Memphis is the american project selected for the final phase of 2012/13 Biennale College – Cinema. Second feature film directed by Tim Sutton after the acclaimed Pavilion, Memphis is premiering at the 70. Venice Film Festival on the 31st August. We caught up with Tim and producer John Baker for two interviews about the difficulties of making the film.
INTERVIEW WITH TIM SUTTON
What were the technical difficulties you found during the shooting?
I experienced very few technical difficulties during production. Our main challenges were logistical and scheduling. Working with Willis so that his character would experience a true emotional descent into a believably surreal and darker place meant that there were days we had to let him rest, so he could harness his energy. Also, the rest of our cast were non actors who had busy lives and schedules, and so it was a challenge to create and maintain the proper flow of events while not over-imposing our production on people’s responsibilities in their ‘real’ world.
What were the main differences compared to the experience with Pavilion?
On Memphis I had a highly effective production team as well as an amazing art department, both aspects allowed me to collaborate in new, interesting and helpful ways and not have to think about money or logistics. Ever. It allowed me to do nothing but think creatively – which was a luxury, and the entire process benefited.
Is this the movie you wanted since the very beginning?
The movie is beyond what I wanted and hoped for. It has everything I first imagined – authenticity, beauty, soul, folklore -, and it is enhanced by a powerful performance from a character who really breaks through expectations, who helps the film cross over into a different dimension. It is not a perfect film at all – but it goes with confidence and craft into a very original space that quietly thinks about life – lives – in a peaceful, interesting, and, to me, moving way.
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN BAKER
What were the difficulties you had concerning time and budget?
Knowing exactly what our limitations and expectations were with time and budget simplified the production in many ways. We knew from the beginning that we couldn’t raise any more money and that our deadline for finishing the film wasn’t going to change. That was liberating to know because I had to accept those things as absolute; I couldn’t throw money at a problem to fix it or ask for an extension to finish the edit. This forced me to focus on production matters I could control within those boundaries and make better decisions because of them.
Tim and I had developed Memphis for almost a year before we started filming, and we had a very clear idea of how we wanted to execute the overall vision of the film. That vision subscribed to a specific visual and narrative language and it needed a particular kind of production process for it to succeed. Authenticity, naturalism, and capturing the immediacy of real life in a heightened/cinematic way were paramount to this aesthetic. It was about having a small crew working with non-actors in real locations, and doing our best to remove the feeling that a film was being made. It required a lot of flexibility, hard work, and patience on everyone’s part because we weren’t working with a traditional script or shooting schedule. Each day was very organized according to the scenes we needed to film and the shots Tim wanted, but we also left room for exploration and development of story lines we couldn’t have written down or planned out.
Communicating how that process would actually work and getting everyone on the crew to fully embrace it was an initial challenge. We had a really talented crew with a lot of experience on films with more of an established formula of doing things. So we all needed to let go of our expectations of how one should make a movie based on those experiences, and start trusting a more intuitive and fluid filmmaking process. Tim entrusted each member of the crew to do their jobs with a lot of autonomy because he knew they would bring something unique and valuable to the project based on their talent. Once everyone got comfortable with this process, everyone’s work really began to shine.
Is there anything in particular that worked smoothly and that you had expected it could have gone wrong?
I know this sounds boring, but everything could have gone wrong in this kind of production and it worked out every step of the way. I was humbled and touched by how warmly we were received by the city of Memphis, the film commission, and its residents. Everyone was so generous and supportive of us as filmmakers and wanted to help us whenever they could. That doesn’t happen everywhere you go when making a movie (Southern hospitality is real!!).
I was prepared and expected to solve problems all day long but there really weren’t any outside of your standard ones (a few broken microphones…etc). I think this is a testament to our crew and cast and how much everyone bought into the process of making Memphis in this specific kind of way. By the end of production, we were like a little family or cult. Everyone had drunk the Kool-Aid and thankfully survived.
A detail or a moment you wanna share about the backstage.
As some wise Memphian said to me, ‘what happens in Memphis, stays in Memphis.’ But if you buy me a drink maybe I’ll reveal some dirt!