The 2015 SXSW Film Festival kicks off tonight with one of its most anticipated offerings, "BRAND: A Second Coming," Ondi Timoner’s candid and raw documentary on British bad boy turned political activist Russell Brand. Timoner, a two-time winner of Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries, for her films "Dig!" and "We Live in Public," will be in Austin tonight to launch the festival. The presence of her film’s subject was still a question mark when Indiewire spoke with the director earlier this week. Timoner, who had complete creative control in the making of "BRAND," stressed to Indiewire that he may be a no-show, not because he’s unhappy with the film, but that the experience of sharing it with an audience might be too "hard for him." Her intimate portrait of Brand dives into the comedian’s past struggles with with sex and drug addiction (which he documented in his autobiography "My Booky Wook"), the demise of his marriage to pop star Katy Perry, and his recent turn to political activism that’s caused the comedian to stop appearing in films to focus on his "revolution."
This doesn’t mark your first project documenting Russell. Prior to "BRAND," you made the short doc "Russell Brand’s the Bird." How did that come about?
It was slightly overlapping — it was before I was officially on board for "BRAND." I was contacted to save a previous production of this film. I looked at a rough cut and I got together with what I thought would be the filmmakers behind that film, and they were there — I was just going to pass along some notes on what I think I could make the film better. But it was mostly Russell interviewing other people in this film about happiness and the meaning of life. It wasn’t Russell’s story per say. I didn’t know that I really could make the film or would make the film, but I did pass along what I thought could make the film more continuous and a better film.
So I went to the meeting and there was Russell, and he was just riveting in the room. I mean he was just — he was Russell — you know, so articulate and so passionate and such hyperbole, and none of that essence was in that film. And then I just thought, well, wait a second. It was definitely impressive and it made me a little concerned and upset that this other piece hadn’t captured that. So I was engaged in it. And then he invited me to a stand up show which was the beginning for him working on the "Messiah Complex" work, and I thought, well wait, this is a great way to look at some of the themes they were looking at in that other production.
I went on this unfolding journey of the "Messiah Complex" and I looked at his relationship to fame, the Hollywood version versus like the martyrdom, historical immortal figures, iconic version of say people like Gandhi – what he was grappling with was the perfect avenue to go down to tell his story. But he needed to agree that I could tell his story and that wasn’t necessarily something that he had in mind. He wasn’t necessarily comfortable with it either. But he really wanted me to make this film, so he ended up allowing me to make the film about him.
The things that were sold in our society — drive, sex, fame, power, money — they’re held up as these totems of accomplishment. Not drugs, but drugs will take the pain away, right? All of these myths, Russell took them all to the hill. He’s so articulate in being able to express all that. So I felt like working that in would be a film that was meaningful on a lot of levels and not just a pedantic film about those topics, but something that would be meaningful and at the same time be extremely entertaining.
So we kind of "dated," not romantically, but film wise. In that kind of dating period, I kind of overheard while I was filming at his house that he was going to San Francisco to perform at Twitter Headquarters. I don’t know if you know about atotaldisruption.com, but I have this network online for entrepreneurs, innovators and artists, and I have this series called "Chief Executive Artist Series," of short films about artists that are kind of redefining the rules of engagement and breaking all boundaries of which Russell fits perfectly. The fact that he was going to Twitter Headquarters to look at Twitter through his eyes, I couldn’t resist. So I asked if I could tell that story as a short film.
I mean it kind of overlaps, but it’s more like just a little foray to Twitter with Russell. It’s not like I knew him from years ago; I’ve been on this project for two years, pretty solid. I had no idea that he would never come back from his tour, but instead move to England to overthrow the government and write this book "Revolution," and all that stuff happened while I was filming.
What made you first say yes to a meeting with Russell?
I think there’s not really a lot of people we can look at today in our culture that are pushing the boundaries quite as much as he is. We see a lot of Hollywood celebrities try to do things to make the world a better place, and they do, but they don’t usually leave the comfort of their position in life. He bought a house here in LA and he’s never walked into it, you know? He’s left! So if you know my other films, which I think you do, he’s like sort of the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae that I’ve been eating for years and years of these characters that have kind of come my way. He’s kind of the ultimate creature, impossible visionary, if you will.
I think Russell’s story is incredibly inspirational and it was very difficult for him to make this film. But I think our mutual admiration and respect for each other got us through it, but I think there was definitely a tug of war here and there.
About your admiration for Russell — my favorite moment in the documentary comes pretty late and marks the only time you break the fourth wall and include your own voice in the film. You ask him point blank if he thinks he’s better than everybody else and he turns it on you to ask if that’s what’s you think, to which you say yes.
I mean, you’re looking down the barrel of my camera and we are in a van, knee to knee. Literally, it can be intimidating, but at the end of the day, I really feel like that’s one of the many contradictions of — not really contradictions — but struggles inside Russell. There are quite a few and I think that one of them is that balance between understanding that he’s not any different than anybody else in a certain way, but of course he realizes he has immense talent, intelligence and a lot of experience at this point.
I think that Russell in a way, on the one hand he’s out there on the streets and with the common man. On the other hand, I feel like he keeps himself very protected and has a bit of a fortress around him because he’s trying to maintain stability and sobriety in the face of a lot of challenges. And he makes those challenges for himself — that’s part of what I respect about him. He could just live a safe existence in his mansion in LA and continue to act in movies and collect massive paychecks, but he’s not doing that. He’s going up against Fox News. He doesn’t have to do that. I think that people like Malcolm X and Che Guevara and potentially mythological figures like Jesus, they are all significant to him because they were common people that decided that they were extraordinary men and went ahead and stood up for what they believe in. He really has taken this to heart, that this was always a dream of his to be able to take this fame that he has and this following, and transmute it into a movement.
He has really thick skin on the one hand and massive courage. I don’t know if he has thick enough skin to be in politics, he’s a very sensitive human being. He protects himself. He tries to control his schedule and he tries to control what he’s doing and who’s asking him what. I’m a little bit dangerous in that regard, because if I was around, I would ask him what I wanted to and I would film everything. I think on the one hand he liked it, but on the other hand, he wanted to protect himself and keep me at arm’s length.
How did you go about gaining his trust? Given your tendency to not hold back, I’m sure you encountered some roadblocks along the way. How did you both work them out?
It was really a give and take. There was a time that I was told I couldn’t film anything but the show and I remember not showing up. I was excited to film it because he was on tour and I thought, this would be additive to our project. And he said, "No filming." That’s not what I want to do, so I didn’t go.
I think Russell is used to a certain amount of controlling the situation and having distance from what he wants distance from. He would hug me after shows and say, "Can’t we just be artists together?" I think it was definitely the first time that he let go and let an artist do that with him. He didn’t make a film about himself. He tried to do that and it didn’t work. I think he understood and realized that it would be a vanity project if he didn’t give up creative control. I wanted Russell to understand that I was going to tell the story and it’s not going to be him telling the story. I think in a way that was really difficult for him. I mean I think it’s difficult for him to even watch the film now; I think you’re going to see that unfold over the next coming days.
Did you watch your first cut with him and or did he watch it separately, alone?
No, he’s in England, and I’m here, finishing it.
So he hasn’t even seen it yet?
He watched it and he had a hard time, really hard time with it. I then worked with him even though I had creative control. I worked with him and I worked in some comedy that he wanted to have in, and I did some extra interviews that he really wanted in, that if he had told me a year ago he wanted that would’ve been awesome, easier for me, but I just did them recently. I really wanted him to be at peace with this film, but I don’t know if he’ll ever really be at peace with it. It’s so raw and so personal and he’s never let anything like this out before. I mean this is a guy who has written "Booky Wook" and makes a lot of his stand up about his personal life and his foibles and his history, but somehow, on film, it’s a different story for him.
Will he be in Austin?
I don’t know. It’s like "Get Him to the Greek" at this point.
What are his reasons for possibly not showing?
It’s just so hard for him. He’s very much on the fence, I think, and he was leaning that way, and then leaning against. It’s hard for him to talk about his life. He said to me a couple of times during filming, "I went through it already. It was hard enough to live the first time." He’s somewhere where he wants to look forward and stay on his mission. It might get useful after he sees how positively people respond to him after seeing the film.
I think it’s got to be of concern that if people see all this stuff, maybe they won’t take him seriously, or maybe they won’t think as highly of him, or maybe he just doesn’t need all that danced around.
He wanted to overthrow the government back when he was a drug addict. He just didn’t know how to go about it; he had other more selfish priorities to take care of first. Plus, he needed to get those priorities taken care of because now he has an audience, now he has a crowd that will listen to him. Now he has the internet, and that’s a big part of what I’m attracted to, it’s the total disruption, the looking at the democratizing opportunity we have with the internet, and looking at the power we have as individuals — and I think his show of truth is incredibly inspirational. The fact that he’s sitting there, picking apart stuff that’s come to us as factual and calling these people out on the carpet, and doing it to the affect of millions of views — he’s winning in a certain way. Another journalist just asked me, "Well aren’t these goals of his just unrealistic?" And it’s like, I don’t know who gets anything great accomplished who doesn’t set slightly unrealistic goals. You kind of have to shoot way far out there to get anywhere I think. So I have immense respect for Russell and I’m really grateful to have had the opportunity to tell this story.