I met John Maringouin last November in the offices of Tucson's Loft Cinema during the inaugural incarnation of its film festival. He was in town showing off his latest film, Big River Man (True/False ‘'09), and I managed to catch him for the half-hour between the Q+A and his ride to the airport. We unfortunately didn't get to Big River Man — a hallucinogenic, deeply weird trip into madness á la Herzog's Aguirre — but we were able to talk about his first film: Running Stumbled a nightmarish lo-fi marvel and personal doc par excellence that hit True/False in 2007.
(Editor’s note: Maringouin couldn’t attend T/F 2007 because he was in Manaus, Brazil filming what would become Big River Man.)
At one point during the interview, John said to me about his debut, “It's like a whole different ballgame every time we have a chapter — except each one of these things is going to be linked narratively, and they're going to inform each other in way that's going to build up and build up and build up to the point where you start to experience them as if it were a narrative that has a lot of thrust.” That insight was kind of revelatory to me, and in my mind spot-on. In a way, Running Stumbled represents the documentary analog of Denis Johnson's great Jesus' Son: a collection of stories populated by a small gallery of grotesqueries, twisted and at times monstrous but recognizably human, and linked by a singular — and entertainingly unhinged — sensibility.
As I transcribed the interview, I noticed that Maringouin's speech was peppered with the question “You know?” — something, I think at least, that's not just some linguistic tic but indicative of an earnest desire for clarity. In fact, in his two feature films to date, Maringouin has demonstrated the astonishing ability to lend the hellish, the insane, the unspeakable — as he says, the “apocalyptic” — the clarity and force of good poetry. During some later email correspondence, Maringouin told me that he considers his two films “professional failures,” which, considering the lack of pretense with which he communicates, I believe represents not a false modesty but rather evidence that he holds some pretty impossible standards for himself. As I wrote back, if these two are professional failures, I can't wait until he hits one out of the park.
Kyle Puetz: So I was wondering how you originally conceived Running Stumbled and how that idea changed as you started filming.
It was originally supposed to be an alternative ending for a narrative feature that was about a guy who lived in his car for years and was haunted by his past and was on a sort of quest to uncover these secrets and eventually kill his family who'd abandoned him or force them, shock them into this sort of enlightenment. And so that was the written script, and I'd shot the ending scene with... I'd shot it one-and-a-half times with actors, and to me, it'd never worked. And it was just kismet as the time I got a phone call from the Jefferson Parish coroner's office — that's New Orleans, that's West Bank New Orleans. My father's house was going to be condemned if I didn't do anything about it, and I hadn't seen him in years. And I knew it was going to be bad, because I knew he was a heroin junkie and he hadn't left the house in 20 years. And so that experience of having to go down there and deal with it started the whole idea of, maybe we can just do this for real. I can just show up a character — the same character I've been playing for a year shooting — but I'll overlay this over this real situation, which is my real life, you know? It felt really dangerous and really fucked up. I was not really happy about doing it. But it had its own momentum, its own sense of necessity. So that's how it started.
The original idea was that I was going to do that, and that, in fact, is the beginning of the movie. That red, really color-corrected scene? That's half of the scene that we shot. But it becomes these two bookends of the films, and that took a few hours, and the cameraperson went home. And I stayed, and I kept the camera there, and I stayed for ten more days. And that's the documentary about Johnny Roe.
John Maringouin with his father Johnny Roe in “Running Stumbled”
So you head over in this white suit, performing a role.
It was a role, yeah.
Did you have any... I guess what I'm trying to ask is whether you tried to capture life as it occurred. But just with the presence of the camera, everything changes...
Yeah, as soon as the camera shows up, everything changes. The difference is that sometimes when you bring a camera into a person's space, not a lot happens. And sometimes these people are brilliant actors, and they don't know it. Or maybe they do know it, and they've been waiting for that camera to show up for 20 years, and that was more the case in Johnny and Marie's situation. They were these incredible performers, and they were just waiting for the opportunity to memorialize this thing that had been going on for a very long time. It wasn't just their situation, it was about generational ghosts, it was a drama that had been going on for not just decades but hundreds of years in that family. At least that's what I believe. And it just had a very intense culmination. And it was never at any point in my control. My making that film was a catalyst for this thing to kind of explode. And that's why the film is just a lot of unbelievable moments, that you just can't believe happened that way, but in fact they did. Yeah, it just felt like it was making itself happen.
For instance, the Odyssey moment. It seems like it's a contrived...
It's too much, but in fact that was a thing where I just panned over to the TV, and it just happened to be saying that. I talked a lot to my girlfriend Molly [Lynch] about the hauntedness of the house, and the hauntedness of the TV. It seemed like every time you panned over to the TV, it was saying something that was immediately relevant to what was going on. Like, the whole thing where I pan from Johnny to the TV, and the guy's saying, 'You didn't tell me I had a coroner for a son.' and he's like 'You go to hell.' or something to his dad. And I didn't even realize at the time that that was happening. There were a lot of things that happened in that movie that you could break down with a group of paranormal investigators over a long period of time, because I would say the hand of the paranormal was definitely strong in that situation and governed a lot of the events.
There's also a lot of experimentation in the film, stylistically. My favorite part of the movie, probably, is the chapter in which there's basically cameras trained on two people and then they talk about whether they're in the same room.
Yeah, that scene actually goes on for another two hours in real life. They go into different rooms, and they talk about each other at the same time from different rooms, and initially I was going to have that go on and on and on and on — until I figured out the film had to be these five-minute chapters, and nothing could be longer than five minutes or else it'd wreck the pacing.
How much did you experiment within the editing room? Was it just a moment of inspiration or was there a process by which you tried a lot of things?
Well, I realized that none of the things... The sequence of events in which I shot the film... It wasn't sequential. And I realized that, OK, this is going to have to be unrelated or seemingly unrelated chapters that are from different days, different times, almost as if they were years apart, although they're only days apart in chronological time. I'm going to do it like that: Each is going to have its own mood, it's going to have its own color treatment, it's going to have its own quality. It's like a whole different ballgame every time we have a chapter — except each one of these things is going to be linked narratively, and they're going to inform each other in way that's going to build up and build up and build up to the point where you start to experience them as if it were a narrative that has a lot of thrust. So I had that sort of overall idea, that that was going to be how the movie was made, and after that it was just a matter of chiseling away until you finally got something that looked like that. (Ed. note: the film was shot in 10 days and edited over the course of three years)
What was the emotional toll of filming and editing on you?
What's that movie, The Departed? Where he's saying, 'You know what's fucked up? I could be in there with a mass murderer and I don't flinch.' And I related to that so much, because that's how I felt. I was seeing things that were horrifying to me personally —and apocalyptic to me personally — that I treated as it were just something on a plate in front of me. I was doing set-ups, I was doing angles, I was thinking cinema... I was thinking like a director. And at the same time, I was immersed in a situation that was about as bad as it could get for a human being to have to endure. And it wasn't until after I had finished shooting... I'd go back to my hotel room or my friend's house and sort of break down, you know? I'd either start crying uncontrollably or start laughing uncontrollably. Either one. Sometimes both at the same time.
Does the film still have that effect on you?
I haven't seen it since.
I haven't seen it since we finished it five years ago. So, yeah, I'll never see it again.
Not even —
Because, yeah, I think the editing process was as bad, having to revisit that stuff. And, so yeah, I knew then I was never going to be able to watch it again. But I felt that way about my other film, too. Big River Man. I can't watch that again. Too painful.
I think my next question is pretty relevant then. I want to talk about the ending, because I think it's cathartic in a way I can't articulate. After all this destruction...
Well, that's something that I didn't initially want to put it in the movie. It felt like a device. It felt like, I'm going to go from this really organic or really sort of... monstrous organism that's very particular. Very singular, you know? To all of a sudden, I'm gonna be shooting with a cleaner camera, it's a different time. Like an epilogue in a movie, you know? I tried to make it as indirect as I could and naturalistic as I could without any sort of voiceover or text. But what's that about, yeah? He basically gets a new girlfriend, moves in with her, starts painting again. I thought that was at the same time, considering the person you meet in the film, sort of horrible to see him win. And at the same time cathartic... It's a miracle, in a way, that he rises out of that situation.
From Big River Man
Well, also you see all these destructive, conflicting forces throughout the course of the movie, and then the epilogue happens in the wake of Katrina. It's almost as though the devastation that has taken place has left a calm afterwards.
He's also the type of guy — at least when you view the film — who thrives after the complete devastation of the world. I mean, this entire city goes underwater and his house gets burned up, and it's the best thing that's ever happened to him.
He finally returns to art after 20 years...
Right. 30 years. So he returns to art and he can finally paint again, because he's gone through this ritual of confronting all his demons and purging them. You could probably spend a four-and-a-half-hour interview just breaking this down into mythological archetypes. [laughs] A discussion with Joseph Campbell books all around us. There's definitely a mythos to the way the film goes down, and I think that it works. And I don't exactly understand why it works, but you know.