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Jonathan Caouette Talks About "Tarnation"


Jonathan Caouette Tarnation

Jonathan Caouette and his mother, Renee LeBlanc

© Wellsprings
$218.32 plus dozens of hours of work on his home computer totally changed Jonathan Caouette’s world. At the age of 11, Caouette borrowed a video camera from a neighbor and began filming his family as a way of validating and coping with his daily life. Almost two decades later, Jonathan Caouette took his 160+ hours of footage and with a total budget of only $218.32 created “Tarnation,” a true independent film in every sense of the word.

“Tarnation” chronicles Jonathan’s chaotic upbringing, focusing on his relationship with his mentally-ill mother, Renee. Caouette’s documentary-style film mixes pop culture references with footage shot over the course of 20 years to create an incredibly touching story of a dysfunctional family and the undying love that binds a mother and son.


How much of a struggle was it for you to decide to put your life on display with this film?
I have to say that it’s been an emotional roller coaster. It really has, and it still is. I mean, it would be a very hypocritical statement if I said, “Oh, everything’s fine. It was cathartic and now I’m ready to move on.” It’s still crazy. It still wakes me up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach, sort of pondering what it is that I’ve actually done here.

I think, ultimately, it’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s a very poignant story that needed to get out there. Between my mother and I, we always knew that we had a really, just sort of vital, urgent story that had to get out there. I just never realized it was going to be by way of the real McCoy footage that was kind of hovering under my nose the whole time.

It’s been a beautiful thing. It’s been a nice calling card, too, career-wise. I’m sort of an out-of-nowhere filmmaker. The film has been embraced by such amazing people and of course endorsed with the names of [executive producer] Gus Van Sant and [executive producer] John Cameron Mitchell. But it’s been very, very daunting. I’m a newbie neophyte in all of this. I was a doorman before all this happened (laughing). Anything that was ever going to happen like this in this world of how this film was catapulted to where it is, it was always on a sort of delusional level. It was never actualized. At best, if the film was ever made, or if anything I was going to do utilizing this footage was ever made, at best I thought it would be on a video projector somewhere in a hole in the wall in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. But I never in a million, trillion years anticipated this sort of response – ever. It’s just an amazing thing.

Will the success and critical acclaim that came with “Tarnation” be a tough thing to live up to with your second film? Where do you go from here?
Oh yeah, there are so many things I want to do. There’s actually a few possibilities in the works of doing one and/or two remakes of two very intensely popular rock musicals from the 70s that were plays and then turned into films. It’s that time again to revisit the stories for an updated version, perhaps, which would be cool.

I definitely want to dabble in all kinds of genres of film. I don’t want to sell out too quickly. I don’t want to succumb to the Hollywood system. As a matter of fact, I would really love to sort of remain in the D.I.Y. world of things and still just stay on my computer and try and do a few things.

One of the other things that I was wanting to do, which will probably, inevitably, realistically be my next project is I’m taking three films that were all made in succession between the years of 1973 and 1977 and they all star this one actress, who actually assumes the same aesthetic throughout all of the films - even right down to her hair length and accent. And my fantasy is to basically get all three of these films free of underscore and free of music, and re-augment them and re-mix them into a new two hour film that’s going to evoke a completely different story. Inadvertently talking to David Lynch’s producer about it out at the Cannes Film Festival, I said, “This is sort of like a one day thing I want to do to get back to the MIX Film Festival for kick-starting ‘Tarnation.’ Like an under the gun, off the record, no distribution rights inferred, like a 'Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story' kind of thing.” And he got so excited about it that he actually wants to come on as producer.

PAGE 2: Jonathan Caouette on Capturing His Life on Video and Editing "Tarnation"

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