Discovery: Ondi Timoner and "Dig!"
by Wendy Mitchell
With her first trip to the Sundance Film Festival, filmmaker Ondi Timoner won the grand jury documentary prize for her feature-length doc, "Dig!" But Timoner isn't what you'd call an overnight success. "Dig!" was a labor of love that she spent seven long years creating without knowing if the film would ever make it to theaters (it did, Friday, from Palm Pictures.) "The moral of the story is to finish what you start," Timoner told indieWIRE. "Really the footage is what kept me going... no matter how down and out I got, I would just become a fan of the material and the people involved."
"Dig!" follows two bands, somewhat successful alternative rockers The Dandy Warhols and fringe cult band The Brian Jonestown Massacre, as they befriend each other, collaborate, and then are torn apart as their careers take different paths. The film stars two wildly different but equally charismatic frontmen -- Dandy Courtney Taylor, a precocious, savvy artist, and BJM's Anton Newcombe, an erratic genius who went to jail for kicking a fan in the head. In addition to including some great tunes, the film shows sides of the musicians that a typical doc wouldn't capture -- the psychotic late-night phone calls (and death threats), the rigors of touring, celebratory drug binges, big-budget music video shoots, arrests, and more. "I could never write characters like this," Timoner says. "If I had scripted it, I don't think people would think it's a likely story." The win at Sundance was just the beginning -- Timoner says she's been blown away by the audience response so far. "It's really amazing how much this film has resonated with people. It made more than $20,000 on two screens in its debut weekend. People are seeing their own dreams and struggles with this film, it's really gratifying... the whole reason I got into film was to try to inspire people to express themselves and be creative."
While Timoner was chronicling this mad rock and roll lifestyle, she was also working as a successful director on other projects. A Yale University graduate who majored in American studies and theater studies, Timoner also used her time in college to pursue filmmaking. She directed the award-winning student film "Voices from Inside," about incarcerated women in Connecticut, and followed that up with "The Nature of the Beast," another criminal justice story. With her brother David, she founded the L.A.-based production company Interloper in 1994 and has worked on TV projects including VH1's "Sound Affects" and ABC's "Switched." She's also directed music videos for artists including Vanessa Carlton, Fastball, The Vines, Paul Westerberg, Ben Lee, and Lucinda Williams, among others. Interloper's approach to docs is to strive for "deeper and more penetrating documentation" using unobtrusive lighting, fluidity of camera mobility, an open microphone and on-the-fly interviews. ("Dig!" certainly represents that kind of loose, less formal style -- it avoids those boring talking head shots.)
Timoner says that her own experience trying to get a narrative film off the ground at the age of 21 had opened her eyes to the strained relationship between art and commerce, which is why she wanted to make "Dig!" She started following 10 bands on the verge of signing deals, but then soon saw that these two bands were her real story. During the course of filming "Dig!," Timoner amassed 1,500 hours of footage -- she was willing to wait out the turn of events and to see how the film evolved. "When I was making docs in college and after college, I noticed that stories weren't unfolding on camera," she says. "My idea was let me follow something that was unfolding, and recreate that experience."
It looks like Timoner's next project won't be seven years in the making -- she already has several exciting projects in the works, all wildly different. She is attached to direct "100 Percent More Humid," a story about "two college-age girls struggling to cope with a traumatic incident in their lives." Michael London is producing, with Jane Garnett, and they are casting now. The other narrative project is a film starring Tom Jane as Glen Shirley, a prison musician discovered by Johnny Cash. "It's about how showbiz can be more dangerous than prison," Timoner says.
On the doc side of the spectrum, Timoner is working with Palm Pictures founder Chris Blackwell on a history of Jamaican music, "The Mother of Invention." (She also is optioning a script about a boy and his father figure in Jamaica). Plus she says she may revisit two films she shot before "Dig!" took off: "Dam Nation," about a WTO dam in sub-Saharan Africa, and "The Bubble," a film about Internet guru Josh Harris and New York during the dot-com boom, as well as Harris's live-in art installation. She's also polishing her third original screenplay, entitled "The Deserters," about kids in California and "the fine line between advertising and pornography." She says the leap to fictional films has always been a dream.
"With 'Dig!' I was trying to make a narrative feature out of real footage, storytelling is what I love to do," Timoner says. "Making a narrative film is different and exciting and challenging. It's something I feel ready to do It's a dream come true that I'm having the opportunity to do these great features, and of course I will always want to do documentaries too."
And even during this exciting year with "Dig!," Timoner has had other things to concentrate on as well. She and her partner, cinematographer Vasco Lucas Nunes, had an 11-month old son, Joaquim, three days after she completed "Dig!" The baby has been on the festival circuit with them when they're not home in Pasadena. "He's kept us centered," Timoner says. "When we won the grand jury prize at Sundance, I had go home to breastfeed... he just keeps us with a lot of love in our lives."