DIY films pop on major fest radars, rewriting rulebook

Jonathan Caouette and Shane Carruth couldn’t be more different as filmmakers, but these disparate 31-year-old tyros have proved you don’t need money, training or connections to be an indie sensation.

At Sundance this year, Caouette’s “Tarnation,” an autobiographical musical-montage docudrama 19 years in the making, was an underdog that gained heat in the festival’s experimental sidebar and eventually clinched a high-profile Cannes berth, while Carruth’s low-budget sci-fi head-scratcher “Primer” came out of nowhere to win the Grand Jury Prize.

With no formal training and minimal (if any) crew to assist, Caouette and Carruth conceived truly auteur visions, starring in, directing and editing their labors of love and toiling away with no assurances their works would ever get seen by a wider audience.

“I’m still in a bubble,” says Caouette. “There was always the window that there would be an audience for this someday, but I could have been making this film for the rest of my life.”

Carruth, a Dallas-based former engineer, felt the whole undertaking made him look ridiculous. “For three years, I was this guy claiming he was going to make a film, but I wasn’t a filmmaker,” he adds. “I was naive enough to do it, but not so naive that I didn’t understand how stupid it sounded.”

However, it was the filmmakers’ unique do-it-yourself approach — unaffected by Syd Field and film school 101 — that helped Caouette and Carruth distinguish themselves from the pack.

“Maybe film school would have not enabled me to produce what I produced,” admits Caouette.

Instead, the Texas native undertook his own cinema education.

“Movies, in general, have always been my film school,” he says. “There was a period in high school where I was renting six movies a day — every film by John Waters, Paul Morrissey, Alejandro Jodorowsky, David Lynch and John Cassavetes.”

Similarly, Carruth — who has a mathematics degree — had an eclectic and distinctive set of influences, ranging from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alphaville” and “2001″ to “The Limey,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Conversation.”

“I had a car wreck that laid me up for a month so I found myself watching Turner Classic Movies at 3 a.m. every night,” he recalls. “I guess I’m lucky they weren’t doing a Buster Keaton retrospective.”

While Carruth made “Primer,” from start to Sundance, for $7,000 and learned the craft of filmmaking and editing while doing it, Caouette created his cinematic diary for $218.32, edited from Hi-8 tapes and Super 8 home movies on Apple’s iMovie program. “But I think I’m ready to graduate to Final Cut Pro,” says Caouette.

Still, the “Tarnation” actor-writer-director-cameraman-editor plans to continue making films solo.

“I like working alone,” he confesses. “I can’t create when there’s a bunch of people asking me what’s next. I’d be more apt at locking myself in a cabin for a year and discovering what’s next on my own.”

Carruth, on the other hand, is likely to do things differently on future projects.

“I came up with this analogy: I’ve dug a ditch with a little spoon and I’m being congratulated on that now. But the fact is I was a moron, because there would have been a way to get a tractor, and it would have made the process go a lot faster.”

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