Catching Up With Memphis Director Tim Sutton

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When a film doesn’t readily fit in with one particular genre, it can inspire a disorienting feeling—we want to know what we’re dealing with so we can know what to expect. But such films—though they are rare—can also be exciting experiences, as watching one is like coming face to face with something new.

Director Tim Sutton is not especially concerned with genre. He cares more about people—people who feel like characters, and characters who feel like people. These are the strange types of beings who inhabit Memphis, his sophomore effort. Paste caught up with Sutton to talk about his new film (based heavily on musician Willis Earl Beal, who also plays the protagonist), the blues and the ever-elusive experience of glory.

Paste Magazine: I love that monologue that Beal’s character delivers in the film. Can you talk about the inspiration behind his description of “glory”?
Tim Sutton: The idea behind “glory” is very much the movie’s message—this reach for a glory that is undefined. What glory means to some, it doesn’t mean to others. As a character, Willis is searching for something elusive, but something very powerful.

As far as his monologue on “glory” and fucking the dirt (laughs), well, that is pure Willis. That goes for the whole structure of how we did things. There was a certain time every few days where I felt like we were at a lull, or needed some kind of energy to make Willis feel comfortable again. He and I would just sit, and we’d film an interview. The idea was to continue defining his character’s vision on life, in ways that made him comfortable. Willis is a person who spends a lot of time figuring out his philosophies in life. And sometimes he’d give me ideas on where to go next. I’d often get my inspiration from these conversations.

Paste: That makes sense, because there’s this documentary-type feel about the whole thing. I guess it’s the testimonials from some of the characters, like that scene where the mother figure was counseling Beal’s love interest [Constance]. Can you talk about your approach with scenes like that?
Sutton: If you’re going to try and invest in a direction of authenticity, it’s important to take yourself out of it, and let them be authentic. So I would very, very rarely feed lines. There’s probably one line that I fed in the entire movie. What we’d do is, we’d find people who we were in awe of, or who we believed in, or someone who we thought was really sweet or interesting. And they’d often say, “Well, I’m not an actor.” And I’d say, “We’re not looking for actors.”

That woman was the grandmother of a couple of the kids in the movie. And we found them because they were two blocks away from where we were staying. I knew I wanted the feeling we felt when we were with Bertha. Here is a person who’s been through a lot, and here’s a person who exists in the world—not at peace—but at home. We wanted Constance to be able to go to someone, frustrated with Willis and the relationship. So I had her sit down with Bertha and her grandkids, and all I said was, “Talk about love.”

There’s a lot to learn from people. My whole job as a director is to empower people. Whether I’m empowering the cinematographer, or the producer, or the actors—my job is to make people feel like what they say and what they do matters. So it’s all because of the people I find—it’s not me. It’s just me saying, “I’ll know it when I hear it.”

Paste: Let’s talk about some of the children in the movie. I like that they have their own space in the narrative. We see them in relation to Willis, but also on their own. Why did you decide to give them that space?
Sutton: First of all, I think 90 minutes of straight Willis would be challenging for the viewer (laughs). Willis is fascinating to watch, and completely interesting. And at times he can drive you a little batty. In general, I think there should be these narrative and physical spaces where you can go outside of the story, and maybe something new might become the story.

So I always had that in mind. And the kids are innocent—they’re the angels of the movie, and I always had them floating around. They’re all in Willis’ life, but then they’re outside of Willis’ life.

Paste: Yes, I loved that bit with the kid on the bike—he’s not really doing anything, but he’s making those little silly faces, like kids do.
Sutton: Yes! And I think it was important because this kid is also Willis—he’s a different form of Willis.

Paste: How did you come to work with Willis?
Sutton: I was looking for a musician to work with, and my producer, John Baker, found Willis online. He was opening for a musician named Cat Power, who we both really liked. The more John did some research, the more he was like, “This is uncanny. This is totally like the character you have written.” And then we saw one clip of him singing into his phone on his grandmother’s back porch. First of all, his voice is powered by the same kind of soul that comes from great voices like Aretha Franklin, or Otis Redding. I put Willis’ natural talent right up there with them.

Paste: What was it that you saw in that video?
Sutton: In between singing, he was resting, and he was in a trance. He put everything he could into singing on his grandmother’s back porch. And it was then that I knew he was someone I wanted to meet. Right away, he was very interested in doing the movie, but he didn’t want to read any lines or use scripts. And that’s not how I work, so it went very well. We would just talk or walk somewhere, and talk about life. He kept saying, “When are we gonna rehearse?” and I would say,“We are rehearsing.” He knew that the character was basically a version of him. So I set the frame with the cinematographer and within that frame, real life takes place.

I also knew that I didn’t want the film to be kind of that typical Memphis soul. I knew I wanted to work with those guys down there, and we worked with Al Green’s original band. But I knew that I wanted Willis to be the main part of the soundtrack, and Willis is not a typical soul/blues singer. He’s deeply into blues, and soul and gospel, but what he’s doing is something much more radical.

Paste: Did you always know that there’d be a lot of church scenes?
Sutton: Oh, yes. If you’re going down South to make a movie about an African-American musician in Memphis, you must get in the Church. I thought it was important to have that be the bookend.

Paste: What’s next for you?
Sutton: I’m working on two projects. One is about what happens to someone who becomes obscenely wealthy. It’s kind of like the anti-Wolf of Wall Street. And I’m also working on a third film—what I feel like is a trilogy—with non-actors, and it takes on a horrible tragedy, and a social issue. Pavilion [my first film], to me was very much about discovering this form that interested me as a filmmaker, and Memphis was about pure experimentation with that form. And this is going to be something that’s a simpler version, that I connect to a social issue.

Paste: That’s great. I’m looking forward to more of your work. Thank you for this!
Sutton: Thank you.

Memphis is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.

Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor at Paste, and a New York-based freelance writer with probably more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.