Last week, I had the chance to attend a screening of Tim Sutton’s new film Memphis. The movie follows a strange singer with “god given talent” (played by Willis Earl Beal). Surrounded by lovers, legends, hustlers, preachers, and a pack of kids, the protagonist avoids the recording studio (much to the chagrin of his supporters). Instead, he goes about his own form of self-discovery. Shown in fragments, we see him go; from love and happiness—to the other end of this world. It’s a beautiful film, and we had the chance to catch up with director Tim Sutton via e-mail.
Before asking about Memphis I want to ask you about how you became interested in filmmaking and how your vision as a filmmaker has (or hasn’t) changed since you started making movies.
Well I started out thinking that I might want to become an ethnomusicologist—as my interest in American roots music and jazz was really deep – the work of people like Alan Lomax and Bill Ferris and Jazz writers like Leonard Feather and Nat Hzentoff was an inspiration in collecting stories around the music and the culture but I took a film class and that was really it—the medium was an instant rush to me and fit my wanting to also use my imagination to capture the sense of beauty and timing that I found in the music—it was my way of becoming my own version of a musician. As far as being a filmmaker and if I’ve changed at all, I’m trying to build not only unique films but a humble body of work that isn’t disposable and will grow with time. That guides how I move forward thinking about projects and collaborators etc. Growth.
What was the impetus for this film and what drew you to telling this story?
I’m fascinated by certain musicians and their visions—the third eye that seems to blink on the foreheads of artists like Thelonious Monk, Coltrane, even Kurt Cobain and Jack White—artists who have a power to them that is created in music but takes on a new form outside the music that, to me at least, feels like a sense of utopia. Willis has that a million times over. At the same time, I believe in the other worldly folkloric aura that places like Memphis embody. The city is a vortex of spirituality and a sense of forgotten magic. It made creative sense to me to try and fuse these two topics together using a cinematic form that takes place in the grey area between dream and reality. A gifted singer who is more an unwilling phantom. A landscape that is both crumbling and eden.
Tell me about the experience working on this project, especially in regards to being on location and using locals as actors.
I don’ t consider anyone actors in the film. They are in a constructed space that is the frame of the camera, and there is an overall arc and direction that we all discuss, but these people are living on the screen – sharing their lives and their histories just by letting the camera observe their faces and their moods, there is so much wisdom down there that it would make little sense to me to try and box people into a more recognizable character. They are real – and that is a comfortable space for me as a director. I’d love to work with great actors on a film in the future, but the glory of being a director in this kind of film is to find people who you connect to and let them be. It’s both comforting and awesome to experience. Not everything works, but the organic moments that come out of the process can be moving.
What was the biggest challenged you faced with this film?
Working with Willis. It was also the greatest pleasure. Thin line between love and hate.
The film has little dialogue, and many (very beautiful) quiet, reflective, scenes which—in my mind—set the tone for the movie. What were you hoping to accomplish with these recurring deliberately contemplative moments?
I guess that’s just how I like to see certain worlds—quiet, ethereal, meaningful but not necessarily explained or defined. For films like Memphis, like Pavilion—and even more so films like Gummo or Beau Travail—plot is less important than the world the film creates. Story can be so many different things and story to me, with Memphis, was floating around in a state of wonder.
How did Willis Earl Beal’s music play into the soundtrack and, more broadly, the film as a whole?
Willis is not a blues musician, he is influenced by a blues or soul aesthetic but he is much more avant garde than that and I wanted the score and music to feel both ancient and forward. Lo fi symphonies in fragments, the music mixing with the wild sounds of wind, voices, train whistles, nature, and then juxtaposed with the more traditional memphis soul sound—to show that beauty too, but somewhat at odds to the character’s reality. Willis had access to tape recorders, casio keyboards, and him just singing in the car could be enough for a scene. And we also used tracks off of his LP Nobody Knows—which was very much on the tip of his tongue down there.
How do you feel about the finished product? Are you able to step back and enjoy it—or do you find it’s too close-to-home?
I love the film and am proud of both the process and product and even more proud of what a special collaboration it was with crew, cast, and city. It was a journey. Do I enjoy it? It’s stressful to put out a movie that defies expectations so, no, not always. Do I believe in it? Yes, every frame.
What’s next for you? Upcoming projects, plans, ideas just a’ percolating?
Fingers crossed will have a project to announce soon.