Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a beautiful documentary about the emphatically tormented work and life of artist/musician Daniel Johnston. A loving portrait assembled by two dedicated fans, director Feuerzeig—who won the Best Director award at last year’s Sundance—and producer Henry Rosenthal, the film is organized biographically, exploring the painful and profound struggle of Daniel Johnston and his all-too-real demons. In lieu of incorporating the present day voice of this basement savant, Feuerzeig constructs a pastiche in which a wealth of meticulously recorded autobiographical documentation (8mm films, low-fi video animations, audiocassettes) stands in for Johnston’s narration. I spoke with Feuerzeig about his history with Johnston, his journey with the film, and some of the gentle controversies that have arisen from this representation of a uniquely flawed, divinely inspired, artist who has burrowed his way into a fanbase so loyal he may never be forgotten. And that’s what this film is seeing to, that Daniel Johnston and his mythic realities are never lost.
I understand you met Daniel Johnston on a radio show. You said it was “legendary and much, much scarier than Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds.” How’d you hear the show and what was it about? And why was it scarier than War of the Worlds?
Jeff Feuerzeig: The year was 1990 and it was WFMU broadcasting out of Upsala College in New Jersey. Even to this day, WFMU is the greatest free form radio station in America and is now broadcasting on the web. This broadcast was a one-hour radio special that they were promoting for an entire week. This was while Daniel was in the mental hospital in West Virginia. He was promoting his new gospel album, which was called 1990. Everyone I knew that week in Hoboken, New York, Brooklyn ran out and bought that album because we were already Daniel Johnston fans from the early cassettes and we were glued to the radio, we didn’t know what was going to happen. Daniel phoned in from the hospital and he put on this elaborate performance with his two cassette decks and it truly was much, much scarier than the Orson Welles War of the Worlds. I’ve heard that broadcast, I’m a big Orson Welles fan, but I don’t know how anyone can hear that and think it’s real. This was so much scarier because this was too real. Daniel interviewed himself in multiple voices, Daniel’s obsession with fame came out, his obsession with the devil…it was all there. He did elaborate comedy skits—he is very funny—in which he played all the characters including the female parts, he took calls from the listening audience and I phoned in and talked to Daniel and that was how we met. And then I got the idea to make the film right after that was over.
Henry, at what point did you get involved?
Henry Rosenthal: Jeff and I met in 1993, at the Berlin Film Festival. We became friends there and the first day we met we talked about our mutual affection for Daniel Johnston. We maintained that friendship for a few years sort of thinking of a way we could work together, and then the opportunity to be the guys to make the Daniel Johnston documentary that so many people had talked about for so many years. That was about six years ago.
Were there a lot of people saying, “I’d really like to make a film about the Daniel Johnston,” but those people never found a way to make it happen?
HR: It was more like there were a lot of people saying, “There should be a Daniel Johnston documentary,” because as each of these stories came out, like the plane crash, or the exorcism of the woman thrown from the window, Daniel created a larger than life persona and people felt it had cinematic qualities but nobody ever addressed the issue seriously.
I wanted to ask you about your channeling of these cinematic qualities. The history of Daniel you portrayed seemed to favor this footage, both audio and video, that Daniel took of himself and his surroundings. This footage acts as something of a replacement for his point of view.
JF: Well, as it should be.
JF: Well, it’s very simple. It’s always like Daniel’s walking a high wire and he could slip and fall at any moment. That’s what you want to see—not slipping and falling but a performer that is right on the edge—and you know what? He walks the high wire and gets across the grand stage of the big top. And all his music and art is like that: it’s so fragile it could fall apart at any second, but it doesn’t fall apart. It holds together. It’s a raw, unfiltered beauty, and it touches people in a very unique way. He created a large body of work in the early ’80s and here we are sitting here today talking about it. And his art: thousands of pieces have gone out into the world and he’s disseminated them in such a unique way, by selling them at comic book stores and bartering them for comic books and Beatles records. And then it gets passed around and sold on eBay and friends hand it to each other and now there are thousands of pieces out there. So he got these pieces out there and it spread almost through osmosis, like a secret handshake. It was a beautiful situation. Now, we’re in a corporate, homogenized society, and we just don’t ever experience that phenomenon anymore. The way it’s happened up ’til now, there was no corporate agenda and I think that’s so special. Daniel’s work is autobiographical. He channeled everything that was going on in his life into the songs and if it didn’t go into the songs it would go into the artwork. So I was able to assemble, very linearly, his entire life, because he laid it out for me—so that I could put the puzzle together.
HR: We actually spent a long time trying to figure out how to hold the film together—what our main themes were. We were in the editing stage for two-and-a-half years—showing it to audiences, trying to put it together—but it wasn’t gelling. It was too much and finding the right order and balance for the story elements all happened in the absolute last stage of editing. That was when things came into focus and finally started to work.
JF: It also started to work when we figured out a title. Then, all of the sudden, it thematically came together, it is a portrait of a living ghost, a portrait of an enigma. You don’t get to know Daniel Johnston, you meet him through this internal monologue, and through that monologue you get this point of view which is even more intimate than what you’d get from an old guy being interviewed. Daniel doesn’t host his own film because he’s unable to.
HR: And Daniel gets second billing in his own film. The Devil’s the lead character and the antagonist.
JF: And the film follows the classic three-act structure, at the end of act one, you meet the antagonist.
You wrote that you chose Casper as the film’s guiding icon because it was Daniel’s favorite.
HR: We didn’t chose Casper, Daniel did.
JF: Daniel thought, for a long time, he was Casper and he wrote one of his biggest songs about Casper.
HR: He’d drawn him thousands of times.
JF: Casper’s on the cover of Yip Jump Music: that’s his chord organ album, which I love. Casper’s a huge icon for Daniel and of course, in the final scene, during the credits, he gets to wear the Casper costume.
Which you bought him.
Did you feel like there were any awkward ethics about renting Daniel the Casper suit?
JF: No. None whatsoever, because Daniel exploited his mental illness, he always wanted to be Casper. He loved shooting that scene, and it’s really moving. He understands the power of that image. I don’t think there are taboos in literature or film—you can’t create that way. There are no boundaries—if you aim to seek a deeper truth—and I feel that costume very much seeks a deeper truth at the end of the movie. He thanked me for it; it was like a dream come true for him.