Laughing at Life
Director Jeff Feuerzeig Chronicles the Wonderful, Frightening World Of Outsider Musician/Artist Daniel Johnston
"Daniel always wanted to be famous," says director Jeff Feuerzeig, describing the subject of his documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. "He knows how to push himself, how to promote himself. He’s the wizard behind his own curtain."
Sitting in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, Feuerzeig quickly dismisses the idea that making a movie about Johnston, a musician and artist stricken with manic depression, might be exploitative. It’s a question often asked of those involved in Johnston’s career, but it turns out Johnston himself is more ambitious than anyone around him. "He’s not naive at all," Feuerzeig insists. "He even knows how to exploit his own illness. He’s the smartest guy in the room all the time, I assure you."
It’s a point that The Devil and Daniel Johnston makes abundantly and often hilariously clear. In Feuerzeig’s tragicomic movie, the tumultuous life of the 45-year-old musician is marked by clever persistence. So much of his wild journey results from tireless ambitions: his art-star status in high school, his peddling of homemade tapes on the streets of Austin while working at McDonald’s, his rise to indie-rock fame and MTV exposure, even the major-label bidding war ultimately won by the company Johnston felt wasn’t in cahoots with Satan.
True to form, Johnston even wanted to direct Feuerzeig’s doc himself. "To him, we were making a comedy, and he wanted his parents and friends to be the actors," Feuerzeig chuckles. "He’s always been making the movie of his life in his mind. We gave him a chance to host, like R. Crumb did in Crumb, but because he’s medicated it was like a guy telling war stories. The movie just died when he got on-screen. He works better as an enigma."
Feuerzeig instead tells Johnston’s tale through interviews with family and friends, as well as a gold mine of archival material the director initially didn’t even realize existed. "I knew the story I was going to tell, but I didn’t know that Daniel had basically recorded his entire life," Feuerzeig says. "When we got to the house [in West Virginia where Johnston lives with his parents], his family showed us boxes full of slides, audiocassettes, even Super 8 movies that Daniel had directed and starred in. It was a great discovery. When Daniel’s manic depression hits, he’s telling you as it’s happening. You’re right there with him for almost every big moment in his life."
Feuerzeig’s inspiration for the movie came from a similar source: a homemade radio program Johnston concocted for New Jersey station WFMU in 1990, which Feuerzeig heard as it was broadcast. "Daniel interviewed himself, acted out skits, improvised songs," Feuerzeig recalls. "He was hilarious, frightening, and tragic. I was riveted. I thought, I want to make a movie as good as this show."
It would be a decade before Feuerzeig pursued that goal; in the meantime, he directed commercials and an adoring 1993 documentary about Maryland-bred group Half Japanese called The Band That Would Be King. In 2000, Feuerzeig and producer Henry Rosenthal saw Johnston play at the Knitting Factory in New York, and his plans were rekindled. "I’d never seen him live before, and he had the audience eating out of his hand," Feuerzeig says. "It was unbelievable. I said to Henry, ‘Daniel Johnston has a third act in his life. His story isn’t over.’ No one thought he would live to have his art collected and sold all around the world, but it happened."
Financing the effort themselves, Feuerzeig and Rosenthal visited Johnston’s family early on, and the participation of his parents, Bill and Mabel, became key. "They were incredibly open," Feuerzeig says. "They had one stipulation--that I tell the entire truth, good and bad. The drugs, the accidents, leave everything in. They wanted to help other families dealing with the same things." Rapport was established quickly, as the parents revisited their most harrowing moments with Daniel. "When Bill Johnston tells the plane crash story [caused by a manic Daniel episode], it’s during our first interview, and I didn’t even ask him about it," Feuerzeig says. "I had just met the guy, and he breaks down and starts crying."
Such openness is somewhat surprising given the Johnstons’ religious leanings. "They’re fundamentalist right-wing Christians," Feuerzeig says. "For me, the devil in the title is a metaphor for Daniel’s mental illness, but for them the devil is absolutely real. That’s fascinating to me." Critic Roger Ebert has misguidedly suggested that the movie blames the parents’ fundamentalism for Johnston’s mental illness, but Feuerzeig actually reveals Bill and Mabel as his story’s true heroes, struggling mightily to support their son and providing a bittersweet epilogue. "They’re great, very talented and creative," Feuerzeig says. "The whole family is that way. Daniel’s sister Margie is a great artist, and his sister Sally is a great musician. They’re really cool people."
Such admiration made Feuerzeig understandably nervous when the Johnstons first saw the movie at 2005’s Sundance Film Festival, where Feuerzeig won the documentary directing award and sold the movie to Sony Pictures Classics. "I was terrified," he recounts. "They were reliving their whole life on this giant screen. I had worked four years on this thing and really wanted them to love it, and luckily they did. Daniel told me he loved the colors, and he thought that it was really funny." Johnston offered just one suggestion, something Feuerzeig can perhaps include in the DVD release: "He thinks it should have a laugh track."