It’s not often a doc with a production budget of US$218 and edited using iMovie receives a standing ovation at Cannes, but Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation did just that. It also screened at TIFF and Sundance, and took in $18,000 at the box office during its first week. Even more surprising is that the film happened almost accidentally.
Using family photographs, videos and audio recordings that Caouette began collecting and creating at the age of 11, Tarnation tells the story of the director and his mother, who after a fall at the age of 12 was put through shock therapy treatments that resulted in her suffering mental illness.
‘I never anticipated it being a documentary,’ says Caouette. ‘It was going to be a 99.9% percent truth. I had slapped on this fictitious hybrid ending for the  mix film festival [version], which was a work in progress… At the end, my grandfather pulled a gun on me and shot me, and the film hurled into the future to show what could have happened. It was very, very strange.’ In the end, Caouette stuck to the facts to reign in the film’s length.
That celebrated $218 budget includes $149.47 for Hi-8 tapes, $33.57 for VHS tapes, $10.27 for a camera adapter and $25 for an angel wing prop. All the cameras Caouette used were either loaners or gifts, as was the Mac he used. ‘Of course, it’s no longer a $218 film,’ notes the filmmaker. ‘Now that we have rights to music, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $400,000. That is still not much for an indie film, but it’s more money than I’ve ever known.’
Caouette chose to edit on iMovie because of budget constraints, but also because the program was ‘within arm’s length and ridiculously easy.’ He’ll graduate to ‘grown-up’ editing software such as Final Cut Pro for his next project, but jokes he’s intimidated by ‘two windows and all that damn stuff.’
That Tarnation is screening theatrically is a fantasy of Caouette’s come true, but he’s not a fan of the film being allocated to 35mm, a stipulation for entry into Cannes but paid for by distributor Wellspring. ‘The movie lived and breathed happily on hd or any sort of video. Because of the transfer… you lose the original sensibility of it,’ he says. Caouette is planning to produce what he calls a ‘sequel equal’ to Tarnation called Buddy (w/t) and has already decided this film will not move to 35mm.’I’m probably going to keep it direct to DVD, or just do the grassroots thing and travel around the United States with it,’ he explains.
Although Tarnation is a narrative, aesthetically it was made to emulate a thought process; it was supposed to evoke a feeling when leaving the theater. ‘It hits you like a waking fever dream and it seems to get under peoples’ skin. It was certainly under my skin when I was making it,’ says Caouette. ‘I hope I make another movie like this – I hope I can do this again.’ So do we.