wasn’t Willis. It would have been probably a little more like Last Days. Like, this idea that there is a huge wall between you and the character. But Willis brought you to this place where there is no wall; he’s running amok in your psyche and very vulnerable and you’re right there holding hands with him. So, I got lucky. But I also knew that if Willis woke up one day in New Orleans, then I would just make the movie his. I just knew that the kind of filmmaking I was going to do was going to allow me to make it about him but that if he disappeared then I would make it about his disappearance and that I was okay with it. And I think that to work with someone like Willis, you have to just be okay with the fact that it could be perfect or it could be a disaster. And you have to be open to both.