Legendary director Gus Van Sant requested the presence of Jonathan Caouette, the director and star behind the 2003 autobiographical documentary Tarnation, for a discussion about film. BULLETT obliged, even though their conversation quickly turned to the end of days.
PART I: They talk about a scene in each other’s work that made them want to have this conversation.
JONATHAN CAOUETTE: One of the first scenes in My Own Private Idaho has River Phoenix’s character Mike kind of breaking the fourth wall but also talking to himself, saying, “You know there ain’t no other road on this earth that looks like this road.” And a shot of a fucked-up face—I knew as soon as I saw that I was in for new territory. The first film of yours I’d seen was Drugstore Cowboy, and that film really resonated with me in a huge way. Even though I was born in ’72, there’s something about the ’70s. Maybe it was just my generation, but there’s something about what it may have been like to be that age in the ’70s. The other thing I really liked is in To Die For, when Nicole Kidman has invited these kids over to her house, and she’s attempting to gain more of a rapport with Alison Folland’s character in terms of seducing Joaquin Phoenix’s character, but they’re dancing in the living room to that really funny dance song while Nicole Kidman stands and videotapes them with her big video camera. That’s a great scene. And I really like the scene in Elephant when the kids are playing the video game at home.
GUS VAN SANT: The thing that impressed me in Tarnation was that part where you finally get to the story, and it’s like you’re falling down this rabbit hole—the backstory of the character, and yourself and David and the present-time people. What the past was. It’s very slow and it is a very impressionistic way of going back in time. You start telling the story with type. As soon as it says, “Once Upon a Time in Texas,” it becomes this whole masterpiece of storytelling and editing and graphics, too, which was new. For me it was new because we didn’t think to use graphics, and I almost thought it was like a magazine layout. Magazines can have intense stories, as well. It was something that went beyond what you’ll call film storytelling or even film editing. It included other types of visual information, which was something that I tried to emulate in a short film once, but I never could really get it. You’re good at it, so you inspired me.
JC: It’s funny—I was doing a Q&A at The New School in New York, and this girl was like, “I don’t mean to sound crass, but how is Tarnation any different from a YouTube clip?” I didn’t even know how to respond to it. I don’t even think I answered her. If I had made Tarnation now, in 2011, which is only seven years after it came out originally, I don’t know if it would necessarily resonate the same way.
GVS: No, I think it would.
JC: You think it would?
GVS: Actually it’s kind of interesting, because the third-wave generation is now in their early 20s and they have retro-cinemas of their own.
PART II: Docu-fiction
JC: How is documentary different from biography?
GVS: I don’t know. They sort of blur these days.
JC: Do you have a favorite film that blurs the line between fact and fiction?
GVS: Tarnation’s pretty good. It’s supposedly grounded in a reality. But something that’s literally half-and-half — [Albert Maysles’] Gimme Shelter is a good one. Gaspar Noé kind of does it. There’s a filmmaker, Monteiro, who made Snow White (2000), a type of biographical documentary. I’ve never seen it, I’ve only heard of it. A big portion of the film just goes to complete darkness and they read their dialogue in the dark, just because in the moment, he wanted to turn the lights off. Elephant was nice because it was almost all reality. They were talking about their real lives. They were in a real high school, which was sort of their high school. It was weird because these were truly high school students in a high school and we had a 12-page outline. An extra eight pages were written for three teenage girls walking to the lunchroom. Two of the girls were actually best friends, and they had gotten in this argument during the audition about how they were best friends, and one of them was criticizing the other one about how she spent more of the percentage of her time with her boyfriend than with her best friend. She started talking about percentages. And they started arguing about like, 80 or 70 or 60, 40, 10 percent. They went on for a really long time. So I just told them to talk about stuff like that, and they kind of did it on their own.
PART III: They discuss their problems with and misconceptions about the industry.
GVS: The cliché is that the director insists on getting what he wants. Sometimes as a young filmmaker, you’re equating insisting on getting what you want with doing the job correctly. Some of that leads you down a weird path. You might insist on getting what you want in the wrong place. And then there’s the story about somebody making a $50,000 film—the character was riding on a train, and he’s supposed to look out the train and see a windmill, and it looked like all kinds of shit was going by the window, and the director insists on there being a windmill so they had to go out and build a windmill.
JC: Just to pass by on the train?
GVS: Yeah. In the end, I don’t even think the windmill showed up. It went by too fast. In the end, insisting is not necessarily a strength. Sometimes you can destroy your own movie. There are a lot of movies left unfinished because they just didn’t have the money. Assess what you actually have, whether a windmill or something as exciting as a water tower goes by.
JC: Was there anything that you’ve done where you had to pull out at the last minute because you just didn’t feel like people would go with you on it, or it was too out there to translate to people in any way?
GVS: I don’t think that I’ve ever tried to take something out because of it. But I remember in Elephant, we had a scene where two killers take a shower together. That was always the one thing that stuck out. I was like, We really need this. Even when we finished the movie, I think HBO said, “This one scene, is it necessary?” They were afraid of a backlash from the gay community. I stuck with it.
EPILOGUE: The Cosmos.
JC: There seems to be multitudes of films that are delving into very esoteric territory that have to do with outer space, like that film Another Earth. There was the Terrence Malick film [Tree of Life], and Melancholia. I found it beyond coincidental there would be all these films, and my film even delves into the idea of abstract reality. The cool thing about filmmakers is that we have an opportunity to put out there what I think is in people’s consciousness. I feel like there’s definitely something going on. I have this feeling that we’re going to experience something in our lifetime, in the next ten years, that’s going to be outstanding. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, or if it’s consciousness changing, or if it’s something devastating. There’s something that’s under people’s consciousness right now. More than beneath it—it’s out there. I think filmmakers are honing in on it.
GVS: Instead of story, it can be more like poetry instead of prose. You can connect to something like literature. Some of the films are becoming more poetic.
JC: And not so literal. There’s something that we’re reaching for, and I don’t even know if it’s fully actualized with everybody yet. Everybody has their own variation of it. There’s something that’s within arm’s length. I hope nothing happens in 2012. I hope that they lie. Maybe the power of suggestion that something is coming on—all the crazies come out and make something happen, even if nothing was intended to happen.