IONCINEPHILE of the Month
IONCINEPHILE of the Month: Tim Sutton (Pavilion)
IONCINEMA.com’s IONCINEPHILE of the Month feature focuses on an emerging filmmaker from the world of cinema. This March, we feature Tim Sutton, whose debut film Pavilion premiered almost one year to the day at the 2012 edition of the SXSW Film Festival. Factory 25 just released the film in New York (March 1st) with further dates to come. Below you’ll find our profile and Tim Sutton’s personal Top Ten films of all time can be found here.
Eric Lavallee: During your childhood…what films were important to you?
Tim Sutton: The first film I ‘saw’ in a movie theater was Bambi. And all that I can recall (through memory combined with the story told to me over the years) was that my father cried. As a kid, I dug Star Wars, Breaking Away, Ode to Billie Joe – I just remember feeling really sad during the scenes on that bridge) and loved, loved, Watership Down – that was the first film I can remember breaking down walls between the real and the imagined and that animation could be a very serious thing. It was this entire fantasy world that you could then go out in the yard or the woods or climb a tree and attempt to recreate scenes in your head over and over. And it was intense – premonitions, gangs, meadows covered in blood, and all wrapped up into a deeply spiritual quest for safety…and the first protagonist deeply embedded in my head – Hazel. A rabbit. I still love the name Hazel as much as my own sons’ names.
Lavallee: During your formative years, what films and filmmakers inspired you?
Sutton: When I was in graduate school (not for film) in the early 90’s I discovered films like Godard’s Masculine-Feminine and Weekend, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood and Mirror, along with American independents like Cassavettes’ Faces and Killing of a Chinese Bookie, Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, and Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise and Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have it. Each one of these films is stylistically elegant, visually beautiful – and, most important, each of these films says clearly that storytelling is what you make of it.
Lavallee: At what point did you know you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Sutton: When I saw all those above films. I mean, I always really felt comfortable creating stories – drawing, writing, photography – but also felt inspired by groups that worked in a kind of liquid form – I was obsessed with soccer and jazz for a long time because I loved how improvisation and the sense of ‘building’ to a moment were constantly at work – and felt that filmmaking, directing, was an act that combined things that I naturally enjoyed.
Lavallee: What kind of process did you use with the non-pro cast to attain a comfort level/sense of naturalism? Was there some form of a rehearsal process, or exercises with the camera prior to filming?
Sutton: I’ve worked with kids of all ages. I’ve taught filmmaking to five year olds, tutored middle schoolers, worked with high school students in various settings. I’m a father, and so I feel like I understand at least enough about kids’ lives and inner-lives to recognize that they are a total mystery. They’re insecure, sweet, frustrated and, quite often, incredibly intelligent – regardless of whether or not their judgment is the best. Most kids’ schedules (not to mention their sense of time) are, obviously, very different from adults. That time – the downtime, really – that’s what’s totally fascinating to me. I knew that working within my budget and aesthetic, a very loose and natural approach to the narrative was important. So action was everything (what do these kids do? Where do they go? Let’s just watch). Dialogue, on the other hand, meant nothing to furthering the film. Talk is just talk. We had no rehearsal. We met the Arizona half of the cast as we were shooting, literally. So the cinematic approach was to allow that inner life to come out by empowering them to be themselves within our frame – to be comfortable. This way, the story grew like a vine. Yes, each scene in the film was set up in broad strokes, each aspect of the story produced specifically by design. But inside the frame – our characters are themselves, fully. Certainly Bruno Dumont’s La Vie De Jesus was a huge influence, and that film seems to have been produced on familiar ground. Those kids aren’t acting, but they are following a well-designed story.
Lavallee: How tightly did you stick to your screenplay – were location, character actions, the limited used of dialogue tightly bound to what you have in mind prior to shooting.
Sutton: I had written a number of drafts of a short story so that Chris Dapkins (DP) would understand the kind of story I wanted to shoot, but we never referred to it on set. To be honest, the kids weren’t interested in the story – they were really into making a movie – but they didn’t care about the story and so I didn’t push it. I had three funding sources who gave me complete creative control. So I knew we could make the film in an organic fashion, borrowing from the kind of filmmaking Godard and Wong Kar Wai produced so beautifully. The film drifts from moment to moment, kid to kid, by design. The ‘story’ is about a kid who moves from East to West, from one landscape to another, one parent to another. And within that structure, I felt comfortable finding the different routes to get us through the film, creating the mini stories that would feed the big arc. We would discuss options and ideas and then I would go away and write outlines and key ideas that would be the next day’s schedule. The next day would be a new day. This is a fantastic way to make a film, because nobody got tired of the story or process. It literally would change and grow each day. Crew members caught on to the strategy and played vital roles in the process – giving ideas, offering me space and time to talk through my own ideas, and just rolling with it during filming. It was totally risky and such a thrill to let things build like that, but I don’t think anyone knew what the film would or could be.
Lavallee: What inspirations (other films, location, paintings etc…) did you draw upon for the look/style, aesthetics of the film?
Sutton: Cinematically, the first half is Todd Haynes’ Safe on quaaludes, without the sickness – a floating, searching camera that conserves its energy, exposing typical surroundings as ethereal in meaning and beauty. Arizona is like the Maysles Brothers’ Gimme Shelter with a frayed edge, without leaning too forward into verite. And films like Clair Denis’ Beau Travail – films in which spare dialogue say more than millions of words.
Lavallee: Can you discuss the collaborative process you had with your cinematographer, editor and composer?
Sutton: I think it goes without saying that my cinematographer, Chris Dapkins, and my editor, Seth Bomse, are as responsible for Pavilion‘s unique place in the world as I am. First, Chris is a total filmmaker, not simply a cinematographer. He cared so much about the process and the flow of the storytelling and most camera people don’t necessarily think as deeply and as ego-lessly as Chris. The process was one of pure trust and a mixed vision – there are shots that I painstakingly framed directly connected to entire sequences in which his eye and operating are the scene. That’s why the film feels at once dreamy and graceful and verite and possibly real – the combined eye. Just as important was our connection to how the story could progress, our dialogue on who to follow, what time to shoot what scene – even placing half the film in Arizona came directly through figuring things out with Chris.
With Seth, a documentary editor, it was more about me proving to him that we didn’t need to care about explanation, exposition, establishing shots – nor even establishing characters and introducing them to the audience – that we could create a language that simply and beautifully kept the story and the kids in motion. Once he got hold of that, he took the film deeper and deeper and really created a rhythm that sticks with the viewer. His montage and simultaneously minimal but somehow still lush sound design creates a true hypnotic experience.
The third principal was Sam Prekop of the Sea and Cake, who created the score. I always planned for Sam to do my first film, as his sound matched the ideas of kids on quietly lived adventures. He never created specific cues but would continue sending ethereal concepts that became the core themes for Seth and I to layer and weave together. Because I wanted a very minimal score in the end, there was a lot of music sadly leftover – but he entire score is coming out as an LP and it is insanely beautiful stuff.