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Tim Sutton Talks About MEMPHIS as the Doorway to Enlightenment

Tim Sutton Talks About MEMPHIS as the Doorway to Enlightenment

Tim Sutton is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker whose first film Pavilion was part of the IFP Narrative Lab
and opened at SXSW in 2012. Memphis, his
second feature, played at the Venice Film Festival and Sundance last year. But unlike many other indie filmmakers,
Sutton isn’t splashed across social media, documenting his filmmaking via Instagram
or Twitter. So when I went to meet him at the Chateau Marmont lounge in West
Hollywood, I had no idea who to look for. To my luck, his familiar publicist introduced
us, two white wines on the table next to a shabby/chic couch. Sutton smiled,
hair half grey, round glasses and a button down. Sutton and I immediately got
to chatting about our love for New York City and how trendy Bed Sty has become.
Like Memphis, New York City can be a place for wanderers, for people searching
for internal, eternal answers. It turns out that Sutton, like his main
character in Memphis, is on a
spiritual journey to burn down structure in search of the sublime.

I should preface that Sutton isn’t as dreamy or bohemian as
his work might suggest. He’s a very humble, regular man who, like me, still
finds hanging at Chateau exciting. His everyman mood is exactly what makes his
introspective film that much more palpable. Although the themes may be lofty,
they’re grounded, like Sutton, in a very universal battle: the struggle for simple human
happiness.

Memphis was lyrical,
vacillating between narrative and documentary, an intriguing portrayal of
Willis, a gifted singer in search of wisdom. But the film is just as much a
jewel as it is a challenge; the elusive story and nearly non-existent plot are undeniably
polarizing. The film isn’t easy to watch and takes an immense amount of focus
with an elusive payoff. Some may walk away feeling that their time was wasted, while
others might feel enlightened. Sutton admits, “Thirty people walked out of the
press screening” at Sundance. The film was first developed through the Venice
Biennale College-Cinema. The program cultivates and enriches projects that go
on to premiere at the Venice Film Festival. Memphis grew out of the highly respected program but premiered at the festival
to little praise.

Despite its divided audiences, Memphis continues to gain an impressive amount of steam, finally
premiering in LA last week.  It’s not
targeting mainstream viewers, but instead critics and audiences that are
interested in uncovering indie gems. Sutton is approaching cinema in an
exciting, intimate way, vulnerably and without the pressure to meet audience
expectations. He’s not concerned with resolution or moral lessons encapsulated
in happy endings.

“I’m not trying to be a rebel, to break rules, I’m just trying to find myself
in this universe and be okay not knowing.”

At the center of the story is Willis (Willis Earl Beal), a
wanderer. Sutton glows, clearly passionate, when we start to discuss the
character in detail.  He “has all the
gifts from God… and people want success for him. What he wants is elusive. It’s
glory. In a way it’s searching for identity, life, satisfaction, some version
of success.” It’s not hard to draw comparisons between Memphis and Gus Van Sant’s Last
Days.
Van Sant focuses on Kurt Cobain (Michael Pitt) in the same way Sutton
frames Willis. They let their subjects roam, unrestrained, and follow them like
a documentarian might. The films are moving portraits.

The entire film hinges on Beal’s performance, a
collaborative partnership that Sutton refers to as a “cosmic occurrence.”
Sutton didn’t go through casting directors or reach out to Willis’ agents. His
producer John Baker sent him “ a clip that was on Pitchfork of [Willis] singing
a song into a cell phone on his grandmother’s back porch. It’s nothing; it’s
for no one.” Sutton was sure, though, that he could center his film on Beal,
saying “he is living something in that song.” He admits their first meeting felt
unusual, when they met in “New York City on the Upper East Side in a Chinese
restaurant and Willis ordered a scotch.” Willis’ wife also joined the meeting,
which Sutton didn’t expect. Everything about their relationship is admittedly like Oscar and Felix, but somehow their journeys are similar. “I was writing Willis Earl
Beal’s life without knowing who he was. He was living my movie without knowing
who I was. I hate to be all like flighty about it, but it’s prophecy!”

“It’s a totally autobiographical movie.” Sutton stresses that,
even though he’s not from the south or a singer, “It’s me.”

“I’m a very spiritual person in the same way that Willis is. I believe
in brain waves and signs and nature and the power of the sun and the moon. What
is it telling me? I have no idea, but it fills me.”

Another crucial part of the film is the city of Memphis.
Sutton has a long past with the location, first traveling there when he was 21
years old. “I found the place where people like me don’t go to. It was an
astounding event. I danced all night. Something was happening there that I felt
like nobody gets to experience. It stuck with me.” Sutton encapsulates the
broken landscape, filling the movie with abandoned buildings, lush forests and
the fascinating populace itself. “Memphis is a town where some of the greatest
singers of the world came out.  Some of
them were buried in unmarked graves. There’s a curse in Memphis, as a much as a
blessing. There are beautiful trees and churches on every block, but across the
street is a liquor store and a pawn shop. The rich and the poor, the black and
white. It’s like a volcano.”

That same juxtaposition also exists in Los Angeles,
melancholia and glamour, irrefutably at its peak at the Marmont.  It’s a guilty pleasure to talk about with a
filmmaker while sipping chardonnay. But the parallels, as lofty as they may be,
are clear between Memphis and the soul of an artist like Willis.
 

That conflict, finding glory and happiness but also
portraying ugliness and sorrow to be a decent artist, is the crux of Willis’s
story. How does a city like Memphis preserve its culture, but escape its
poverty? Tim doesn’t provide answers, just posing the questions. There’s no big
Hollywood bow at the end, which some may find maddening and others liberating.

Tim’s search for the sublime has been in his blood for
years. I ask him about his childhood, for a circumstance he can pinpoint as the
beginning. Immediately, he refers to the story of John Henry, a book his mom
read to him and which he even continues to give as a gift. “The last image in
that is him busting through a tunnel, into an orange infinity, and then he
dies. That image took on such mystical power in my mind over the past 30 years
that it became this psychedelic story that I could make, that Willis becomes
this image; and he does. My father died when I was 9 years old. I’ve been
searching for that elusive figure ever since.”

Locating Sutton and his background firmly is just as
difficult as doing so with Willis.  Where
did he come from? He laughs, “At the
age of 25 I thought I was going to win Sundance Film Festival and be a hero.
But I did not do that.” He then set a goal to make a feature by thirty, but
life got in the way.  He worked at Getty
Images for four years in the footage department with a $200,000 yearly budget
to make pretty much whatever he wanted. “I started working with this DP and
started doing silent short films. “ They developed a language together,
learning to build a curious, beautiful world around their subjects.
 

He didn’t make his first feature till he was 38. By that
time, he was also a father: “I was more assured in myself as far as a leader in
an honest way.” This confidence was key in the making of Memphis, a project that, given its spontaneous shooting format,
could have gone totally wrong. But Sutton didn’t try to control his team on set
or off.  He focused on “empowering” his
colleagues instead of controlling them.

Sutton describes his hobbies as a kid, some of which inform
his current ability to work in such a fluid, trusting fashion. “I was into
soccer because it was amorphous.” For a time, he also considered being a jazz
critic. “Everyone goes their separate ways, and then somehow they all know how
to come back into a certain form and then go out again.” He is fascinated with
the idea of making something “shapeless” and “liquid.”

“In my filmmaking I’m completely in the present. I’m completely where I
probably can’t be in my real life. That’s my dream life, to be constantly in
the present.”

Memphis can be
included, rightfully so, in the current discussion about breaking structure and
the rapidly growing viewing platforms. Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon and a number
of other outlets are at the forefront of a viewing revolution: the media are no longer constrained by time. Audiences
can consume them in a variety of ways. This is exactly what makes Memphis pertinent. Sutton is not just talking about re-evaluating structure,
like every TV executive. He actually did it. “You have to be
open to the void, utter disaster. What you’re making is a living document.” He
focused more on the feelings than sticking to a standard plot, especially when
presenting his 40-page script at the Venice Biennale.

He also chose a producer, John Baker, who has worked in
documentary film. He didn’t want a “set” or actors who had “agents’ schedules.”
Instead, he found people who were ready to “glow on film.” He steered clear of
directing on set, but would prompt his actors with simple questions, such as, “I want to
know what you think about love.” Walking up to people in Memphis and talking to
them about making the film in thier city wasn’t a hard sell. Sutton told them, “It’s got to be you.”
“No one says it’s got to be you to these guys.” His film is a platform for
these people whose stories would otherwise go untold. He gives them the power
and confidence to share.

This documentary-style, raw, shapeless feeling of the film
both pulls viewers in and pushes some of them away. Sutton, though, is moving on to a
new project that he hopes will shape his filmmaking further, and perhaps leave fewer
audience members behind. “Instead of being about a dream world, it’s very much
of this world and it’s based around a horrible tragedy. Pavilion was about discovery, youth. Memphis is about pure experimentation. It’s abstract. This third
film will be about executing the form in a way that’s more recognizable to
people.”

Sutton makes us wonder why we categorize new filmmakers that
come around, especially on the festival circuit. Are they dramatic directors,
dark comedy directors, or activists for a cause? Sutton proves that perhaps an exciting
new artist can’t be pigeonholed in this way. His work suggests a little bit of every genre
and every tone. But Sutton reveals, “The nicest thing someone has said about my
filmmaking is that it’s like lotion. It becomes part of your skin, something
that’s physical.”  As much as Sutton
wants his work to wash over you, he isn’t pretentious about it. His work may
resemble Terrence Malick’s, with sparse dialogue and lyrical visual sequences.
But Sutton isn’t demanding you sit and watch people run their fingers through
brush for three hours. That, or search for existential meaning in every moment. “I’m
purposely leaving the door open for people to let their minds wonder, to think
for themselves, to watch and consider, to meditate on it.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline,  Paste,
Flaunt and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

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