A Brooklyn filmmaker with funding from Venice is coming to Memphis to shoot a movie about a troubled young soul-blues singer.
Winner of a $200,000 grant through the Venice Biennale, the prestigious international arts festival, rising filmmaker Tim Sutton was in Memphis this week scouting locations for his as yet untitled project, which he says will be "a narrative film in a documentary world."
That description could be applied to Sutton's debut feature, "Pavilion," which premiered last year at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin before finding appreciation on the international festival circuit.
At the Indie Memphis Film Festival in November, "Pavilion" earned a special jury award for cinematography. The director of photography for "Pavilion," Chris Dapkins, will work again with Sutton on the director's Memphis follow-up. The original title, "Memphis," is likely to be changed to avoid confusion with other projects, including the planned movie version of the Broadway musical of the same name.
Set in green, rural New York State and flat, suburban Arizona, "Pavilion" is a very specific and nonjudgmental slice of disaffected teenage life, focusing on restless young people more reliant on skateboards and bicycles than automobiles. The movie was shot entirely on location and cast mostly with nonactors, strategies that Sutton plans to reproduce for his Memphis movie.
"This was a movie I concocted in my head years ago, and always intended it to be in Memphis," said Sutton, 42, a Stax, Goldwax and Hi Records enthusiast who planned to be an ethnomusicologist before becoming interested in film and video.
Sutton said he and his key crew will return to Memphis in late March, with 20 days of shooting set to begin in mid-April. After completion, the movie has a guaranteed premiere spot in the prestigious Venice International Film Festival in the Italian city in late fall.
A native of upstate New York, Sutton first visited Memphis with serious intent almost two years ago, when he was in town shooting videos of restaurants, churches and other sites for Saveur, a New York-based food, wine and travel magazine. He said he took the job specifically to visit the late Willie Mitchell's Royal Studios, where the great Al Green classics were recorded, and to meet with Royal manager Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, musician Scott Bomar and others connected to Memphis soul. "I fell in love with the city," he said.
Working with the Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission, Sutton already has found several key locations, including the lead character's home.
"Even though it's a small-budget movie, they're running the production like a very professional business," said Sharon Fox O'Guin, deputy film commissioner. Also, "They're trying to capture the flavor of Memphis, the vibe, and avoid the artificial," she said. "They're trying to embed the community into the project."
Even so, "We're supposed to be outsiders," Sutton said. "I think this film should be made from an outsider's point of view rather than from a Memphian's, but we're dead set on not being strangers."
Sutton's in-depth treatment for "Memphis" was one of three projects selected for financing last year in an international competition organized by the Venice Biennale that attracted more than 500 applicants from people interested in "smaller films with more artistic than commercial intentions," Sutton said.
Part of the deal is that the Biennale fully funds the movie at $200,000, so Sutton and Los Angeles-based producer John Baker (known for the acclaimed 2001 documentary "Dragonslayer") won't be spending enough in Tennessee to qualify for state tax rebates and other filmmaking incentives.
Sutton said key "creative crew" from "Pavilion" will join him in Memphis, but otherwise he'll be using locals for cast and crew. Almost everybody on camera will be a Memphian, except for the lead character of the soul singer, "a young guy on the rise losing his mind."
Authenticity and realism will be the watchwords, with scenes set in barbecue restaurants, inner-city nightclubs, recording studios and other locales.