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Interview with Jonathan Caouette, Director of Tarnation

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I was privileged to interview Jonathan Caouette while he was doing his publicity junket in October of 2004, in conjunction with the release of his documentary, Tarnation. There had been a lot of advance notice about the film because it was a done on a ridiculously small budget using a variety of mediums (home movies, audio tapes, slides, videos, photographs, answering machines, TV and movie clips) successfully. It was my first and (so far) only interview. I was very nervous and brought my cigarettes to provide some stimulation and finesse. Turned out he was a smoker, too. He'd just come from the airport, so his rhythms were a bit skewed. We sat down outside and smoked, while he drank triple sugar, triple espressos. He was sweet, charming, endearing, and surprisingly modest, considering the fact that he was knocking them out of the ballpark at film festivals everywhere he went (including, I believe, Cannes and Sundance).

Among the many things that impressed me was the variety of images, how distinct they were, stylistically, and yet how seamlessly they fit together. Can you talk about how Tarnation evolved as you edited it, and how closely you worked with [producers] Winter, Mitchell and Kates? Did you feel most of your choices were intellectual or intuitive?

It was all pure instinct. I had absolutely no pre-conceived notion of this film becoming anything except something that I was working on every night and would end up showing to my boyfriend and buddies. I didn't think, "Oh, I'm making a documentary," or "I'm making this experimental film about my life," or "Look out, Sundance. Here I come!" I was just utilizing this footage that I had right under my nose, to tell the story that was sort of burning inside me.

I edited for three weeks without sleep and came up with this two-hour epic, Tarnation, that had everything I could put into it. Then John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Winter came into my life and signed on as Executive Producer and Producer, respectively, and together with Brian A. Kates, we started seeing exactly what the film was telling us it was, a portrait of my mother and me. It certainly was an unorthodox way to make a movie. And what has happened since has exceeded all my dreams.

I've noticed that a lot of times, say like in music videos or even more ambitious projects, the special stylistic effects have less to do with content than with distracting or intriguing the audience, while in Tarnation the connection between the (for lack of better words) jittery, trippy, surreal effects and content seems very strong. Any comments?

You know, in the last few weeks I've done literally hundreds of interviews and many times I think some of these questions I won't really be able to answer with any true clarity until five or six years from now, when I can have some perspective on what really happened here. Essentially, I was trying to recreate on film my thought process and what my experience of growing up was like, emotionally and aesthetically. Some things were glorious. Some things were horrifying. But all the way through it there was a tremendous love between me and my family.

I noticed how genuine and spontaneous the opening and closing sequences felt. Your anguish when hearing about your mother's lithium overdose, your scenes with David, and really, I think, throughout the film. Were any parts of the film shot specifically for the sake of narrative? Do you think your bout with depersonalization made it easier for you to shoot some of these scenes, i.e. less self-conscious?

Yes, those scenes you refer to are re-creations for the sake of narrative clarity. I like to think of them as elaborate documentary B-roll footage. I think the reason the emotional thrust of those scenes comes across so clearly is not so much because of depersonalization, but because it's just not hard for me to access those situations and emotions. I love my mother and my boyfriend so much sometimes it actually hurts me as much as it gives me the energy to keep going forward. So it's not a problem for me to put together scenes that express that.

I was greatly intrigued by the short monologue you did as an 11-year-old, in which you played the woman who was abused by her husband. In some ways the moment felt really authentic. I had mixed feelings because it seemed strangely sophisticated and jaundiced for an 11-year-old. Am I right in my perception that some of the intent was darkly satirical? Do you remember your intentions at the time?

My original intention? At age 11? It's so hard to say! That night I had watched an episode of The Bionic Woman where Lindsay Wagner was going through this "Stepford Wives" type situation. And on PBS I had seen For Colored Girls Who've Considered Suicide When the Rainbow was Enuf with Alfre Woodard and that moved me a great deal. So I just sort of set the camera up, meshed those two characters with something to do with my mother, and out popped Hilary Laura Lou. I remember definitelty feeling committed to the character and her pain, but I also was having great fun with it. At age 11, I certainly didn't have a developed sense of camp, but I did have a sense of humor. I guess I just always liked operating on many different levels of understanding all at the same time.

I've noticed that often times artists are immune to the effects of their own creations, or at least the full impact. Did you find that to be true with Tarnation? Is it easier for you to infer the effect from the response of other people?

Oh no, I feel it every time I watch it. But I feel lots of different things. I just love watching Tarnation with audiences and look at it as a "Rocky Horror", "Pink Floyd"-type acid-trip rock show as much as a, you know, "powerful and harrowing" documentary. So when I'm doing a Q&A somewhere I always sit in the back row and tap along to the music and such, but there are some scenes I just can't watch.

What was the re-discovery process like as you uncovered and watched so many hours of tapes, film, audio, visual, that I assume you hadn't seen in a very long time?

Actually, I did watch things pretty regularly, so although my tapes weren't logged in any real way, I sort of had an instinct as to what stuff was on what tape when I started putting things together. The three weeks where I edited nonstop for the two-hour cut were like this fiery, completely cathartic experience. I don't really remember what it was like. It seems like I've always had to get this story out of me, and I definitely feel lighter and more centered in myself now that it's out there. It was thrilling, hilarious, devastating and very hard work.

I noticed that you mentioned David Lynch as one of your directorial (cinematic?) influences. It seems to me one of his specialties is creating movies that have the effect of a sustained, prolonged dream, for instance: Elephant Man, Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Blue Velvet and most recently, Mulholland Drive. Care to comment?

David Lynch is one of my favorite directors ever and Mullholland Drive is one of my favorite movies ever. My biggest dream is to one day create films on that virtuoso level. Lynch's influence is all over Tarnation, absolutely.

I was impressed by the way Tarnation got us to embrace material that was so painful, sad, and disturbing. Was this intentional or accidental, or maybe somewhere in-between?

If I ever had an original intention on making this film, then empathy for the complexity of people with mental issues was definitely it. People with mental health concerns are so often treated like pariahs in our society and Hollywood films most often sugercoat these issues and make bullshit borderline-offensive films. I wanted to show how it really was, and how it really is, without any bullshit, but also so people could deal with it, understand it, and walk away with a little more clarity of understanding. Hopefully, that's working.

What sparked the revelation as a boy that you wanted to become a film director?

It's so hard to say. From the very first film I ever saw, I wanted to be a filmmaker and an actor and an artist. Even before I could put it into words. It was my core destiny.

What was the first movie to profoundly connect with you?

The Wizard of Oz. I really wanted Dorothy to get home, but I also wanted her to stay in Oz. I would get so excited watching that movie, I'd just about burst.

Has your partner David been key in your healing process?

There are no words to describe how David saved my life and continues to save my life every single day. David is like this beautiful, serene prince with an infinite capacity for patience, understanding and love.

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About Christopher Soden

  • http://handyfilm.blogspot.com/ handyguy

    Great interview! Thanks for posting it.

  • Christopher Soden

    Thanks, buddy. I really appreciate that!

  • Evelyn Christman

    Do you have contact information for Jonathan Caouette? I really appreciate your interview. I just saw Tarnation for the first time as a rerun and I am astounded as his talent. What has happened to him? Is he working on anything else? Any chance you could interview him again or contact him to make recommendations. Any fan of this movie is left feeling as if they need to know more..about how his family is now and how he is? I would just love to see his other footage that he edited out when he was making this movie. He deserves to be famous as a filmaker, actor, anything. We are left we a need for a second movie using the additional footage. We need more insight. How did he come to meet the producers who eventually helped him bring out this film? He has the talent..let me know. I am not sure this site is even monitored anymore.

    Thank you so much..Evelyn