In Tim Sutton’s poetic Memphis, the camera captures musician Willis (blues artist Willis Earl Beal) in a number of haunting scenes as he tries to get back into his creative groove and deliver the record everyone in the film keeps talking about. Willis believes he has supernatural powers but finds he has little control over his lack of inspiration, which leads him to become detached and wander through the title city. If the plot sounds straightforward, its execution is anything but, with Sutton recurring to verite techniques to deliver a film that borrows from Malick, Fellini and Cassavetes. Beautifully photographed by Chris Dapkins, Memphis is an impressionistic take on the creative process, anchored by a stunning performance by Beal, making his screen debut.
The accomplished but mysterious musician seems to be so comfortable in front of the camera, that I was surprised to meet him and find him wearing a mask, which apparently allowed him to be more eloquent and sincere, while establishing his unique take on what being an artist is about. A perfect gentleman, who stood up to shake my hand twice and offered me half of his sandwich, he was one of the few artists with whom an interview has felt more like conversation than an interrogation. He confessed he missed his home in Washington (State, not D.C.) and found New York to be too busy for his taste, “I’d be smoking a joint usually at this time and now I’m just drinking coffee, it’s like geographical opposites, like this is the embodiment of this time and place but a joint would be the embodiment of a different place” he explained.
We discussed his work in the film and he reluctantly asked me to remind readers of his new album (Experiments in Time out since August 8), all while proving to be the embodiment of an artist so aware of who he is, that he feels absolutely comfortable expressing his insecurities to someone with a recording device. “I don’t even know what you’re going to do with this interview, you can edit it and change everything I said if you want” he said with a smile as I said my goodbyes.
What would a regular day be like for you if you weren’t doing press for your film?
I’d be smoking and I would be looking out the window at the boats. Not that I’m rich or anything, we live in a double wide trailer by the lake and we’ve got a cat, a black cat, named Chief Leschi after an Indian burial ground that’s around our area. Chief Leschi’s declawed.
You have many things in common with your character, beginning with your name. Do you feel people will think this is an autobiographical film?
I hope they do actually.
That was the intention?
No. It wasn’t the intention. I’ve talked about it so much I’m trying to figure out what I wanna say about it. It wasn’t intentional but it ended up being autobiographical in a way but still removed, and the reason why it’s removed is because it’s me in a completely constructed environment. I don’t know these people, they aren’t my friends, I know them a little better know but really, my girlfriend in the movie, we talk from time to time. But I didn’t know any of these people and we never really got close, it was very isolating. Everybody who made the film, they were all in a separate house and I was in a house by myself...I got to a breaking point which is actually how I scored the film, I played the piano all the time and just happened to have a tape recorder on me and they used the tape, but I didn’t sit down to write any music. It was strange, at times really uncomfortable, cause then they would come and tell me to be sincere (laughs) and I don’t know how to do that except than to get drunk and get pissed.
Can we say in a way that since you and your character were both isolated, that you made music “in character”?
You can if you want to. I mean, I’m always in character.
Very sparse. Tim is a master of intuition and he’s able to write a line that suggests many different things and is up to interpretation and he knows precisely when you’ve got it and when you don’t. That’s a mysterious process.
Did you contribute with lines then or did you feel more comfortable when he gave you explicit instructions?
He hardly told me anything, he would suggest things, like “go over here and live”. Sometimes it would a mansion they had rented out, they put money and time and effort in this, and he’d said “exist on camera”. You’re involved in this process of looking around you, it was like life, all of your life you go around looking at things, going “why am I talking to this person?”, “what is the point?” and you get back and somebody says cut, not in real life, but all of a sudden you remember having done something that is now tied up to a different event and it’s beautiful. I’m no more knowledgeable about acting now than I was before. Also, I don’t know how films are made, I don’t understand anything about it.
Did it ever get easier with the camera around?
It can get easier because living isn’t easy. Existing isn’t easy. We talk to people and it’s hard to look someone in the eye, you can’t look me in the eye cause I’m wearing a mask but when I’m not wearing a mask it’s hard. So, it’s not hard because there’s a camera it’s hard because that’s the way things are.
So were you into films at all before doing this?
Yeah, I wanted to be like Johnny Depp. I followed his career really closely before he got really popular. One of the first films that really moved me in High School was Dead Man, it fucking changed my life. There’s a character called Nobody in the film and I got a tattoo of that on my arm. I like Jim Jarmusch. I like what I like. I’m very selective but I don’t know a lot of the foreign names. Another film I like is Alphaville, Le Samourai…
In the film Willis says he has a connection to god and I was wondering if this sense of divinity and his eventual downfall...
Is it about his downfall? Really? I’m not trying to be condescending but that says more about the people watching than it does about the actual film.
But you know how the music industry is filled with arrogant people who speak like they are godsent. Was this an inside joke?
Well, no. It wasn’t a joke. I don’t think artists in particular are connected to god. I think all people are connected to god but artists speak the language of god. Art and the construct of art is mandatory and essential to existence. People underestimate art. They love it but at the same time they push it to the side, some things they’re willing to pay for, some they aren’t. Yeah, I feel like artists speak the language of god, if it feels like hyperbole, if it seems like a joke, again it speaks to the cynicism of society today where a person can’t say something like that and can’t be taken seriously.
That’s an interesting take.
But you know what? I shouldn’t have said that! I shouldn’t have told you that, I should’ve just…
Let it go?
Yes, let it go!
But the film also shows that there is eventual beauty in this downfall, he goes from being arrogant…
He was never arrogant, he just felt that way and never changed. He was going down that path and he made a statement that was true and he lived that out. Society is arrogant, television shows are arrogant, movies are arrogant most of the time and Willis never got taken down a notch. He was searching for truth within the construct of the commercial, and you can’t find it there. He called himself a sorcerer because that is the worst of a sorcerer and if you read books on sorcery they say sorcerers try to tear at the fabric of constructed reality and that’s why he made a definitive statement. People don’t do definitive statements anymore and it’s frustrating that people perceive this as arrogance.
You have to understand, I don’t take offense with how others think, I may not agree but it’s fine. It bothers me a lot but I think it just says to me that those folks had an experience in life that has made them cynical and they’re unable to live in this world with this character. People always bring their preconceptions. The only moment when you can find any truth in anything is when you erase personal history, and you look at a thing and you don’t even know what it’s called. Like this (grabs an iPod), is unequivocally an iPod but only because the commercials told me so, this could very well be a sandwich, because what is a sandwich? I’ve lost myself...I’m getting loopy…(laughs)
How many interviews have you done today?
Six. I’m trying to say new things and stuff. I don’t wanna sound like a broken record to myself.
I like talking to you, I like people, it’s just sometimes difficult to talk about the same thing.
You brought up something I’ve always been interested in which is the fact that once an artist creates something, he’s giving it to the world, it doesn’t belong to them anymore. How can you be possessive with art?
I think it’s a real disservice to yourself to come into an environment thinking something and to allow those thoughts to pervade this experience. You may find when you take off your blinders that you still don’t necessarily relate, but to break down things down to simplistic elements...you’d be better off watching sports (laughs). Go watch Michael Bay!
But removing all these thoughts and preconceptions sounds practically impossible! Do you even know how to do this?
Take a nature walk and pay attention to your environment. Not just nature, not just trees and shit, but take a nature walk down the city and try to see things differently, try to look at things with open eyes, be interested in people’s stories and the things around you. Look around you and you will find a whole new world. I think people have stopped looking because they have grown to expect things and take things for granted. That’s how you erase preconceptions, I’m not a master at it, I have all sorts of prejudices. Don’t become so knowledgeable and so high on yourself. I don’t know anything and I’m proud of it, I literally know very little about how things work, but I’m trying to stay open and I think that’s essential to being able appreciate art and when you are able to appreciate art in a pure way you can be happy. Why wouldn’t anybody want to be happy?
Memphis opens in theaters September 5. Willis Earl Beal's Experiments in Time is now available in stores.