The Tarnation director discusses the realities of independent filmmaking and why he's done with documentaries.
Texas born Jonathan Caoette shot to prominence in 2003, when his experimental documentary debut Tarnation – shot on a 200 dollar shoestring and cut on an iMac – became one of the most talked about films of the year. Almost a decade on his films, including the short All Flowers in Time and a new feature, Walk Away Renee, are being brought together this month as part of a retrospective at the Ffresh Student Moving Image Festival in Newport, Wales. LWLies spoke to Caouette recently about the realities of independent filmmaking and why he's done with documentaries.
LWLies: Almost 10 years on and Tarnation still feels like a very influential film. It's a core text on a lot of student film courses.
Caouette: Yeah, I guess it's aged well over the years. As technology is progressing and aesthetics are progressing metres of what people expect when they see something, whether it's experimental or even considered lo-fi by today's standards, is completely different from what it was in 2004 when my film came out. I'm really amazed and grateful that the film still seems to resonate among people, even though they're looking at a film that's pretty archaic by today's standards, with the whole iMovie thing.
Do you ever look back at your work?
Oh god yes. I've never been completely satisfied with a film I've made and I always think of ways of improving or remaking it. Or I think, 'why didn't the 5D come out when I was making that?' you know? But all in all I think that anything I've made has all been one big experiment and it all encompassed a specific space in time. That's what I had to work with and I'm proud of that.
Do you think audiences expect more for less no, with the cameras and editing softwares that are so readily available?
Definitely. I think there's an onslaught of a lot of... I hate to say this because I don't want to discount a whole bunch of people, but because of the onset of YouTube and the barrage of media that you see now on the internet, I think we've inherited a very infected, jaded world. People's expectations are a lot different. They just don't care anymore. Actually, strike all that, I think story telling is something that should override everything. We might go through different waves of aesthetics depending on the time but story is the constant. It's encouraging to see that story telling has started to slow down in recent years, I've noticed a lot of vérité films and films that are trying to emulate real life. Not in the Lars Von Trier Dogme way, but in this whole super objective way. It's refreshing to see that, particularly with Hollywood films which have had this undercurrent of CGI in recent years, things are started to slow down a little bit. In a perfect world I'd like to see cinema revert or progress back to the way it was in the '70s. There was just something very experimental and experiential about 1970s cinema, and it was literally a 10-year period and it just went away. I'd love to see that gain, to see who the new Cassavetes are.
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about cinema and where it's going, and it seems to be in this limbo stage in terms of... It's really difficult to make a film that's out there or experimental and will still be accessible and palatable to people. I don't know what's going on in the ether these days, but it's interesting to think about what's tolerable and where we're headed. It's really unpredictable. But I think people should never be afraid to experiment and should always be true to whatever they're doing.
It's interesting that Tarnation predates YouTube, because it's seen as the quintessential YouTube generation movie.
Yeah, I've always found that a little odd. Actually I just did a conclusion to it called Walk Away Renee. Because it was a kind of conclusion piece I easily adopted the Tarnation aesthetic, with the text on screen and editing at machine-gun speed, but I don't know if people are going to care about it because it's seven years on and we're in this post, post, post-YouTube age now. I could have easily gone down some more restrained conclusion, but it still had to sustain the same kind of rhythm and ideas that Tarnation had running through it. But it's probably going to be hard for people to digest because you can go on any YouTube channel now and find something shot and edited in a similar way. I remember doing a Q&A for Tarnation maybe two or three years ago and one of the students asked me 'Well, how is this different from a YouTube clip?' and I didn't have an answer, I was just kind of biting my inner cheek. But what even is a YouTube clip, you know?
Do you have to remind people that you were inadvertently a year or so ahead of the trend?
Sure, but the whole notion of that is very passé. I hate to say that but it is. But I think although you've got people making films at home for nothing and sharing them instantly across this global platform what's always going to win out is good stories.
Are you done with documentary filmmaking now?
I think so. I'm actually looking to segue completely into narrative film. I'm pretty fatigued by documentary filmmaking now, and I'm really interested with narrative storytelling.
It seems like there's an increasing number of first-time lo-fi filmmakers who go on to make huge studio films two or three films in. Was that an option for you after Tarnation?
I was offered a few studio projects but I turned most of them down, either because they were duds or because I guess I just didn't feel like I was ready, able or willing to go down that road yet. But I haven't made a film like Tarnation since, so I don't know what it's like now, although I have heard of several incidents of people making super low-budget films as a way into mainstream, studio filmmaking.
There's something kind of cynical about that.
I guess there is, but we live in an inherently cynical world.
Could you make a movie like Tarnation today?
Do you think it's a good thing that anyone can now pick up a camera and make a movie?
I do, but I think it's the equivalent of anyone being able to be a writer thanks to blogs and things like Tumblr. It's as within reach as being able to write a novel, and maybe it takes away some of the specialness of being a filmmaker, but I still think it's really great. And I think within the next couple of years we're going to start seeing younger and younger filmmakers. Cinema will become a whole nother kind of language.
What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
To always start with a story and to try to make a movie that really comes from the heart. Don't feel the need to necessarily go to film school either. I know I'm about to talk to a bunch of film students, but I know plenty of successful filmmakers that didn't go to film school and I think if you're passionate and talented enough you should just start doing it.
Jonathan Caouette will be hosting a masterclass at the Ffresh Student Moving Image Festival (which runs February 8-10) in Newport on Friday February 10. For more info and to book tickets visit ffresh.com