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Interview: Jonathan Caouette on Tarnation, Personal Demons, and More

Are the demons that fed Tarnation’s making still present? Is it still, as Renee recites in the film’s closing moments, a beautiful world?

Interview: Jonathan Caouette on Tarnation, Personal Demons, and More
Photo: Sundance Selects

When Jonathan Caouette’s kaleidoscopic DIY doc Tarnation debuted at Sundance in 2004, Facebook hadn’t yet launched. YouTube didn’t exist. And as for personal devices, the Mac on which Caouette famously edited his dirt-cheap film was about as slick as things got. Culled from roughly 20 years of home movies, photographs, videos, and voicemails, Tarnation made headlines for its guerilla-style creation, and with a little help from executive producers Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell, it went on to pick up trophies from a host of awards bodies, including the Indie Spirits and the National Society of Film Critics. But while the style drew viewers in, it was the substance that kept them talking, as Tarnation offered a fiercely personal account of a family’s struggle with mental illness, from Caouette’s own depersonalization disorder (a long-term effect of adolescent drug use) to the acute bipolar and schizoaffective disorders of his mother, Renee Leblanc, a weathered beauty and the film’s tragic angel.

Eight years later, Caouette continues his and his mother’s warm, wistful saga with Walk Away Renee, a new documentary that is both an addendum to Tarnation and a chapter all its own. Chronicling a road trip that sees Caouette drive Renee from Houston to New York, and grapple with doctors’ red tape while trying to move her into an assisted-living facility, the movie, though less arresting, bears the same hauntingly intimate signature as its predecessor. Having had its premiere at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Walk Away Renee now finds its way to Outfest, and Caouette, beaming with a contentment that hardly suggests a bustling New York life, takes a pause to discuss the film before boarding a flight to L.A. Is it strange to suddenly live in a culture where anyone can mimic what made you famous? Are the demons that fed the making of Tarnation still present? Is it still, as Renee recites in Tarnation’s closing moments, a beautiful world? The filmmaker weighs in.

It’s safe to say that you were a pioneer of modern DIY cinema, what with the at-home editing techniques and much-reported micro-budget of Tarnation. How do you feel about the ways in which DIY has evolved since then?

Everything has exploded, and I think a lot of it is kind of passé at this point. Not in a bad way, I just think it’s very circumstantial that it’s become what it has become. If Tarnation had been made today, in exactly the same way, frame by frame, with the same storytelling devices, I don’t think it would have resonated in the same way it did in the beginning of 2004. With the onset of YouTube and the Internet and people having this barrage of media thrown out at machine-gun speed, there’s a sense of desensitization. It’s weird because a lot of the devices and things I did in Tarnation are very prevalent in what 12- and 13-year-olds can do on YouTube now. It’s a different world we live in now. People are very, very desensitized. It’s scary, actually, what’s happening. The whole idea of technology for me has been a real paradox—an even-keeled, love/hate thing. Without it, I wouldn’t have been able to make my first film, or second, or third, but at the same time I think there’s something very dangerous about all the media we’re being exposed to now. It’s par for the course with the onset of digital editing and all that as well. It’s all part of the same big change that’s happened.

What do you think about the changes in viewing options over the last eight years? In 2004, I had to go to a festival to see Tarnation, or get it on DVD. Now, with Walk Away Renee, I can watch it on SundanceNOW.

With me, and I’m not trying to say this to be optimistic or diplomatic in any way, but I think it’s just as good as it is kind of strange that we can access things as quickly as we can. I think it’s a wonderful thing, but I have to agree with what David Lynch said a long time ago, [which was that] cinema, whatever the definition of that even is at this point, should be seen in a traditional theater setting, or at least on a big TV. But I’m not really crazy about the idea of just grabbing things and seeing them online, on a laptop, or on a device. I think films should be experienced in the dark, with a bunch of people, simultaneously on a big screen.

As an author of films, do you feel something is lost when a movie is watched on, say, a smartphone?

I definitely think so. For sure. And I’m wondering, with my next film, if I should just take the film with me, and travel with it, and go from theater to theater. Or make digital copies and give it to theaters and have total control over it. I think it’s all at once a really great thing because it’s accessible and convenient, but it’s a catalyst for the end of cinema in a lot of ways. And no one seems to be complaining about that so much and that’s what makes it even scarier. And maybe it’s just because I’m 40. Maybe 40 years old in 2012 with the onset of technology and how much that’s changed in the past 10 years is the equivalent of a 90-year-old ranting about something 20 years ago. I don’t know. It’s hard to foresee what the evolution of all of this is gonna be. I’m just hoping that movie theaters are still around, you know, 20 years from now.

Between Tarnation and Walk Away Renee, what were the differences in terms of budget and technique?

Gosh. Tarnation was $218. It was nothing to put together. It was music derived from my own CD collection, and the way it was made was a lot easier than the way Walk Away Renee was made. The initial version of Tarnation was made in about three-and-a-half weeks, whereas the new film took about three-and-a-half years to make. With the way technology has evolved since 2004, I think it’s actually become a lot more complicated to make films, with all the pixels and ratios and compatibilities you have to worry about. I could give a really elongated answer about all of it, but it would just go on and on. It would make for an interesting book, I think.

You spent your whole life documenting moments, and now we have another film with more footage that captures a new chapter. Are you filming your life now, this week? And will you continue to make documentaries? Like the Up series?

No, no, no. I’m not planning on doing anything of the magnitude of the Up series or This American Life or anything like that. I think the reasons for having made Walk Away Renee were a lot more out of happenstance and circumstance than the [reasons behind] Tarnation, which was made with a sense of urgency, and there was a heavy sense of catharsis connected to it. With Walk Away Renee, it was more about the idea that I had a lot of B-roll from Tarnation just residing on external hard drives, and I had the need to do something with it. That B-roll, and the B-roll from my life, essentially, was originally going to be used for a 10- or 15- or 20-year anniversary DVD, of some sort, of Tarnation. But I decided somewhere along the way to put the footage into this film. The original idea for Walk Away Renee was an extreme verité road movie, exploring the mundanity of my mom and myself, and seeing, possibly, what inherent drama, or not, could unfold. And that was going to be the whole premise. But somewhere along the way, the idea metamorphosed into wanting to reintroduce backstory into the film for weight, taking five steps back so I could make 12 leaps forward in the story. There are nuances in the beginning that might even feel like a watered-down retread of Tarnation, but I felt it was totally necessary.

I know you got this question a lot while doing the rounds for Tarnation, but, naturally, one of the concerns of making a film like this is the matter of exploitation. In your films, it truly feels like you’re expressing something you need to express, but, still, how concerned are you about familial exploitation when you’re releasing these films?

I’m constantly concerned with it. I’m constantly waking up in the middle of the night, even now, with butterflies in my stomach, wondering what it is that I’ve done. And it’s in those moments at night when you have very existential thoughts, right before you’re about to go to bed. I tend to go down this little rabbit hole and think about these two movies that I’ve made. But the thing I come back to, and the thing that sort of makes it all okay is that I think I’ve established a dialogue among people who’ve seen this films. And it hasn’t really stopped. Even if it’s just pertaining to a minority of people, who happen to have people in their families that they may or may not take care of who suffer from mental illnesses. And I think at the end of the day, when the smoke clears, that’s a pretty cool thing to have been able to do—to put a subject out there, in cinematic form, in a way that other filmmakers may not have been able to do in the past. I haven’t seen too many films on mental illness that do what these two films may have done. I’m sure there are some, but I haven’t seen them. And, for me, exploitation is when somebody from the outside is coming in and exploiting something. For me, I live and breathe the sequel every day. This is my life, and my mother’s life, and between us, we’ve both known that we have a pretty important story to tell. It just works out because I happen to be a filmmaker.

What were you thoughts about whether or not audiences would want to revisit this material?

I had no conception at all. I was definitely wavering about this film more so than the first one. With the first one I didn’t even know what I was doing, in the sense that there was no pre-meditation. There was a lot of magic surrounding it. With the second one, there was a lot of wavering for sure. I often joke that this new film is a sort of opulent DVD extra for Tarnation. I think it resonates with people still. It may not be as epic, and there may not be as much story as there was in the first film, but I think it’s a film that still connects with people anyway.

You’ve said that the visual style of Tarnation was, in a sense, your way of projecting and processing your own mental struggles through cinema. Was there a similar connection between visual effects and mental/emotional effects in the making of this film?

No. They’re two totally different films. When I was making Tarnation, it was me sort of doing everything hands-on, but as technology evolved, and I began to wrap my head around other editing programs, I ended up giving this film to another editor. Which was probably a good thing, but at the same time it was also very difficult because I felt like I relinquished a lot of control. So I felt like this film didn’t have the same frequency or fingerprints that Tarnation had. I feel like it’s a very loose echo of what Tarnation was. Comparatively, I’ll say I’m a bigger fan of Tarnation than I am of this film.

Are those differences indicative of a changed mental state?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I’m older now, and I feel like it’s the end of a chapter. And there are frustrating elements about this film, because I think there were certain nuances and dynamics and subplots that could have been explored further. But there are certain things that just can’t be transposed cinematically, or even put into book form. There are certain things you can only experience in real life. And knowing that I wasn’t able to transpose what I felt was missing was a really big, frustrating factor for me with this film.

I’m personally drawn to the influences that pop up in your films. Dolly Parton. Rosemary’s Baby. They’re things that are very much tied to gay culture. Will we ever see these influences channeled into a narrative film?

God, yes. Definitely. I’m planning on making a narrative. I was saying for a long time, as a mantra, that this film would be a transitional film, and that it would be my film to segue out of documentary and into narrative, fictional films. Which is true, but I think there is one more documentary I’m going to make. As of about three weeks ago, a really cool opportunity presented itself to me, and there was no way in hell I was going to be able to say no to it. It’s an unbelievable story. I don’t want to say what it is because I don’t want to hex it, but it could be really amazing if I have the opportunity to actually do it.

Both you and your mother refer to your parents by their first names. Your relationship with Renee is presented as being much healthier than her relationship with your grandparents, but why the first-name basis? Is that a product of environment or a way to maintain a safe distance?

I think it’s the latter. I was talking to somebody about this the other day, and I’ve found this to be pretty prevalent among people who end up being caretakers of their parents. They end up calling their parents by their first names. And it’s not meant to be disrespectful or anything like that. But I’ve always called my mother by her first name, ever since I was a kid. And I was just never corrected, one way or another. But I think it’s also pretty common thing with people who have parents with mental-illness issues.

You mention in Tarnation that you’re very scared of turning out like your mother. What are those fears like now?

Um, I think that, thank God—if nothing has happened at this point, then I don’t think it is going to happen. I hope. I mean, I’m a bit of a loosey-goosey, but I feel like my head is screwed on well enough to where I won’t have the same thing that my mom does.

And how’s your mother doing now?

She’s doing good. I just moved her into an apartment as of January, just behind my apartment. Sometimes it’s a little too close for comfort, but it’s actually one of the most doable scenarios that I’ve been in so far. Although it can be stressful sometimes. So I think that next time I make a movie I’ll have to devise an infrastructure to make sure that everyone on the home front is being taken care of, so to speak, so that I can actually create and make movies.

What’s it like to be living your life and knowing that people are sitting somewhere watching your life at the same time?

It’s weird. It’s weird. Definitely, having made the first one, it was like opening up Pandora’s box. But I think once I got through the initial hump of having made that, this next one was not as big of a deal. It’s odd, but on the same token, it’s not that much more strange to me than someone taking a picture of their Pad Thai at a restaurant and posting it online. There’s something not as important now in terms of visual media conveying something personal. In the era that we live in, personal anything is almost becoming a little archaic, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe it’s not a great thing.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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