Structured like a collection of vivid memories rather than
being controlled by a strict narrative arch, Tim Sutton’s “Memphis” is an
experiential work that attempts to create a visual representation of a state of
mind. Willis Earl Beal plays an
outstandingly gifted musician who is not certain of the path he should follow.
His talent is his cross to bear in a world that wants to exploit it. Vanishing
into complete anonymity would suit him better than the ephemeral benefits of
fame. With each ethereal and fragmented sequence, Sutton constructs sets of
ideas and questions without ever offering definite answers or needing to.
Here is what the filmmaker shared with us about his creative
process, spirituality, and Blues.
Carlos Aguilar: There are so many different ideas discussed simultaneously in “Memphis,” but they all revolved around this singular character. What was
the original idea that sparked the writing process?
The very first idea that I had was influenced by the story of a singer named O.V. Wright. He is supposed to be the greatest singer to ever come out of
Memphis. Al Green used to sneak into the studio to listen to him and try to get his trick. Aretha Franklin, Elvis, and others, they all try to listen to
him at the studio. Elvis producer, Willie Mitchell said he was the best voice to come out of the city, but he is unknown. He was a very psychologically
damaged character, when he died he was buried in an unmarked grave. That’s not a rare story within the idea of the Blues in American folklore. Having
god-given talent but also having bad luck or having hellhound on you trail, that’s the real deal.
I wanted to make a movie that was not a “Blues movie” necessarily about Blues music or Soul music, but about the idea of a “Blues’ story. It is about a
person who has wild gifts, almost magic powers. He has the voice of God, but for some reason, which he doesn’t explain, he doesn’t want to do what other
people want him to do. He actually wants to just vanish. He wants to save his soul. I got the idea thinking about guys like O.V. Wright and movies
like “Last Days” by Gus Van Sant – which I really like a lot – or the Maysles Brothers’ “Gimme Shelter,” because of their light touches of verite.
I wrote the story about this character who s of both world. One is a world of his own, a utopian vision, which is also sort of dystopian. The other is the
real world in which people are trying to get him to sing. They are trying to get him to connect. I wrote a 40-page story, and that’s what got funded from
the Venice Viennale and then we met Willis. He worked the character so clearly and so incredibly that a lot of the trappings that I had written were
already embedded in him. Then we built the story piece by piece together.
Carlos Aguilar: Where you always conscious that you wanted the film to feel fragmented and have a surrealist atmosphere to it? Or did you ever
considered how it would work as a more traditional narrative?
It was always supposed to be fragmented. It was always supposed to be something that feels like this is a world you are inhabiting more than a story. Some
people are expecting more of a traditional narrative, like an indie version of “Ray,” but what I went out to make was a fragmented vision
of a fragmented language. I always wanted it to feel like a psychedelic ghost story. I was more interested in making it something abstract over a more
Carlos Aguilar: Spirituality and the Christian church seem to be very prominent in the film. God and religion are often present tin Willis’ work. Why
was it important for you to include these references?
Making a movie about an African American singer in Memphis, even a very fictional one, to me it was always going to start and end with the church. I think
that’s true to a town like Memphis and it’s true to the historic culture of the music. In the original story Willis does go back to church, but the more we
worked on the story and the more Willis exerted his persona, it became quite obvious that Willis is a nature worshiper more than he is a Christian. As a
filmmaker and as a person I’m the exact same way. I’m a Jew, but I’m a very secular Jew. I always knew that my spiritual sense was more in nature and with
a more pastoral look at the world. That’s how I wanted the film to feel. I think Christians can watch this movie and really believe that the church is
meaningful, but I wanted people to understand he has created his own spirituality and his own church, which is just as meaningful and works for him.
Carlos Aguilar: There seems to be a struggle within Willis about whether his talent is a curse or a blessing. Why is he so conflicted?
I think there is frustration for having something that he didn’t ask for. It is a natural talent. It doesn’t mean he would prefer not having the talent and
not being that creative person, but what he doesn’t like is that his creativity needs to be recognizable to a certain vision. Whether is his producer
saying, “You got to use this for an album” or his woman just wanting him be more committed to her and sing in the church, or his other friend saying “You
got to sing for God.” What Willis really wants to do is to make it clear that music is just a part of him, is not something that he wants to push in a
commercial direction. To him this is something that he feels more deeply, like whistling a tune down the street or singing to his friend in the car. That’s
music to him. It’s something that’s more natural. I wanted to show that struggle, to me is not about a creative block. When talking about the film, a lot
of writers talk about creative block. I think there is pieces of that in there for sure, but more importantly it’s about someone being creative in a way
that is less recognizable to the mainstream.
Carlos Aguilar: Most of the scenes have an almost documentary quality to them. How much of what we see on screen was scripted and how much was it
We would have a scenario, for example, one of my scenes says, “Willis is in the bedroom with the boy and they are playing cards”” I wanted that scene to
feel verite because of the energy that Willis and the boy got off of each other. My cameraman had a little more free range in terms of creating this
I told Willis to ask him if he believes in God. The rest of it is really up to these people being in the room together and getting there. Sometimes it
might come off as fake, but I’m never set on anything. If Willis asks something else or he does something different, I’m totally willing to go in that
direction. I’m open to anything as long as it’s natural and it feels like it connects two people or like it connects a person with a place. I don’t shoot
hours of footage and then find it in the edit. I just set up things with people who I think are comfortable enough to let scenes go and follow them where
they go. Sometimes non-actors are better when they think the heart of the scene is over, and then they start giving you something meaningful. That’s how I
work with a lot of non-actors, Willis included. He would never come right in and just bang it out, he really lived the character and then we would capture
Carlos Aguilar: Throughout the film you shift your attention towards the peripheral characters, those people who might not be at the center of the
story but still play an important role. Why is this something that interests you?
The first version of the film we did for Venice had even more of these digressions with other people. I think it took a way from the experience that we
were trying to create with Willis, but I do like moments in films where you go off with another character because this is their life too. It doesn’t have
to connect plot-wise, it connects simply because we are with them now. I like this organic feeling. I like to go with someone else to experience what
they’d be experiencing at the same time. In most movies you are no necessarily going to get that. Willis is like the Mississippi River, and then all these
other characters are like streams of that river. They all have bodies of their own.
Carlos Aguilar: Given the nature of the project, what was the best and the most challenging thing about working with Willis?
The best thing about working with Willis is that he said he would go all the way and go down the line, and he did. There were scenes that we cut out
because they weren’t his best, but what you see in the movie is a person completely living an independent and unique experience within the frame. It is
absolutely Willis. At the same time it’s completely constructed. It’s all artifice and that was the idea of the movie. What Willis brings to it is this
unbelievable sense of, not performance, but existence. The challenging part was mostly logistically. A film is sort of a living organism with lots of
parts, and he is one of those parts. At times it was difficult to get the process going, sometimes it could be logistically frustrating.
Carlos Aguilar: The film is very open-ended. Was the end result or a definite conclusion important to you?
I think it is more about the idea of what success can mean. Some people at Q&As ask “Did he make the album?” and to me the album doesn’t matter. What
matters is that he finds peace. In many ways every character finds some sort of peace at the end or everybody is moving forward. What I love about this
movie is that I feel like Willis could still be in the woods or walking around town. Then another character could be living in Mississippi with his
Cadillac. I feel like it’s one of those things that has a life of its own or could.
Carlos Aguilar: Ultimately, what would you say is at the center of this story? What’s its core?
I think it’s about a person searching to save his soul. I think it’s about life. It isn’t about one thing or the other. It’s about all these things wrapped
“Memphis” is currently playing in NYC and L.A.