Jonathan Caouette made a name for himself some years back with his debut feature "Tarnation," a manic, prodding look into his family, created on the cheap using home videos and the trusty iMovie program. His stock blew up, and a successful screening at the Sundance Film Festival eventually lead to him helming the "All Tomorrow's Parties" documentary and a personal horror short "All Flowers In Time."
But the story about Caouette and his mother Renee Leblanc wasn't over, and the director revisited this for "Walk Away Renee," a documentary that serves as a sequel/proper-ending to his astonishingly affecting first film. You can check out "Walk Away Renee" right now online at SundanceNow, and in preparation for its release we spoke to Jonathan about its germination, the difficulty of making a work so intimate, and what he's up to for his next project.
Isn't That The Title Of…
Fans of '60s baroque-pop band The Left Banke likely recognize the title of Caouette's documentary, as it borrows from one of their most popular songs. "I grew up listening to it because it was one of my mother's favorite songs. It was kind of a teeny-bopper anthem that she really liked," he explained, admitting that the original lyrics didn't really fit the movie or their relationship. "Even though the song is about love lost, it sort of is about losing the person you love. For me I decided to just take the words and re-think them out of context, and in that case it means that my mother is essentially someone who can walk away as herself, she's able to walk away as Renee… I should've added the 'as' to the title," the filmmaker stated with a laugh. Despite the fitting title, Caouette admitted that it was just one in a lengthy list of potentials, though ultimately "Walk Away Renee" was the one with the most lasting power.
Sequel Movie, Sequel Book?
Jonathan is very clear that making a sequel, ending, or whatever to his film "Tarnation" was never part of the plan — it kind of just felt like the right thing to do at the time, and while he is proud of it, there is an issue of wanting to make it as perfect as it can be. "I theoretically have been working on this film for awhile, and I think with this one in particular I kind of wish I had more time. I really like it, and I am glad that this exists, but for me it feels frustrating when you go back in your mind's eye and think about all of the different versions and different stories. The film could've been very different," he said, adding, "When you create something, you want to get it right." And while he's pretty much done with personal documentaries (read below), he thinks a book might be a good addition to this series. "There's a lot of interesting circumstances and such that surrounded the film, and maybe it could foster an interesting book later on. I'd really love to make a book about the making of these two. I thought about that circa 'Tarnation,' but I kind of put it on the shelf… but now that this film exists, and I'm approaching 40, it sounds like a good idea."
Quitting Personal Documentaries, New Projects
Elsewhere, Caouette has stated a desire to never do documentaries again, but here he wanted to make his feelings clear. "I did say that, and now I'm putting my foot in my mouth again. I'm gonna rephrase that: I never want to make a personal documentary again. This is certainly the conclusion to 'Tarnation,' I'm certainly removing myself from the spotlight and looking forward to doing other works. I don't want this to be some sort of post-post-modern '7-Up' series or 'This American Life,' you know?" He definitely leaves the door open for more documentary work, mentioning that he had "at least one more documentary" in him. "I think it'd be really cool if it happens — but I don't want to say what it is! I don't want the universe to zap it away, I'm not normally superstitious about anything, but something cool can be brewing and it could happen pretty quickly." Caouette also noted his eagerness to move into narrative filmmaking, with recent inspirations being the current crop of narrative/doc hybrids coming out now. Presently writing a screenplay, he was coy to say what it was exactly about, but did let a few details slip. "The goal is that I want it to feel like a run-on sentence that will be very phonetic in the way it’s delivered. It would evoke one very solidified theme with a very solidified narrative with a three act structure, but the way it’ll come out would be very dream-like and hopefully very new," he described, cautiously adding, "if I can pull it off in the way that I’m hoping I can pull it off." It's still an idea he's trying to wrap his head around, but sounds like something that could be very interesting.
As a little breather from his filmmaking work, Caouette dabbles in acting, though doesn't go out of his way to seek it out. "I won’t turn down an acting job if it’s cool, but I don’t go out for it. If it’s someone I’ve worked with or respect, I’ll do it. I have a small part in Xan Cassavettes’s film 'Kiss of the Damned,' that was a lot of fun. There's also 'Portland' that a friend of mine, Matthew Mishory, is doing. I just recently saw a movie he finished, 'Joshua Tree, 1951: A Portrait of James Dean,’ and it kind of reminds me of something like an early Todd Haynes film, like the new queer cinema or a reinvention of queer cinema, in a way. I will probably have a part in his next film but I'm not sure when that's shooting."
The Difficulties Of Making Something So Personal
"I had to do a handful of press one day, and I was feeling very vulnerable and wasn't able to do it. I felt really terrible having to opt out that day, but then I got my mojo back and started being able to talk about it again. It's a very emotional film for me, for obvious reasons… but I think it's weird, because I remember thinking this way initially before 'Tarnation' came out, but then I quickly got into this realm and mode where I was able to talk about it. Now I'm looking back and comparing the way I feel now versus eight years ago, and I think I may be less uninhibited with some aspects of my life now than I was back then, so maybe that's how I was able to talk about things more on a personal level back then… I'm not sure."
Time Is An Illusion, But Parallel Realities Exist
Opening with a quote from Albert Einstein ("The distinction of past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion"), Caouette elaborated on his thoughts concerning that statement. "For me, that's a thing that's pretty adjacent to the perpetual existential crisis that I've been going through most of my life," he paused with a chuckle. "But really, in the past five years I've been in this frame of mind, a hyper-awareness of my existence and the idea that now, looking back at everything in retrospect, it does very much feel like an illusion, and that terrifies me. I've been very obsessed with time, the notion of the past, the way that time exponentially speeds up as you get older, the relativity factor of that." 'Walk Away' also argues the existence of parallel realities or universes, something that the filmmaker is a firm believer in. "Just as different sound waves have different layers of sound and so on and so forth, I really think the whole idea of being born, living, and dying — all of it — there has to be layers of it, just like there’s layers to everything. And I don’t know why I feel so strongly about that, but I do." He admits that he doesn't know enough about it beyond just a general ponder, but he does end on a very simple, interesting note. "The mere fact of existing is so fantastical to me, why would anything else not be able to exist?"