Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

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Director Jonathan Caouette on ‘Walk Away Renee’

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Jonathan Caouette, the director of 2004′s lo-fi phenom, Tarnation, a kaleidoscopic mishmash of home footage of his upbringing way off the fringes of normalcy, which he made for, like, 38 cents, is back with a follow-up. Walk Away Renee, which can be viewed on demand at SundanceNow’s Doc Club or in the theater at Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest, this Wednesday (June 27, 2012).

Walk Away Renee is a road-trip doc that follows Caouette as he takes his mentally ill mother across the country to an assisted living facility — a sort of last hurrah that ends up more harrumph — but, like Tarnation, it’s really an affecting multimedia exegesis of Caouette’s soul, his past, and his damaged but loving (and much loved) mother, Renee. The film will not have the buzz or impact of Tarnation, but it’s a well-made documentary, and fans of his film will surely savor feasting their eyes on this one.

Caouette clearly needed to get through this to move on as a creative force. I look forward to seeing what he does next. I think one of his greatest powers is his ability to create a powerful sense of intimacy with his audience, something we get a slight hint of in my Q&A with him.

Doc Soup Man: You’ve had a camera on filming most of your life. Can you parse your relationship to the camera? Is it your friend? An extension of yourself? A crutch?

Jonathan Caouette, director of Walk Away Renee: Ya know, it’s so weird to talk about this whole entire, “I had cameras and filmed things,” in 2012, just eight years after Tarnation came out. It’s so part of our culture now. The world has changed exponentially and frighteningly in the recent past years. I’ve noticed among people of my generation (Gen X), that we seem to have these technology rant conversations every other day, reminiscing about the “good old analog days,” which make us sound like a bunch of 90-year-olds instead of 40-year-olds, but that’s evidence of just how fast all of these changes have happened.

It’s a mixed bag for me. On one hand, without technology, I would not have been able to create such a work as Tarnation and Walk Away Renee, etc., and on the other hand, I feel like I want to unplug myself from all of this because I feel that we are veering into a state of complete social disassociation. Remember the Eloi from The Time Machine? When I was filming myself as a youth, it was because I discovered a profound love for cinema, probably around the age of six or so. Going to see films frequently with my grandparents or mother on occasion was the real beginnings for my love for films. My first love of films were a lot of those 1970′s theatrical and made-for-TV horror films. There was something about the film stock back then and watching these films, sometimes with marred sound, all of the imperfections, that just gave this whole layer of greatness. A cinema near where I grew up had an amazing repertory calendar, sometimes having different screenings of completely different films every day, films ranging from Blue Velvet to Au Revoir Les Enfants to all the early Merchant Ivory, early Miramax, John Waters, Peter Greenaway, Jim Jarmusch, Gus Van Sant, etc. This was also when I started watching all the beta and VHS degraded bootlegs of the films of Paul Morrissey, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch, Derek Jarman, John Cassavetes. All of this essentially was the beginning of my “film school.”

There was so much love and good buzz for Tarnation. How did that impact your creative process on this film?

Two major things happened almost immediately after making Tarnation. Many people were wondering what was going to be next. Was the film some kind of a happy accident one-off thing? I do admit there was most certainly a sense of paralysis after that. I wanted to be extraordinarily mindful of anything I did after having put something like that out in the world. I began to receive loads of scripts and there were even flat-out immediate offers to direct x, y and z films all “ready to go” for the most part, but film is a weird beast of a business and things don’t always work out.

But I have learned a lot and certainly made friends with a lot of great people in this business. Film thrives on great and passionate people in all aspects of the industry, and that was a wonderful experience finding that out. And of course, I was still the primary caregiver and breadwinner for my family, which included my grandfather, my son, my partner David and of course my mother.

The genesis of Walk Away Renee was this: Back in 2004 when I was doing press for Tarnation, I had met a gentleman by the name of Pierre-Paul Puljiz on the rooftop of the Noga Hilton in Cannes. He had interviewed me for Tarnation. Just after that, he and I forged a long-term friendship. We worked on a very small project together for French TV and had long talked about doing another more ambitious project together one day. Pierre-Paul would eventually be very integral in helping bring the other French people into the project, i.e., Morgane Productions and the great agnès b / Love Streams. Very long story short: There was a great film festival in Warsaw that I became very inspired by. I had been invited as a jury member and had an opportunity to sit through some really amazing, very extreme vérité films, super slow burning films, films such as Le quattro volte, Mama, I Travel Because I Have to, I Come Back Because I Love You and In The Woods, and many others.

It was really refreshing to see this kind of cinema re-emerging again. I was recalling being turned on to filmmaker Béla Tarr from a few inspired conversations with Gus Van Sant. I was really attracted to the idea of slow cinema like this and wanted to think about a project that could work with that rhythm.

So in early 2010, some circumstances were happening in which my mother, who was down in Texas during this one period, was in a bad/lonely situation, living in an assisted living facility in Texas. I was here in my apartment in New York. My mother was alone and was being administered the wrong medication and had been subsequently going in and out of various hospitals. I ultimately wanted her be a permanent fixture here with me in NYC instead of continuing with the failed attempts of getting her apartments down in Texas. So I thought, wouldn’t it be cool just as an experiment perhaps, to shoot a real time “road movie” with her and me?

I was interested in exploring the quiet, the solitude of that, and I was curious as to what enduring the moments like that, cinematically, may be like. Tarnation would have been the film that people would have needed to check out in order to put both film pieces together.

Is there a difference in the way you film your life post-Tarnation (as a filmmaker) and pre-Tarnation (just a guy with a camera)?

Ya know, I have to put my foot in my mouth a bit, because earlier on in some interview, I was saying that I would never even make another documentary of anything again, but I may have just one more story to tell in doc form. But ultimately, I would love to segue into making narrative films. With both Tarnation and Walk Away Renee, in a lot of ways these films were both a kind of dress rehearsal to eventually make fictional narrative films. Walk Away Renee is the conclusion to Tarnation.

I noticed a fair amount of French financing and agnes b (!). How difficult was it to get financing for the film? Did France respond especially well to Tarnation?

Ah, yes. I love the French and their views on art and artists. A lot of very magical elements fell into place with this project. This is the first film I have ever made with French people from the ground up. It was a complete pleasure.

There’s a freaky-great Tree of Life-to-Twin Peaks moment in the film. I think you know what I mean. Was that a pleasure to make? How challenging?

Ha ha! I would love to make an entire film that feels like that moment. It would be fun to make a film that is a complete run-on sentence of ideas that are all at once terrifying and elating yet connected to one main theme of something perhaps. I love dreams, and I love the language and illogic of dreams, and the challenge of trying to transpose dreams into cinema. Cinema is the closest thing we have to being able to communicate what’s it’s like to dream.

How’s everyone doing since filming completed? How’s Renee? Your son?

Everyone is good. Thanks for asking. I recently moved my mother into an apartment just behind mine and she has a really cool infrastructure and support system available to her with that. My son is almost 17 and in high school here in NYC. He’s an amazing kid who can play a mean guitar. My boyfriend David is amazing horticultural guy. He keeps me grounded literally and strong. I love him so much. We have been together for 15 years.

Will you keep making films about your life? What’s next?

Absolutely not, ha ha! This was it. My whole M.O. is that I think I just wanna make films that remind people that we live and die. ;)

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki