When Jonathan Caouette made his feature debut “Tarnation,” he took the indie world by storm. The miniscule dollar figure he made it for (before preparing it for a festival and theatrical runs) made headlines, and Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell came on board as Executive Producers, eager to usher the film into the world. For almost a decade, Caouette has been sitting with the footage of his life — footage of his grandparents, his boyfriend, his son, and, most notably, his mother Renée Leblanc.
Throughout both “Tarnation” and “Walk Away Renée,” Caouette shows the tender love between himself and his mother. Some moments in both films turn less than tender; Leblanc came into mental illness after sustained electroshock therapy earlier in life. Now, lithium, which can be lethal, is the only thing that stabilizes her.
Indiewire caught up with Caouette in anticipation of the film’s North American premiere at BAMcinemaFest and on VOD through SundanceNow. Throughout our conversation, it was clear that Caouette, who had gone through the emotional roller coaster of releasing the story of his life to the public once before, was feeling nervous and somewhat unfulfilled. His anxiety is not warranted; the film is a solid and often sweet tribute to his mother and his own work as a diligent family member. Caouette has said before that he’s done making documentaries, and the melancholy one senses for how “Walk Away Renée” stands comes not because the film is a bad film. Rather, the sadness emanates from his self-imposed cutting-off of a source of great catharsis: his ability to show us his life, in immaculately told personal documentaries.
So let’s start at the beginning…you’re working with your home movies again. What made you decide to do another movie using the same kinds of images — home videos of your family — as “Tarnation”?
In a nutshell, I made this film that was kind of made out of — [pauses] You know what’s weird? This is the first interview I’ve done with English as the first language. During the interviews in France [where the recut film premiered theatrically earlier this year], I could assume that they were thinking I’m saying something really poignant. [laughs] When “Tarnation” came out, I met this guy, Pierre-Paul Puljiz — and his editor Noam Roubah. We forged a relationship and worked on some interesting projects together. Somewhere along the way, we knew we would embark on something ambitious. I could never foresee in a million years that I’d make anything that closely resembled a follow-up to “Tarnation.”
We were working on one project together and then had to remove ourselves from it. We invested our own sweat equity and passion in the project, established momentum and a trustworthy relationship. Wanted to continue doing something else, we wanted to transpose that effort into another project. So he asked me what I wanted to do, and I told him I have all this footage that’s basically b-roll from “Tarnation” — no, b-roll from my life. All this stuff that wasn’t a part of the final cut of “Tarnation.” Being the OCD person that I am, I worried that if a glass of milk spilled on the hard drive where all the home videos were, all of it would be gone forever. One of my first ideas for utilizing it was to augment a 10- or 20- year anniversary of Tarnation, but it ended up becoming a part of a new idea, this new film “Walk Away Renée.” I wanted to make an experimental verite film — a road trip movie [moving my mother from Texas to New York], and even if nothing happened on the road, seeing what inherently happened. The mundaneness of it would have been a pretty interesting experiment. That was the first idea of making “Walk Away Renée,” but later on down the road, it occurred to me that I had all this other footage. It went from being an experimental road movie. That older footage became a divisive thing — it became a sort of re-paraphrasing of Tarnation in some ways, based on how the road trip ended up happening.
So why did you show one version in Cannes and decide to cut it afterwards?
It took me 3 and half weeks to make the initial 2 hour version of “Tarnation,” which was culled down to 88 minutes over time. This film took three years to make, to realize what the film is going to be. With all due respect to everyone that was involved, “Walk Away Renee” is a frustrating film for me. I think it’s a good film, a cool film. It’s frustrating film for me because it doesn’t ultimately express the dynamic that I want to express. It’s because of the circumstances surrounding the content. It’s a personal film, but it doesn’t totally go to the emotional hilt that I think even that I think “Tarnation” did. I have to be okay with that, because I know that “Tarnation” was an unprecedented thing — I didn’t try to make another one of those with this, this was sort of an organic thing that happened. It was really made by happenstance.
The story of my mother and what’s happened post-“Tarnation” has been an abundance of stories. There’s so much in epic proportions that happened. I had to stop making movies for the most part. The fact that “Walk Away Renée” exists is a miracle, let alone something that is adjacent to “Tarnation” in some ways. I was proactively taking care of my mother and grandfather. My family for me comes first. I had to be this sort of immediate perpetual caretaker of both my father and my mother. It was the nature of the reality of what was happening. I had to be so proactively embedded in that caretaking. I didn’t have a lot of time to do it. As a result of that, I wasn’t able to get the level of magnitude of story that could have resided in this film. I didn’t know I was making a film, but I still had all this footage that I really wanted to see the light of day.
Update: Caouette added in an email after this article first ran: “Do not get me wrong. I like this film! (ha ha). It’s just when you go back in your minds eye and think about all the different movies it can be, it jacks you up psychologically. But that’s my obsessiveness I reckon! ha” In response to the question on the second page of this interview that asks him to elaborate on his future plans, Caouette adds: “I must say after this film, I am never ever ever going to make another personal documentary as long as I live. This will not be like Seven Up! Ha ha. I’m definitely segueing into making narrative fictional films. I want to pause making documentaries for awhile. ALTHOUGH…….I may have just ONE MORE DOC I may wanna make I’m excited making narrative fictional films that feel like documentaries.” He also divulged details about two of the projects he is working on now: “One is a project with the great and brilliant David Henry Hwang and another one is a script that I’m writing myself for the first time.”
But why do you feel unfulfilled by how it’s all turned out?
There were a lot of real life stories that I wasn’t able to document that I felt could have been leant more of an emotional weight than what’s in there now. Somebody was bringing this to my attention the other day: because this is my life and these are my family members, my interpretation of what might be strong or not be strong or not be worthy of a story may seem completely opposite to those that know nothing about my life. Maybe what I’m thinking doesn’t give a lot of emotional weight gives a whole lot of emotional weight. I’m comfortable with the film and I’m ready to work on other projects. I wasn’t feeling like this when it was going to Cannes. I will forever be grateful to Cannes for letting me show the film as a work-in-progress — with various subplots, various experiments with metafictional aspects that were half-baked, I think. And the structure was completely different. We were telling the film backwards, as opposed to linear, and now its more linear.
What did you learn from the process?
I’m constantly learning something new about a myriad of things. One thing I was able to take away from this process: Never rush a film for the sake of getting into a film festival, and always trust your heart. I’m not going to say what that means, necessarily, but always go with your feelings and your instincts with what you want to do. There were various things that were tried — some of the things we tried, slivers of them resided in the Cannes version.
In terms of fiction, one was about a faux cult. I decided to take inspiration from the idea that I was a caretaker. At the time I was making this film, I was taking weird odd jobs. I was doing weird things under the radar — either the producers were cray cray or something was flawed about the production – things wouldn’t happen for various reasons, and the whole time I was caretaking a lot. It was frustrating. I decided to create a fictitious device to allude to that experience, taking that weird experience, odd jobs, projects under development and made it into a film about a religious cult called the Cloudbusters. There was a thing about how they had hired me to do video outreach PSA’s for their cult, to create things that were indicative of their beliefs. They worshipped a savvy cult leader motivational speaker. I reached out to Harmony Korine [(“Gummo”)] and his wife, to see if they wanted to play a young, hip, Jim and Tammy Faye who worshippped Wilhelm Reich. I created a thing called cloudbusting after a Kate Bush song. There was a buffoon pseudo-scientist who worshpped this guy. Anyway, the whole idea was underdeveloped. We had wanted to do something with Harmony, so we ended up shooting all this and it ended up going ot the Cannes Film Festival. In fact, you learn about the cult in the very beginning of the film. We were rushing so much to tie it up for Cannes. That screening of the film reminded me of a screening of Tarnation at MIX [NYC, the Queer Experimental Film Festival] before it had gone to Sundance when it was sort in much more raw form. I was incredibly grateful that they showed it like that, but it wasn’t right for me.
There’s a few moments that are in this cut of the film that are major echos of the major ideas had we developed the original idea more. there’s an echo of something that resides in the new cut of the film that I think works. It’s weird but it works and recycled old stuff. All of the Cloudbusters stuff is gone. I’m thinking it can be an art installation piece at some point.
And now the new cut is set to make its North American debut!
I’m very excited for BAM — I have palpitations at the same time. No American audience has seen this. It has gotten a great response since the new version was made — in France. It’s a tricky film. If you’ve seen “Tarnation,” it’s a tricky film. There’s beats of the film that you’re going to sit through again, but if you pay close attention you’ll realize that it’s nothing like “Tarnation,” which I don’t think a lot of people do. I talked to friends and it’s a mixed-bag. Some say you should have never done that others said my instincts were totally right! This story, which is by the way, a conclusion to “Tarnation.” I’m never ever ever going to make another personal documentary as long as I live. I’m definitely segueing into making narrative fictional films. I want to pause making documentaries for awhile. I’m excited making narrative fictional films that feel like documentaries.
And what’s next?
I have something in development, that I’m writing myself for the first time – I’m wavering about doing something that I write, because I’m doubtful about doing something right. I don’t want to talk about it just yet I guess. Every time I talk about something, it always gets hexed.