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Interview: Jeff Feuerzeig and Henry Rosenthal on The Devil and Daniel Johnston

The Devil and Daniel Johnston hopes that Johnston and his mythic realities are never lost.

Interview: Jeff Feuerzeig and Henry Rosenthal on The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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.

Why’s that?

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.

HR: Rented.

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.

A lot of people have called that dream come true “creepy.”

HR: Well, sure.

JF: The film is The Devil and Daniel Johnston. This is literally a man’s battle with the devil. He’s a fundamentalist, right wing Christian, and the Devil is very real to Daniel and his family. It’s a metaphor for me but it’s not to him. There was a great review last week—what was it?

HR: Blender Magazine called it “the scariest movie of the year,” and it is—I was a big Casper fan as a kid but it wasn’t until Daniel asked me “How did Casper die?” that I ever thought of it as sad or horrible.

Did he actually fall in the well?

HR: I think that’s Daniel’s invention.

JF: The opening line of the film is “I’m the ghost of Daniel Johnston.” To me, Daniel Johnston is an enigma, and the film is a portrait of a living ghost, and it’s a journey through madness and creativity, whether you like the music or not. Van Gogh didn’t tape himself and his mania, but Daniel did. Daniel studied art and the history of art and saw himself in that tradition. And he exploited his own mental illness. A lot of his great songs are about his own mental illness. Like “I Had Lost My Mind.” You remember the song he made the animated video for with the blood coming out of the head. Later, he exploits it on MTV, he says, “This is my new album Hi, How Are You? that I recorded while having a nervous breakdown.” He’s drawn many scenes in which he is the puppet and the Devil is pulling the strings, but he’s also the wizard behind his own curtain. [Pause] He used to manage the manager. You should hear the hours of tape that he recorded when he went on the road to New York to record with Maureen Tucker from the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth and Jad Fair of Half-Japanese and Kramer the producer. He is conning every single one of these parties, including [his agent Jeff] Tartakov. And he’s working out how he’s going to record with all these people, get on the bill of the Village Voice Benefit Concert, how he was going to do all these things and he did every single one that week he spent in New York. Daniel would come in a charming, waifey and boyish way, then he’d make a comic about you and then he’d have you in the palm of his hand. People don’t want to look at that side of him. [Pause] We’ve sat at dinner and Lunch with Dan a thousand times, had countless discussions…

HR: …conversations in which he’s as lucid and erudite and present as we are here, right now.

JF: And we’ll have these discussions about things he’s interested in. Like the history of Marvel Comics and Jack Kirby, or every detail about the animation in King Kong, or Schindler’s List, or Kurt Vonnegut. Daniel is a very well read, very bright guy and I always tell people he’s the smartest person in the room. But it serves his purpose to appear small.

I went into the film knowing little to nothing about Daniel Johnston and I expected the film to be about Divine Madness. I felt that in lieu of dealing with the romantic notions we have of Divine Madness, what came up were the realities of it: how dangerous Daniel was to others and himself for example.

HR: There is nothing glamorous about mental illness. It’s sad…

However, people romanticize. Louis Black talked about that and how every art critic or fan wants to know and care for the next Van Gogh and, as Black said, he did “the most pedestrian thing possible and committed him.”

JF: He hit his manager over the head with a lead pipe, baptized people in a creek. Imagine if it were you: Here is your dear friend who writes these songs you adore with these achingly beautiful lyrics about unrequited love and then he’s doing frightening dangerous things. You want to help him or save him because you can’t sit down with him and have a chat. He tried to kill Randy and the woman in the apartment and his father, and many times, he could have killed himself. He was manic. But he also created a lot of great art and music when he was manic.

There’s a beautiful moment in the film where Daniel, in present day, is remembering his muse Laurie Allen, and there’s a screen-within-a-screen of Laurie in 8mm with Daniel’s eyes sort of looking toward the screen-within-a-screen. It seemed to me that there was something going on with time and memory. Memory isn’t always about the past for this film and when Daniel speaks he seems sort of outside of time, as if memory is now: past is future.

JF: We would sit in his garage with him at three in the morning, which has a wall of pop culture, whether it’s Frankenstein, or Marilyn Monroe, or Salvador Dalí, he’s got this incredible montage of these characters and the characters are very real to him. Like Laurie but also the Beatles. There’s a party going on in his head all the time. He’d sit there and smoke his cigarettes and draw a little, play some piano, and we’d film him, and then, every so often, he’s start cackling under his breath, like he was having this great time and it was all very real to him and it was all happening right then. We could see the characters were happening in his head, he’s tapped into something.

Jeff Tartakov seemed like the patron saint of the film and of Daniel Johnston’s career. Daniel threw him such a firestorm but he absolutely staid the course.

HR: Not everybody sees it that way but we do.

JF: Jeff got screwed by Daniel in 1992. He took Daniel Johnston from this cassette phenomenon and created a new phenomenon out of him and this started a bidding war over him and then Daniel fired him. I had a pen-pal relationship with Jeff at the time and all the people who found out about Daniel Johnston, all the tastemakers of the day, all knew about Daniel because of Tartakov, he did all the work, he built this monument to the guy and he still does that to this day. I made this film as much for Tartakov as for Daniel. I thought he was like Andrew Loog Oldham to the Rolling Stones, or Brian Epstein to the Beatles, or Colonel Tom Parker to Elvis—

HR: I think the analogy’s getting a little dark.

JF: Okay, well, point is, he’s one of the great managers of all time and wouldn’t every artist want a manager who is as devoted to his artist as Tartakov? There probably has never been one or has been since. He really is special. The one thing that’s not in the film that’s really fascinating is that after Daniel fired him and he becomes this Broadway Danny Rose character—a little Jewish guy like Woody Allen who has this big client like Nick Apollo Forte—Tartakov was left penniless and fell into a deep depression and he was left broke. And that was a real tragedy, but Tartakov persevered and Daniel apologized and now Tartakov has launched this art career, which is really incredible and it’s happening right before our eyes. The Whitney Biennial just selected Daniel—I don’t know if you saw it two weeks ago on the cover of the Arts and Leisure section of The New York Times but the Whitney Biennial steps in and a real gallery in Chelsea, the Clementine Gallery, and now all of a sudden Daniel Johnston is exactly what we say in the film he is, a fine artist—not an outsider artist. Even up to a year-and-a-half ago, he was in the The New York Times as this poster child for outsider art and music.

So your next film is going to be a doc about Chuck Wepner?

JF: “The Bayonne Bleeder,” my first New Jersey hero. I’ve been working on the film for about six months now and now I’m writing the screenplay. I’m merging the two: narrative and documentary into one film. Call it a hybrid. American Splendor did it, and that’s what I’m doing for Chuck.

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