Doom Generation: A Conversation with Tim Sutton

On Film / Interviews — Feb 1, 2017
Photo by Caspar Newbolt

Over the course of three features, Brooklyn-based director Tim Sutton has established a contemplative style that combines the stark naturalism of documentary with a sensuous lyricism. Set against the suburban backdrop of Sarasota, Florida, Sutton’s latest film, Dark Night, which was a critical hit at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and opens in theaters this weekend, is loosely based on a massacre that occurred in 2012 at an Aurora, Colorado, screening of The Dark Knight Rises. With gorgeous cinematography by Hélène Louvart (Pina, The Beaches of Agnès) and a melancholy, stripped-down acoustic score by Canadian musician Maica Armata, the film uncovers violence at the heart of American culture through a portrait of six strangers whose lives intersect at the scene of the crime.

Last week, Sutton stopped by for a visit and sat down to chat about the films that have inspired his work and the importance of maintaining an outsider’s point of view.

At what point did you transition from a film lover to a filmmaker?

When I was first getting into filmmaking, I was living in Wisconsin, getting a graduate degree in African-American studies and cultural studies. I got a Bolex in my hands for the first time. I was becoming such an intense film lover, watching everything from Faces to Nostalghia and L’avventura, yet I was telling these very minor stories with a Bolex. But making movies felt natural enough for me to think that I’d move to New York and try to become a filmmaker—and then fifteen years later, I got it done. So it took a while.

Was there a particular film that made you realize you needed to make movies yourself?

Citizen Kane. I remember watching it, and when Welles’s character is speaking at the political rally and the camera starts at the very back of the theater and slowly swoops down across everything, it just felt like the camera could do anything, could create such a sense of dynamic beauty and theatrics and meaning, all with one single move. His performance was so stunning, and to think that he was a twenty-five-year-old director! Obviously, you can’t compare yourself to Welles, but you can think, God, what tremendous excitement it must be to make a movie.

But the movie that made me realize I could make my first film, Pavilion, was Lance Hammer’s Ballast. It’s a movie that speaks its own language and is also completely intimate and free in its own kind of ultra-ethereal way. It tells this emotional story without the character speaking much at all, and without any exposition. I remember watching that movie and saying that there’s no way I can stop until I make Pavilion.

Your films are so rooted in a sense of place. What comes first, the setting or your idea for the story?

It’s usually a very thin thread of a story, and then I place that in the landscape it’s either inherently supposed to be in or somewhere that I can feel creatively in touch with. For Dark Night, I was looking for a very generic America. I didn’t want to shoot the film in Colorado, although I would have shot it there. I could have shot it in Tulsa or Long Island or Minneapolis. I went down to Florida to see if I connected with the landscape, and I did, because Florida’s one of those places where you’re looking at the ocean and it’s beautiful and you turn around and you’re in the biggest parking lot you’ve ever seen in your entire life. The movie was originally going to be shot in a series of strip malls and parking lots. But the thing that really got me connected was the Spanish moss. I don’t focus on it at all in the movie, but you go down there and there’s this feeling of death hanging from the trees.

Your films are very tactile, particularly in their sound design. In such a still and meditative work, is it important for you to have the landscape speak for itself?

Yeah, the buzzing of the street lamps is the most important dialogue in the entire movie. My goal was to make those street lamps feel like trees and those parking lots feel like endless horizons. You not only have to feel the characters and the place, but there’s an emotional well you have to tap into in everything, if you want that to speak in your movies.

Is part of the excitement of filmmaking the ability to be absorbed in these everyday worlds that are different from your own?

Yes, but I always like being the outsider, and I think it’s the outside eye that makes the most impact. As a filmmaker, it’s about searching, not about knowing. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Hélène Louvart was because she brought a foreigner’s eye. She had not shot an American movie.

How did you come to work with her?

I had seen Hélène’s work in Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders, which was so beautiful and natural, and I’d seen Wim Wenders’s Pina, which was so strictly formal. So I got the sense that she was very versatile, but at the same time she shot films for directors who were working very hard to create their own language that’s unique and emotional and beautiful. I was very excited to meet with her. When we met at a café in Paris, she was wearing double denim and looked like a cross between Patti Smith and war photographer. You could just get the sense that she could carry two giant cameras, a battery belt, and have no one help her. She came in and said she had watched both my films and that “Dark Night is like your other films but must go from wide to sharp.” I had always said that the film needed to be like a funnel, so she knew right away what it needed to be.

What was most important is that she cared so deeply for this story. Many cinematographers sweeten what the director is hoping for but don’t necessarily invest so deeply in the storytelling. Hélène was able to do that in a way that challenged me and helped me and supported me, and clearly her expertise made me a better director, a director who was more confident to try things. The thing about Dark Night that my other films don’t have is a feeling of precision. The camera doesn’t feel like it’s wandering. It may feel like it’s floating, but to me there’s something specific we’re going for, and that’s because of Hélène.

Were there any particular films you watched for inspiration?

The film that I thought of most was Taxi Driver. Camera-wise, it’s very precise. It’s a gorgeous landscape, and the material is as dark as you’re going to get. There is the most epic sense of dread and violence by the time you get to the end of it, and you care for these people, you care for Robert De Niro. He’s obviously quite disturbed, and yet you’re rooting for him and you love him. The camerawork, the authentic use of guns, the disturbing personalities involved with guns and how you frame them in the landscape . . . That’s the movie I probably watched most to feel most free before making the film.

Music is the through line in Dark Night. How did you meet Maica Armata?

There are three authors in the film: Hélène, Maica, and me. With this film, I felt like there had to be a narrator, but I didn’t want one of the characters to be the narrator. So I knew that music was going to take on a much bigger role. I wanted the music to flow throughout the movie and support the movie. I didn’t know what that music was going to be, and then I went to Montreal for a film festival and happened upon this woman singing with a guitar.

I was trying to raise money for Dark Night and had just written it, and when I heard her, it just felt like my movie. I stood there and listened to her play, and it was this combination of mantra and insecurity and sorrow. It reminded me of music I’ve felt my lowest listening to, but my lowest in the way where I needed that low—like Will Oldham or Cat Power, these great, huge opiate depressants that make you feel so alive at the same time. I contacted her afterwards, and she connected with my films, so we brought her down to Florida to play a small role. We set up a little studio for her in a bedroom, and it was a crappy set up with no rugs and it echoed, but that’s how we got this great echoey feeling. I wanted her to feel the story and the characters and also just get invested.

What was the last film you saw that deeply affected you?

I just saw Martin Scorsese’s Silence. You’re an hour and a half into that movie and you realize something so intense is happening. A great director is each one of his or her movies—whether that’s Lucrecia Martel or Barry Jenkins—and Scorsese is fully saying that this is it for him, that this is his last giant spear in the ground that says cinema matters. I walked out of there with my breath completely taken from me. It made me feel both joy and ultra-sorrow, because this is a movie that should be bonded in gold. There is one great master who’s working right now, and it’s him.