TNC Archive 2016
April 25, 2023
COSMIC CRYSTALS is derived from the school of Cinema Poverte. Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, who has made a super low-fi, hallucinatory, fever dream film comprised of 1970s children’s educational television. The film is a mash-up of public domain clips, educational films, online gifs, and a killer dream pop song by Nyles Lannon and Paul Falcone’s The Cosmic Crystal (a brief part of which was used for Tarnation). Caouette first saw it on PBS’s ZOOM in the 1970s, which inspired him to want to make films.
Hey Jonathan, thank you for talking to The New Current. How are things going?
It's my pleasure, and I apologise in advance for getting back to you so late with this. Things are quite hectic at the moment, but manageable. I suppose working on what you love defines the good kind of hectic, but gosh. You've got to be careful what you ask for in this life. Work has been coming in droves. I have inadvertently taken on a handful of projects that have all, by happenstance, been happening simultaneously.
Initially, the projects were going to be laid out in a slightly more comfortable way, but alas, it’s been a really challenging feat. This has definitely been one of those periods where I will be able to look back and say, ‘If I managed to survive that, anything is possible.' I have not been this inundated since Tarnation. I have had to cut the cord socially, both physically and electronically, and just focus on my work. There have been a myriad of projects in nonstop succession. It's been about two years now, nonstop. I think, once a lot of my personal family circumstances and the responsibility I had with all of that finally subsided, I just started going full speed ahead, as though I felt I may have needed to make up for lost time on some level.
Momentum with artistry is a funky, crazy thing that seems to be only delegated and predicated by the press and people who work in film, art, music, etc. I mean, at the end of the day, nothing really matters and it's all a great big giant glob of an illusion, but I am starting to feel, at 43 years old, that the time is now or never to get my soul wet again by coming back into doing what I can only seem to do in this life, which is make films. Nothing I have made since Tarnation, minus a handful of recentish works, is a film or project that I felt that I could totally endorse in one way or another because of the circumstances that surrounded the making of some of these post-Tarnation projects.
It's a long story, one I will save for a book one day, but I am so incredibly excited about venturing into some new-fangled cinematic territory soon after a very (needed) sabbatical away from cinema, especially after my last film, Walk Away Renee, which was a film that took its toll on me emotionally and was almost a project that made me walk away from ever wanting to make films ever again.
Thank God, I nabbed my mojo back, though. For the past two years, I have been developing a psychedelic, quite epic, very realistic horror film, a John Grant music video, two Nyles Lannon music videos, and an episode for a conceptually cool TV series with my friend, the extremely talented Rose Troche (Go Fish, the L word). A Mercury Rev music video that is going to eventually have a short film as a precursor to the video (editing this now), and I also feverishly worked on a 5-minute film (a mixed media installation) for the Philharmonie de Paris (opening this March) for the Velvet Underground/Lou Reed retrospective.
I am on the cusp of banging out my first scripted screenplay, beelining back to what I began about 2 years ago. The one thing that makes this recent work significant among the handful of films and projects since Tarnation is that the very soul of the work is IN the work. I have come to realise that I need to edit my own work from here on out, particularly with the kinds of films I usually make.
Congratulations on having Cosmic Crystals selected for the 30th BFI Flare! What was it like when you found out that your short had been selected?
I was really gobsmacked for a bunch of reasons. First off, Cosmic Crystals is essentially a very opulent music video for my friend Nyles Lannon. A good majority of what is in the film is derived from filmmaker Paul Falcone's The Cosmic Crystal, which was a film that I saw on one of my favourite TV shows as a kid called Zoom on PBS.
The film had its world premiere last year; has it surprised you to have gotten this type of response to the film?
It really has...
Tell me a little bit about Cosmic crystals. What was the inspiration behind the film?
Zoom was a 1970s kid show that was essentially made by kids for kids. It encouraged kids to send in recipes, plays, etc., and the kids on the show would make the recipes and put on the plays. There were filmmaking kids (working on Super 8 at the time) who would submit their short films to Zoom, and Zoom would show those. The Cosmic Crystal was one of those films that made an indelible impression on me and really made me want to be a filmmaker.
It was this very ambitious film that scared me as a kid, but I was completely intrigued. Pre-internet, I had managed to get a copy of that episode of Zoom with The Cosmic Crystal on it, and I was fortunate enough that while making Tarnation, WGBH in Boston, the station that created Zoom, licenced some snippet clips from both Zoom's intro song and clips from Paul Falcone's The Cosmic Crystal.
Many, many years later, I stumbled upon The Cosmic Crystal on video. I saw the "extended version" for the first time ever; the version they showed on Zoom was edited down. I was contacted by my buddy, the very talented singer-songwriter Nyles Lannon. I was itching to re-cultivate my former film editing chops, so I made two music videos for Nyles. I contacted Paul and asked him for permission to take The Cosmic Crystal and mash it up, juxtaposing it with Nyles's song, Dreamer. Paul was so cool to grant me this wish.
Nyle's had already had an official music video out for Dreamer, but I loved the song so much that I just wanted to do it. So I ended up making a really abstract remix of The Cosmic Crystal and folding additional online public domain things and stuff, particularly some really weird and great public domain gifs, and that is how "Cosmic Crystals" (the short film, I guess) came into fruition. The MIX Film Festival in NYC was the first to screen it, and I am so pleased that it has now travelled down to the always wondrous BFI. I am thrilled! I do hope people dig it.
Looking back, would there be anything you'd do differently?
Not a thing!
Do you plan on following Cosmic Crystals with other shorts?
Yes, I want to pay homage to "instructional television" of the 1970s and 1980s with two other shorts as a kind of trilogy. It would give me an opportunity to play around with remixed footage from a most curious era in children's educational television while greasing my editing skills again to prepare for my bigger ventures coming down the wormhole soon.
Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?
Yes, since I was 4 years old. I have been making films since I was about 8.
How much has your approach to filmmaking developed since your debut film Tarnation?
Quite a lot. I am finally graduating (after a long time) into working on narrative, scripted fictional films (with documentary and narrative hybrid aspects sprinkled in). I am really excited about 2016 and some new work coming through the pipeline at last.
Did you ever expect to get the level of attention you got for your debut?
Not at all... It was like being baptised with muriatic acid. In many ways, Tarnation was and continues to be the emotional fuselage of a simultaneous cathartic blessing as well as a somewhat hazardous curse. It's been many things. Although I would not change one thing about the existence of the film if I had the choice,
How have you managed to continue to create such original and absorbing films?
I don't watch television at all. I am not sure if this is a good thing or a bad thing. I also don't watch many modern films these days. I have no modern influences or references to anything. Most of what I make comes from my own crazed head and perhaps even my subconscious. A lot of my work is heavily influenced, if anything, by films of the 1970s. My point of reference kind of remains in that era.
Is it difficult to hand over your films to the audience?
Always. It's actually palpable.
What advice would you offer an up-and-coming filmmaker?
Never give up, and make a film on your iPhone if you want. Do not go to film school (although I sometimes wish I had gone). Make a film if you have a good story to tell, and try to watch as many films as you can. Let that be your film school. Don't trust too many people in the "film world".
Hopefully you can find a good handful of trustworthy people that you are comfortable with, but in the often murky world of film, people are engulfed with opportunists who will literally forge friendships with you (in the forgery way, not the mutual trust way). They will be there when they need something and be there to celebrate something that is celebrated," but when it comes to anything that is the flip side of that, they will suddenly not be there.
I have gone through both extremes of this spectrum. I have unfortunately needed to edit out a few people from my life because of the latter. But to any would-be young filmmaker, listen to your heart and your instincts. Take criticism from trusted friends and from trusted professionals, but always listen to your heart. If you make a film and make a splash with it, be sure to have great and seasoned representation. Never sell your world-wide rights (if you can help it), and try to even self-distribute your work if you can (and you can, by the way).
And watch out for toxic fly-by-night and fare-weathered people; there are many, as Lily Tomlin's Edith Ann once said, "And that's the truth."
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from your films?
Aside from Cosmic Crystals, I want to continue to make films that, in some way, remind people that they live and die.