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Why Jonathan Caouette Isn't Necessarily Happy with 'Walk Away Renée,' But You Will Be

Photo of Bryce J. Renninger By Bryce J. Renninger | Indiewire June 26, 2012 at 1:08PM

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.
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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.

"Walk Away Renee."
"Walk Away Renee."

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.  

This article is related to: Interviews, Jonathan Caouette, Walk Away Renée





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