I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Tim Sutton’s Memphis, like his earlier feature, Pavilion, is a gorgeously made impressionistic drama. An observational film that emphasizes mood, place, and atmosphere over plot or character, Memphis presents the quotidian aspects of its characters’ lives with visual flair. Sutton creates real emotion from still images, such as main character Willis (played by musician Willis Earl Beal), lying asleep with his arm over his face, or Lopaka (Lopaka Thomas), sitting in a car staring at an ignited lighter. Lengthy tracking shots—down the aisle of a church, or through the streets of the titular city—are also freighted with meaning.
Sutton practically eavesdrops on his characters as scenes create a loose narrative, eschewing any overtly climactic moments. The writer/director’s approach is firmly rooted in documentary, and he envelops viewers in dreamy landscapes that are transfixing. Sutton makes watching glass fall from a broken car window a truly hypnotic experience.
Significantly, the filmmaker’s style of visual poetry prompts audiences to either let the lyrical images wash over them or actively recalibrate the situation in each scene to form a narrative. The performers—mostly non-professional actors playing nameless folks who interact with Willis, a procrastinating musician struggling to finish an album—reveal themselves and the titular city, throughout the film. Even if viewers find Memphis inscrutable at times, it benefits from repeat viewings. The film is a visually stunning achievement.
Gary M. Kramer What prompted you to become a filmmaker?
Tim Sutton I’ve always been interested in storytelling. Even as a kid, I was drawing storyboards. Originally, I went to grad school for ethnomusicology. I was really interested in the roots of American culture, what Alan Lomax and guys like Bill Ferris had done with folklore and folk music. I went to University of Wisconsin, of all places, to study that, where I took classes with [film professors] David Bordwell, a legend, and J.J. Murphy. I got a Bolex in my hand, and for the first time, I really felt absolutely at home with storytelling. I made a couple of short films, got my degree in African American studies and cultural studies, and then moved to New York and became a filmmaker. I did everything from being a PA on commercial sets to making short films. I worked in every different corner of the industry with the goal of always being a narrative filmmaker.
GMK Your films have a distinctive, slow-cinema feel. Why do you take this approach to your storytelling?
TS I think there are various reasons. One is budget constraints. Very basically, if I have 200,000 dollars, there is a very specific movie that can be made out of that. I’m not interested in making a 200,000-dollar movie that’s supposed to be a 20,000,000-dollar movie. You have to understand what kind of world you can create. This is a low-budget world, this micro-budget world, and I’m really interested in making something that is entirely alive in each frame. If that means I lose a certain amount of familiar narrative action, then I’m fine with that. I believe in abstract art. I believe in the idea of slow cinema, of taking your time and not necessarily editing in a way or covering scenes in the rulebook. I love classic cinema, but I know that as a maker of films, I can make certain things and I’m developing my voice in that way. I’m also very interested in working on stories that are not on solid ground—that are on very fertile ground. That fertile ground is soft; that means a lot of blending fiction and reality. It’s interesting to me to write a certain story then meet a certain person and absolutely change the story for that person, to let that person go forward with how it develops, to use our imaginations to take that story and visualize it. With Willis in Memphis, it worked out perfectly. Even with Pavilion and Max and Cody, I wrote a story about kids. I had Max in mind, but I always knew at some point, he would move, and we were going to lose interest in him and find someone else. I found Cody. If we had found someone else, we would have gone in that direction. I want a liquid story. I feel like Pavilion is still being made and still developing, and that’s the type of cinema that interests me. I made that film on a 10,000-dollar budget, with a mix of real people and people who are talents in their craft and known for their craft, but what was most interesting to me was developing the characters and then imagining where those characters would go. There’s some amount of the autobiographical, but it’s not the actors’ true selves. It’s a mixture of how I imagine certain things with their characters and the structure of their story.
GMK That relates to the line in the opening of Memphis, where Willis talks about “imaging something into existence” to create reality. You envision it, and then use magic to make it true; life is artifice.
TS If you are in it, then you become part of the narrative. The viewer’s thoughts and feelings, and questions become part of their experience. You have to work a little bit—watching for those people can be almost interactive. This film is autobiographical, absolutely, as much as it is a story of folklore and legend and myth and music and artistry. That does not look like me; it looks purely like Willis, but I am Willis, I am this artist searching to try and make something come true in a language that I believe in. I’m not trying to convince anyone else to believe in it, as much as I am trying to find it. The movie is pure Willis in so many ways, and I love that. I feel very much that Willis is a partner. We came together from completely different backgrounds and executed something.
GMK Do you think a white man has certain responsibilities when making a film about African Americans?
TS I’m not from Memphis. I’m a white Jew from New York. I don’t think it’s up to a white filmmaker to make this film, but I do think it’s up to an outsider to make the film that I made. It’s like Bruno Dumont doing a horror film in Southern California. To me, if Memphis was made by a Memphian, it would be different. I am not making a movie where I tell people to act in a certain way. I’m presenting a landscape from an idea I have—whether it’s historical or cultural or visual—and I am setting scenes and a story, but within that story, I’m not asking anyone to be anything that they are not. I am asking them to represent themselves in the film in the way that they are.
GMK Can you give an example of that?
TS Lopaka has more wisdom and more presence than anybody I’ve ever met. So I asked him to be in the movie. You drive around with Willis. Are you his guide? Are you his friend? Are you kind of like a gangster? Who are you? And we don’t have to explain anything. The reason I can get away with that is that I’m not explaining anything. I’m not saying the character Constance is Willis’s wife, or the boy is his kid. They are not his wife or his kid. These are people who are themselves and linked together by our imagination and observation. I put Willis and the kid in a room, and I want them to be friends. I don’t want them to be father or uncle. It’s easier to have those kinds of relationships in Memphis. We are conjuring up a movie together, and that’s going back to the black and white issue. I’m doing it with the utmost respect, and as a creative observer. That’s what interests me as a filmmaker. I give them time to be in a room together, and I tell Willis, “In a little bit, you leave the room.” Then it’s up to them when they go forward. I told Lopaka to talk about when he got stabbed. He’s able to deliver something that is almost DeNiro-esque. But if I gave him lines …
GMK Do you think your films emphasize stereotypes—about teenagers, or African Americans, and people in the American South?
TS No, not at all. Pavilion is watching kids in a landscape that is undefined. In my films, there are things that are very true about the wisdom of people, or the insecurities of youth, or the frustrations of an artist, or the strangeness of a landscape, but those things are designed in the film to be open-ended observations. I’m trying to show people in relation to their environment.
GMK You create a strong sense of place. Why emphasize location over character to inform your characters?
TS I think both of my films are about people in landscapes. I think Pavilion is absolutely about geography, what landscapes bring. I wanted to create a scenario of what it felt like in upstate New York, where there’s green in every frame, because that’s how it feels. It’s a sense of protection. Then you go to Arizona, and it’s bright white and wide open, and there’s a different kind of emotional environment. You are sitting in that landscape with the right eye, and you feel that landscape. The films that I am making are as much about feelings as they are about watching a movie.
GMK What did you want folks to feel in Memphis?
TS It’s a movie about African Americans in Memphis, with folkloric tendencies. You have to make that about the church. The church was always a bookend in the film. Willis doesn’t fit in that church. He’s more of a cosmic, mythic figure. The church is a place of sin and salvation. The landscape in Memphis, and in Memphis, is defined by nature. It’s green—not downtown—but in areas that have been reclaimed by nature. The grass comes up to the sidewalks and trees tower over everything. The idea is that nature comes back, that it’s Eden in transformation. The scene of Willis in the woods—he is engulfed by nature. People think I’m going to go to Memphis and see the Mississippi River. I don’t show it, but the film flows in one direction, but within that direction, there are lots of whirlpools and currents. I wanted people to feel that.
GMK You have a shot of Willis smoking and thinking, and it expresses so much about him. We feel every inhalation/exhalation of that cigarette.
TS The smoke is also about the vaporous quality of the movie. That’s the kind of filmmaking it is. It can dissipate or come back, push and pull, breathe in and breathe out. That’s the kind of storytelling I’m interested in. It’s a great metaphor for it.
GMK Your dialogue seems heavily improvised. Why is creating a scene organically more effective than scripting?
TS I wrote a forty-five-page story called a “script-ment” with dialogue. It’s not improvisation, but a very disciplined form—I’m just not feeding lines. I’m less interested in lines. I think people talking is less important than watching what people do, how they act, and how they stand and where they go, and how they don’t talk. In Pavilion, it’s not what they are talking about, but how they are holding themselves. In Memphis, Willis is very intuitive. I give the actors the subject matter. So I say, “Talk about love,” and it doesn’t take long with the right people. We have these people, in this moment, on that couch, and they are ready to talk about something, and there’s one moment of truth in every scene. That’s all I need. I’m literally giving them a floor to stand on. I gave Lopaka one line during his monologue. He delivered it perfectly, paused, and then kept going and found a great nugget that’s everything: “They’re taking chunks out of me, but I’m not lying down.” With Willis, we spent a lot of time not rehearsing, but talking in bars. If we had a scene that we struggled over, I would say, “Let’s do an interview.”
GMK I feel the emotion through the mix of still and tracking shots: an image of Willis asleep with his arm over his face, the extraordinary scene in the wig shop; a tracking shot of the wilderness or down the aisle of a church. How do you center the film’s emotional power in this rhythm of images?
TS Some of it is what I like to feel. I think you have to give people that. If you give them three seconds, it’s a piece of a movie. If you give them ten seconds, they see it for a little more, but if you give them forty-five seconds, or one full minute or longer, they have done their own critical thinking about it, and then they are in the image. If you give them enough time, they live it. I’m more interested in having moments like that—that you can feel. Maybe you don’t know what the story arc is. Maybe there is no story arc, maybe the arc is that it goes where it goes. But you feel it, and you feel that rhythm and you have a sensory experience. That’s what I’m going for.
GMK What is your response to folks who don’t get your films, or find them beautiful but boring?
TS I’m not making films to pack theaters. My films are not for everyone. But I do think that there is something you can hold on to—whether it’s the images, or the interesting character of Willis, or the long, worn, love letter to Memphis. I think there are scenes people can appreciate. The story is something people will struggle with, but the idea is that this isn’t a movie where you know exactly what’s going on, or what’s going to happen by design. If that’s not your game, that’s not your game. But this is the kind of movie that, for a certain person, will be moving.
GMK The scene of the broken car window was my favorite. Can you discuss how that came about?
TS We planned the break, and it went perfectly. Then I realized I wanted to drive around with that hole and see out the window. The whole movie is looking through this vision of things falling apart. The way the glass started dropping was magic. We were lucky to catch that.
GMK Any other lucky scenes?
TS Well, the dance sequence. It was planned, storyboarded, rehearsed, and executed to feel organic, but then Willis dances alone at the end. Was it imagined? Is he dreaming? Is it real?
GMK What can you say about the broom Willis carries? Is it just a broom, or is it a prop with more symbolic meaning?
TS The broom came up because it was in the room. Willis found the broom, and started using it as something to hold on to. He was in the backyard doing military exercises with the broom. So we realized there was a lot going on with the broom. It has great symbolism. He started going to town with it. There’s some kind of dust he is pushing away, but at the same time it’s menacing. As far as the over-symbolization of the broom in African American culture, there’s a blues sense to it, but it has nothing to do with slave narratives and jumping the broom. But there is something that felt right about the broom. There was something large and looming about it. I didn’t place it there. It was another organic element and it just made sense.
People would ask me, Who is the boy in the room supposed to be? The boy is a boy.
GMK What about your editing style—you cut in the middle of a scene, or have an amorphous sense of time.
TS It’s fragments. I don’t need a person to walk into a room, be in that room, and walk out of the room. I need a moment, whether it’s ten minutes long or ten seconds long, during which something meaningful or honest happens. But you aren’t sure how long it has been—a month? A minute?
You have to give in to the experience. With a dream, things don’t go in order. This is a ghost story, and a dream. It’s vapor. It should feel that it can go anywhere at any moment. That’s also the freedom of this kind of filmmaking. I’m not going to give an establishing shot and let everyone know where they are. Sometimes I do, but the next scene is completely different, and I like that experience.
GMK Willis talks about wizardry and sorcery, and asks if folks believe in magic. Do you believe in magic or God?
TS I’m Jewish. I’m pretty secular. I was Bar Mitzvahed. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in a spiritual power. I do believe in the power of a kind of animus. I do believe in magic, and that Willis is a wizard. By that I mean, the voice in the wind, or knowledge that can be gotten by closing your eyes and lying in the grass. But you have to be open to that. Willis is crossing over into something beautiful but unknown.
Some people think this is a Christian movie, and I’m OK with that. I think church means something. The people in the church are getting something, the same way I get something from nature, or the way Willis gets something from his journey. That church is a beautiful, wonderful place filled with great meaning for those people. There’s a good feeling in that church. We were introduced to that church by a woman who runs a barbeque place, and we went four times before shooting. We were not strangers.
GMK What prompted you to instill folkloric qualities in Willis? I thought about the “magic black man” character.
TS We talked a lot about that. He’s not in control, he’s part of this strange galaxy. We weren’t trying to prove Willis could save anybody, including himself. He was simply making something strange and beautiful.
For more on Tim Sutton and Memphis, including information about upcoming screenings, visit the film’s website.
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer whose work appears on websites including Salon.com and indieWire, as well as various alternative weeklies across the country. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee