DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: The Messiah of Bargain-Basement Filmmaking Arrives: Jonathan Caouette and “Tarnation”
by Brandon Judell
[EDITORS NOTE: Brandon Judell spoke with Jonathan Caouette about “Tarnation” for indieWIRE in October of 2004; the film was released on DVD recently (May 17th, 2005).]
He shares his initials with Christ, and there’s no doubt Jonathan Caouette‘s life until now has been one cross to bear. With sadistic grandparents, an Electro-shocked mother who was raped in front of him, coming out of the closet in Texas, bad drug experiences, and suffering from a condition known as depersonalization, you wouldn’t be surprised if Jonathan had turned out a serial killer, a homeless person, or a Morgan Fairchild imitator.
Luckily for both him and us, this young man has been filming every aspect of his existence since age eleven, and now he’s made a feature out of that footage. Cost: just over $200.00. Verdict: a small masterpiece.
Roger Ebert has called “Tarnation” “remarkable… powerful and heartbreaking.”
Owen Gleiberman: “…a deathless swan dive into the fractured memories of [a] strange, tormented, beautiful life.”
Sundance‘s Shari Frilot: “brutal and spellbinding.”
I was to interview Jonathan in his distributor Wellspring‘s offices. When I got there, I wound up having to follow the highly attractive, dyed blond director out a window so he could smoke several cigarettes on a makeshift terrace high above Manhattan’s East side streets, with a strong wind blowing.
indieWIRE: Was there more sex in the original cut of “Tarnation”? One would think from your monologues and your personality that there was.
Jonathan Caouette: Oh, man! There certainly is nudity and sex that does exist, but it never existed in this film, because I love the idea of evoking the precociousness of it all and leaving certain things up to the imagination. There were sort of a few sort of dick shots here and there, ass shots or whatever, but nothing that would exude like full-on sex. One thing I wanted to do was hold back from the sex to allow it to sort of denote its own sense of sensuality and really leave it up to the imagination of the viewer. I think it’s more interesting like that.
iW: Now you’re wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt which really isn’t a group that has gay followers. Is that because you have an atypical musical taste?
JC: No. I actually just like their song “Sweet Home Alabama,” even though it’s very anti-East Coast, and Neil Young doesn’t like them, and I love Neil Young. Just to wear this shirt… It sort of emulates a sort of Southern attachment that I have. Although I was never really in this world, it’s sort of like has to do with maybe the same sort of fixation I have about putting multitudes of Tabasco sauce on things.
iW: You might get a Tabasco sauce endorsement out of this interview.
JC: Yes, I would love one. Or a T-shirt.
iW: I was chatting to Lincoln Center‘s Richard Pena about your film, which he adored. His one hesitation was that because of your success, he might start receiving thousands of films edited with iMovie. Do you think you’re a visionary or the Tarantino of iMovie?
JC: I hope so. If anything I hope I can be… I thought you were going to say something even scarier. Like thousands of people are going to stalk me or try to kill me or something. But I hope at the end of the day this movie can be an inspiration to people who never thought they could make a film for whatever reason: money or… Gus Van Sant said not too long ago that there should be no more excuses. Everything you need to make a film is within arm’s length. I mean the latter part of this film was shot on a consumer-based camera that I got from Best Buy, via Firewire just into my computer. So I really think it might be sort of a lesson to all people to forget CGI, and forget all these productional things about films, and try to get back to the element of telling stories. I hope that’s where we go cinematically-wise.
iW: “Tarnation” opens in New York [this week]?
JC: The film will open officially at the New York Film Festival. It will have the New York premiere of this version. The day after that is the unofficial official opening at the Film Forum. Then in L.A., it’s opening simultaneously I think the next day or something after that. Then we’ve sold twenty territories around the world. Twenty countries which is amazing. Amazing.
iW: So you’ll be touring?
JC: I’ll be going all over the world. The only problem is that I need to get over my fear of flying very quickly. I hate flying. So does Kate Bush. So does Lars von Trier. So do all these other people, and I wish I didn’t have to go. But I guess being the first time filmmaker… It’s really amazing the responsibility you have to endure as a director.
I just want to say for the record that I’m very much available as an actor because it would seem like it would just be a solace compared to this, having to promote the film to this magnitude. I really thought the hardest part of the film was over when I made it. I mean it’s been glorious, too, but it certainly is very exhausting. Having to say the same thing over and over again but keep being interesting for other people and myself, and keeping it fresh.
iW: I remember researching Al Pacino. He’s started off his career giving all these interviews, then he stopped. I realized Al must have tired of everyone asking the same old questions.
JC: Yeah. Yeah. But you’re not asking the same questions. You’re asking really good questions.
iW: Oh, you’re too kind.
JC: No, seriously.
iW: Now your syndrome is called depersonalization?
JC: Yeah, which has actually subsided. If I have it, I’m so acclimated to it that I don’t even notice it any more.
iW: So you know you’re just going to be a normal person who’s going to be a serious director, and you’re not going to be making the tabloids or anything?
JC: No. Tabloids for what?
iW: For stealing clothes or having sex with the Olsen twins.
JC: No nothing like that any time soon. Not this year anyway. No, I hope to move on to make narratives almost immediately. I’m going to embark on my DIY (project) pretty much after the life of “Tarnation” is over, and I finish promoting it. Actually, I’m going to be doing a double whammy.
I’m going to become bicoastal in the sense that I’m going to go to the Gulf Coast. I’m going to go back to Houston and take care of my family. My grandfather and my mother. Just get them sort of situated in one of the most stable scenarios that either of them could ever be in. I’m not saying I’m going to lock them up or anything. I’m going to make sure that they’re taken care of and looked after. That their house is clean. That their taxes are paid. That the State isn’t going to come in and assume guardianship over them. Anything like that.
At the same time, I’m going to be working on a new film. Actually it’s an old film. Old films. I’m taking three films that were made in succession consecutively over the years of 1973 to 1977, and they all starred this one actress. I can’t say who it is. She actually assumes the same aesthetic throughout all of the films, even right down to her hair length and her accent. I basically want to get all three of these films free of music and underscore, and re-augment them and remix them into a new two-hour film that’s going to tell and evoke a completely different story.
I was sort of inadvertently pitching this to David Lynch‘s producer at the Cannes Film Festival, telling him I wanted to do this as a one-day-for-fun-thing as a way to get back to the MIX Film Festival for kick-starting “Tarnation” as a kind of a Superstar-Todd-Haynes–Karen-Carpenter story thing. He actually said that he wants to like make this happen… So that’s going to be my next thing.
iW: So now the David Lynch people have approached you. You must be so secure, especially because most people don’t have the great reviews you do before their film opens.
JC: They don’t???!!!
JC: I don’t know. See, I’m a neophyte at this. I don’t even know what’s going on. I have no idea sort of what the monsters might have created. I didn’t know that. I really don’t. I’m not just…
iW: Do you know the German director Rosa von Praunheim?
JC: I’ve heard of him.
iW: I’ve been with him while he’s waited for the newspapers to come out with the reviews of his latest effort. Freaking out is a term to describe his behavior mildly.
JC: Really. So what’s happening to me is…
iW: You’ve already got an Ebert rave and a dozen others. People are usually waiting on pins and needles for such feedback.
JC: Oh, I didn’t know that. I thought this was typical, and I thought the publicists get their cronies together to hype the movie up, and then… it’s amazing.
iW: So are any designers throwing free clothing at you?
JC: I wish. I wish Agnes B. (Laughs) Or Tom Ford. Or who’s the other one on Mercer that I love. I can’t think. I just wore his outfit the other day.
iW: After you finish the next film, do have dreams of working in 16mm or 35?
JC: Somebody was asking me yesterday if I was given half a million dollars to make a movie, what would I do with it? I told him I’d pocket 3/4 of it and make the movie because I really don’t think you need a whole hell of a lot of money to make a movie. I really don’t. It’s an illusion.
iW: Some watching those clips of you at age 11 playing a femme fatale would have expected you to turn into a drag queen. Like you’d be a new Holly Woodlawn. But you’re very butch in front of me.
JC: Yes. I guess testosterone tapped in somewhere along the way. I never wanted to be a drag queen. Never wanted to be a cross dresser. Nothing like that. It was really a performance. I mean I always hung out, you know, with drag queens. Punk drag queens. The whole mill. And I still love drag queens, but I never wanted to be a drag queen.