Jonathan Caouette is the director, writer, actor and editor of the ground breaking documentary/ diary Tarnation (2003), assembled for under $300 from hundreds of hours of Super 8 film, family photos and TV clips. Tarnation won multiple accolades including the Stanley Kubrick Award and Best Documentary in the London and LA Film Festivals. Caouette went on to lecture at art institutes around the world and write and direct the documentary All Tomorrow’s Parties (2009) that was selected for 17 international film festivals.
It’s a long way from growing up in Texas with a mentally ill single mother and her parents, and an (abusive) two year stint in foster care at age four. ‘I don’t recommend growing up gay or an artist in Texas – certainly not back then,’ says Caouette..
Today, age 37, Caouette is as creative and ground breaking as ever, his approach to life and film-making full of heart and empathy as well as a ‘no boundaries’ sense of style and material that pushes his work to further artistic explorations.
His latest work, All Flowers in Time is a 14-minute vignette, part horror, part dream state with references to religion, possession and pop culture. It stars Chloe Sevigny, premiered at the New York Film Festival and has already won the Grand Prix Canal+ for best short at the L’Etrange festival in Paris.
In conversation with Christine Westwood while promoting his short film All Flowers in Time at the Sundance Film Festival, Caouette discusses his art process, latest projects, religion and dreams and what he sees as new trends in film making.
‘For the last six years, since Tarnation, I’ve been looking after my grandparents and mother. It was like the universe saying ‘OK you’ve made this movie now you’re going to have to pay your dues, you’re gonna take care of them!’
I’m actually working on a new film now which is a quasi follow up to Tarnation. It’s my mother and I again, it starts from where Tarnation left off. Its sort of a document then it goes into this hybrid mode with some opulent ‘what if’ scenarios, incorporating surrealism and magic realism. This is a hi-fi version, I’m working with a digital editor this time. My mother had a lot of input this time; she’s been an amazing person to work with.
For myself, I want to make films that invoke the questioning of people’s existence. I want to make people aware that we are here for a very short time and to appreciate the moments
The first film I ever made was when I borrowed an uncle’s video camera when I was 8 or 9. I think it was called ‘Ankle Slashers’ or something! I’ve always created through film, never writing. I can think out visual ideas and situations but in terms of linking something together cohesively I’m just terrible. I do enjoy the idea of filming real people and then creating fictitious story lines to support that. Discovering people, anybody, is interesting to me.
I’ve had this perpetual feeling since I was a child that there’s far more going on around us outside of what we can see.
All Flowers was a compilation of so many things, very experimental. It didn’t occur to me as we were constructing it that it had these layers and references that appear in it. There’s sexual abuse, religious connotations, horror motifs and the idea of possession as a metaphor for abuse, and it was inspired by when I saw The Exorcist for the first time. It’s a whole multitude of things. I had a crazy childhood but I think that led to the various layers of my creativity.
I had a confusing religious upbringing. First up, I was told I was Jewish then I went into foster care and that was something else, then I went to Hebrew school when I was around 6 or 7. Then we moved to Texas and I would go to these Baptist lock-ins, just around the corner from my house. I told them I was Jewish and possessed by the devil just to see what they would do. They attempted to save my soul; there was a lot of fear as regards religion around that time for me, and I remember seeing photographs with camera red eye (coincidentally I was the only one with the red eye in the pictures) so I started thinking ‘maybe I am possessed.’ So I guess all that finds its way into the film.
I don’t carry bitterness about what happened in my childhood, not at all. Everything I do is very empathetic, almost too much.
The seed of the film actually started with an assignment. It was a request from the executive producer of this omnibus of filmmakers for a cross promotional project for this vodka company in New Zealand. The idea was for 42 filmmakers to each do a 42 second film, based on a dream or a nightmare.
It’s a compilation of dreams that I had as a kid and also drawn from some childhood fears that I had as a kid. It’s also inspired by having a high fever; that delusional, dissociative place one goes to. I recall having pneumonia with a fever dream that involved numbers, colours and letters that made perfect sense at the time. So I’m playing with dream logic, fever dreams and, hypnagogia. I’m very interested in anything that’s outside of usual ways of thinking or limits of reality.
I usually tend to reside in the lo-fi world of found footage and stills. I love photographs and looking at compositions, seeing moments, instinctively I want to go right to the person in the frame.
This film was a hi-fi version but torn from a similar sort of cloth. I evolved it by seeking out additional material and melding it with this footage I shot with Chloe Sevigny, and other footage with my grandfather when I was just testing out a camera.
I’m the kind of person, if I shoot something and it doesn’t get completed or it’s a half idea, I try to be sort of green about not letting it sit on a hard drive somewhere, I try to fold it into something else.
All Flowers was scripted and story boarded but the majority of the script was thrown away when we were shooting. I encouraged the actors to talk in character amongst themselves, infusing the scenes with small talk, because I thought it would be more impactful from a magical realism point of view.
I wait until I’ve shot everything before I start editing. Editing is where you discover a lot of wonderful nuances and happy accidents and all kinds of wonderful things you never would have anticipated in story board; it’s the most exciting part of creating a film.
I’ve noticed a transition in filmmaking, one I’m very happy about, it’s a resistance against the post modern and TV generation. When digital technology happened it was a big toy in the sand box and we were able to do anything, and we still do to a large extent, it was a frenetic pace and style, but the pendulum has gone so far in getting a lot of information out very quickly and I think we’re starting to hone back and begin to hold on to more restrained moments.
I see full on verite films that are just as hypnotic as frenetic editing, and I’m seeing other movies that linger on moments in ways that we haven’t seen for maybe ten years. It’s not a new kind of cinema but it’s a revisiting of an older style that people are responding to. If it’s done well and the story is compelling enough, you can have as many long shots as you like; people will be with you for the ride.
One person who inspired me was Lars von Trier, his series of films about women who have been through hell, who are total scapegoats. It’s something I sympathise with having seen what my mom went through. And being an outsider is certainly a place I relate to; I still feel like an outsider even though I’m probably classed as ‘insider’ now!’
Dr Christine Westwood is a freelance writer on culture and art topics as well as a fiction series for young adults. She is also a video artist, a photo editor for The Australian national newspaper, and fascinated by how current art media creates endless possibilities for communicating ideas that can span international, and emotional, barriers.