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Portrait of the Artist as a Manic Depressive: Daniel Johnston and His Demons

By Christopher R. C. Bosen

From The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which is being released theatrically in March though Sony Pictures Classic

"First of all, it's not a music doc," he states emphatically. "It's an artist portrait."

The artist in question is the titular Daniel Johnston, a manic depressive championed for years as an artistic genius by fans like The Simpsons creator Matt Groening and the late Kurt Cobain, but Feuerzeig acknowledges that Johnston is still relatively unknown to the general public.

"Truth is stranger than fiction," the filmmaker says while cutting a trailer for the film, which is set for release March 31 through Sony Pictures Classics. "I've never heard a story quite like this. Running away and joining a carnival, ending up on MTV, the acid trips, throwing a woman out the window, crashing a plane--you couldn't make this up. It's his life. I wanted to tell a great story and I thought, 'Daniel's life is a great story.'"

Feuerzeig, an experienced commercial director whose previous documentary work includes the feature Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King , was not interested in making a traditional, biographical film. Instead he set out to create a film that would go beyond a mere re-telling of an aging artist's story and would allow audiences to come as close as possible to experiencing Daniel Johnston's world, devil and all.

"I was trying to break new ground and blur the lines between documentary and narrative," the director says. "When I found these hundreds of cassettes, they gave me the opportunity to do what I had always wanted to do--which was have a documentary with an internal monologue."

While living in Austin, Texas in the early 1980s, Johnston began using an inexpensive tape recorder to record homemade albums of his songs. In addition he used the recorder to capture private moments ranging from arguments with his mother to audio-letters he mailed to longtime friends. Feuerzeig discovered the cassettes in a garbage bag at Johnston's home, along with stacks of notebooks filled with his drawings and reels of Super-8 film he shot as a teenager.

This archival material forms the foundation upon which Feuerzeig crafted his film. "Going through hundreds of hours and finding not only the best bits but the best bits that served a forward-motion story from his first-person point-of-view--that was the job," the director says.

Throughout the film, Feuerzeig utilizes the static-filled tape recordings--supplemented with subtitles for clarity--because he was captivated by their content. "To me, sound is as important, if not more important, than picture," he explains. "So, a great audio recording of Daniel--in the moment, as a kid, telling you about his life--is so much more powerful than an older man telling you his memories."

The older, present-day Daniel Johnston appears sparingly throughout the film, in part because of the medications he takes to manage his illness.

One exchange with Johnston that Feuerzeig captures comes while the two watch Super-8 footage Johnston shot in art school of the girl of his dreams, Laurie. As Johnston's fans are aware, his unrequited love for Laurie is the subject of several of his songs, and understanding the tremendous impact she has on the man is critical in grasping his art.

Audiences may wonder, then, why Laurie appears on screen only in Johnston's recordings. A title card does update her status at the film's conclusion. "Believe me, we vacillated," says Feuerzeig. "Do we film Laurie? Do we not film Laurie? When we found Daniel with the Super-8 of her and how he watches it over and over, we realized that he's preserved her in his head, frozen in time in that film. So we didn't want to take that away from him or her. We just wanted to honor that--and therefore we didn't interview her."

The update on Johnston himself continues to evolve since the film premiered at Sundance a year ago. In December, Johnston was hospitalized in Texas in serious condition. That same month he was one of only 100 artists nationwide to be selected to exhibit his art in the prestigious Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum in New York this spring. "He was being called an 'outsider artist' by The New York Times last year," Feuerzeig notes. "The Whitney Biennial has stepped in and said exactly what I've been saying and what Daniel has said: Daniel went to art school and studied art; outsider artists don't go to art school to study art."

Feuerzeig also considers Johnston a great filmmaker and compares his Super-8 film It Must Be Monday to the early works of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Perhaps that is why, at least in spirit, Feuerzeig shares the Best Director award he won at Sundance in 2005 with Johnston. "I'm Daniel's collaborator," he says of the film. "All the raw materials were laid out. He's not capable of putting it together."

By the time The Devil and Daniel Johnston opens nationwide, almost five years will have passed since Feuerzeig shot his first frames of the film in May 2001. And although he began filming his next project in late 2005, the director believes he already may have completed his masterpiece. "This is the film I always dreamed of making," he maintains. "I'm not sure it's possible for me to ever make a better film. This is everything I ever wanted to make in a film.

"Documentary can be anything you want it to be," Feuerzeig continues. "It can be much more powerful than a narrative film. It can be anything that a narrative film is except one thing: It's about truth. There are no rules. I don't like this whole thing about, 'Oh, you can't have re-creations.' As long as you're seeking a deeper truth, there are no rules."

Unfortunately, Feuerzeig believes, documentarians sometimes forget or ignore the aesthetics of filmmaking. "Documentary to me is the highest type of filmmaking you can make at this point," the director says. "But people need to really think. It's not just taking a DV camera and pointing it at a subject. It's all about ideas. Some people are doing those ideas and other people aren't. It's about aesthetics and it's about sound in addition to storytelling."

Feuerzeig is excited that a wider audience will soon be able to see his film. "I'm blown away that people are receiving it as entertaining and moving and funny as a narrative film," he says. "I just want people to know that it's a three-act movie and it's innovative. I was trying to push things as far as I could take them."

That sentiment somewhat mirrors how Feuerzeig first encountered Johnston in 1990. While housed in a mental hospital, Johnston recorded an elaborate one-hour radio program, performing multiple characters, skits and songs. He phoned a New Jersey radio station and broadcast the entire one-hour tape over the telephone, then took calls from listeners. One of those listeners was Feuerzeig, who had become a fan of Johnston's music in the late 1980s.

Feuerzeig says the entire radio broadcast will be included as a special feature when the film is released on DVD. "I don't know anybody who's ever heard this broadcast that wasn't just literally, for an hour, agape," Feuerzeig says. "It's brilliant and hilarious and scary. It's also tragic and sad. That's what Dan Johnston is: all these emotions."


Christopher R. C. Bosen is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker and freelance writer currently in post-produciton on the football documentary The Battle of the Ravine. He can be reached at