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All in the Family: Jonathan Caouette on Walk Away Renee

Jonathan Caouette and Renee Leblanc in Walk Away Renee

I’ve been struggling to find a metaphor for the very special, not to mention most unusual, connection between director Jonathan Caouette and Renee Leblanc, his mentally ill and frequently institutionalized mother and the subject of his most recent film, Walk Away Renee. The closest I could come is really a parallel, and it lies within Caouette’s body of work. In his 2010 surreal short All Flowers in Time, a beautiful young woman, played by Chloe Sevigny, has an indefinable relationship with an adolescent boy. In a bizarre world where young people’s eyes can turn glowing red, the two seem to be close, in what way we do not know. At certain points, they look at each other with their neon-looking eyes, make faces, and giggle, but, above  all, a supernormal affection emanates from this experimental narrative.

Asked to explain his and his mother’s amazing rapport, Caouette, now 39, responds, “I think when you love somebody, and that person is in your life all the time, and that’s all you know, it just becomes a natural thing to want to take care of them to that magnitude. Recently I moved my mom into an apartment just behind mine here in New York. It works out beautifully. It’s love. I have enormous empathy for her and what she’s been through. Two m.o.’s I have in life are: I want to make sure that at 60 years old she has a good quality of life, and that she can have a bit of peace, and that she can have a life that somewhat emulates the life of a happy person, someone who is institution-free, someone who can go from point A to point B and enjoy their life.”

Tarnation (2003), a much more experimental film — highly fragmented, with the concepts of cinematic time and space in full force — laid the groundwork for Walk Away Renee, although it was not intentional. Tarnation contains much of the same information, and elaborates on all of Jonathan’s family members (especially himself), but Walk Away Renee hones in on a particular action: Jonathan transporting his mom from their hometown of Houston, Texas, where she has been living in yet another mental health facility, to New York State, where she would be admitted to a better institution and could be near Jonathan, who lives in New York City. It would also allow him to more easily monitor her treatment, especially the administration of medication, which had been haphazard at best. This would also be an excuse to give Renee some down time, which now includes a road trip for them and us through the South.

Walk Away Renee has more linear scenes than Tarnation, of the road tip, of Renee in various southern locales, of the two of them in the cab of the truck. It is mostly about Renee, although it does fill in some gaps on his atypical grandparents, especially his grandfather.

Jonathan was quite effeminate when he grew up, and was bullied regularly. Perhaps that is why he never finished high school. He came out at an extremely young age. He never knew his father. His family raised him as a reformed Jew, and he is quite knowledgeable about Jewish culture. As a child, he shuttled between his mom and his grandparents, who would eventually adopt him, as well as to several foster homes. He has a 16-year-old son who lives now with him and his long-time partner, David Sanin Paz. As is well documented, he made Tarnation virtually alone, using an iMac program on his home computer for next to nothing. Its surprising success allowed him not only to travel the world with the film but to find funding for another project, which, after a detour, became Walk Away Renee. Caouette’s movie plays tonight at BAMcinemaFest, and has a simultaneous online premiere as part of SundanceNOW’s Doc Club.

For such a talented filmmaker with so many responsibilities, he is quite relaxed (at least on the surface), gregarious, and warm. But let’s let him tell his story.

Walk Away Renee director Jonathan Caouette

Filmmaker: How would you say Walk Away Renee differs from Tarnation?

Jonathan Caouette: Walk Away Renee was made completely differently than Tarnation, and the premise is different. The artistic integrity of Walk Away Renee is not the same as it was with Tarnation. That is in no way a statement to discount the film. It was coming from a different place both by reasoning and also technically than Tarnation.

The MIX film festival [New York Queer Experimental Film Festival] was the first festival to screen Tarnation, where my future producer Stephen Winter was the programmer. I submitted the two-and-a-half hour cut, and with the encouragement of wonderful peeps such as John Cameron Mitchell, Gus van Sant, Brian Kates, and Stephen Winter, I cut it down and got it in shape for Sundance.

My experience with Walk Away Renee was very similar, except that instead of it being a MIX film festival screening, it was really a work-in-progress at Cannes! It was like the right movie with the wrong version at the right festival in the wrong year, or something like that. I am so humbled and honored that Cannes showed my film like that. And I am not in all seriousness discounting the Cannes version. I liked the film, but just felt that certain aspects and the essences of who these people are needed to be implemented more strongly.

Tarnation took me three-and-a-half weeks to construct. Walk Away Renee took me three years to make. A lot of it has to do with how technology has evolved, and how convoluted it has become. It was pretty chaotic for years (after Tarnation), taking care of Grandpa and my mom. Family comes first to me, would-be career or not. While all of that was happening, technology had evolved to a place where, by the time I came back to it, it was unrecognizable. So I hired external forces to come in, and I tried to indicate exactly how I wanted to do it. I do think it’s very important these days for the filmmaker to have a hands-on relationship with the medium.

The focus of  Walk Away Renee is more on my mother. Tarnation was about the both of us and it focused on my grandparents more as well. The way Tarnation was made and created and edited was coming from a different place emotionally for me than this film. Tarnation was made by me alone (at first) in my apartment on my iMac. Tarnation was also created out of an urgency and a catharsis, whereas Walk Away Renee was made out of incidental circumstances. My producer Pierre-Paul and I were working on another film at one point. Because of legal reasons and creative differences on the film, we collectively unplugged ourselves from that film and then we turned to thinking about a new film with my mother and myself as an idea. I was very reluctant. After I had made Tarnation, I said as a mantra that I would never again make another personal documentary–and that was that. So the fact that Walk Away Renee even exists is kind of a freaky thing. It was essentially made by happenstance.

Filmmaker: How did Walk Away Renee come about in the end?

Caouette: The intention of Walk Away Renee was different at first before it turned into the film that it is now. The film wasn’t made from the some type urgency that Tarnation was made from. The way Walk Away Renee came about was that it was more incidental. I didn’t want to see the footage disintegrate. A lot of it came out of this compulsion. I had the footage. OCD person that I am, I wanted to go back into the film that I had already archived. The majority of it was B-roll that wasn’t utilized in Tarnation, but I felt that it was 110% necessary to go back and re-paraphrase aspects of that film. The footage was residing on this external hard drive. God forbid if a glass of milk spilled on it. That would be the end of it.

Originally with Walk Away Renee, I was interested in shooting an extreme vérité film that utilized slow and restrained moments. There was going to be no music at all, no underscore. I had seen a whole slew of slow-burn films like these at an amazing film festival in Poland. I saw about 15 of them all in succession. Films such as Le Quattro Volte, Mama, I Travel Because I Have To, and I Come Back Because I Love You. I was also beginning to catch up with some Bela Tarr films, who Gus van Sant had turned me on to. I was inspired. I wanted to shoot a simple road film with my mother and myself in real time. I figured that if I did that, that that would make up (for me) what I felt Tarnation did not have, which was being able to have real moments between my mother and me as characters.

It’s very strange to refer to us in this film (and in Tarnation) in the third person. There is a slightly schizophrenic quality about making films like this. Having to justify yourself as a filmmaker, while severing your emotional attachment to the subject(s) who are you and…(laughs)

So, as we were building the road movie, and discovering what that was, I began to feel that it may have been necessary to go into the film and readopt those Tarnation musical/text/montage devices to, at the very least, re-paraphrase aspects of the back story (what we already learn in Tarnation)–but I felt that I needed to do it in such a way that felt completely different from how you got the information in Tarnation the first time around.

This was very tricky.

Filmmaker: What else did you end up doing to benefit the story?

Caouette: I think the version in Cannes was a little half-baked, on my own part. The hourglass was running out when we were cutting the film. We just submitted it early [laughs], but a lot of people loved that version. I know in my mind’s eye what the real McCoy of the circumstances were, and there is nothing more frustrating that putting a work of art out there just knowing that you weren’t able to communicate it all the way.

For the film, I wanted to streamline the info on my mother and her story (with just a tad of my story this time). I also wanted to make the info and backstory come at the audience, nested together in a faster way. I felt it was 100% necessary to talk about the history once again so that the road aspect carried emotional weight. I dipped into old archive footage that was torn from the same hard-drives that created Tarnation. That footage was going to be a part of a 10-, 15-, or 20-year anniversary version of Tarnation. I have jokingly stated that Walk Away Renee is like an opulent DVD bonus extra that was meant to be on the anniversary DVD of Tarnation in 2014–but here it is, in 2012!

Also, unlike Tarnation, I was working with other people from the ground up on Walk Away Renee. With Tarnation, that film was a first person POV of just me and my camera capturing moments, and then going in and augmenting those moments to convey a first-person (and then some) story. Walk Away Renee had a crew, a bigger budget, other editors involved — more people to delegate to. Walk Away Renee is the one film that I have made so far that I can easily say that I feel a sense of not being completely satisfied with it. I say this only in that I feel that once again, like even with Tarnation, there were certain nuances and dynamics of the circumstances that surround the story between my mother and me, that because of running time constraints — you can only say so much in 90 minutes — had to be omitted.

It’s tricky when you are trying to use the medium of film to transpose a lifetime of an experience of something and you really want to communicate the feeling of what that actually is, and you want to show and explore all the sub-stories and situations that follow those experiences somehow. Sometimes a film simply cannot do that all the way no matter what the filmmaker’s intentions are. There are some things that only face-to-face, human-to-human experience can communicate and do, i.e., you would have had to have be there, or at least have been a fly on the wall, to understand the whole thing. Sometimes even a book can’t do that.

When I was trying to figure out with my editor a way to tell the back story in a completely different way from Tarnation, we pulled in a friend to come in with an objective set of eyes. We had extensive discussions and ideas bouncing back and forth and all around and we then collectively signed off on the idea of telling the film non-linearly, in that we explained the backstory of my mother, Renee, backward, intercutting that backward-told story with the road trip. I thought it was a cool idea initially. It sounded good on paper, and I thought it was a very good way to tell the back story that also negated Tarnation’s way of telling that back story the first time around.

Later on, though, it occurred to me that that type of structure worked very well for films like Memento and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Irreversible, but may not have worked so much for this. I felt that we had begun to paint ourselves into a structural prison that did not allow certain scenes and moments among the characters to happen, and happen in such a way that made total emotional sense.

Luckily, after Cannes, they gave me a couple of extra months to go back and re-cut it. I think both versions work, but there is a dynamic that is able to live and breathe a little bit more strongly in the current version than the Cannes version.

Filmmaker: Was there anything that you completely excised?

Caouette: There was also this other pretty wacky thing that was ultimately cut out of the film altogether. Aspects of that idea actually ended up in very abstract and somewhat half-formed sequences and ideas for the Cannes version. It came about a year before Cannes, in early 2010, when we were still digitizing footage, and trying to get our heads around what this Tarnation follow-up film was going to be. It involved a faux-sect/cult of people calling themselves Cloudbusters. The Cloudbusters idea was created by me (inspired by the Kate Bush song “Cloudbusting”). The idea represented all of the weird jobs and film projects (all nested into one fake idea) that fell through for me since I had made Tarnation. The Cloudbusters also represented the weird, desperate work that I needed to take to continue to support my family — my son, grandfather, and mother — during a period when all three were my dependents.

The idea was that they were a cult who worshiped the fourth dimension and were adamant about the idea that they were in fact from the fourth dimension, and they were desperately trying to get home. They were convinced that Wilhelm Reich, the psychiatrist who invented the Cloudbuster, was a kind of demi-god. The cult members had a hidden Cloudbuster in their temple in Pennsylvania, and with that Cloudbuster, they were able to extract healing orgone energy from clouds. They felt that orgone energy was the only tangible physical element that one could witness from the fourth dimension. They felt that if they collected and isolated enough orgone energy, they could in fact go home one day.

The fictional idea was that they wanted to hire me to do several musical video outreach programs that promoted their cult. It’s a lot to explain for this article. I had reached out to Harmony Korine to see if he and his wife would want to play the fourth-dimensional cult leaders, sort of like an American Gothic postmodern Jim-and-Tammy-Faye-motivational-speaker-EST-esque type of couple. Harmony was excited and down to do it. But then I dismissed the idea because of time factors. We simply didn’t have time to do it in the way that I wanted to. At one point, I ended up shooting this whole other less ambitious version of the cult having a meeting with me discussing what they wanted. That’s all that ended up in the Cannes version only. It  came on as this strange beginning of the film, but never paid off later.

The full-on idea was that the the Cloudbusters and their healing orgone energy were going to be revealed as valid, that they were not crackpots after all, and that the entire notion of orgone energy was going to correlate with the healing of my mother at the end of the film.

What the —-?

Now that Walk Away Renee is Cloudbuster-less, I would love to create a nice art installation piece with all the Cloudbuster stuff one day.

Anyway, after Cannes, I brought in my buddy Marc Vives (who cut the beautiful Putty Hill and some of The Ballad Of Genesis and Lady Jaye), and he and I went in and re-tackled the film. I am happy with the final result of this new, more linear version of Walk Away Renee, and I am confident to say that, Yes, this is the conclusion to Tarnation. This is not going to be some kind of a Seven Up series.

So, although I think Walk Away Renee is a nice conclusion to Tarnation, it still feels like ultimately the feeling that I wanted to impart, I just didn’t quite render all the way. But do not get me wrong: I like the film and I am glad I made it, and the people that helped me make the film were terrific and loving. Like most artists, I think I can be extraordinarily self-deprecating about my work, and that can bog you down sometimes. But at the same time, it’s that very unequivocal feeling of dissatisfaction that keeps you (me) alive and keeps you churning out new pieces of work. If I may quote Martha Graham, “There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”

Filmmaker: In both films, your grandparents are in some ways inadvertently the villains, since they allowed electroshock therapy on your mother when she was 12, and it just went on and on. Of course, they had taken bad advice.

Caouette: They were certainly not villains. I don’t think anything they did to my mom was ever out of vindictiveness. They were just kind of [puts on heavy Texas accent] “doing what the doctors told ‘em to do.” They didn’t know any better.

Filmmaker: Who in the film world do you most admire?

Caouette: Cassavetes has had a huge influence on my work. I love the older works of John Waters, one of the first filmmakers who made an enormous impact on me, shot me up psychically in my coming-of-age years. David Lynch had an enormous impact, and Lars von Trier, who I just love. A lot of people accuse him of being a misogynist, but I think it’s the polar opposite. The early works of Robert Altman: I’m a huge Three Women fan. I would love to meet Shelly Duvall. Shelly, if you’re out there, give me a call.

Filmmaker: Did you know she is also from Houston, like us?

Caouette: I love Sissy Spacek, too. She is a Texas goy.

Filmmaker: Would you make another personal documentary?

Caouette: Just recently, I was telling someone I would never make a personal documentary again. Then about a week ago an opportunity arose that might make me put my foot back in my mouth. There is a new doc idea that has come up that I would love to try to get into. Definitely personal. I have one more documentary in me at the very least. And then I want to segue into making personal narrative films, and in making fiction films that are sort of emulations of documentaries. I’m not particularly concerned with having A-list actors or B-list actors. I think in some ways that could pull you out of certain kinds of stories. I love the idea of making films that blur the lines a bit between reality and fiction.

Filmmaker: Let me go back to you personally. In your teen years, there is obviously a large dose of narcissism; we see that in the films you made then. But the way you come across now is so non-narcissistic. You are taking care of so many people, but you don’t seem like you operate outside conventional normal boundaries. You don’t seem particularly self-absorbed.

CaouetteI think when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I was obsessed. Some of it was being a teenager and having a camera at that period, but the other part of it was the experience I had gone through since I was 12. I’ve had this constant feeling of trying to validate my own reality. I think it’s from onset of dissociation plus having these very extreme, tumultuous set of circumstances that are only happening inside your home. You can’t compare and contrast with anything outside of that home. It was a blend of many things that caused me to want to film myself, and pick up the camera, assuming it was a defense mechanism, or a weapon in a lot of ways, to make sense of the world around me. I’d like to say that Walk Away Renee is a conclusion to all that.

Filmmaker: How has your experience growing up had any impact on the way you are raising your son?

CaouetteI’m really glad I’ve gone through the stuff I’ve gone through, because I think it’s made me a much more mindful, cognizant parent. I think I’m a cool dad, but I also think I’m putting down just the right amount of structure, something I never had. Joshua is a very insightful, cool kid. He seems to be very grounded. He’s 16, so by all intents and purposes he should have rebelled in a crazy way. Nothing’s happened yet, knock on wood. By the time I was 16 I was a wild, irreverent kid who would get into all kinds of dangerous situations.

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