I interviewed Jeff Feurzeig, director of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, a documentary about the artist/singer/songwriter who has struggled with bi-polar disorder but produced prodigious amounts of highly acclaimed work.
I have to begin by asking why your interview of Gibby Haines [of the Butthole Surfers] takes place as he is in the dentist chair. Were you making a statement, was that his only availability, or both?
Both! I had seen the Butthole Surfers in their first tour in the 1980's. They projected medical films, like operations, on the screen in front of their fire, strobes, and naked dancing girls when they played. It was quite a spectacle. So this was a reflection of that, plus that was when he was available. He had seven cavities. But he was under novacaine and just kept on talking. The dentist was really into it.
I saw that you referred to Daniel Johnston's view of the world as "unfiltered." In what way? Isn't mental illness a filter?
Madness is the key that removes the filters we all have from our exterior and interior life, our public life and private life. Most writers, musicians, whatever,
their goal is to present their raw emotion what they're feeling inside. But I don't think everyone's able to do that. Daniel is able to do that and that is the
power of his music and art. Anything that he is feeling inside comes directly out all his thoughts and feelings, so incredibly raw and honest. To my ears
and eyes that is very refreshing. It sucks you into his mind.
He is an enigma. The only way to know him is through his music and art. I don't feel i know him because there is no give and take in that relationship. Any relationship is a two way street and he can't do that. Kathy [McCarty, who appears in the film] fell in love with the art and couldn't love the man. She did a tribute album and married his best friend.
In many ways they're all heroic, his parents are heroic. Jeff Tartakov [the manager who devoted his life to Johnston and then was replaced] -- this is a tragic story but out of that tragedy there is incredible beauty. Jeff was like [the Beatles' first manager] Brian Epstein, so devoted, believed so deeply. The movie is very much a tribute to him, for him as much as Daniel.
Do people respond to Johnston's real-life story or his art?
People laugh and cry. That's real. That's talent, period. All art is subjective and its up to the audience to walk away with everything or nothing. If they have open hearts and ears its a wonderful epic journey to take.
Why was making this film important to you?
That was my life's work. I thought about making this film since 1990. I've been obsessing about his art and music since 1985. It all came together on the radio show.
All the theories I had about him presented themselves as truths; there was incredible humor and comedy that should not be overlooked. The radio drama was just another medium that he did so well, like when he was playing all the roles and directing himself in those early films, making humor out of the darkness. He was like [the Woody Allen character] Zelig. He could transform himself. He is in control of his art. I believe he plays the guitar that way intentionally, not that he is not as good on the guitar as the piano. That authentic, straightforward, simple guitar music is his signature sound. This is the first time we've had a chancde to go as close to that fire that burns where madness and art and genius meet, but doesn't glorify it or sugar coat it on purpose.
Who understands him best?
If anyone understands him, it's probably his mom and dad. But the only way even the dad knows what's going on in his mind is when he reads the captions over his shoulder, to really know him is through his music and his art. Daniel is always the smartest person in the room but has arrested development. He's stuck in this high school world, those characters are very real to him and he has relationships with them. He's having a party in his head at all times. You can't really reach him. Maybe Casper the Friendly Ghost is closest.
The Johnston family asked me to do this. They said I should share their story to help other families. They made me make them a promise to tell the truth. They said, "Don't leave out the drugs and LSD. Just make sure you tell everything."