Kino Lorber opens Memphis at IFC Center on September 5th, 2014.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you consider yourself to be a humanist?
Tim Sutton: Absolutely. I feel that both are spiritual journeys in their own way--the process as well as what comes out in the narrative. I think of Memphis as a kind of nature-worship film as well. Pavilion had that same kind of feeling. I'm interested in making films about people in landscapes, and how those landscapes and how those people become translucent within each other.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that Memphis would lose something if seen on the small screen?
TS: Part of me says, "Yes." Someone said that my filmmaking is cinematography. It's one and the same. I do absolutely believe that. On the big screen, with the sound and the texture and the image, it's possible to create something that engulfs the willing audience. At the same time, though, we live in a time where it's not going to be a reality for everybody. If wear headphones and watch it on your laptop, you can really get into this movie because the sound then brings the picture to you. I do think that the sound is just as textured and as important and serves as sort of a bounce-board to the image. I think you can watch it at home.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about the power of silence in a film?
TS: One of the things I told [actor] Willis [Earl Beal] when we were making the movie and talking about his role, he said to me "I'm not going to be reading any dialogue," and I was like, "No, no. Don't worry about it." One of the things I talked to him about was that Miles Davis' favorite musician was Sinatra---not for his voice, but for the way he used the rests. You notice that Miles Davis is all about playing and resting. That silence is just as important. So, I subconsciously approach filmmaking in a way that I'm not constantly talking to people all day, and they're not constantly talking to me. Talk is cheap, but quietness and observation is the most that you're going to learn out of a given room or scene. I had teenagers in Pavilion who just existed within their space. If they talked, they talked. They inhabited a space that was natural to them. I do think that with Willis and Memphis in general, I was interested in showing the true depth of the Blues which is what that scene represents. I was interested in the sound of the train, the wind, the trees and the sound of the distant kids. Memphis is this very quiet eden, although a broken one. I'm interested in that kind of atmosphere as far as people. I spend a lot of time with people, and we don't have to talk. We're just sitting. To me, the cinema I connect to is not the cinema of talkiness or just to fill space because you have to or supposed to; it's the cinema that you're comfortable within its silence or whatever it is.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Why did you place the title card a few minutes into the film? Is there any significance to the title card's color?
TS: I wanted to start with that kid, and the idea of that kid that he's here, but he's not. He's in his own world, and then you go right to Willis in his own world in our world. I wanted very much for people to have no idea that it was in Memphis and whether or not the talk show is real. And then Willis says that it's all artifice. Immediately then it goes into that title. I think titles matter. It takes a very specific kind of filmmaker like Woody Allen or Paul Thomas Anderson who are masters who put their title up and then move forward with the story, but I like to incorporate it into the storytelling. The shot we superimposed it over is him directing the hairdresser to do it a certain way, so it's building the artifice in a very real setting. Already, you're seeing this dichotomy of "Who's world are we in?". Casper Newbolt designed the title card as he did for Pavilion as well. It's very specific to have a kind of strong, almost hieroglyphic kind of feel to it. At the same time, the first "M" is an upside down "W" which is Willis upside down. People often say that the films I do are for filmmakers--they're filmmaker's films. Casper's design is for people who really want to wonder. The orangish-yellow color mainly matches the idea that it's a sun near the end of day.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How challenging was it to come up with the title of Memphis?
TS: People asked me, "What about 'The'? Is it 'The Pavilion'?". It's very specifically "Pavilion" and the idea behind that was very specific, and with Memphis the whole idea was to make a movie that earned the title. I wanted to make sure that we made something that's not "the vision" of Memphis, but, like a lot of artists, you go down and you have your Memphis experience, and you have your vision of Memphis. Naming this movie other things, which we considered, it didn't reach as deep into this place that we were looking for.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Would describing the plot of Memphis do it any justice?
TS: I've written the synopsis myself and it's all true, but the greatest compliment I ever got was with Pavilion where a friend of a friend saw it at South By Southwest and couldn't tell if the audience liked it. I asked the guy what he thought of it and he said, "Pavilion is not a film; it's a lotion." I was like, "I can't put that on the poster, but that's how I felt about the movie." Memphis is not a film; it's a journey. I don't want to sound pretentious, but the movies that I'm able now to make are the movies that, if you are open and when you stop worrying about plot or where it's going, they can go to a place where most movies don't, and experience a spiritual journey.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that American audience are conditioned by Hollywood to have a certain response or expectation?
TS: When I introduce the film, I tell everyone to not worry so much. I did the same with Pavilion. I don't think I'm going to be there to set it up everywhere I go, but the idea is that we are conditioned to feel comfortable in a specific kind of filmmaking and storytelling which is "shot, reverse shot", "I kind of know what's going to happen--oh, now I know!" There are all these guideposts that we're supposed to understand. That was built for a certain reason, and it kind of came to this great fruition if you look at Taxi Driver or all these great films that are built in a kind of storytelling point. The storytelling and form are expected, but gorgeously displayed. Everyone is doing this kind of form, and it's old. It's 20th Century. Then you have filmmakers like Gasper Noe or Harmony Korine or even Kelly Reichardt where everyone's saying Night Moves is going to be her most accessible movie yet. It's not. It just has a couple of stars in it. I can look at both Pavilion and Memphis and take solace in that I believe in every frame. I never been anything to be expositive. When I did that in certain cuts of these films, you could just know right away that it's not real, and not what this film is. I'd rather have tons of psychic gaps. I lose audiences that way which means that I lose money that way, but right now I'm trying to build a body of work that's not disposable. I think the way to do that is to create something that, to some, goes further and gnaws at you, and you can lay with at night and think about. The form of storytelling that I'm into now is that I love fertile ground that is not necessarily solid. I'm completely comfortable in that space.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Many films tend to overstay their welcome, but your films do not. Why do you think that happens with other films? How do you manage to keep the running time under 90 minutes?
TS: It's a distributor problem. I was very happy to have Pavilion picked up by Factory 25, but nobody else wanted it because it was 70 minutes. Like the storytelling, it's an old model. People are like "you gotta fill up this space, and the distributor wants it to be 90 minutes." But you don't want Pavilion to be longer than 70 minutes. I was asked by a distributor to put in another 15 minutes. I was like, "Do you want the movie to be just longer or better?" If I had 15 minutes that I believed in, it would be in the movie. These models are old and changing. I wish that more distributors would take risks.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Which films would make for a great double or triple feature with Memphis?
TS: I would go with three different films: Last Days, Gimme Shelter and Straight, No Chaser. Or just put some footage of Thelonius Monk up for just a half-hour and that would be really, really informative and interesting.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Do you think that Memphis would work in black-and-white?
TS: No. I'd like to make a black-and-white movie someday, but I think that Pavilion and Memphis are very much about texture and color. Both of those films depend on a warmth and a reality that you're absolutely in a waking dream, so the colors are necessary.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Willis Earl Beale isn't a huge star. Do you think that's a benefit to the film in any way?
TS: People were asking me, "What were you doing down south filming a documentary about Willis?" I was like, "I wasn't." The anonymity and the ability to go between reality and fiction is imperative for the movie.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What do you think it would take to reach a new American Wave of cinema?
TS: I'm Still Here, Putty Hill, Snow on the Bluff and Rich Hill---I think these films, like Pavilion, have this great naturalism going on, but I think that it has to be done in a way that is the same form, but a little bit more open. Maybe the subject matter or a social issue allows it to break out of the indie world. Boyhood is the kind of level of filmmaking that has shown that if you have the right idea and the right form, then you can break through. Boyhood could be a signpost for that, but I think that these films are inherently about strange spaces between fact and fiction, or reality and unreality or surrealism. The American film-going public has a hard time with that. They want to know what's happening and what's happening next.