Director Tim Sutton has long been fascinated with the Bluff City. "It's a feeling, an aura," he says. "I feel like if you're trying to tell a folk tale about American music, that's Memphis. It's as blessed and as cursed a place as you're going to get."
His new movie Memphis began life as a grant proposal for the Venice Biennale art festival's College Cinema. His proposal for a film about a musician who comes to Memphis to record a new album only to lose himself in the process, was one of three awarded a budget of 150,000 euros (about $200,000) to produce a film that would premiere at the Venice International Film Festival in Italy. "That puts you on the map," says the Brooklyn-based filmmaker.
Sutton set out to capture the aura of Memphis by casting as many locals as possible. Except for the lead, Willis Earl Beal, everyone in the film is a non-actor from Memphis. "I wanted the lead to be an outsider," Sutton says. "He's a stranger in his own skin. He's down there trying to weave through the streets of Memphis in his own way. He has the pressures of the people around him: the producer, his girlfriend, the church. These are all the different aspects of Memphis all hovering around this guy's experience."
Beal's character, who is also named Willis, is a baby-faced soul singer with a Sam Cooke-like voice. His self-possessed bearing and the deference with which those around him treat him indicate that he has been successful in the past. "I imagined it into existence," he says of his music—or maybe his reality. "I consider myself to be a wizard"
But once he gets to Memphis, his wizardry seems to fail him. His mystical ramblings might work with his girlfriend (Constance Brantley), but when he's in the studio confronting his producer (Larry Dodson of the Bar-Kays) his facade fails. He wanders the streets looking for inspiration. He goes to church, the crucible of soul music, but still his voice fails him. Called up in front of the congregation full of life and spirit, he finds himself empty, his voice failing him. "I haven't been to church in a while, so I can't sing," he says. "I'm gonna sit myself down and praise God right now."
Willis' journey is organically dreamlike as he drifts from place to place, trying in vain to connect with the city's people and understand the soul of Memphis. The director says he started off with a 45-page treatment, but the story evolved as the shoot progressed. "We still paid attention to that document, but day to day, I would write an outline and some storyboards of what we were going to do. Then, at the end of the day, we would revisit what we had done, and I would make new storyboards and new outlines based on what we had seen. It was all loose and liquid, but by design."
The city has rarely looked more hauntingly beautiful than it does under the lens of Memphis cinematographer Chris Dapkins. "He has an almost documentary style," Sutton says. "He likes to capture something as it is happening. He doesn't use a lot of toys: Not a lot of camera bodies, not a lot of lights. He really understands people and how people fill a landscape." Dapkins' camera is fascinated with the contrast between the city's verdant trees and its bleak, post-industrial landscapes. "He's very natural. Every frame in the movie is beautiful. That's Chris."
Sutton's film is dreamy and improvisational in the style of the Chinese director Kar Wai Wong, whose 2007 film My Blueberry Nights also envisioned Memphis as a place steeped in intimations of eternity. "I was never coming down to Memphis to say, 'This is how we're going to do the movie,'" says Sutton. "I was always coming down there saying, 'I have this vision, and it's up to us to bring that vision to life in a truthful way.' Everybody who is in the movie is playing a heightened version of themselves — a mythic version of themselves. I set the frame, and I kind of tell them what's going on, but it's up to them to live in front of the camera. And that's why I particularly love coming to Memphis: Ordinary people have a lot to share. They have a lot of wisdom. You can learn a lot just by looking a their faces."