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SXSW Women Directors: Meet Ondi Timoner – ‘BRAND: A Second Coming’ and ‘The Last Mile’

SXSW Women Directors: Meet Ondi Timoner - 'BRAND: A Second Coming' and 'The Last Mile'

Director and producer Ondi Timoner won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance twice — for “Dig!” (2004) about the collision of art and commerce through the story of two bands and “We Live in Public” (2009) about Internet visionary Josh Harris. Both films reside in MoMA NY. Her other features include “The Nature of the Beast” (1994), “Join Us” (2007), and “Cool It” (2010). (SXSW)

BRAND: A Second Coming” and “The Last Mile” will premiere at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival on March 13 and March 14, respectively. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the films playing.

OT: “BRAND: A Second Coming” is about Russell Brand and his journey as someone who has taken everything that society sells us and is pumped in our pop culture as a solution to our problems — whether it be drugs or sex or fame or money — to the hilt, only to come up empty and has to look within. He then undergoes a really remarkable transformation in his life, which I was lucky enough to follow in this film. Because he is a brilliant comedian, he is able to articulate what he feels is distracting all of us from engaging in a more active and present way in our lives, in our politics, in our culture. So the film is really about where we are as a society right now through the eyes of Russell Brand, but it is also a very personal and intimate look at his life journey.

I also have a short film that I am excited to be premiering at the festival. “The Last Mile” is about a tech incubator that is training inmates in San Quentin prison to become entrepreneurs. These inmates don’t have access to computers or the Internet, but they are building their own start-ups. If you think about what potential they have to get jobs with criminal records when they get out, it is very low, so becoming entrepreneurial makes a lot of sense. What are the differences between the entrepreneurial mind and the criminal mind? There are many different angles, and I am looking forward to discussing them with audiences.

W&H: What drew you to these stories?

OT: “BRAND” is born out of a production that Russell had been trying to make for several years with various directors, beginning with Oliver Stone and the late, great Al Maysles. He himself even took over the project at one point. I had seen some footage, and I didn’t think the project was for me. It seemed to be a film examining the roots of happiness, in which Russell Brand was interviewing a lot of famous people about how they felt about happiness. Also, he went to Angola prison and a meditation center seeking the meaning of happiness.

I was asked to attend a meeting with the production team on Russell’s film at that time to give them my thoughts on how they could improve the film. I was surprised to find Russell Brand at that meeting. I found what Russell had to say riveting. He was charismatic and jaw-droppingly intelligent, which actually upset me, because none of this came across in the footage I had watched. I became indignant and sort of horrified that the person I met in that meeting was not in the film — the brilliance that I was witnessing right in front of my eyes was not captured in the footage that I had seen. That’s what first got me. I really thought I could do justice to Russell by capturing his essence on film and bringing what they already had to life.  

Russell then asked me to go to a show where he was practicing the “Messiah Complex” material, which materialized into a world tour. It was about his true heroes — Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcom X, and Jesus Christ — who have lasting value because they were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed. Change in the world was massive, seemingly impossible at the time. As a result, their fame is everlasting. They are immortal. As Russell was working this material out on stage, I realized that I could tell his story of seeking deeper meaning and its impact on his life and exploring his own messiah complex.  

This would be an avenue down which I could explore Russell’s, and our own, relationship to all the myths we are sold will satisfy us. When I realized that, I was in. I jumped into this unfolding story. We shot a whole new movie and threw in some of the gems from the footage captured over the years prior. We plowed through thousands of hours of footage, and I hope the results will take people on a wild, entertaining, and transformative ride.

Regarding my short film, “The Last Mile,” my life experience and interests made this an ideal project for me. I began my career as a 19-year student at Yale University going into a women’s prison in Connecticut. My first two films were about the women whose experiences in prison I documented. I felt I was freeing them in a way, by taking their stories outside the prison walls and airing that first film, “Voices From Inside Time,” on PBS television in the tri-state area, and Miami, Florida, where it was listed as The Best Bet for Tele-viewing when it aired. 

A film I made in 2009, “We Live in Public,” told the story of the Internet prophet Josh Harris and his dark warning of our futures online, where we would trade our privacy and eventually our freedom for the recognition and connection we so dearly crave. I have since created a network for innovators and entrepreneurs called A Total Disruption, which really looks at the flip side of the Internet proposition: the democratizing power it gives us all to shape our worlds.

When I heard about The Last Mile, which is a tech incubator inside San Quentin Prison, I couldn’t resist making a short film about it for the A Total Disruption network. Wired.com stepped in to partner with us in the production. The Last Mile is giving an opportunity to inmates who are locked away inside the prison-industrial complex, to envision and plan their own social-good businesses in the outside world once they are released. Prisons are generally ineffectual in terms of reform and renewal opportunities for inmates, but this innovative program has given inmates tools to make their business dreams come true, to think outside of the box, and to give them reasons for hope in the future. It was the ideal story to combine my interests in prison and tech, and hopefully helps spread a model for reform and renewal in our prison system that works!

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making “BRAND: A Second Coming”?

OT: I don’t think Russell ever anticipated that the film he started about happiness would become a biography of his life, which would be very personal. He wasn’t prepared to relive his life, so it was definitely uncomfortable for him when I pointed the camera at him and dug, getting into the pain and the challenges of his own personal life. But to me, the marvelous transformation occurring right before our eyes was a story worth witnessing. So my biggest challenge was to get Russell to trust me. We did a little bit of a dance, where we had a lot of mutual respect and admiration for each other, but there was a lot resistance to going deeper, getting raw and personal, which ultimately we accomplished. 

I insisted on creative control which he finally gave up — I think this was a first for him and very difficult. To Russell’s credit, he finally let go and let us make this film. Also, he is intensely productive and unpredictable. I planned to follow him on the “Messiah Complex” tour and to interview friends and family and Russ, then edit the film since I was in post-production. Then he suddenly moved to England to overthrow the government, started a groundbreaking YouTube news channel called The Trews, and wrote a book called “Revolution.” That meant we were back in production to keep up with the unfolding story. It was a challenge to fit it all into a feature film. He has lived a rich and exciting life in his 40 years on this planet, and I believe we can all learn a lot from his journey.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

OT: I want people to question their own priorities. I hope that people will watch this and become active — to realize that transformation is always possible and to think about making a switch from their own more selfish objectives to making space for pressing global matters and local concerns, whether they be environmental or political. I think Russell’s story is very inspirational, and that’s why I wanted to tell it. I never really make a film unless I feel like it’s going to be personal and intimate, but also relevant to the audience. I hope that our audiences on this one leave the theatre really pumped up and ready to go do something for the greater good before it’s too late. That’s why we end the film with the rousing “Power To The People.”

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

OT: I am very much a woman, but I never consider that I am when I go and make films. I don’t check into the world as a woman everyday. I check in first as an artist and mother, then as a daughter, sister, and friend — but always as an artist. And I feel if you hold yourself as an artist first and foremost, the barriers of gender come down. First of all, being a woman is an incredible asset in many ways in making documentaries. You can be less intimidating, you have a heightened emotional sensitivity, and you have the ability to listen to multiple conversations at one time and multi-task. (Well, my mother says that’s because I’m a lefty.) 

On a shoot, you’ll be in a room and realize that eight different things are important, and you’ll need to know which one to focus on first and what to do next — how to prioritize. I think that women are very good at that. We can also be less intimidating, though I think my low voice and tall stature, and perhaps my generally open and confident personality, can be intimidating to some people until they get to know me.

Anyway, you see a lot of women in [documentary], actually — a lot more than you see in scripted films, which I am moving into next, so I am sure there will be a whole new set of challenges there. But my advice to women is the same advice I would give to any young man trying to make it in the business of making film: Engage your fans and turn your fans into your community. Realize that we all have failures and can turn those failures into successes through tenacity and through being open to changing. Stick to your story, and choose subject matter that is close to you, touches your heart and your agenda in life, listen carefully, and don’t give up. Don’t sacrifice your vision. Be open but don’t sacrifice — for anything, actually.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

OT: I have absolutely no idea. I don’t think people have a misconception of my work. When I first came out with “Dig!” eleven years ago, people thought I was a boy from Finland because of my unfamiliar first name, but now they know I am a woman from America. I do feel my fan base, my community understands me and appreciates me very deeply, and that is the wind in my sails to keep doing what I am doing. I know that my work really inspires people and they tell me that all the time, and so that’s wonderful. 

I’ve interviewed hundreds of filmmakers and covered hundreds of films in my talk show, “BYOD,” so my work extends beyond the work that I do. I find it a blessing and a privilege to be able to speak to all of my colleagues about their work and not just focus on my own work all the time. It really is humbling, it makes me a part of a community, and it’s lovely.

So I think if there is a misconception about me, maybe it’s that I’ve “made it,” and therefore life is easier or it’s easier to do that work, but that is definitely not true. The work is every bit as challenging now, and I wear just as many hats as I’ve ever worn. I edited over 3000 hours this past year for “BRAND: A Second Coming” personally and also directed, produced, and wrote the film. However, I do have an incredible team of intrepid, lovable [collaborators] — and my past work seems to attract good people, so it is easier to get help from excellent people here and there and access to people I need to interview because of my track record.

But documentaries are definitely not for the faint of heart. The kind of work that we do — it’s absolutely, breathtakingly difficult and requires boatloads of tenacity. So if there is any misconception about that, I’m putting that to rest now.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

OT: This film had a consortium of twenty-one investors before I came along. So it is unique in this case, but the film had financing going already, and they just needed someone to finish this film. I did go ahead and make a budget and a presentation of what I would do — and I did have other offers on this film because is it about Russell Brand — but in fact, we funded it independently with a group of investors that were on board in the first place.

In the case of the “The Last Mile,” WIRED.com funded it, and the film will premiere on March 16th. Six months later, it will be added on ATD.com.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

OT: Julie Taymor for “Frida” and her malleability between stage and screen, Lesli Linka Glatter as a Sundance mentor anda  model of being a creator and a great director (I am actually hoping to have time to shadow her on “Homeland” this year).  And so many more! Lynn Shelton and Jill Soloway are both so humorous and create such authentic work. Then there are Bigelow and Hardwicke and Ava DuVerna,y of course. In terms of documentarians, Lucy Walker, Jehane Noujaim, and Barbara Kopple are all great filmmakers and friends.

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