Although “development hell” is the norm for most independent filmmakers, the experience of Jonathan Caouette stands apart. The thirty-two-year old Caouette spent almost twenty years making Tarnation, his first feature-length documentary, which went from being a $218.32 home video project edited on iMovie, to a $400,000 theatrical release that will open this fall. Tarnation first screened at MIX: The New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Video/Film Festival at New York’s Anthology Film Archives in November 2003, followed by successful screenings at Sundance and Cannes in early 2004 with Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell as executive producers.
According to Caouette, Tarnation had humble beginnings. He had hours of footage but it wasn’t until the digital video revolution of the late 1990s that his vision for the film took shape. At the time a frustrated touring musical theater actor, one day Caouette had a revelation: “I said, ‘What the fuck am I doing?’ I should be making films. It was around the time that people began to say, ‘One of these days you’ll be able to sit in your apartment and make a movie.’”
Caouette bought a computer and a camera, digitized his archives and began shooting. His original vision of Tarnation was much more “impressionistic—more of an installation collage” than what it would ultimately become today. Told through original, found, and staged video, film, photography, text, and audio clips, the film captures the traumatic story of Caouette’s difficult relationship with his mother, Renee LeBlanc, who has schizophrenia. At the age of twelve, LeBlanc, who grew up in Texas and had been a child model, was left paralyzed after she fell twenty feet from a roof. Convinced she was faking the pain from the fall, Renee’s parents authorized the use of shock treatment to cure their daughter’s “delusions.” The treatments, which were later deemed completely unnecessary, scarred LeBlanc permanently. On top of her shock trauma, her parents mentally and physically abused her throughout her childhood, often locking her in closets. She later married her first husband, Steve Caouette, with whom she had Jonathan.
Jonathan spent time in foster homes while Renee was in and out of hospitals and mental institutions. Eventually settling with his grandparents in Houston in the early 1980s, Jonathan began filming his life. “I saw a lot of movies, so I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker,” Caouette says. “I always had this aesthetic for film, somehow, someway.” In Tarnation, an eleven-year-old Caouette imitates a battered housewife in a performance that is at once hilarious and devastating. Coming out as gay early on, Caouette struggled to fit in with his conservative surroundings.
Although he took some solace in the gay punk/new wave culture of that era, Caouette continued to feel isolated until he left Houston for New York City in his early twenties, which he considers “the best move I ever made.” Despite her frequent hospitalization and his relocation, Renee and Caouette stayed close throughout, with the two growing even closer after Renee spent time with Jonathan in New York. Sadly, when she returned to Houston, she overdosed on lithium. Jonathan returned to Texas to nurse her back to health, and subsequently confronted the demons of his past.
Caouette used his video camera to document his trip home, a strategy used both to create distance from and gain insight into his toxic family history. “I had to stay in Texas for about six months to nurse Renee back to health,” Caouette says. “My grandfather, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, had inadvertently been allowing her to overdose on lithium. She’d been lying there for two days.” When he returned to New York, with new footage and a renewed sense of purpose, Caouette began editing a film.
Caouette’s process was slow, but steady, until he was unexpectedly faced with a festival deadline. “I met this guy who was an intern at MIX,” Caouette says. “I showed him about forty-five minutes of Tarnation and he said, ‘Whatever this is, you should finish it because there is a film festival coming up, and I work there.’” Caouette rushed to finish the first cut of the film and remembers that he “went on this editing marathon.”
“I pieced everything together right in the nick of time and got it to MIX just as they were about to lock the door,” he says. He was able to hand the tape directly to Stephen Winter, MIX’s festival director, who was sufficiently blown away by the film to accept it into the festival on the spot and also sign on as one of the film’s producers. “I was totally riveted,” Winter says. “Every single frame was perfect.”
Caouette was happy with the original, three-hour cut of Tarnation and its successful screening at MIX. It was Winter who suggested the film’s potential for a broader reach, telling Caouette that he “could keep it like this and it would be this amazing piece of work that would be written down in the Anthology Film Archives history books. But only so many people are going to read that book.” Caouette knew John Cameron Mitchell from an audition for Mitchell’s yet-to-be-released Short Bus, then known as The Sex Film Project, and had included a portion of Tarnation on his audition tape. Mitchell signed on as Tarnation’s executive producer after seeing a cut of the film, and then brought in director Gus Van Sant. With a new team of heavyweights on board, Caouette set out to refine Tarnation while retaining the film’s experimental originality.
Editor Brian A. Kates, Winter, Mitchell, and Van Sant taught Caouette the elements of a successful film—“We got together and gave Jonathan an accelerated graduate film course,” Winter says. After which Caouette sought to keep the film’s focus on his relationship with Renee while quickening the pace and heightening the story’s emotional impact.
“It was all about me and Renee,” Caouette says. “The story was there, but there were about three different subplots that we all decided needed to go.” These subplots included an expanded exploration of Caouette’s grandparents, the story of his relationship with his son, Joshua, who appears as a representation of Jonathan in foster care. “We wanted to concentrate the film and get people in and out,” Caouette explains.
The results paid off. A shorter version of Tarnation was accepted into Sundance, and then Cannes, where it received a ten-minute standing ovation. A theatrical distribution deal with Wellspring Media followed. Caouette says he’s pleased with the film’s success but that he never anticipated it. “I keep telling people, ‘Take the microchip out.’ This is some sort of fantasy,” he says. “Jonathan didn’t make Tarnation with the intention of it to go to Cannes and be released in theaters near you. He made it to get the story out of him,” Winter says.
By combining a powerful narrative with a haunting and frenetic editing style, Caouette creates a cinematic experience that is textured, genuine, humorous, and sometimes terrifying. Caouette relies heavily on his editing technique, which he says is based purely on instinct. “I still argue with the notion that people are calling me a director, because I see myself more as a crazy artist who assembles things—more to evoke a feeling than to intellectualize what I was doing. I would start with a simple thought, like: If you were going to make the story of your life, what would the first song be?”
Tarnation features music by Low, Sigur Rós, and the Magnetic Fields, among others—clearance rights for the music and television clips were what propelled the film’s budget up to almost $400,000 for its theatrical release. But music was so important to Caouette’s vision that he based his entire approach to editing on cutting around the beat. “I got off on the fact that you could put one word, or one video image on this one cello note that would evoke this completely beautiful feeling,” Caouette says. “My objective was to match visually what I heard with a lot of these songs.”
Much of Tarnation pushes the boundaries of what is possible with documentary film by using found footage and dramatization to tell the story. Although Caouette admits to staging portions of Tarnation, he doesn’t feel like the dramatizations discount the emotional impact of the film. “Really, what is truth?” Caouette asks. “I can say my truth from my point of view, but I bet my mother’s point of view is going to be completely different.” Winter agrees. “Jonathan is able to composite drama into a narrative form that gets you right into the story,” he says. “It’s no different than b-roll.”
The release of Tarnation will mark the end of a long road for Caouette, who has moved on to new projects, including a music video for singer-songwriter Jesse Malin, plans for Tarnation 2 using outtake footage from the current film, and a narrative feature. Through a wild and accelerated experience, Caouette believes anything is possible for any filmmaker who is willing to tell his or her story. “There should be no more excuses,” he says. “We do live in a day and age now where you can pick up a camera and do anything.”
As for Renee, who shares an apartment with Jonathan and his partner David Sanin Paz, she is writing a book about her life from her own point of view, but says she is happy that her story is being told through her son’s film, too. “For years I was unable to even talk about [my life] or explain it to anyone. That’s the truth.”