Jonathan Caouette burst into the documentary scene in 2003 with a truly incredible piece of filmmaking called Tarnation, which he edited together on iMovie from home movies collected over the course of a troubled childhood growing up with his mother Renee, who was forced to undergo unnecessary electroshock therapy as a child, and suffered from a lifetime of mental illness as a result. It was a heartbreaking film, and despite the sad subject matter it felt more alive than practically any other film released in years. Caouette is a little older now, and approaching his new sequel, Walk Away Renee, with a more mature mindset.
Walk Away Renee screens at Outfest 2012 this week, on Saturday, July 21. We spoke to Caouette shortly before the festival began on July 12 to discuss why he's back with a new sequel, moving on to new filmmaking equipment after the low-budget Tarnation, and moving on from documentaries with M. Butterfly writer David Henry Hwang. If you can't make it to Outfest this year, you can watch Walk Away Renee via VOD on SundanceNOW.
CraveOnline: I am thrilled to be talking to you. Tarnation is one of my very favorite documentaries.
Jonathan Caouette: Oh wow. Thank you very, very much. That means a lot to me, actually. Where are you? Are you in Los Angeles as well?
I am, actually.
Oh cool. Did you see… you saw the latest film, called Walk Away Renee?
I have questions about it!
Sure, sure. Of course.
Now, you’re a documentarian, but it in many ways you’re also the biographer of the people that you’re close to. Do you just film everything you do?
No. No I don’t, and I think there’s been a kind of a weird mythology that’s been created around that. I think that after Tarnation itcut off. I don’t really film myself to the magnitude that people would think I had. I think there were various burst in my life where I had a camera and I had sort of gone through…I guess just periods where I would have the camera, you know? I had to put my foot in my mouth as far as I could. I didn’t have a camera with me in every single waking, breathing moment. If anything, I think a lot of people today, with the onset of the iPhone, through having a camera in the palm of their hand, are probably more guilty of doing that than I ever was.
Now at what point did you start putting together Walk Away Renee?
To actually make the film?
Yeah, did you have the footage ready?
It was an amalgam of several different things. There was a project that my producer Pierre and I were working on. […] We started working on that film together… Just to backtrack, his name was Pierre-Paul Puljiz, and he was a videographer-journalist guy that I met on the rooftop of the Noga Hilton hotel at the Cannes film festival during the crazy junkets of the Tarnation days of 2004. He and I had forged a relationship since that time and we worked this small project together for French TV and thought about the possibility of doing something a little more ambitious one day.
So we started to work on this one project [but] we removed ourselves from that. But then we thought about continuing working together on something because we worked together so well, and we had already started to invest time and money, so it kind of metamorphosized into this other idea. And the other idea had sort of come from… the fact that Walk Away Renee exists is really sort of happenstance in a lot of ways and is really sort of organic. Not to discount the film at all, but just the way it was made, it wasn’t coming from the same sense of urgency and catharsis that had created Tarnation. I had a bunch of footage that I had been digitizing for a long time with a group of friends, and a lot of the footage we were digitizing was stuff that I shot over the years. There was quite a bit of footage. There was probably… I want to say somewhere in the realm of a thousand hours, which was, you know, a lot.
Where do you find the time to even screen that? I don’t know where you find the time to look through all that footage.
I don’t either! [Laughs] It was such a feat just to do that alone. A lot of that footage was actually going to… there were many things I was thinking about what could be done with it. I was thinking that maybe some way, somehow, it could come in handy for a ten-year or fifteen-year or twenty-year anniversary of Tarnation; a DVD or Blu-Ray or whatever format may exist in 2014. That was one of the reasons we were doing it, but also I was getting worried because we were digitizing just a bunch of analog material which, at this point, was starting to age a lot. There’s a bit of a paradox with it. It’s like, if you don’t digitize it you never know what’s going to happen to the original source material, which could disintegrate. But at the same time, when you digitize something into zeroes and ones, if you spill a glass of milk on it it’s completely gone forever. So I knew I needed to do something with it sooner than later. So it was either going to be part of something later, or mostly it was going to part of the possibility of a Tarnation anniversary. So then I was talking to Pierre-Paul, because my mother was not in a great situation in Texas, living in an assisted living facility, one of her umpteenth living scenarios that I had gotten her into. But those kinds of living situations can be unpredictable from time to time…
The quality of her life wasn’t really great, and I wanted to try to bring her back up here to live closer to me in New York. The only way she could be sort of transported was to take her by U-Haul or by car. So I tried to make a little movie about it. And there was no anticipation about it… it wasn’t necessarily going to be ‘my next movie’ or anything like that. I just wanted to shoot a road film. I was on a jury for a bunch of films I had seen out in Poland, I guess about three years prior to all of this happening… maybe 2008. It was a couple years before because we shot the road thing in 2010. But I’d seen a bunch of these really wonderful slow burn, extreme cinéma vérité films. I saw about fifteen of them in succession.
I Travel Because I Have To, I Come Back Because I Love You, I think was the name of it… maybe that’s not the right name. The other one was called Mama, which was about this elderly woman who was the caretaker of her suicidal 400-pound son. That was a really, really beautiful film. I was really attracted to a lot of the likes of these, like Le Quattro Volte was another film that I was really inspired by. And I had been having conversations here and there with Gus Van Sant, and he was the one that turned me on to Bela Tarr in a way that other people never had. I really never knew of Bela Tarr’s work. I knew who he was and I knew what he did, but I didn’t know, like… the whole minutiae about him. So I had a couple of conversations—long conversations—about him, and it was really inspiring in a lot of ways. The ideal was I was going to make a road movie that was going to be the inspired by the likes of these he slowed down films. I thought it would be a really great sort of reaction to the post-post-post-MTV generation that’s now kind of a little prehistoric or in the past—thank God—and also a great sort of reaction to my own film Tarnation, which was very, very frantically edited and had sort of adopted that initial onset of the digital kaboom in film editing that I kind of inadvertently jumped into in 2003. So yeah, that was the whole idea… to make this very, very modern road film and just to see what inherently could or could not happen as a result of doing that, even if it was going to be something very sort of “slice of life”-ish and very, very mundane. So we cut that together as its own self-contained film, and I think because of the way it was done… it was so impromptu the way we shot everything. You know, I still think it could’ve worked as its own self-contained film. But when you’re in a certain kind of space and time, you kind of make decisions based on where you’re at. After we had shot that and constructed a road movie together, I still felt that I almost needed to create these sort of little devices even it if was a retread of Tarnation in some ways. Or maybe retread isn’t the right adjective. Re-paraphrase…?
A little bit of context may be necessary if you haven’t seen Tarnation recently.
Okay… I felt the information we received in Tarnation… I felt I needed to sort of re-paraphrase aspects of that in a very, very condensed, sort of nested way, so that it would come out a certain way on its own that it didn’t come out in Tarnation. Tarnation was very, very first-person; it was me filming everything, basically. Using the text onscreen with music and photographs… I felt like I needed to do that again in this film. I thought it was fair, at least to the audience, to create something that was going to lend emotional weight to the present stuff.
Your film takes a bit of a fantastical turn towards the end when we’re dealing with your state of mind. Could you tell me about the decision to take a different tack there towards the end?
I feel with all the films I’ve done so far, I’ve utilized more fantastical moments that still convey the truth. I think that’s one of the things I do, I guess… I like to sort of work in a little bit of surrealism, or magical realism, or create devices that blur the line between fiction and reality; that are mostly fiction or obviously fiction, but I still utilize them to convey the truth. A lot of that was spawned out of… I think I am, psychologically, as I move through time and have gotten a bit older, become increasingly existential in a lot of my thought processes. As a firm believer that there’s a lot more going on, layer-wise, than we actually see, I wanted to explore that thematically in the film little bit. Strangely enough, there was a version of that [which] was explored heavier, but – because it was heavier in the way it was explored in the Cannes film festival version – it was still very underdeveloped in a lot of ways, and I’m glad a lot of that was cut out.
So will there be a different version that screens at Outfest?
The version that’s going to screen at Outfest is the version you’ve probably seen, I hope. [Laughs] The film had gone through about five different version, actually. Are you reviewing forOutfest?
I actually have a scheduling conflict and I’m not going to be able to make it, unfortunately. But they did send me a screener.
I’ve never been to Outfest, but I’d love to try to make it out there. I think we’re trying to figure out a way for me to come out there this year.
I really hope you do. It’s wonderful.
I know… I’ve heard it’s amazing.
Is there anything in particular – besides the basic concept, obviously – that excites you about getting out here for that?
Isn’t there a John Waters retrospective going on?
Yeah, I think he’s getting some sort of award or something. [EDITOR’S NOTE: That would be the 16th Annual Outfest Achievement Award.]
That’s wonderful. That would be a cool thing to be a part of. I’m going to try to make it out, and I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to do it.
It’s from the 12th the the 22nd [of July].
Okay, okay….That’s right, the 12th. Very cool. Okay. Very good. I’m going to try as much as I can to get out there.
I was a little curious… you’re past editing in iMovie by now, I imagine.
I have, although I’m still learning – still having to get my head around FinalCut Pro. [Laughter] I never really had a chance to learn before. The irony of having made Tarnation is that I did, in fact, cut every little thing on iMovie. When that film came out and saw the light of day, my life changed exponentially, and that was coupled with other things changing. I had to become this perpetual caretaker for more than a couple of years, and I had to stop making films to the degree that I wanted to make films. As a result of that technology had evolved so much that by the time I came back to it everything was… it was like I had gone through a wormhole and everything had metamorphosized so much that it was unrecognizable. So I’m just now starting to catch up with everything.
Are you working on anything after Walk Away Renee?
I am, I am! I can’t say exactly what it is… I have to put my foot in my mouth because a couple of interviews ago I said that I didn’t want to make documentaries anymore and I wanted to officially retract that somewhere and say that I don’t want to make any personal documentaries anymore. I don’t think there’s gonna be anything like a Seven Up! series or "An American Family" series or anything like that. I [think] this is definitely, definitely the end of this. If anything, it’s a conclusion to Tarnation. But it’s also a kissing cousin and a companion piece – or a proto-sequel. I like that. It’s not actually a sequel… I don’t know what it is.
I can see it as sort of a sequel, if not just for the events – it also shows how you yourself have evolved in dealing with the situation.
I know, I know. Some people were saying some really horrific things that a gay male doesn’t want to hear, you know?
Yeah, like how tired and weary and worn-out I look.
Which is fine, because I didn’t make these films to be glamorous or anything, how much weight I gained and all that. This is not about me or anything like that at all, you know? But as an almost forty-year-old gay male…! [Laughter]
I think they should cut you some slack. This was a rough time for you.
Yeah, it was weird. Well, if anything it’s going to motivate me when I wanna like, actually take some pounds off. [Laughs]
Well, I think you look fabulous.
That was the only thing about it that was upsetting. But frankly I’m really glad at the end of the day that… I mean, the reason I make these films, I think, in a lot of ways is just to connote the idea that I want people to have a little more empathy for the mentally ill, in a nutshell, I guess.
You mentioned the film you were going to make, with such a lot of the same issues. Is this something you’re going be pursuing in other documentaries but in a less personal way, or…?
I think I definitely have one more documentary in me, which might be the next thing I do, actually. And then after that I’m definitely looking to segue into fictional films that could perhaps feel like documentaries in a lot of ways.
I’m really interested in sort of doc-hybrids as a way to make fictional films. But definitely one more documentary and definitely wanting to shape-shift into more fictional films.