DATE November 15, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Novelist Rex Pickett discusses his novel "Sideways,"
which has been made into a feature film
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily
News, filling in for Terry Gross.
The new film "Sideways" is being toasted throughout Hollywood as a shoo-in for
an Oscar nomination. It's the story of a wine-soaked road trip that The New
Yorker magazine calls `a comedy poised at the edge of despair.' "Sideways" is
directed by Alexander Payne, who also made "Election," "Citizen Ruth" and
"About Schmidt." The film is based on a novel by my guest, Rex Pickett.
Before writing "Sideways," Pickett spent 20 years as a screenwriter and
sometime director. "Sideways" was unpublished until Payne read a copy and
decided he had to put it on the screen.
The central character, Miles, is a chronically depressed unpublished novelist
and wine buff. He's taking his college friend, Jack, on a road trip to the
Santa Barbara wine country the week before Jack is to be married. Jack is a
big puppy dog of a guy, a washed-up actor who charms women easily and is
determined to finish off his bachelor days in style. Here's a scene as Miles
and Jack set off on their trip.
(Soundbite of "Sideways")
Mr. PAUL GIAMATTI: (As Miles) No, don't open that now. No, no, no, no.
Mr. THOMAS HADEN CHURCH: (As Jack) Why not?
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) When it's warm. Jack, that is a 1992 Byron(ph).
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Right.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) It's really rare, OK? I've been saving it.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) All right...
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Please, don't open it now.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) ...I won't open it.
(Soundbite of cork popping)
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Ah, Jack!
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Laughs
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Half of it, gone.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Hey, shut up, OK? Here's to a great week. Come on.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) Yes, absolutely. Despite your crass behavior, I'm
actually glad we're getting this time together.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Yeah, me, too.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) You know, I've been looking forward to this for a
long time. I was beginning to think it was never going to happen.
Mr. CHURCH: (As Jack) Man, that's tasty.
Mr. GIAMATTI: (As Miles) That's 100 percent Pinot Noir, single vineyard.
They don't even make it anymore.
DAVIES: The narrator in this novel is a wine lover, a golfer who has trouble
selling a novel. I mean, this guy's--and is traveling with his roommate from
San Diego State. You also went to, I guess, UC-San Diego, so...
Mr. REX PICKETT (Novelist): ...(Unintelligible).
DAVIES: ...this feels like you, huh?
Mr. PICKETT: Yes, well, I mean, it's written in first person, and I had
failed with a novel that didn't get published and I had really hit rock bottom
and a lot of other things were going wrong in my life. And I just basically
threw in everything and the kitchen sink. So it was almost my swan song to
Hollywood. People think of me as a novelist but I had really--I'd written and
directed a couple features and I'd mostly written screenplays, so I tried to
reinvent myself as a novelist, and it wasn't working and I just--I gave it my
Hail Mary shot. That's the God's truth.
DAVIES: This book was your Hail Mary shot?
Mr. PICKETT: Absolutely. If it--if this didn't happen, I was--there--I was
DAVIES: Well, let's talk a little about the story here. I mean, in this, the
one character, the actor, is determined to have a great time before he gets
married. He's very confident and aggressive with women.
Mr. PICKETT: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: The narrator, Miles, is much more fraught with anxiety about the
whole thing. Doesn't think it's right for them to be fooling around and kind
of can't bring himself to play the courting game he's sort of so caught up in
his own insecurities. Is that what you were like on road--on a trip?
Mr. PICKETT: I think so. I mean, I really--I was--in the early '90s, my now
ex-wife and I had drifted apart. We'd made some films together and I--you
know, we're very close still to this day and I adore her and, you know,
some--you know, I did some things that probably weren't good in a marriage and
I--you know, I regret it. And I'm just being honest with you. And so even
though this novel is fiction, the events in there are fiction, I wanted to set
up a situation where I just, you know, wanted to comment on male behavior in
the case of Jack and the fact that he--Miles is disapproving. And it makes it
difficult for him to establish a relationship with the person Mil--Jack is,
you know, having an affair with because she's the best friend of this woman
he's interested in. So he's put in a compromised situation, which creates,
you know, tension and drama.
DAVIES: I wonder if men who--and when I was in single--when I was single, I
was in this category--didn't find it particularly easy to be--to take the
initiative with women I didn't know--need someone with them who kind of throws
caution to the wind and plunges them into situations that they're nervous
about because they're insecure, they don't want to take the emotional risk of
it. Do you think guys like us need a Jack to drag us into things that we're
Mr. PICKETT: Yeah, you see, I just heard this term `wing man.' I guess it's
been around. I guess he's the ultimate wing man. I used to say--I mean, it's
pure hyperbole, but I've said 90 percent of the women, single women out there,
are dating 10 percent of the men because there are the Jacks in the world who
will just--you know, they have a certain charisma about them, they have a
certain half-glass-full quality about them that they will just open themselves
up. I'm--you know, if in fact you're describing yourself, I'm like you. I'm
shier. It takes me a lot longer. I need a lot of signals. I need--you know,
I need the woman to actually make the first move in most cases. So, you know,
I think we--the Miles of the world need the Jacks in the world in order if
they're going to, you know, come out.
DAVIES: The character--the Miles that's in the movie is not a particularly
good golfer. I noticed that the Miles who's in your book is a pretty darn
good golfer. Which are you?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, I have my handicap down to two, so I'd like to think I'm a
pretty good golfer. I played a lot of golf. And it's kind of funny, they--I
guess they spent $2,000 to give Paul golf lessons and he was terrified. And
I--they could have paid me nothing and I would have, I think, done a better
job. He has a horrific golf swing. It's so bad, I don't think they would
even let him on the golf course. But it kind of works in the movie because
he's so frustrated with his life, he might as well also be frustrated with the
game. It's the most frustrating game on the planet. Actually--just a
s--little antidote--the golf shot that he hits the back of the foursome--when
you see the movie, and this foursome hits him.
DAVIES: You know, why don't you--I think that's a great story. Why don't
Mr. PICKETT: Set it up?
DAVIES: For those who haven't seen the movie, why don't you describe the
Mr. PICKETT: Well, this was a scene right out of the novel. I mean, the two
of them are arguing and bickering about something and his frustration and
Jack's trying to, you know, coax him out and, you know, have him feel a little
more, you know, optimistic about his future, and this group behind them hit a
ball into him, which, on a golf course is just--is rude, it's unheard of. You
don't do it, and so--and this has actually happened to me. And Miles goes
over and picks up the golf ball and just hits it right back at them, which is
vaguely dangerous. And I've done that before. And so when we got there--I
was on the set that day, and they actually had me hit that golf shot, which is
my favorite moment in the movie.
DAVIES: In movies where stunts are controlled...
Mr. PICKETT: Right.
DAVIES: ...usually by professional stunt guys...
Mr. PICKETT: Right.
DAVIES: ...they actually had you place a golf ball and then hit--What?--a
Mr. PICKETT: Yeah...
DAVIES: ...like 200 yards back?
Mr. PICKETT: ...actually--no, that's the way it should have been, but for
the--you know, the sake of, you know, movie distances, 200 yards away, you
would never have seen them, so they put them only 100 yards away. And it was
kind of a trick golf shot. I had to choke way down on a 3-iron and hit low,
and it was kind of dangerous because I was really rifling golf balls at these
poor people who were sitting up there, and one of them hit the golf cart. But
they made it look like Paul hit the shot, but I don't think anyone who sees
his swing would ever think he could hit it.
DAVIES: Well, for anybody who doesn't play golf, I can testify, that's really
hard to do. Most people almost hit people by accident. It's much harder to
do on purpose.
Mr. PICKETT: Yeah.
DAVIES: The character Miles in the book also refers to carrying around Xanax,
which I guess is an anti-anxiety medication...
Mr. PICKETT: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: ...and having had recent hospitalizations. I mean, have you had that
kind of a troubled emotional history yourself?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, I mean, it's not that troubled. I--in the early '90s, my
mother had had a stroke and my younger brother took over her care and kind of
gutted all her money. And, you know, as I said, my wife and I, who had had a
partnership making films together, we drifted apart, and I went down to take
over my mother's care and then I got a phone call that my agent had passed
away from AIDS. It was a tough time and I started having panic anxiety and so
I found, you know, some medication. But I don't take it on a daily basis. I
may go two months and not even take one. But if I'm feeling panicky, you
know, I'll take a half of one and try to overcome it. The only time it really
surfaces now is flying. That's the only time. But...
DAVIES: So you have difficulty with flying, Rex? That's a phobia of yours?
Mr. PICKETT: Yeah, I think I got--I think I just got over it because I was in
New York for three weeks and I was going to--they held me on for a film
benefit there and I was going to take an Amtrak back. So I got on an Amtrak
out of New York and I had a luxury sleeper car and it was about half the size
of the bathroom I was staying in the hotel--where the hotel where I was
staying and I started feeling kind of panicky on the train. I couldn't sleep,
I was being pitched back and forth and then at 3 in the morning the train
caught on fire and they had to call 911. It was an absolute nightmare. So I
detrained myself in Chicago and called my girlfriend, she flew out and we flew
back and I had never been so happy to be hurdling at 35, you know, thousand
feet or whatever at 500 miles an hour. So I think Amtrak cured me of my air
DAVIES: Wow! So you--yeah, you found a new cure for fear of flying--set the
train on fire, huh?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, I just--I--you know, any form of travel like that, I mean,
where you don't have any control. But, no, I think, you know, I'm pretty much
over it now.
DAVIES: In the book, "Sideways," these two characters, Miles and Jack, are on
a wine-tasting road trip in the Santa Barbara wine country, which is almost a
character in this novel. And I'm won--do you think that this setting--what do
you think this setting and this world of wine appreciation brings to the
Mr. PICKETT: Well, I think, you know, were these two guys on a bachelor trip
just drinking beer, it just wouldn't have the sense of, I don't know, romance
about it. I mean, Miles has found some--I--you know, I've read a lot of
reviews and people say different things. He seems to have found a refuge from
his depression and his loneliness in wine. But really it's--he has a passion
for something that you can really have a passion for, which I have a real
I mean, there are so many different countries of origin and varietals and
different wine makers and different years, and there's a whole book side to
wine appreciation that is just as fascinating to me as actual experience. And
I think he's eager to involve other people in that passion, in this case,
Jack, who really doesn't have that appreciation. So--and I love the beauty of
the terrain. There's a feeling--I don't know if you've seen the movie, but
I've never been to Tuscany but it looks a little bit like a kind of Southern
California version of Tusci.
So I'm really in--as a writer, I really believe in setting and setting where
I've been, not trying to create a place. And I really believe in real places,
real wine-tasting. And I don't even think it would have worked if it was Napa
Sonoma. I mean, God bless them, they make great wines up there, but there was
something unique; I think a lot of people haven't discovered this little
corner of the world. I know Alexander really--he moved up there three and a
half months before he even began shooting the film.
DAVIES: Now you mean here Alexander Payne, who is the director of the film.
Mr. PICKETT: Alexander Payne, the director and writer--co-writer with his
partner, Jim Taylor. And he moved up there and he just steeped himself in
that tra--and he loved the verisimilitude of the locations. I mean, he--the
locations weren't made up. There really is a Hitching Post and there really
is a Foxen Winery and Sanford Winery. All these places are up there, and you
can actually see the movie and read the book and go up and take a tour of the
book and the movie.
DAVIES: But, you know, it's interesting because I'm somebody who enjoys a
glass of wine with dinner, but I don't really know anything about it. But
this movie is--and the book--were filled with these phrases like, `the wine
was richly oaked with just enough forward fruit.' And I don't know what any
of this stuff means, but when I hear it and read it, it--I can taste red wine.
It--and it sort of adds some kind of sensual quality to the experience.
Mr. PICKETT: Right. Well, I mean, there are, like, two camps in--of people
who are wine appreciators of what we call--or what I've actually termed
winespeak. And I'm in the camp where Robert Parker is, like, the great
hy--you know, hyperbole artist of this, and, you know, he speaks
grandiloquently, almost sometimes ridiculously, where he'll say, for instance,
a certain Shiraz tasted like melting asphalt. I mean, I don't know if he's
ever had melting asphalt, but I love the poetry of the language where people
are really trying to reach for descriptions. As absurd and exaggerated as
many of them are, I--you know, as--being a writer, I love that. I love
reaching for it myself. And as you get into your first and second and third
glass, the--you know, you become ever more glib and I like it. And I get a
lot of it from a friend of mine who taught me a lot about wine--Julian Davies.
We would go back and forth with it and we really enjoyed that kind of
winespeak repartee, as it were.
DAVIES: One other example: `The wine was dark and unfiltered, but it had a
kind of feral richness that called to me.' What that your own phrase?
Mr. PICKETT: Yeah, that is.
DAVIES: Very nice.
Mr. PICKETT: That's from the novel. They didn't use it in the movie, but
they used a lot of other--"quaffable but transcendent"--not--excuse
me--"quaffable but far from transcendent"--that's right out of the book--and
some other ones. They riffed on it. Alexander is--and Jim, they--Alexander,
in particular, really knows wine, and he learned even a lot more making this
DAVIES: What wine was that, with the dark and unfiltered but feral richness?
Mr. PICKETT: I think that was a Sanford '99 La Rinconada. It was actually
one of the first wines I had up there. It's one of the great wineries up
there. And they have a great tasting room. In fact, the opening scene where
Miles is showing Jack, you know, how to actually go through tasting and
whatever--and it's a little over the top for me, but the audience really likes
it. That is actually at the Sanford tasting room and the guy pouring the wine
actually works there--Chris Burroughs. He's a great guy. But that's--the
La Rinconada is one of their high-end Pinot Noirs, and it's just a very, very
thrilling wine. I remember going up there with Alexander and Sandra Oh, his
wife, and some other people involved in the movie, and we sat at a picnic
table and we drank and we just--it--I don't know, it called to me with its
DAVIES: One of the wines from the book, which is in the movie, is when Miles
and his friend Jack are about to go into a restaurant for a double date, which
Miles is pretty anxious about, and he says, `Look, if they order Merlot, I'm
Mr. PICKETT: Mm-hmm.
DAVIES: What's wrong with Merlot? Do you ever drink Merlot?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, there are great Merlots. I mean, Chateau Petrus is 100
percent Merlot. And it's one of the great wines and one of the most expensive
wines around. The Merlot that we get in California is really for
unsophisticated palates. It's a soft, flabby, uncomplex wine. It's known in
Bordeaux, of course, as a blending varietal. It actually softens the harsher,
more tannic Cabernet. It's not really--it's--few exceptions like, you know,
Chateau Petrus. It's not really meant to be 100 percent--used 100 percent in
a given wine. It's a blending varietal and in--I mean, there are good Merlots
here, like, Duckhorn Vineyards up in Napa, and there are other ones, so I'm
not totally against Merlot, but I find it--the taste similar from bottle to
bottle to bottle whereas Pinot Noir, which is the grape I absolutely adore, is
so different from bottle to bottle. Its expression is so different, and you
can go broke chasing it. But I sort of love that aspect of it.
DAVIES: Rex Pickett--His novel, "Sideways," has been made into a feature film
by Alexander Payne. We'll hear more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rex Pickett. His novel,
"Sideways," is now a feature film. It tells the story of two men on a
wine-soaked road trip. Miles is--Jack is about to marry, Miles is recovering
from a divorce. In one scene, Miles learns his ex-wife is about to remarry.
One of the things that Miles does when he's struggling to get over it is one
night when he's on a double date with Jack and these two women, he's had
deeply into his cups of the grape, and he secretly goes off and phones his
ex-wife. Jack says to him, `Did you drink and dial?'
Hey, did you drink and dial and where did that phrase come up? Where did that
phrase come from?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, I don't know if it's--I'm not quite sure where the phrase
comes. It might be one of those phrases they use in AA or something. I
wouldn't know. But it's--you know, sometimes when you've had a little too
much, you start, you know, calling friends or whatever. I--actually, that
never really happened to me in real life, but it is right from the novel.
There's no question. I felt like, you know, there were something that was--he
almost couldn't deal with it sober. But once he'd had--you know, he had
enough grape in it, it sort of liberated him enough to call her and confront
her on the fact that, you know, she--you know, he just wanted to know. And
there's something very--that's a very tough scene for me to watch. It's very,
very, very painful and I love the way they directed it, too, using the camera
angles they did. They really gave you the sense that Miles was really
not--you know, not in his right mind at that moment.
DAVIES: You know, it's ironic that you've written a lot of Hollywood
screenplays. I mean, you've been doing this for a lot of years, and some of
them have been produced. But your biggest movie's going to come from this
novel, which was unpublished until it was adapted by Alexander Payne and Jim
Taylor. Is it--it's a very dialogue-rich novel, I'll say. What made you want
to tell this story in a novel rather than a screenplay?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, actually, Dave, I originally wrote it as a screenplay and
it didn't work for me. And it so didn't work I didn't even show it to my
agent. A lot of writers, ultimately, get representation out there should take
note. Don't show everything to your agent. But there was something in the
story and I started to write a short story in the first person of Miles where
he goes to a wine-tasting that kind of goes out of control. And when I got to
the end of that short story I thought, `Oh, my gosh, I can have Jack show up
now and they're ready to take off. He's waiting for them.' And suddenly
everything took off from there.
Once I found that first person voice of Miles, which was not evident in the
screenplay at all, I had, like--I don't want to sound pretentious here, but I
felt like I had the soul--what became the soul of the book and ultimately I
think to some extent, the soul of the movie, and it just changed everything,
and that's what made me want to write it as a book at that point. Plus, in
writing a book, I had to go further in terms of creating events and I was kind
of playing off of Murphy's law. You know, whatever can go wrong will go wrong
and will go wrong badly. And I kept--I tried to up the ante on that. And I
pushed it much further than the screenplay. But it was that first person
narrating voice was the galvanic charge, the thing that put me over the top in
terms of writing it. And I wrote it very fast from that point.
DAVIES: You wrote another novel. I think it was called "La Purisima,"
right?--which is the purism in Spanish, right?
Mr. PICKETT: "La Puris"--yeah, "La Purisima."
DAVIES: "La Purisima."
Mr. PICKETT: Yeah.
DAVIES: And I've read that you shopped at a lot of places, through a couple
of agents, and like Miles, the character in "Sideways," ultimately, couldn't
get it published.
Mr. PICKETT: Right.
DAVIES: What did that do to your sense of yourself as a writer?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, that was the first novel I wrote to try to reinvent
myself. And "La Purisima" is actually the name of the golf course that I
would go up and play. And there was nobody--it's a great golf course up there
and there was nobody on it midweek and it was a place to really, you know, get
away from the burdens of my life and everything else. And it was really a
mystery novel. It was about a down-and-out screenwriter who was--is--meets
this older, re--semi-retired private investigator and they--he slowly--the
older guy slowly draws him into a mystery that leads down through Hollywood.
And at the end, he kind of matriculates as a--he does matriculate as a private
investigator. And to me, it was almost a parallel to what I was trying to do.
I was trying to reinvent myself as a novelist, and in this case, a mystery,
which would have--you know, would have successive, you know, adventures with
these two characters. And it--you know, the good news is it got me a great
agent. I--my agent--part of that--I said had passed away from AIDS and it got
me a terrific agent, Jess Taylor, and we shopped it around for a year and we
got very close at a couple of places, but it was tough. And so I threw all of
that into the Miles character, the frustration of getting close with something
and then it just doesn't happen for whatever reason.
DAVIES: What is your life like these days and with this kind of success?
Mr. PICKETT: Well, I live in the same rent-controlled house--I do--in Santa
Monica, but instead of having process servers at my door that I would never
answer and, you know, having rejection letters coming in the mail, it's--it
hasn't really changed that much. I can do so--I can buy some wines I normally
couldn't afford and I can eat out occasionally, which I couldn't do before.
But from the standpoint of writing, it hasn't changed. I still have to go
inside, I still have to really draw on something that is there. I mean, in
some ways there's a lot of distractions right now. It's very easy to, like,
go on the Internet and type in "Sideways" and Rex Pickett or Alexander Payne
and see all these wonderful articles come up and everything, so it's
distracting. And the key right now is just to really focus on writing the
next thing for me. So, really, my life hasn't changed that much, to be honest
DAVIES: Well, Rex Pickett, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. PICKETT: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Novelist and screenwriter Rex Pickett. His book, "Sideways," is now
a film directed by Alexander Payne.
I'm Dave Davies and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: Jonathan Caouette's autobiographical and heart-breaking documentary
"Tarnation" about his mentally ill mother has been 20 years in the making,
beginning with film footage he shot as a 10-year-old to chronicle his troubled
childhood. Coming up, we meet Jonathan Caouette. Also, Maureen Corrigan
reviews "Arc of Justice" by Kevin Boyle.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Jonathan Caouette discusses his mother's condition
and his film "Tarnation"
DAVE DAVIES, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies filling in for Terry Gross.
For most people, family mental illness is a deeply private matter, but
Jonathan Caouette has told the story of his mother's psychosis in a remarkable
new film, "Tarnation," which is drawn from audio and video diaries he kept
dating back to age 10. "Tarnation" tells Caouette and his mother, Renee
Leblanc's, story with a mix of painful detail and surrealistic images. Critic
Anthony Lane called "Tarnation" a daunting blend of head trip, cinema verite,
music video and autotherapy. Renee Leblanc suffered decades of psychotic
breaks and hospitalizations along with harrowing experiences which sometimes
involved her son. When Caouette was five, his mother took him to Chicago
where she was raped in front of him by a man who'd picked them up on the
Caouette was raised largely by his grandparents in Texas and suffered mental
health problems as well but did better when he moved to New York in his 20s.
In 2002, Renee Leblanc suffered a lithium overdose, which left her with some
brain damage. After that, she began of speaking of childhood abuse, saying
she wasn't even raised by her parents. In this scene from "Tarnation," Renee
is being interviewed by Caouette at his apartment in New York.
(Soundbite of "Tarnation")
Ms. RENEE LEBLANC: Rosemary was the woman who raised me. She was
schizophrenic. She was very neurotic, and she was very psychotic. She would
hit me on my back. She would hit me with her fists for no apparent reason. I
was extremely abused, and hopefully I didn't bring over any of the abuse to my
children. I wanted to be the one to break the cycle.
Mr. JONATHAN CAOUETTE: Tell me about the accident. What happened?
Ms. LEBLANC: Nothing. I fell out the window.
Mr. CAOUETTE: What was the accident?
Ms. LEBLANC: I fell out...
Mr. CAOUETTE: What was your first memory of the first mental hospital that
you went into?
Ms. LEBLANC: Uh-uh. This is...
Mr. CAOUETTE: Tell me.
Ms. LEBLANC: ...way too much.
Mr. CAOUETTE: No. Tell me. Tell me. Because it's not your fault, Renee.
Ms. LEBLANC: No, it's not.
Mr. CAOUETTE: It's not your fault.
Ms. LEBLANC: No, it's not.
Mr. CAOUETTE: You have nothing to run away from.
Ms. LEBLANC: I'm sick, OK?
Mr. CAOUETTE: You're not sick.
Ms. LEBLANC: Oh, yes, I am now.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Will you just please help me with my stupid film?
Ms. LEBLANC: My stomach can't take this.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Talk to me.
DAVIES: I spoke to Jonathan Caouette last week.
Jonathan Caouette, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Well, hello.
DAVIES: Yeah. Good to have you.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Thank you. Nice to be here.
DAVIES: How is your mother doing?
Mr. CAOUETTE: Oh, thanks for asking. She's actually doing fine. I just
road-tripped her back from New York to Texas by way of car about six weeks
ago. And, you know, it was a good experiment to have her with me for the year
and a half that she lived with me and boyfriend in Queens, because it was
really the first, you know, available scenario within arm's length that I
could think of for her, you know, after she had had her accident with lithium
toxicity. And, you know, although the medical system is a lot better in New
York, theoretically it's just, you know, getting her sort of reinstated there
and having that be her new atmosphere was just too overwhelming for her. It
just, you know--because New York can tend to be a really hostile place.
Mr. CAOUETTE: And it just wasn't her bag of beans. So I just decided to,
you know, get her back into her habitat. And, you know, the quality of life
for her, I think, is substantially a lot better, you know, down in Texas in
Houston. You know, I just got her her own apartment and this kind of thing,
and you know, I have to tell you, the life of this film cannot be over soon
enough. And I say that with love, but I--you know, I say that real
specifically because, you know, I just can't wait to get back to Texas to not
only kind of multitask and, you know, simultaneously work on my next film but
also get a better handle on my grandfather and my mother's situation in a way
that I've never been able to do before. That's...
DAVIES: You're now too busy with all this and can't...
Mr. CAOUETTE: I am. It's quite a dichotomy, because it's like I'm promoting
this film, but on the same--on the same note, you know, my family's livelihood
and health are just, you know, really kind of thin-iceish right now, you know.
I really need to get back there and really take care of them in a way that
I've never been able to before.
DAVIES: Has your mother seen the film?
Mr. CAOUETTE: She has seen the film, and she absolutely adores the film.
You know, I was petrified when I showed it to her. I remember the first time
I did show it to her, I was in a--I was in a theater with about 500 cineasts
in New York's East Village at the Anthology Film Archives when it premiered at
the MIX Film Festival when it was, now, you know, looking back, pretty much a
work in progress. It had a much different ending. It was a much longer film.
It was about two hours. And it wasn't--you know, it was the first time I not
only came out to her by way of the film but, you know, the first time that she
had seen any of this. And...
DAVIES: Oh, she didn't know you were gay until that?
Mr. CAOUETTE: She didn't know I was gay. She didn't really know about, you
know, all the content in the film. And I was--I think psychically, between
both of us, we must have had small coronaries. She was sitting four seats
down from me. But, you know, we talked about it, and, you know, she knows
that between her and I, that we've often had a pretty poignant story that
we've had to get out there. And I just never realized really, and she never
realized that it was going to be, you know, by way of the real McCoy, of
footage just kind of hovering under my nose the whole time. I mean, I had
always wanted to do it as a narrative with actors. That was my first real
idea for telling our story.
And then there was a second time, the second seedling, where I was going to
incorporate this footage was--I had written this 97-page screenplay that was
kind of like--it was me and my boyfriend and Renee, my mother, under
completely imaginary circumstances but playing ourselves, living in our house
in New York. And it was going to be this sort of parapsychological horror
film that was going to be kind of like an elongated "Twilight Zone" episode
loosely based on the structure of "Rosemary's Baby." And it was going to--I
was going to utilize the stuff that you see in "Tarnation" now as flashback
and flash-forward sequences for this completely fictitious script. And it was
sort of a safe way of using the footage by not necessarily saying, `Well, this
is me. This is really my mother. This is, you know, really the circumstances
that we had to endure.'
DAVIES: In the end, you've opted for this very self-revelatory story in which
we see a--there's really a heart breaking story of your mother and those
wonderful pictures of her as a girl and a young woman, so full of beauty and
Mr. CAOUETTE: Yes.
DAVIES: I wonder if seeing it made her think differently about what she'd
gone through and her own...
Mr. CAOUETTE: Gosh.
DAVIES: ...role in it.
Mr. CAOUETTE: I really--I don't know. I don't know if she--I think she--she
constantly talks to me about what she could have been, and you know, there is
a window of her, the real pure self of her, that's being infiltrated through
what she suffers, you know. So I do get glimpses of, you know, maybe the
early version of her that does come out sometimes, and it's very haunting to
DAVIES: Can you tell us--tell us, tell the audience...
Mr. CAOUETTE: Yes.
DAVIES: ...when did your mom's mental problems first appear? It was before
you were born, of course.
Mr. CAOUETTE: It was before I was born. And from what I gather--I don't
know the whole truth verbatim because there's really nobody of sound mind that
I can gather the truth from, you know. Sound mind of people being of my
immediate family, you know, my grandfather and my mother. And the rest of our
extended family, you know, they don't really talk to us much, because we're
sort of the black sheep of the family, I suppose. So I can only play the idea
of what I think the story is. From what I understand, my mother was, I think,
about 12 years old, and she was playing on the roof of our house, and fell off
the roof, and she landed on the concrete without bending her knees, and it
caused some sort of paralysis of some kind. I don't know if it was--I don't
know the whole story.
But, you know, long story short, my grandparents, you know, having their own
idiosyncrasies, and I'm assuming now, being very prone to the power of
suggestion, had taken some ill-fated advice from a neighbor to give her shock
treatments. And she ended up just sort of being a victim of the archaic Texas
mental health system for the rest of her life from there on out, you know.
And she had been in and out of about 100 psychiatric hospitals, and she was a
victim of getting electroshock therapy for about two or three years, on and
off, almost on a, you know, every-other-weekly basis, and it's just a tragedy.
It's an absolute tragedy.
DAVIES: You say in the film that evidence now indicates that there was never
really anything wrong with her.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Right. And I've gathered this from just talking to her
child--I've talked to a few of her childhood friends. And, you know, she was
a wild girl, from what I understand, but there was never anything sort of
mentally wrong with her, from what they say.
DAVIES: My guest is filmmaker Jonathan Caouette. His film is called
"Tarnation." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, my guest is Jonathan Caouette. His film
"Tarnation" tells the story of his mother's mental illness, drawing on
recordings Caouette made dating back to age 10.
You had some tough times yourself. I mean, apart from the difficult things
that you went through early on. You had an unfortunate experience with a
drug, right? I mean...
Mr. CAOUETTE: Yeah. Yeah.
DAVIES: ...can you tell us about that?
Mr. CAOUETTE: Yeah. I smoked a cocktail--it was my one and only drug
experience. I'd wanted to experiment with pot when I was 12. And
unfortunately, it was laced with formaldehyde and angel dust, which, you know,
had catapulted me into hospitals. And I was eventually diagnosed with
something called depersonalization disorder, which--you know, it's a condition
that kind of makes you feel like your dreaming all the time.
DAVIES: Do you still suffer from that?
Mr. CAOUETTE: No, not--I'm either very acclimated to it, or it doesn't exist
anymore really. But it was something I've--it's something I've had to deal
with since the time I was about 12 until, you know, I guess around the time I
was 21. And I don't know if it's quite subsided yet, but, you know, I don't
DAVIES: There were some remarkable effects in this film, some quick cuts and
split screens and special effects. What were you getting at with those
Mr. CAOUETTE: One of my whole objectives with making the film was--you know,
it was based loosely on a couple of experiences really. One of the
experiences was when I was nine years old and I had walking pneumonia, and I
had about 104 degrees of fever. And I got very, very sick, very delusional
with the high fever. And I just remember that experience very vividly. And
I think around the time I was, I guess, young adult, you know, late teen-ager,
young adult, I became really cognizant that I was having these other
experiences that were sort of torn from that same cloth as the walking
pneumonia experience. And it was that sort of borderline place where you're
half asleep and your half awake and you're about to, you know, go off into
dream land. And there's this whole plethora of information that kind of
rushes into your mind's eye. And it's like a story or a poem or an idea for a
movie or whatever it is. And it kind of goes--you know, it's in your mind's
eye for a moment and it kind of makes sense for a millisecond and then it just
sort of dissipates into the universe, and you're like, `Well, what was that?'
you know, like a fever dream. But anyway, for the film, I sort of wanted to,
like, loosely transpose that experience cinematically, and that's what I was
hoping to kind of achieve with this film.
DAVIES: You know...
Mr. CAOUETTE: You know, just everything about it aesthetically, with all the
text being thrown out at you at machine-gun speed, and just, you know, all
this stuff happening so maniacally, but more about--it was more about evoking
a feeling, I think, initially when I made the film as opposed to telling a
DAVIES: When you described that a moment ago...
Mr. CAOUETTE: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...that description of what that moment of light really sounds like
what I felt when I was watching the film.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Are you serious?
DAVIES: It really did. I mean--and I have to say that watching, there were
moments when I would get kind of a little annoyed. I'd say, `I want to get
back to the story,' but it was really powerful and affecting. And I'm
wondering, you're sitting at a computer screen with all of this...
Mr. CAOUETTE: Yeah.
DAVIES: ...lots and lots of tapes and music.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Right. Right.
DAVIES: How do you recapture that sensation on screen?
Mr. CAOUETTE: I just--I'm not exactly sure, because it was very kind of
subconscious and unconscious, but all I can tell you is that, you know,
everything had been digitized prior to doing this film. And I was literally
pulling out tapes from my shelf that were living and breathing on Hi8
and importing them into the computer. And I would usually start with a song
and just kind of start cutting to the song. And whatever I was, you know,
feeling emotionally from the music, I would just try to match that, you know,
And I just--you know, somebody said the other day, `If cinema exist'--somebody
asked me, if cinema didn't exist, what I would do, And, you know, I told them
I'd probably would be, you know, busking on a street corner in Austin, Texas,
if I knew how to play, you know, acoustic guitar or whatever. I'm a big music
junkie, and I just would always start with music and just kind of work my way
out. And in the originally cut of the film, the musical montages, you know,
served more as chapter breaks. And in between the musical montages, there was
much more cinema verite.
One of my first--when I did of the first montages when we actually had--when I
actually had Nick Drake music in the film originally, I was thinking to
myself, you know, `Well, if I was going to do the story of my life and my
mother's life, what would I want the first song to be?' And I just--I put the
CD in and kind of went to town. And it was just, you know, very, very
DAVIES: Well, if you're off on a filmmaking career, do you want to tell us
about your next project now?
Mr. CAOUETTE: Oh, sure. That's an easy one. I'm going to be going back to
Texas in about--I guess a couple of months, and I'm going to be living--I'm
going to be kind of multitasking and actually moving back in with my
grandfather. In my old bedroom, I'm going to set up an editing bay. And the
reason I'm doing that is to kind of be sort of more proactively available to
him and my mother, you know, to help them in a way that, you know, as I said,
I've never been able to do before. And at the same time, I'm going to be--I'm
just going to take my computer with me and work on my next film.
And the next film is going to be--I'm taking three major motion pictures that
were all made in succession, consecutively from the years of 1973 to 1977, and
in all three of these films, they all starred this one actress who--I can't
say who it is verbatim, but I can kind of generalize it, and she actually
assumes the same aesthetic throughout all of the films, right down to her hair
length and, you know, her accent and who she is even as a character in all
three of these films, kind of is a very similar kind of character. She sort
of denotes a sort of scapegoatism.
And my fantasy is to get all three films free of underscore and free of music,
and just using the split-track dialogue derived from the masters of the films.
And I want to basically re-augment them and remix them into a new two-hour
film that's going to tell and evoke a completely different story. And I was
talking to David Lynch's producer, actually out at the Cannes Film Festival,
one of his producers, and I told him, you know, I was just kind of, I guess,
sort of maybe throwing--just talking with him about it. You know, I wasn't
trying to hit him up for anything necessarily about the project, but you know,
I told him there's this thing I want to do, and it would be a one day for-fun
thing as a way to sort of get back to the MIX Film Festival, you know, kind of
like an under-the-wire, underground sort of no rights incurred, no
distribution, like a Todd Haynes "Superstar: Karen Carpenter Story."
DAVIES: Back to your roots.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Back to my roots. And, you know, he got so excited about it
that he actually wants to come on and produce the film. So that's pretty
amazing. And I'm still sort of in a place where I'll see it when I believe
it, too, because of all the rights issues and whatnot. But I think it would
be like the same notion of taking a song and sampling it and just kind of
running with it in a slightly broader way.
DAVIES: Wow. Sounds ambitious.
Mr. CAOUETTE: So...
DAVIES: We'll look forward to it.
Mr. CAOUETTE: ...it's going to be a little crazy.
DAVIES: Well, Jonathan Caouette, thanks so much. I wish you the best in
taking care of your family and wish the best for your mom.
Mr. CAOUETTE: Thank you very much.
DAVIES: Jonathan Caouette. His film "Tarnation" is now in theaters.
Coming up, Maureen Corrigan on "Arc of Justice," a book about race and class
issues in a 1925 Detroit murder case. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Kevin Boyle's "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil
Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age" is a spectacular story of
justice and redemption
DAVE DAVIES, host:
Kevin Boyle is a historian who's written about the rise of the labor movement.
His new book, called "Arc of Justice," delves into early 20th century working-
class life centering on a notorious Detroit murder case in 1925 in which
political forces of progressivism encountered currents of racism. Book critic
Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Kevin Boyle's new book "Arc of Justice" is one of those narrative histories
that stumbles upon what looks to be a relatively minor incident from the past,
excavates it and then claims to have actually discovered a mother lode of
revelations, crucial to understanding an entire age. This kind of high-stakes
prospecting approach to historical writing doesn't always work, but when it
pays off, as "Arc of Justice" does, it pays off big. Like other master works
of this genre--I'm thinking, for example, of J. Anthony Lukas' "Big Trouble,"
and Linda Gordon's "The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction"--"Arc of Justice"
tells a tale imbued with the simplicity and seemingly sick inevitability of a
great American tragedy, yet one in which the struggle waged by its actors
reminds us that history's protagonists sometimes resist and even transform the
The events Boyle recounts here were set in motion by the quintessential
American dream of home ownership. In 1925, a young black doctor named Ossian
Sweet returned to Detroit from Europe where he'd been studying with scientific
luminaries like Marie Curie. Sweet and his wife Gladys put a down payment on
a nice bungalow in the white part of town. Sweet wasn't ignorant of Detroit's
de facto housing segregation, and he also knew that about a month before he
and Gladys moved in, some 700 white people gathered for an angry meeting of a
local neighborhood improvement association. So he and Gladys packed guns and
ammunition along with their household goods and invited family and friends to
sit watch with them during the first few nights in their new home. On the
first night, a mob of whites gathered outside but nothing much happened. On
the second night, all hell broke loose. Here's how Boyle describes what Sweet
saw as he flung open his front door to let in his brother, who was trapped
There it was, the scene he dreaded all his life, the moment when he stood
facing a sea of white faces made grotesque by unreasoned, unrestrained hate
for his race, for his people, for him. His brother and a friend were standing
right in front of Ossian on the porch, terror struck. The people on the other
side of the street were screaming, `There they go! Get them! Get them!'
Stones were raining down from across the street, smashing into the lawn,
crashing onto the painted wooden floor of the porch. Then from the upstairs
bedroom of the Sweet home, shots rang out. It was never exactly clear who
fired them, but one white man was killed, another wounded. The police
promptly arrested Gladys and Ossian Sweet and the nine other negroes in the
house, and all were charged with conspiring to commit murder with malice of
Boyle opens "Arc of Justice" with this suspenseful scene, but in addition to
transfixing readers, it also sets us up to be educated. Even the most
sympathetic of readers might wonder if Ossian Sweet wasn't foolhardy in
choosing to move across the color line. That's the moment when Boyle really
goes into action, dazzling us with the sweep of his erudition. We learn about
Sweet's background as the son of poor Florida farmers, brought up in the
gospel of racial uplift. We hear about his time as a scholarship student at
all-black Wilberforce and Howard, where he was charged with a sense of social
responsibility as a potential member of what W.E.B. DuBois heralded as the
talented 10th of his race. We also come to understand the forces of history
swirling around Sweet: the birth of the NAACP in 1909, the overwhelming
invasion of the Ku Klux Klan into Detroit, the nasty contests between the
proponents of racial and ethnic nativism and the champions of progressivism in
Detroit politics in the 1920s.
By the time Boyle is done filling us in on the largely context, Sweet's
terrified but defiant stand in that bungalow seems like the act of a man who
was shaped by his upbringing and this particular historical moment to be both
a heroic protagonist and a pawn of fate. A man who, to paraphrase an
unfashionable genius, made his own history but did not make it as he pleased.
And that's only the first half of "Arc of Justice." The second half consists
of a nail-biter of a prolonged courtroom drama starring none other than the
aging scourge of reactionary thinking, Clarence Darrow, the only white lawyer
at the time who would work with the black attorneys on the defense team.
Darrow had only two weeks to prepare, yet he brilliantly reframed the case
into one in which American racism itself was put on trial.
Boyle concludes "Arc of Justice" with an overview of how so many of the
principal players in the Ossian Sweet case went on to work with Roosevelt's
New Deal and other progressive movements to shift America away from the brutal
intolerance of the 1920s. One of those New Dealers was originally the
mainstay of the hostile prosecution team, and that's just one of the many
dramatic ironies that inform the spectacular story of jazz age injustice and
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the
Jazz Age" by Kevin Boyle.
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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