Watching Running Stumbled is like an 85-minute Old Testament realization of all the personal self-disgust that we have a natural inclination to ignore in order to try to be happy with our day-to-day lives. Shot five years ago over a ten-day period, Running Stumbled is a documentary about the return of a son to his father after a twenty nine-year enforced absence, but there is nothing prodigal about this tale. Filmmaker and actor John Maringouin’s father is the infamous Johnny Roe, a Dadist painter, sadist, drug addict, pimp, and accused murderer. He tried to kill both John and his mother by spiking her with acid when she was pregnant. Johnny Roe and his common law wife Marie are the local loons in Terry Town, New Orleans. They live in drug-addled degradation in a fog of filth and madness alongside their man-child nutter friend, Stanley. Described by Michael Tully in Indiewire as ‘one of the most visceral motion pictures you will ever experience’, Running Stumbled maps a terrifying and existential void filled with what John Mangouin describes as ‘dark energy’ – a ‘rotting tooth’ that he knew he would have to confront one way or another.
Carol: You have spoken about the strategies that you use to protect yourself as an actor. Now, personally, I felt a lot of self-disgust watching this film and I found it a really hellish environment, so I just wanted to know how you protected yourself from it and what strategies you used and did they work?
John: I think I didn’t really have a conscious strategy, so much as I just had a natural disposition to be able to detach myself from a situation. You could call that depersonalization disorder or you could just call it an ability to separate yourself from the immediate reality. You just go into the nothing, and so when you spend a lot of time focussing on non-being – on non existence or your own death or mortality – then things like demons, evil spirits, wasted lives, all these things become like elements in a room, and they become also manageable.
And how was that preparation challenged when you went into this environment? Did you stay in the house?
No, I didn’t stay there. I would say yes, that it was definitely challenged, very much so. Because what the situation is telling you is a personal apocalypse to you rather than something that you are in control of and are trying to process into art. And the situation is actually saying, ‘No, I’m destroying you as an artist’.
And as a person.
And as a person. It’s kind of like, if you are able to fly you know you would realise that the world is not just people walking in the subway and in the street, so if you could just float up forty-eight feet you could see that, oh my God, this is not just a city but a place on earth. So I think it is that zoom or that ability to zoom out.
This is also to do with the ability to zoom out. Did you ever feel like intervening in the lives of Johnny and Marie on a practical level or on any other level apart from filming them?
I felt that they should eat a lot more fruit. I felt that there was a definite deficiency in fruit. They needed a lot more vitamins. And I think that really contributed to a lot of the mental decay. So I did go on a couple of fruit missions.
So you have yourself at the beginning arriving at Johnny and Marie’s house but then you don’t show yourself after that. Unless, that is, you helping Marie when she overdosed at the end.
In the ambulance? No, that was actually taken from the side of a squad car because I was in handcuffs. I was told to turn off my camera and I turned it back on with my hands in the cuffs. You don’t see it in the film, but when the cop comes in at the end he immediately cuffed me and just said, ‘Stand over here while we deal with this’. That is one thing that cops do on the Westback in New Orleans: If you are in Johnny Roe’s house at all you get handcuffed, you are going to jail. It was funny when Marie OD’d and the sound drops out, and it is this awesome aesthetical powerful choice? Well it wasn’t a choice. The cable was pulled out of the camera by accident, but it saved me from having to include some of the most disturbing footage of the film.
It was amazing that you caught all that on camera the way that Marie just lay down and overdosed.
Yes, the way that the film played out is amazing to me when I watch it. I can’t believe so many things happened and to such dramatic effect.
Perhaps your presence there was the catalyst.
I read an article in the Independent on Sunday yesterday and you said that you felt that your dad’s madness was a rational decision.
Did I say that?
Yes, and that you thought that he made that decision due to his living circumstances.
I think I know the context that I said that in. I think I said that when you are growing up in such an oppressive place then madness is a form of subversion.
When I was watching the film I felt that Johnny was the most sane of all the characters.
He is, actually. That is the thing and why I reject all the social workery that is projected onto the film. And you know you can’t say the same for Marie. She is much more far gone, but I think that there was a time probably that she was not that way. She also made a choice you know. Even in her case there is not a lot of room for pity. And I think she would be really unhappy if anyone saw her in that way because she likes to think of the things that she does and the person that she is as unique and as something to celebrate. That is why when people ask, ‘Well, what do they think of the film’, and I say ‘They love it’. And they can’t understand, but this was the performance of their lives.
On a narcissistic level?
Absolutely. Well actually not on a narcissistic level, but just in the same way that anyone who fancied themselves or their lives as any form of art – performance artist, actor or anyone else – would play it out so…
And at the end when Marie overdoses we don’t see her again after that.
She spent a few days in a psych ward.
And you move onto the hurricane and onto a new awakening for your dad. What is going on there? What is happening? What made you make those decisions about how to end your film?
I’m not really happy with the ending.
I found it really scary, because it feels that your dad is invincible
Well, the thing is, I was talking about this last night. I feel like my instinct or the ending that I would have preferred was to nail the coffin on the entire situation.
How would you do that?
By having the house burn down, and [Hurricane] Katrina comes along and washes it away, and Johnny goes straight to hell. Johnny likes that ending too. But the problem about making a film about real situations is that sometimes reality trumps your storyline or what you want, and in this case that is what happened. When I found out that he had actually started painting again after thirty years, you know, and was cleaned up and was off drugs, I was like, ‘Now I have to add this stupid coda that lets the audience off the hook’.
But it felt like Hurricane Katrina was washing Marie out of his life and he was like a real survivor. I found that really difficult, as if she was always at the root of his problem, and without her there was normality.
Well, that is the thing about truth – it is never simple. Sometimes events like Katrina can intervene in a way that becomes like mythology and it is not convenient and it is gross.
But it is the way that it is represented it as well, the way you chose to shoot it and edit it and use slow motion and show Johnny with a new woman and your use of light, etc. It was almost like an awakening and we didn’t see Marie. It all felt kind of evil.
You have to remember that the film was shot from my perspective. And there was a sense, when Johnny got transformed essentially from being in the film, that I had done this great amount of work to sort out this evil character – and so it has this exquisite irony. And I wanted to show that. In this film it would have been very easy to insinuate myself and my opinions – my story through voiceover – to protect the shit out of myself, and then to sum it up with whatever my interpretation of the situation was, and I think that is what most filmmakers would have done. I mean it is very perverted in a way to not do that, because you don’t let yourself off the hook. But there is something more authentic about allowing bad people to win.
You were saying that if you could do it your way you would burn the place down. How much were you able to plan of your film before you went to shoot it?
I had a sort of astral projection of what it was going to be like, and it’s kind of like a rotting tooth that you know is there and you know that one of these days its going to be really nasty. I knew, for all the things I was going through when I moved through life and grew up, it was amazing that the entire time there was this part of my family that was just festering in this house getting crazier and crazier and crazier and sort of waiting for me. There was this vortex talking to me. And I think it reflects in the film, since the goings-on was not just me pointing a camera at things.
How long did you say it took you to edit it? Three years?
Three years, yeah.
At the beginning you use this sort of acidic aesthetic that subsides somewhat once you get into the story. How did you come to the series of aesthetic decisions that you have gone for in the edit including the chapter headings?
It was just an intuitive process sorting itself out; I mean I didn’t have any pre-ordained idea of what I was going to do. I didn’t necessarily have any reference point of what it was supposed to be, I just know that when I sat in the editing room it was just a whole new process and it was very…
Yes. Organic brain disease.
That’s a long, three-year brain disease.
Right… Organic brain disease helped me make this film. And a little bit of leprosy.
So I’ll ask a few boring questions about Running Stumbled? You funded it yourself?
Yeah, it cost whatever it cost.
And did you have a producer on board?
Well my producer – she is not my wife, but she might as well be because we have a child. I knew her vaguely from this job we did together… this horrible editing TV thing. You want to talk about de personalization and detachment and all those LA jobs? I have this amazing ability to compartmentalize memories, and I do not remember a single thing from any job that I did in LA. Like I cannot tell you who I worked with, what day I did anything – I mean there is this complete non-time… It’s incredible…
That’s actually quite a good skill!
I couldn’t remember her from the job even though she was like working with me for weeks and weeks and weeks. Anyway, she and I ended up in New Orleans very strangely at the same time, and my cameraman got an appendix rupture and he couldn’t show up. I just said, ‘Look, do you know how to shoot?’ And she was like, ‘No.’ And I was like, ‘Okay, well here is how you shoot: Hold the camera, zoom it in, compress the frame, and shake it around a lot on purpose. I’ll fix it later in editing.’ And I said, ‘Oh, and by the way, you are about to go into one of the most fucked-up scenes you will ever experience, and it happens to be the house that I was born in.’
And your relationship with your audience – how do you expect your audience to react to your film?
Like I said, when I watched it I didn’t feel disgust with them – Johnny and Marie – I felt disgust with myself.
I’m surprised that people make it through the film. That’s been the most surprising thing, that people watch it from beginning to end. I figured it was like a, you know, a ‘15 minutes and you’re out’ type of film, but I’m constantly amazed to walk into the theatres and see all the same people still there. I’m kind of wary of that because it makes me think that I catered to the audience too much. It’s like, ‘Why are they still here? I thought I’d scared them away by now’.
So it is like a test for the audience?
I don’t know if it’s a test. I think that the film definitely deals with an amazing amount of dark energy. But I also don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. Because when you get to a certain level of dark energy it becomes absurd, and there is something very freeing about that. Especially when it’s real like this film is. We have so much dark energy rained down on us by reality TV, by Jerry Springer.
But it’s always in quotation marks.
It’s not the same.
It’s soundbite. I mean one of my favourite reviews of this film is something like, ‘These people don’t deserve to be in a film. They deserve to be executed or they deserve to be put on Jerry Springer – just Jerry Springer fodder’. And that’s a very keen insight, because that’s how we are trained by culture to see the most human people. These are the same people that would have inspired Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee or anyone else on through history, you know? But because we are living in this new information age it’s so filled up with dark energy. You’re supposed to think of these people as not human, garbage that you throw away.
But those formats that you are discussing are all there for entertainment, and you’re removed from it to a degree.
I don’t think it’s for entertainment. I think it is actually a fascistic conspiracy to get people to step up and to be a proper citizen and good consumers. I really do. And I think that energy is very subtle. You know, it’s like conspiracies can be conspiracies but they are not necessarily planned. It is just some energy coalesces and creates something that has a very specific focus. And I think that whatever this energy is that creates all this shit has a design to it, and it’s designed to make the world work in a certain way. And I think that the role of the artist is to find ways to subvert that energy and to push it back, and I think that’s why you are seeing films like this right now.
Yeah so people have drawn similarities between this film and Tarnation.
Yes, I think that is another film that does that. Definitely.
Because your Jerry Springers make you feel relieved that you’re not living the kind of life that is represented in front of you. ‘Thank God I’m not them.’
Yes, it creates an otherness. But these films do the complete opposite. You are still them; we are all Jerry Springer. And those people and those stories are still your stories. Because we are all one.
Yes we could go down this path.
Absolutely. But we are trained to look away. So if you asked me why you did this film and why you spent so many years travelling down that road, I would say that is exactly why.
So do you like your father?
There is actually a lot to like about him. Absolutely. Yeah, he’s a talented guy. There are a lot of good things about the guy. Definitely. He is a funny guy, great actor. Maybe he is a killer, I don’t know. What do you know?
And you look a lot like him. How do you feel about that? I mean do you look in the mirror and see your dad?
You know it’s funny, I do do that, but now that I have had a kid, I really thought that I would see myself in the kid immediately, and you don’t. You see half of yourself and when you realise that the other half of this kid is a completely other unique set of DNA you go, ‘Well, this kid is totally other. I can’t possibly comprehend this kid’. So I had that comfortable sense of distance, but at the same time I recognized that not only is this guy my family but, you know, he’s a person too. And he is a person that I collaborated with creatively.
Are you still in contact with Marie?
And how is she… Just as a matter of interest.
Well the last I heard, which was a few months ago, was that the cops invaded her trailer and stole a copy of the movie and were threatening to arrest her because of the movie or something like that. I don’t know, but this is the same woman that had a Wizard of Oz experience during Katrina, where her trailer was floating around with cows and such.
She has had it rough.
She has had it really rough. But that is part of her affectation. I mean, she has had it rough in the same way that Elizabeth Taylor makes a big show of having had it rough; it’s just without money. She very much has Elizabeth Taylor tendencies. So I wouldn’t worry about her.