Interview: Jonathan Caouette on Finding Closure With “Walk Away Renee”

During a recent conversation with Jonathan Caouette, it didn’t seem all that unusual to hear the chaos of domestic life rage on behind him. Calling from his apartment in New York, the soft-spoken filmmaker exuded a calm presence in the face of a barking dog in the background and the threat of a Jehovah’s Witness at his door, allowing him a breath of sweet relief when it turned out to be a friend of his son. No wonder then Caouette has channeled his energy into a crackling second feature about his life, “Walk Away Renee.”

An update of his 2003 debut “Tarnation,” the exhilarating, multimedia-driven memoir of his rollercoaster upbringing with his mentally ill mother Renee LeBlanc and his grandparents, “Walk Away Renee” chronicles Caouette hitting the road with Renee to bring her closer to his home on the East Coast from a nursing home in Houston. When Renee accidentally loses her meds, the film unexpectedly takes on the quality of a ticking clock thriller, but in playing with time and once again piecing together various scraps of media from still photos to VHS tapes to tell the story, Caouette illuminates the beauty in the often inelegant way support systems come together, an especially poignant approach when he took the same route to show how a family can fall apart in his first film.

“Walk Away Renee” also offers a chance to see what Caouette has been up to since his groundbreaking documentary, innovative at the time for being completely edited on iMovie at a cost less than the computer it was created on. The filmmaker now dismisses his status as a digital era pioneer as  “fluky,” but it did seem to set him up for a more prolific career than what his output since -  the 2009 concert doc “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and the 2010 short “All Flowers in Time” with Chloe Sevigny – would indicate. Yet Caouette suggests “Walk Away Renee” is a transitional film, one that will finally allow him to turn the camera on subjects other than himself. With the film currently available on the video-on-demand service Sundance Now, Caouette took the time to speak about how the film evolved from its premiere in Cannes, moving onto narrative filmmaking and finding contentment with his new living arrangement.

After “Tarnation,” did you think you’d make a followup?

Never in a gazillion years. I was saying as a mantra forever, I’ll never do another one of these again. [“Tarnation”] was this cathartic exercise and now this is the end of this chapter. I can move onto other things. This film happened more out of circumstance and happenstance more so than the sense of urgency that was behind “Tarnation.” There was a lot of magic surrounding the making of it and with this, I happened to have a lot of this footage left. I was petrified that the zeroes and ones of the footage would diminish one day, so I wanted to do something with it.

I had gone to Warsaw, Poland a few years back in 2008, 2009 and I was invited to be on a jury for a bunch of films that were all sort of these extreme vérité films, these very slow burning, real time films that were very reminiscent of Bela Tarr. I was really, really inspired by everything I had seen at that festival and I was thinking wouldn’t it be interesting to do something like this one day? Then when this situation came up where I was going to have to take a road trip with my mom, I just thought wouldn’t it be cool possibly as an experiment to just document the whole thing and see what could transpire. Even the most mundane thing could be interesting and could be beautiful in some ways.

Over the course of time, we filmed and edited it together, then it had occurred to me that we were actually working on another film. (laughs) It wasn’t going to be this experimental thing I was doing, so I decided to delve into older archived stuff, stuff that was B-roll for “Tarnation.” That archive footage became intertwined with the road trip movie and presto change-o, we have this new movie. It was this very circumstantial film that just came together and I often jokingly refer to the film as a kind of opulent DVD extra even though I know it’s really not. It’s definitely its own standalone film. 

Because “Tarnation” was a product of filming and collecting so much footage of your life over the years, did you want to put down the camera after it was over or did you become more intent on filming yourself?

I really did stop rolling the cameras for the most part after “Tarnation.” I hadn’t really filmed myself and my family at all to the magnitude that I had prior to having made “Tarnation.” And even that wasn’t as substantial amount of footage as people would often think. I think people had pinned me as this guy who was filming every little minutia and nuance of his life, but that certainly wasn’t the case at all.

There were coincidental moments where I happened to get footage when I felt maybe the need to turn the camera on because it was a sort of became an overt “pinch me if this is really happening” kind of thing. But after “Tarnation,” the personal circumstances that were surrounding my life and my loved ones were so chaotic that I never had a chance to film anything. I never really had a desire to film much of anything, to be honest. There were little aspects here and there that I got, but it was so busy and crazy and so much responsibility I had to endure that the last thing I was thinking about was picking up a camera and documenting it.

That’s where a lot of my frustration with having made this film stems from. I definitely like this film. It’s been a nice exercise to exorcise this film out of me and find a means of conclusion to it. But I do have a little bit of frustration because while I was getting footage for this film, I wasn’t doing it to the level that I think I could have to maybe cultivate a completely different story. Knowing all the different movies that this could’ve been, that’s where a lot of my obsessiveness kicks in.

You actually showed a different cut of the film at Cannes in 2010 than the one that was just released on VOD and playing the festival circuit. How did it evolve?

Very, very organically. Long story short, upon going into Cannes, I knew I was going to have to reparaphrase aspects of “Tarnation” and it’s very strange to refer to yourself as a third person when you’re the subject, but you’re also the filmmaker at the same time. Originally, it was just going to be this road movie with these two people and if you wanted to know the history, you’d have to make reference to “Tarnation” to put the two films together. But we all started going down the road of creating backstory and one of the original things that happened that ended up in the Cannes version was that we told everything nonlinear and backwards. The unfortunate thing about it, and it was a little too late by the time we all realized this, but we were painting ourselves into a bit of a structural prison because there were a lot of scenes that had to be cut because of that structure.

The Cannes version was lovely, but there were aspects I felt got lost in the ether somewhere. There was also a fictitious element that had to do with this faux cult called The Cloudbusters that I ultimately cut out, which was going to be this very ambitious magical realism aspect to the film. It was a bit underdeveloped and because of scheduling constraints, slivers of it did premiere at Cannes. I used this as kind of a metaphor for having to take sort of strange jobs to sustain my livelihood and support my family and I nested them into this fictitious idea that it was a religious cult who called themselves Cloudbusters who were trying to get back to the fourth dimension. They also worshipped this guy by the name of Wilhelm Reich, a real-life scientist who adopted this supposed pseudoscience called cloud busting. It’s also the name of a Kate Bush song. (slight laugh)

It’s complicated to go into it, but I reached out to Harmony Korine to see if he would be into the idea of playing the cult leader. Harmony was very down to do it, but then we just didn’t have the time to do it in the way that I wanted to. We ended up doing another version of it and that ended up going to Cannes and I will forever be grateful to the Cannes Film Festival for showing this film as a work-in-progress.

I could actually feel a bit of tension in the film because I heard through the years you had been tinkering with some narrative projects and there’s moments in “Walk Away Renee” such as when you include a dream sequence it feels like there might have been a restlessness to break the form.

Both “Tarnation” and “Walk Away Renee” in a lot of ways have been dress rehearsal for wanting to create narratives. They’ve been my way of creating fictitious narratives, but not making pure fiction. They’re documentaries with fictional devices that still convey the truth. I really, really want to make a fictional film and I’ve said fairly recently, I don’t think I ever want to make another documentary again, but now I can easily say I don’t ever want to make another personal documentary again. I do think I have one more documentary in me.

Have these films actually been healing in a way for your and your family?

For sure, particularly for my mother. My grandmother, obviously, passed away before “Tarnation.” My grandfather loved “Tarnation,” although he was really old when he saw Tarnation, so I’m not exactly sure how the film resonated with him. But my mother, who I just moved into an apartment just behind me here in New York, loves both of the films. She loves that her story is being told and it’s very cathartic in a lot of ways. Also, painstaking for both of us and very weird, still because my life has exponentially changed in eight years as a result of having made both of these films. It’s certainly been like opening up Pandora’s Box. I wake up in the middle of the night still pondering what it is that I’ve done with both of these films, but ultimately, I think they have established a conversation about a subject matter that most people would never talk about.

How’s your mom doing these days?

She’s doing really great, actually. On paper, this would sounds really crazy because I don’t think any adult of any age who’s on their own would want to be in close quarters of their parents, let alone parents who have any sort of special needs. But because her and I have this very close symbiotic relationship, I just moved her just behind me in an apartment just behind my apartment and it’s working out really great. It’s a challenge to be proactively on it all day and trying to juggle my career and other things with that, but it’s doable. And she’s doing really good.

“Walk Away Renee” is now available on demand through Sundance Now. It will also show twice at Outfest in Los Angeles on July 18th at the DGA Theater and July 21st at REDCAT.

Leave a Reply