An interview with Tarnation director, Jonathan Caouette
I can’t quite recall how I came across TARNATION for the first time ten years ago, but I do still remember how much it affected me at the time, as a curious film watcher in search of something new and original. TARNATION is an experimental documentary culled from the director, Jonathan Caouette’s private library of home movies and photographs, cut together using the first release of iMovie to tell his family’s painful and tortured story. Ten years later, Caouette looks back on the film that Roger Ebert called “a triumph” and A.O. Scott of the New York Times called “an amazing debut”, and ponders how the film has changed his life.
“It has and it hasn’t,” Caouette tells me, when we speak over the phone and I ask him how the success of the film has impacted him over the years. And although I do ask him a few other questions during the course of our conversation, it feels as though he keeps coming back to this one, which surely makes perfect sense to anyone who has seen TARNATION.
In TARNATION, Caouette is fearless. He tells the story of how his mother was given electroshock therapy as an adolescent, which led to a life of schizophrenia, and how he was permanently damaged mentally when he accidentally smoked angel dust at the age of 12. He now suffers from what is known as depersonalization disorder and TARNATION is meant to represent to some extent what that mental state feels like. And with this just scratching the surface of his story, Caouette recalls being taken aback when the film first started to screen.
“Initially, when I was doing the Q+A’s, I had these canned answers as a means of defence. I was so green at everything that I didn’t fully understand that as a filmmaker, part of the job was to justify yourself as a filmmaker, and to talk about the work. I was petrified during those initial Q+A’s.” At first, I am surprised at how candid Caouette is being with me but then I remember to whom I’m speaking.
“Some of my canned answers were like, ‘Y’know, this is the most cathartic thing that I’ve done and now this film has been a cap on that and now I can just move on.’ That was honestly not the truth at all. I was really just trying to make do with what I could in talking about it, in the only way that I was able to talk about. But I still live the sequel every day.”
As with most scenarios that frighten us though, there is often good that can come from them. “At the same time, once the film came out, one of the best things that came from this is just knowing that I made this thing that talks about this taboo topic that no one really talks about and I’ve been able to sustain this conversation with total strangers for all of these years. That’s been one of the best things I can take away from it.”
And what does his mother think of the film? “My mother, she loves the movie. She loves that her story is being put out in the world like that.”
Caouette never initially imagined that TARNATION would go on to screen around the world, finding distribution with Warner Bros., and earning accolades like awards recognition from GLAAD, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards, just to name a few. He is incredibly grateful that it did, which he credits specifically to filmmakers, John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant, coming on as executive producers, but putting himself out there like he did clearly still resonates with him to this day.
“I feel like I’ve been earmarked by the film. All people have to do now is Google my name and they’ll see this whole history of mental illness in my family. There’s this personal backstory out there and so in a lot of ways it has been like opening Pandora’s box but at the same time I feel grateful that it’s positioned me to still be able to make movies all this time.” In the time since TARNATION, Caouette has made two other feature documentaries and a short film, starring Chloe Sevigny, entitled ALL FLOWERS IN TIME. He is now writing his first narrative screenplay and working on a book as well.
With the 10 year anniversary of the film now upon him, Caouette has had the opportunity to revisit the film for the first time in quite a while. So the only question left is would he go back and do anything differently with it?
“I don’t think I would have edited it the same way,” he confides and then before he concludes his thought, he laughs out loud at what he is about to say. “I don’t think I would have probably shown so much of my face.”
If you’ve seen TARNATION, you’re probably laughing too. If you haven’t, you should
TARNATION has a special 10th Anniversary screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Tuesday, June 24, at 7:00 PM, as part of their Bent Lens: Pride on Screen series, which runs until August 17. Caouette himself will be in attendance. For more information and for tickets, visit TIFF.net.