Tim Sutton’s “Memphis” blends fiction with documentary to create an atmospheric modern folk tale about a wandering musician (real musician Willis Earl Beal) who arrives in the titular town to make a record and never quite gets around to it. Sometimes it appears to be capturing life on the fly, but Sutton says what you’re seeing is more like carefully controlled spontaneity. He talked to Metro about his methods, finding Beal and the role Deep South religion plays in his second feature.
Beal came in after you had already been planning the film, though it feels very tailored to his persona and talents. How much did he change the film when he came on?
The character I wrote was very much a phantom drifting through the city of Memphis but was a bit more behind the veil. Willis brought this very eccentric character, who is basically Willis. I had this idea that this person had some kind of dark powers, but they weren’t explicit. Willis brought this to another level. He said, “I’m a wizard.” And I ran with that.
How loose was your planning of this?
I’d written a 45-page story with dialogue and everything. The dialogue went away, but the story itself, right down to actual scenes, is very much in the final film. It’s loose by design. I wasn’t afraid to lose the story completely. If Willis woke up one day and said, “I’m quitting” or “I’m leaving,” I wasn’t afraid to go with him and change the story entirely. If he wanted to do something else, we planned ahead and two days later we were working that way. Maybe one part of the story would fall away and a new character would rise up. We could drop things we were maybe losing interest in. There was a sense of real discovery going on, but it’s also very planned. We weren’t just finding stuff; we were planning to find stuff.
Had you been aware of Beal before?
My producer found him online. He’d just got his major label deal and he was opening for Cat Power at the time. It was really an uncanny match. He was this character come to life. There’s this clip on Pitchfork of him singing on his grandmother’s back porch. When he would be taking rests between each phrase, he was just exhausted. His eyes were closed and he was in a trance. He had so much power. That made me realize that after shooting for three weeks in Memphis with Willis we would either get the story I planned or we’d get something brand new. No matter what happened it would be meaningful.
You don’t try to understand Beal’s character.
My first film [“Pavilion”] was about teenagers who didn’t really communicate. They just existed: they rode their bikes, went to the lake, did their stuff. There was no real dramatic arc. The idea was the landscape and the people becoming one thing. With “Memphis,” Willis was just this phantom. I wanted someone who wasn’t going to tell me truths or explain himself, because that’s not how I work as a filmmaker. I enjoy observation from a point of view that makes me curious or makes me feel beauty or makes me feel wonder.
One angle that comes across is this idea that Beal’s character has trouble actually doing his ideas — that even geniuses have to work to produce material.
It asks, what does success mean or what does fulfillment mean? Does it mean cutting a record or does it mean singing to yourself while walking down the street? It means different things to different people. I wouldn’t necessary say that’s what we were thinking every minute while making the film. A lot of writing about the film has said it’s about creative block. I get where people are coming from, but I think the character is constantly creating, constantly using his imagination and his magic to bring things to life. He’s just not making hit records because that’s what other people want from him. He’s not singing in the church because that’s for other people. What he’s doing is following his own path.
Can you discuss the role of religion and the church in this film?
I didn’t set out to make a Christian film. But if you are going to make an authentic film about Memphis and a film about the African American musicians’ experience, you’re making a film about the church. The film is not a religious film to me, but it is a very spiritual film. I’m a secular Jew and I’m not very religious. But I get a lot of spirit and power from nature and from the idea of wandering through a relaxed landscape. For me this is a very spiritual film. I think the Baptists in the South might not love this movie, but I think it represents what they do on a Sunday and how they live. My goal was to go down to Memphis and make something respectful and humble and of the place. I wanted the religion to get across to a viewer who is not religious and make him or her feel there’s a spirit rising.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge