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Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #5: Ondi Timoner on the Challenge of Making a Documentary About Russell Brand

Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #5: Ondi Timoner on the Challenge of Making a Documentary About Russell Brand

BRAND: A Second Coming” follows comedian/author/activist Russell Brand as he dives headlong into drugs, sex and fame in an attempt to find happiness, only to realize that our culture feeds us bad ideas and empty idols. Award-winning director, Ondi Timoner, explores the contradiction between Brand’s clarion call for revolution and his hunger to transcend pop fame. [Synopsis Courtesy of SXSW]

READ MORE: Ondi Timoner on Why Russell Brand Will Never Be at Peace with the Film She Made About Him

Timoner shared with Indiewire her insight on what it was like to work with Brand, her upcoming projects, getting rejected from film school, and why necessity is the mother of invention.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

“BRAND: A Second Coming” tells the story of comedian, actor, author, activist Russell Brand as he takes everything we are told will make us happy — drugs, sex, fame, money, and power to the hilt, and is left feeling empty. So he starts to look inward and writes a transformative show called the Messiah Complex, in which he studies the difference between fleeting pop fame and the lasting relevance of his true heroes, Ché, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, & Malcolm X. He leaves Hollywood and moves back to England to dedicate his life to debunking the lies we are all sold. He starts a YouTube channel to expose the truth behind the news, “The Trews,” and writes a book called “Revolution” calling to overthrow the government. It’s quite a ride, and a wake up call to all of us.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

I was very interested in exploring whether ego and narcissism are vital components to anyone who is going to change the world, or veer off the charted, expected path. I was also interested in exposing the difference between the cheap, expendable and often value empty celebrity fame versus living a life that matters. I hoped that looking at Russell’s remarkable transformation in this film — whether or not it is partially motivated by a desire to reach a certain kind of immortality he could never get in Hollywood — would affect audiences, especially young audiences, to avoid some of the rabbit holes Russell went down and get to making that internal switch a little earlier in their lives.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

I am a mother, a daughter, a sister and a filmmaker. I tend to shoot, edit, write, direct, and produce my films. I am also extremely collaborative and have incredible luck in attracting dedicated, awesome talented teammates – without whom I could never do this work. I am intensely excited about the time we live in, especially the Internet revolution, and I express that through my two ongoing Internet series (running four years now) atotaldisruption.com about innovators and entrepreneurs and Chief Executive Artists and BYOD, the only talk show about documentary in the world. With my own work, I believe the form should follow the content, so I get a lot of inspiration from the subject matter itself! I am probably best known for the two films I made that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance — “Dig!” (2004) and “We Live in Public” (2009) but I love all my film children equally.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

The biggest challenge in making this film is that Russell Brand is incredible present individual so wherever he is, is where he is. Getting him to plan anything was very challenging. Russell is also an incredibly complex person. Part of what drew me to him is that he is contradictory in many ways, and a hyperbolic human being — as are many of my feature subjects if you know my past work. Russell seems like he is very much an open book, but what I found is that he is a very private person, and making this documentary has been very difficult for him. He would rather look forward, not backwards, and he would tell me often that living his life was painful enough the first time. We got there though in the end, and I think the results will be transformative for many people, and I hope the film will be cathartic for Russell as well.
Also, I had no idea that he would move to England, start the Trews, or write his book “Revolution” when I started the project, so I was deep in post and had to get back into production quickly — and as recently as November 2014 — to keep up with Russell! We had thousands of hours of footage to plow through. The resulting film is an exciting ride, an unfolding story, my favorite kind to tell!

What do you want the SXSW audience to take away from your film?

As “BRAND: A Second Coming” is opening the SXSW festival, I hope it will do all the things it’s done to our test audiences: Leave everybody energized and inspired to go do something about the world we live in, to question their own priorities, and become active before it’s too late. I hope the film will get everyone in a good state of mind to view all of the films, and hear all the talks at the Interactive conference through that filter — so that SXSW can be the kick off of a vital transformation for all of us.

Any films inspire you?

I love films that break the mold and leave some grey area. I thought “The Celebration” was brilliant, “The Graduate,” “Slacker,” “Silver Linings Playbook,” “Don’t Look Back” — there are so many, and I am out of time to write this now!

What’s next?

I have been working on a scripted film about Robert Mapplethorpe, another cultural lightning rod who pushed the boundaries at a time and place in history that has never quite been portrayed authentically. “Mapplethorpe” is ready to go, we have a wonderful lead actor, and are casting and raising the rest of the funds now. I am really excited to make that film hopefully this year!
Also, I am writing the incredible story of my father and mother, their groundbreaking airline, my father’s stroke, their enduring love — our family’s tumultuous ride through the 80’s and 90’s — which I think many Americans will relate to on different levels. This is obviously an extremely personal project, and probably both the most challenging and meaningful I will ever take on in my life…

What cameras did you shoot on?

We shot all of the main verité and interviews on a combination of a Canon C300, two C100s, a Digital Bolex, and then we shot some Go Pro too at night and after shows.
But I also shot a whole lot of Super 8 film that’s all over the film. I have a Nizo camera with a Zeiss lens that I adore. Lots of DIG! & “Join Us” were shot with that camera as well. I felt it was the perfect textured look for BRAND: A Second Coming, so I shot more Super 8 on this film than ever before. Russell liked the look of it too and always gave me a little more when I was shooting it too. 

Did you crowdfund?
If so, via what platform. If not, why?

No we didn’t on this one, but I am a believer after doing one for “A Total Disruption” a couple of years ago! In fact at this SXSW, we are launching a search and discovery platform that makes all of my footage for that project —- the hundreds of hours with the innovators and entrepreneurs — searchable down to the word, which was kicked off and funded by that Kickstarter!

Did you go to film school? If so, which one? 

I was rejected from NYU and UCLA Film Schools after I graduated from Yale University, Cum Laude having been awarded the 1st-ever Prize for Excellence in Filmmaking by Yale for a film I made about women in prison called “Voice from Inside Time” as a student there.
I think documentaries weren’t seen as a legitimate career path or art form in the early 90’s maybe? Either way, it’s great that I didn’t because my brother and I taught ourselves to edit on AVID and worked at a public access station developing our own style, shooting our own films, navigating financing on our own — and that independent spirit and know-how has served the work Interloper Films has made in the many years thereafter. Necessity truly is the mother of invention.

Indiewire invited SXSW Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. We’ll be publishing their responses leading up to the 2015 festival. For profiles go HERE.

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