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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

BAMcinemaFest: Q&A with Tim Sutton (Memphis)

BAMcinemaFest alum and Brooklyn resident Tim Sutton returns to the festival with a stunning portrait of Memphis and its mythology, developed through the Venice Biennale Cinema College lab program. Starring the underground singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal in a role with semi-autobiographical elements, Memphis showcases Sutton’s unique visual style and immersive approach to filmmaking. We were thrilled to speak with him again about his work.

What drew you to choosing Memphis as the heart of your film?

To me, Memphis is a place quite literally on the edge of the world, the creator and possessor of its own myth and folklore. It is both extremely rich and stunningly poor, both cursed and blessed—with the history of many kings but, at the same time, has grass growing up through the cracks in the sidewalk on the edge of town. The place is named for an ancient Egyptian city and remains, today, both ghost town and vortex of spirituality and creativity. That's what I wanted to ruminate on and further illustrate—to explore a place that feels like a forgotten Eden, not some tourist’s idea of blues, but real blues. I think in many ways it takes someone from the outside to know how to do that. A fresh eye. Not a stranger's take on it, but a humble observation of all the glory and loneliness that the city has acquired over all these years.

How did you get in touch with Willis Earl Beal? Were you a fan of his music beforehand?

My producer John Baker found Willis online—he was opening for Cat Power at the time—and when we met, and kept meeting to discuss the project, it was very clear that Willis was beyond the character I had written, with an unreal talent and a third eye. He truly is a wizard of sorts. He's an outsider who doesn't see the world as inside and out, black and white. He sees textures. And that voice. It's like the deepest glory is straining in that voice. It killed me and continues to each time I listen to it. Unbridled power, curiosity, even destiny in that voice.

Could you share your thoughts on your experience at BAMcinemaFest with Pavilion two years ago? How soon after Pavilion did you start on Memphis?

BAMcinemaFest was a really joyful tipping point for Pavilion. After a curious birth at SXSW, the festival really put Pavilion on the critical map at BAM. The screening was perfectly put on, became a launching point for the film being acquired by Factory 25, and also received a rave from Amy Taubin in Artforum—which was a dream come true. Then, when Pavilion had its theatrical premiere at IFC in New York, I had to fly back for it from Venice, Italy, where I was developing Memphis through the Venice Biennale Cinema College. Another dream come true. Lots of dreams coming true, I guess.

Talk a little bit about your favorite film from the past year.

The best film I saw this year by a mile was an Australian film called Ruin, directed by Amiel Courtin Wilson. It played the Orizonti section at Venice, won a well-deserved special jury prize, and is a total fucking masterpiece.

Memphis screens in BAMcinemaFest on Sunday, June 22 at 8:30pm.

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