Jonathan Caouette on Walk Away Renee | Interview
The Tarnation director calls us back.
When I first spoke with Jonathan Caouette, the documentary filmmaker behind 2003’s Tarnation and its new sorta-sequel Walk Away Renee, the interview lasted all of 30 seconds. On the phone from his home in New York, Caouette had just begun to field my first question—about the structure of his latest movie—when he stopped and politely excused himself from the conversation. The director would later claim to have been fighting a fever; the publicist simply explained that Walk Away Renee is “a really emotional film for him to talk about.”
The filmmaker called me back later that afternoon and we had a long, engaging chat about the new movie—a conversation my digital recording device failed to capture. Had the universe conspired against our interview? A day later, I’m able to get Caouette back on the phone. Our half-hour dialogue unfolds like a strange do-over, expanding on and reiterating many of the points raised in our previous, unrecorded discussion. Perhaps it’s the ideal circumstance in which to talk about Walk Away Renee, which similarly broaches new territory while reframing events depicted in its predecessor.
“I felt a need to rehash aspects of Tarnation,” Caouette admits. His breakout doc applied avant-garde editing techniques to the director’s troubled life story, as well as the hardships faced by his mother, Renee Leblanc, who has grappled with mental illness ever since receiving daily shock-therapy treatments in her youth. The more narratively linear Walk Away Renee picks up with Caouette relocating his mother from a Houston assisted-living facility to a closer institution in New York. The film has changed dramatically since its “work in progress” 2011 premiere in Critics’ Week, one of Cannes’s parallel festivals. “We were painting ourselves into a structural prison,” Caouette says of the original editing scheme, which would have seen the “story” unfold in reverse, à la Memento.
Unlike Tarnation, which was constructed from decades of home movies, Walk Away Renee was mostly shot during an isolated time frame. Two separate camera crews accompanied Jonathan and Renee on their road trip; I ask if their presence compromised the film’s vérité qualities. “I think once the camera’s on anyone there’s an aspect of reality that’s violated,” Caouette says. “I’m particularly guilty of performing for the camera. I can’t actually stand to see myself in this film.” And his mother? “I think there’s so much going on with her that the last thing she would think about is playing to the camera.”
Caouette remains adamant that Renee—who now lives in an apartment in New York—was mentally capable of consenting to such intimate material being made public. “She loves that her story’s out there,” he says. “She loves talking about her past and trying to make sense of her life. It just happens that her son is a filmmaker, so it works out.”
That said, this may be the last time the director puts the magnifying glass on his family. For a taste of where he may go next, look to a trippy, late-film dream sequence—a vaguely sci-fi detour that was once woven into the movie’s narrative. “There was this whole fictitious device about a faux-religious cult named the Cloudbusters,” Caouette says, noting that Harmony Korine and his wife were in talks to play the group’s leaders. I get the impression it would take at least five more conversations to untangle that concept.
Walk Away Renee can be streamed at sundancenow.com.