Q&A with director Jonathan Caouette
LF: In Tarnation, we see that you have been making films and shooting home movie/documentary footage since you were at least 11 years old. When and how did you obtain your first camera and how did you come to start using it - as you describe it - as a weapon, a shield and a way to illuminate?
JC: I've loved films since age four, and have been shooting them since I was eleven, but it was never just for fun. Filming things had a critical life-and-death purpose. It was always a defense mechanism and a way to have a sense of control over my life. Filming was also a way to control and defend myself against my environment and disassociate myself from the horrors around me. I've wanted to be a filmmaker since I can remember, and filmmaking definitely saved my life. If I didn't have to eat and sleep and occasionally walk the dog, I would work on movies all day and all night. Stories and ideas race through my head all day. As I take the train into Manhattan with my headphones on, I can see epic mythologies etched on every face in the subway car.
LF: Since its completion, Tarnation has received an overwhelmingly positive response from critics and festival programmers and audiences. What is your take on the response it has received?
JC: To me, the response Tarnation has had with audiences is both supernatural and miraculous. Miracle is a word I rarely use, but when you consider what I've been through in life and how last year at this time I was a doorman at a Fifth Avenue jewelry store, this all feels like an absolute miracle. As to audience response, people would come up to me at Sundance without saying a word and just embrace me tightly. People seem to connect with this movie in an astoundingly real and visceral way. It is very rare to see people connect in general, and for an audience to collectively come to emotional catharsis through watching Tarnation is humbling and overwhelming. After watching the film, people have told me their own amazingly personal stories of dealing with mental illness or depression, or about someone in their own family who overdosed on lithium or PCP, and we share that experience of survival. I had what I knew was an important story to tell and I'm grateful it's getting out there. I also want people to understand and empathize with mentally-ill people.
LF: Though you did not attend film school or formally study film, you seem to have a very strong knowledge of the medium and have clearly seen many films. How did you first become interested in film?
JC: I don't remember ever not wanting to be a filmmaker! Even when I was four or five, I used to escape to the backyard to get away from all the grown-ups. I would tell them: "I am doing this movie', or, 'I am going to go do a movie," and then prance around the backyard while reciting a completely improvised script in my mind. As I got a bit older and began learning my neighborhood, I turned my entire suburban neighborhood into a giant sound stage and I would "do this movie." I would do horror films, rock operas, and serious dramatizations. I talked and sang to myself. Sometimes I even went to the extent of pretending to be one of the characters in my films and incorporating people from around the neighborhood who had no idea that they were inadvertently part of one of these movies happening in my mind.
I once walked up to a group of kids in the neighborhood just next to mine. I pretended to be mute and a little slow. I spent the whole day with these kids, managed to meet one of the kid's parents, and actually ate dinner with them, without saying one word. Needless to say, I never saw these people again. But that was my idea of a good time. There was also a period in my childhood, pre-VCR, when I would go see a movie with my grandfather and record the audio from the film on a tape recorder. I would then go home, and on loose-leaf or typing paper, with a mound of markers, would literally draw out the entire film frame-by-frame. Some of the films I drew were The Wiz, Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory, The Exorcist one and two (from TV at the time), and Phantasm.
At one point, I even ran a film program in my grandparents' house where I grew up. I actually built a home theater before home theaters were in vogue. My theater was fully equipped with a 4-tier seating arrangement with an actual projection booth. I built it in our attic, which had previously been converted into a bedroom. I showed 16mm greats like The 5000 fingers of Doctor Great and Phantom of The Paradise I usually borrowed the films from our local Houston Downtown Library. I also projected my own super-8 films that I had made over the years. Eventually, I saved enough money to purchase one of those archaic 3-color-light dinosaur video projectors to show my betamax and VHS tapes on. No one really has guided me in any direction. I literally raised - and film-schooled - myself.
LF: Were there any particular people that guided you in the right direction?
JC: One of the larger inspirations of my life came when I was twelve years old. I got involved with Houston's Big Brothers Big Sisters Association of America and was fortunate enough to be matched with Jeff Millar, the film critic for the Houston Chronicle. Since I was a big film freak, it was a perfect match and much better than the dude I had at first, who kept trying to 'make a man of me' by taking me to endless baseball games. Over the next four years, Jeff would take me to pre-screenings of films he had to review like Moonstruck or Au Revoir, Les Enfant. Afterwards, we would go to dinner and break the film down together. We would have very intricate conversations dissecting the plot, and the artistic pros and cons of film in a real detailed 'Siskel and Ebert' kind of way. I was very lucky to find an adult who took my love for film seriously and would engage me intellectually about it.
LF: In addition to making your own movies, watching movies and listening to music were obviously very important to you as you were growing up. In Tarnation, you use many of the films and songs that were a part of your childhood as metaphors for your personal experiences and feelings. What was the selection process like for these materials?
JC: Creating Tarnation was a completely intuitive process. By random chance I would come upon a song like Wichita Lineman and think: 'Wow, that reminds me of being five years old, laying in the backseat of that huge car my grandpa drove, with my head on the cardboard of the speaker, dozing slightly, and it was raining at sundown and the other cars were whizzing by and I can just taste the car door and remember how that felt like going home to Houston from Galveston.' That's why I chose that song for that section of the film.
LF: Are there any documentaries that particularly influenced you?
JC: Some of my favorites are Hell House (George Ratliff, 2001), Brother's Keeer (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 1992), Streetwise (Martin Bell, 1984), Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1983), Grey Gardens (Maysles Bros., 1975), Crumb (Terry Zwigoff, 1994), Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh, 1970) and Roger and Me (Michael Moore, 1989).
LF: In general, documentary filmmaking seems to be rapidly evolving and shifting shape, as can be seen with recent films like: Bowling for Columbine, Capturing The Friedmans and your film Tarnation. How do you think documentaries are changing and what do you think the future holds for documentary cinema?
JC: I think through the proliferation of new, easy and inexpensive technology there is going to be a revolution in the way films are made, seen and appreciated. I think people and subjects that have never been explored before will be made by filmmakers who wouldn't normally be able to tell their stories. I think new technology will enable people who have never had a voice to make themselves heard. I recently saw a wonderful documentary about the great African-American actress Beah Richards, in which most of the footage was shot with a home video camera by another actress who Beah had met while working on a TV show. Essentially, this documentary was comprised of one woman shooting home video footage of another woman. It was very intimate - one friend to another - and it was incredible. I love the idea of anybody in the world being able to pick up an inexpensive camera and editing software to tell their own story.
LF: There is a reference to My Own Private Idaho in Tarnation. Can you talk about how Gus Van Sant influenced you? Did you know him before going into Tarnation or did the film bring you together? What about John Cameron Mitchell?
JC: I was introduced to Gus Van Sant's work for the very first time when I laid eyes on My Own Private Idaho. I was mesmerized by the fact that someone had honed in on a specific kind of gay street kid culture that I was actually a part of. The film came out when I was sixteen, during a period in my life when I thought that I was the only one in the universe who knew about kids like this. There was something about seeing these beautifully troubled kids who happened to be gay, yet whose identity didn't revolve around that fact, that reminded me so much of myself. I have never been able to quite put my finger on it but Gus' films touch me on an almost psychic sort of familiar level. I did not know Gus before Tarnation happened. The film just magically brought so many wonderful situations and people together all at once. I met John Cameron Mitchell when I auditioned for his new film, and it was he and Stephen Winter who brought it to Gus Van Sant. When Gus and John signed on as executive producers, it was the most thrilling moment of my life.
LF: One of the most striking elements of Tarnation is that you managed to survive a very tumultuous early life with a surprising supply of optimism and unconditional love, particularly for your mother Renee. Has Renee seen the film? If so, what was her response?
JC: Renee loves Tarnation. She loves that her story is getting out there. Being able to tell my mother's story and avenge the terrible wrongs she's experienced is probably the most wonderful and satisfying thing to have come out of all of this. For the record, Renee is not schizophrenic. She has been diagnosed with acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, which is an overlap of schizophrenia and manic depression. In other words, Renee's condition can encompass some symptoms of schizophrenia including mania and depression but is not schizophrenia proper.
She has survived and overcome her terrible and tumultuous psychological past. Her condition, although not gone, is in remission. Renee is currently a very happy and functional person who leads a normal life. Like everyone else she has good days, bad days and days in between, but we have an amazing relationship that grows every day, and despite the chaos of life, our bond of love has never been stronger. I think everybody in my family are loving. Although our circumstances were chaotic, crazy and emotionally abusive on all levels, there was never a moment of doubt in my mind that my family loved each other and me.
LF: Can you talk about your personal experience with depersonalisation and how it affected the filmmaking process for Tarnation?
JC: Living with depersonalisation is like constantly adjusting to a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription. Because I have to spend so much mental energy focusing on being in the moment, I tend to live life in a very existential way. If I'm talking with a friend, I sometimes have to think to myself: 'I am talking to my friend. This is what I am doing' or I'll start to question: 'Is this is real or a dream?' The flip side of this is that because I am so hyper-aware of mortality and reality, I really appreciate and adore everything I experience and the people in my life. I love my mother and my boyfriend, my friends and my dog, and everything so, so much - so much that it hurts. When I make films, I really want audience members to feel like they are peeking in on something different and intense and glorious and real. Life is just too beautiful to live in any other way.
LF: Tarnation started out as an intimately personal project - and in some ways, a form of catharsis. Was creating the film a form of a personal healing?
JC: The process of bringing Tarnation from my head, to iMovie, to Sundance and to Cannes has been the most cathartic, therapeutic, frightening and bloodcurdling experience of my life. Putting yourself out there like this is scary and exciting, but it has definitely healed me and seems to heal others as well, so all the pain I went through to get there is worth it.