Interview: Documentary Director Ondi Timoner on Brand: The Second Coming
Ondi Timoner has reached a rare status in her industry as a documentary filmmaker where she can truly be labeled an autuer. She has won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize twice, first for her 2004 film DIG!, about the clash of egos between up and coming bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (and their frontmen Courtney Taylor and Anton Newcombe), and then in 2009 for We Live in Public, about internet pioneer Josh Harris and his dramatic downfall.
At this year’s South by Southwest film festival, she received the rare honor of having her latest documentary as the opener. The film, Brand: A Second Coming, documented Russell Brand’s spiritual awakening, his comedy tour (Messiah Complex), his book Revolution, and attempt to overthrow the British Government. Ironically, Ondi accomplished the rare achievement of focusing on a polarizing figure like Brand and making him a fascinating subject regardless of your feelings about him and his comedy. The busy working mother (whose son was sitting in on the interview) and entrepreneur (she started the documentary distribution company A Total Disruption), is a master of multi-tasking and powerhouse personality herself.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): I read a little bit about the backstory surrounding the film, specifically that a movie had already been filmed before you came on board. So the first question has to be what happened with that film and what were the circumstances that brought you on board as the director?
Ondi Timoner: I actually shot an entirely new movie after signing on. The film was called Happiness, and it started with Oliver Stone, who had approached Russell to do this movie with him. It was on the heels of the VMA awards and he just thought Russell would make a good subject to build a film around. Oliver essentially said to Russell “whatever you would like to do” and put a team on it, and Russell said he was flattered to have the attention Oliver Stone and the late great Albert Maysles, who was going to collaborate.
But they started it with him, and he said “I’m trying to understand what makes people happy.” This was right around the time that he had come to Hollywood and starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Bed Time Stories, probably 6 years ago. And he just felt dissatisfied in Hollywood and thought “I’ve spent my entire life trying to get here.” And apparently, when he first came to Hollywood, he would apparently do anything to move up that ladder. He went to every party and really working his way up, but to what? He had spent his whole life trying to escape his problems by becoming famous, only to realize it was a myth. And he was trying to work that out on film by interviewing people about happiness; Jay Leno, Cameron Diaz, 50 Cent, and Donald Trump.
He checked into a meditation center and had his brain waves checked. He joined the marines. But when I saw the film, it felt like a photoshoot and there was no cohesions to make a movie. And that is when they came to me to save the project, after going through many directors. They had gone through 5 or 6 by this time. At one point Russell tried to make a movie out of it himself. But my movie only has about 2 minutes from that footage.
TMS: What was it about your past filmography that made the producers and Russell think you could come in and save it?
Timoner: I think Russell really liked We Live in Public. What he said, actually what he wrote when be b’ccd me in an email, was “Ondi is an expert at dealing with visionaries and difficult people.” And Russell is both those things. He’s right.
TMS: When you came on board, did you know his work or were you a fan of his comedy?
Timoner: Nope, not at all. My manager said “they want you to save this documentary” and all I said was “is that Katy Perry’s boyfriend?” And I only knew Katy Perry at the time because they had sent me the Katy Perry documentary to do, and Russell was in that footage. And I went to the interview, with the intention of saying “I’m not the right person for this film, but here are the things you can do.” I offered to do an interview for them, sort of to provide a little peanut butter for this sandwich, just to put the film together. But Russell was at this meeting and he was just riveting in the room. His intelligence was remarkable and he was magnetic in a way I’ve never witnessed.
I’ve met plenty of famous people, but he is this incredibly unique essence, and none of that was captured in the film. And that made me say, purely on an artistic level, “This is wrong!” Suddenly I cared about this documentary, and that’s when he started to try to pursue me, getting me to go to a comedy show. He was halfway through writing the Messiah Complex, and that’s when I thought “if I can film his creative process and this tour, then we’ll have a film.” Because he was going through a journey, looking at his true icons who have the fame which isn’t available to Russell Brand today, that’s a cool thing to look at. Because if you think about, what is the role of ego and narcissism in someone who is going to change the world, that is interesting. Maybe they were all after the same thing as Russell?
But I also thought it would be interesting to look at someone who had bought the myths about fame, hook-line-and-sinker, the way Russell had. He slept with thousands of women, became a drug addict, married the biggest pop star in the world, and made millions. He didn’t just buy into it, he got it all, and came up empty. And that when he started looking at these other people. I didn’t realize when I signed on that he would move to England to try to overthrow the government, while I was filming.
TMS: There is a connection with Russell and a lot of the people you’ve focused on in your documentaries, who are putting something out into the world, but are also thinking about what their legacy will be in the future, at the moment that they are doing something. And Russell is very preoccupied with his fame and legacy, more than any of your other subjects. Was it every strange or unnerving to hear him talking about wanting to do good and make a difference, and immediately talk about that in relation to how it will impact his image?
Timoner: Max Kiser said in the film “he didn’t want to lead the revolution, but he wouldn’t mind if his name were on a few posters.” Russell says on stage, “I’m a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist.” So the great thing about Russell is that he’s not denying that there are other motives behind his actions. He’s acutely aware of his faults and yet he’s able to get up and go, and turn them into positives on a daily basis. And he puts himself in the line of fire in a way which is very rare. All these Hollywood stars do social causes and then go home to their comfy houses. Russell goes to the front lines and then gets called a champagne socialist. And yet, he stays sober at the end of the day, because it’s the only hook he has to continue to function on this planet. I have mad respect for that and his courage. But I also think, telling his stories with his flaws and vulnerabilities on his sleeve, allow people to relate to him in a way they couldn’t before and find elements of themselves in his story.
TMS: Did you feel his personality was close to the persona he’s created?
Timoner: It is, but it’s not. It seemed like it was at first, because he puts so much personal content into his comedy. But is always on his terms, and really, he’s a very private person. He’s use to the paparazzi peeking into his life in a way he’s uncomfortable with, so he had to constantly be reminded that I wasn’t around for that. I was there to look at something deeper. But it felt like I was starting at square one with him every day. He’d ask me to leave the car a lot, and then get called back. As soon as he gave me creative control, he tried to control everything.
TMS: Did you have creative control from the moment you agreed to be a part of the production?
Timoner: No, but I wouldn’t sign on until I got creative control. So I started filming before officially signing on to direct. But I wouldn’t have come to England until that was in writing. And Russell started doing some incredible things, but it came down to the day I was getting on a plane that Russell finally signed off, giving me creative control. I wasn’t going to go without it.
TMS: I know Russell isn’t doing any press for the film. Were there things that you filmed, or from the other film, you wanted to include, that Russell said it was just too personal, and you agreed to leave out or that you included against his wishes?
Timoner: I had tone of stuff that he wanted taken out. And I took some of that out. Not all, but something he asked for were taken out after we talked.
TMS: What goes into that kind of decision making process?
Timoner: That’s a great question actually, because that was the biggest thing I learned making this film. I’ve made a lot of films with a lot of difficult people about tough subjects, and always have hundreds of hours of footage. And here I was being asked by him to take things out. For example, when he was in the bathroom for a long time before The View or when he was unhappy with the interview he did with Peter Hitchens. If I took those out, and they were private moments, but we would have lost the tether to him as a human being. And giving him his humanity was one thing I did with this film, which didn’t exist before this film because he is so guarded.
He is perfect, in the sense that the image that he allows out into the world is a perfectly imperfect image that he’s created. It’s meant to be exactly how it is. But he’s holding back other things he didn’t want the public to see. But he’s a human, and he’s a really, really intense, hyperbolic human. So when he asked me to make those changes, it was clear to me what were the columns holding this house up and what was the furniture I could move out or around. He gave me new stand-up and interviews and I did what I could to accommodate him. I put a third of the new stand-up in, but then he wanted to tell me where I could put it. And I said, “I’m not a construction worker. I’m an artist. And I don’t want to be told where to put something.” And I came to know what the pattern was.
I’m going to get on the phone with him, he’s going to tell me what to do, I’m not going to do it, and then we’re going to fight. Which is what he wanted. He wanted a fight with me so he could try to destroy the whole thing, at a certain point. He was just so scared that the film would derail the mission he’s on now. If people saw him for who he is and his life journey it would be devastating to his future. And he hasn’t been speaking about the film. He wrote me a note that his life was just too painful to live the first time, he doesn’t want to do it again. But the shame of that is he’s missing an opportunity to reach out to a whole new audience, who will appreciate the depth and intelligence they didn’t know about before. And it’s the perfect time for him to advance his mission. But I’ve never had a film about me, so I can’t say what it must feel like or how hard it must be to look at the mirror and see yourself the way others see you.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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