Jason Ryan Yamas debuted his first feature, “Not Me, Murphy,” at New York’s Queer Experimental Festival MIX NYC last month. The film, shot on a professional VHS format, Super VHS, depicts the life of a young man who decides he may just need a break from his everyday life. Murphy has what doctors would call Dissociative Identity Disorder, and his personality and temperament change at various points throughout the film.
All throughout, Yamas (who also plays Murphy) creates scenarios that provide a glimpse at Murphy’s mindset — decentered but also caring and endearing — in a style that is at once influenced by Caouette’s work, but also stands on its own as an incredibly compelling, often funny, thoroughly kaleidoscopic film about one man’s experience of the coming apart of the things that make up his personality, his motivations, his inner core.
Indiewire caught up with Yamas after his MIX NYC screening of the film, which in addition to being inspired by the work of Caouette, was preceded by two new shorts from Caouette himself and marked the 10th anniversary of Caouette’s breakout film “Tarnation” making its world premiere at MIX as a Sneak Preview.
How did you meet Jonathan Caouette?
I met him in 2010. I actually had never picked up a camera. I studied experimental theater at NYU and had been pursuing be a filmmaker. I had worked in Panama, and I was trying to get a feature going there. I ended up making a short with this French filmmaker, and this French filmmaker had been doing some digitizing for Jonathan. He was a good friend of mine, and he sadly got deported. So I took over digitizing for him and that unraveled into what was a year of being a digitizer to being a post-production supervisor to being a line producer. His process is completely submerged in post.
His latest film “Walk Away Renee” had pro-cam shooting as well in addition to his personal self-shooting, shooting on the road they did. We were doing shoots all the time. Renee was always there. We were working in post and we were setting up formal shoots as well for scenes in that film. It was just an all-immersive experience. I was at Jonathan’s house six out of the seven days of the week. He lives in Astoria, so sometimes the editor and I would crash on his couch. And I became very inspired by a lot of his theories on how to make movies and what ingredients you can start with.
You have this amazing location and this actor that you’ve always wanted to work with and this character who’ve you’ve know, put them together, and see what happens. It’s kind of where he’s creating his numerous scenes from, though it was fitting in a documentary context. That, and the choice to shoot it on VHS, and then the decision to shoot it on super VHS came from digitizing his footage. I ran home to Pennsylvania and snagged all of my childhood VHS tapes and started looking at those and thinking about the story then. Looking at what’s changed in me from then, and also seeing that grain and that VHS quality felt nostalgic to me. I came up with a character that was traumatized then and emotionally grew out of that.
When you were introducing the film, you said that you were working with Jonathan on his films, and he was doing things in documentary that you wanted to bring into fiction filmmaking. He’s not a conventional documentary filmmaker, he’s not relying on documentary conventions. Regardless, you wanted to take some of these things for fiction storytelling. What conventions did you want to bring over?
The verite aspect of his work. He just allows the moments to happen. Just tons and tons of coverage. He’s just constantly shooting things. That was what made me come up with the idea that I’d have a one take rule, but the take could last forever. I got two-hour tapes. A lot of our takes did go that long. There was a point where the boom operator was hitting me on the head with the mic to let me know that it was time to yell cut because it had gone too long. Originally, it was that idea of putting actors into his documentaries, as well. They have an intention. He doesn’t feed them lines, but he feeds them scenarios. I did that as well. The story was not born out of the documentary realism, it was born out of a story that I wrote.
Ronald, the guy who went with me to Pennsylvania, to be honest, he was somebody that I only semi-knew. He was a very good friend but someone that I didn’t know many details about. And for some things, I wasn’t sure if he was pulling from aspects that were true of him or of the character. That was a lot of the conventional things that we studied and evolved from Jonathan. However, that was just to shoot it.
So what about the Super VHS, what was that decision all about?
MIX wrote on the description, “shot on the popular format Super VHS.” Maybe VHS was popular. Super VHS was never popular, from the research that I’ve done. They barely made consumer cams that would work with Super VHS, and they ultimately were a medium that reporters and networks used. They have these super old Panasonic cameras that have sound zoom. The technology on them is strangely advanced. The tapes were double coated, so they respond better to lighting and just register more information. Nobody had really shot on them before. I did some tests, and I found them to be really gorgeous when we had really great lighting.
Actually we’re shooting another movie. We’re shooting in January, a remake of “The Portrait of Jason.” I don’t know if you’ve heard about this project from the rumor mill. Sarah Schulman is going to play Shirley Clarke. Stephen Winter is going to be stepping in as the director outside of it. And Jack Waters is playing Jason Holliday. They are reimagining the film. In “Portrait of Jason” you only see Jason Holiday. In this film, you see the whole crew. You see Shirley and whomever playing the AC or the cinematographer. And then our crew outside of that, filming the behind-the-scenes if you will. We’re filming it just like “Portrait of Jason” was shot, twelve hours, straight through. Surprise guests, surprise intoxicants. After Stephen Winter saw “Murphy,” he said, “Let’s do another on those cameras!”
So how did you find the camera? Were the Super VHS’s easy to find?
I bought 5 lemons before I found 2 good ones. I had to buy Super VHS tapes in bulk as well. Most people were not able to test them that we’re selling them. Usually people found them at the news stations they worked at.
What incited you to look for the Super VHS camera?
I had already chosen the VHS aesthetic, and then I was looking for a pro camera. Upon looking for more pro VHS cams, I came across this and had to look up everything on it. I was obsessed with having the best-quality VHS. I also liked the idea that everybody I mentioned it to, nobody had ever heard of it.
The mental state that you’re depicting in the film, or the series of mental states that you’re depicting in the film, could easily — and maybe this was done in the editing — could easily have been more overt. And I think that there’s something really powerful about the slightness. The film’s really great and interesting because of how character is revealed in very subtle ways.
You see it before you hear it. We’re ten minutes into the film before you hear her say “The doctor said he had dissociative Identity Disorder. We didn’t believe in that.” Which is interesting to me, because I grew up in a family that got very into Eastern spirituality, and New Age, and my mom and my uncle went to school to become energy healers. They played themselves — or versions of themselves — in the healer scene.
And my mom did not believe in many things — like ADD — and things that our Western society comes up with and tries to fix with a pill. So it was interesting for me to consult with a doctor about the characteristics of Dissociative Identity Disorder. How much was it like “United States of Tara” versus cliche adaptations that you see on “Law & Order: SVU.” It really does come in a number of different forms. She couldn’t really tell me exactly what it was like. And then I also spent a lot of time with Renee, who has schizophrenia.
I didn’t want to necessarily say [Murphy] had Dissociative Identity Disorder, though that’s how a doctor would summarize it. Therefore I wanted the hallucinations and the escapes and the manifestations to have a specificity in how he was envisioning them. And a vagueness that goes against how we’ve come to believe these things manifest. It’s not always as simple as suddenly “becoming” a woman and putting on a dress.
I think the experience of the film is to be much more human and to see humans reacting to humans in front of them.
There were thoughts to have a therapist character. Some people wanted a therapist character. And they wanted it explained to them, expositionally it could have been bottled in that way. The actors were skeptical, they thought that it might not be clear enough. As I reworked the story and as I reworked the voice over, which really helped us craft the story, the dynamic between the humans and the relationships that were ending and beginning were way more interesting than the disease. The disease was an experience, but it wasn’t something that I wanted to have a big conversation about.
You could have aimed to debut the film in many places. Why was it important to screen at MIX?
One, they barely program features. And I thought that it might get a good spot, if it got in, which it did. It’s a hybrid. I wanted to here there’s a mix of filmmakers and performance artists, the ultimate goal was to use those experimental techniques in a form that could be seen as a conventional narrative.
It’s also a queer festival…
The queer festival aspect of it was interesting because the gay thing doesn’t become a plot point until the end. I wasn’t really thinking about it making the film because I didn’t think it was the most important part. But I had a feeling that it was the right combination. I think it was important that “Tarnation” had debuted there ten years previously. I thought it was symbolic, and then when I found out that Caouette was screening his films before mine…I was pleased and honored.
How was the response to the film?
Everyone had a different favorite scene. A lot of people say that they loved the “orgasmic birth” monologue. I was wearing my “orgasmic birth” t-shirt the day before the screening. I thought that scene was a nice breath of fresh air.