An unexpected but near-perfect pairing of filmmaker and subject, Ondi Timoner and Russell Brand recognize one another’s talents and position on the media landscape. In “Brand: A Second Coming” —Timoner’s documentary which premiered at SXSW 2015 (review here)— this dynamic makes for a nuanced look at the comedian, actor, and author’s personality and politics, while the “Dig” and “We Live In Public” director launches into a larger look at the illusions of fame.
The intersection of cultural shifts and intimate narratives has grown into a significant portion of Timoner’s non-feature work: she runs A Total Disruption, a platform for tech innovators and entrepreneurs that is soon to branching off into Lean Content, an online course for artists. She also hosts “B.Y.O.D.”, a talk show featuring in-depth interviews with documentary filmmakers about their work. We sat down with Timoner at SXSW after a panel in which she spoke about “The Last Mile,” her short film about inmates inside California’s San Quentin prison who participated in a tech incubator for social-based apps (view the film here).
In “The Last Mile,” these are prisoners who haven’t had the same relationship with smartphones and technology that’s commonplace now; did you notice any distinct differences in the way they processed information?
They’re definitely more measured. They’re careful about everything —what they say, how they say it. But their edge, besides the fact that they’re going to create apps that speak to ideas that maybe white kids in hoodies aren’t thinking about (they come from the other side of the tracks, generally speaking), is that they’re so appreciative of everything. They’re willing to try so hard, and that’s what it takes to succeed as a startup entrepreneur.
It’s a fascinating topic for me. Originally, I made films about women in prison. So I was very obsessed with just how broken our prison system is. Then “We Live In Public” was really my introduction to the technology world, and with A Total Disruption I’ve stayed on top of it for five years now. And then all of a sudden, I hear there’s a tech incubator inside a prison? I’m just like, “Oh my god, this is potentially a solution that can be viable, one that can work”.
So that was the hook for you?
The hook for me was the combination of tech and incarceration. The idea that there’s no computers or Internet in a place, but you can start conceiving of businesses that can thrive outside that place. They can’t actually launch the businesses, though they do Demo Days just like a tech incubator would. Then when they get out, they have a wellspring of support. They’re not going to go back —they have an opportunity to start their own business and a new life. It seems like they have a leg up on most anybody getting out of prison.
[This idea] should spread. It should be in women’s prisons, because we’re wasting human resources. People are wasting away and we’re paying top dollar for them to waste away and do nothing for society, when they actually have great insight. They want a second chance, and we all deserve a second chance.
It strangely just occurred to me how “The Last Mile” seems to tie directly in with Russell and his recovery.
If he can, Russell will go to an AA meeting every day on the road in every city, practically. I think it’s how he gets to know people in the city. He’s not content just showing up somewhere and doing a show on the “Messiah Complex” tour, as you see in the movie. He’s out looking where people are using drugs, he’s talking with drug addicts, going to AA meetings, which reminds him that he’s like everyone else. That’s so important.
That notion of support too —having that team that you can turn to at any second.
Russell has an incredibly deep heart. And the proof of that is in the people who have surrounded him since the very beginning. They’re the same people, like a family. Nik Linnen, his manager, has been with him forever, although he didn’t want to be in the film. Nicola Schuller, Mick the driver. Matt Morgan, who’s kind of harsh about him in the film but they’re back doing a radio show together. He’s really managed to engender the love and respect of all these people. They’re ultimately so loyal to Russell, and I think that’s helped him so much. That’s why that entourage scene was important to me, because I was hoping that you would recognize later in the film that those people were still there.
There were a few directors that filmed stretches of the footage before you stepped in. What was the process of parsing through all of the completed footage and dealing with some of the conscious decisions made by those directors?
There’s so much archival stuff. He’s just been in the public domain for so long, and what we tried to do was weave that into a public, very personal story of who this man is. I love things documented over time. Time provides the greatest narrative. It’s great that you can really give people a sense of an unfolding journey, and a sense that they know your character —all sides, not just one.
I made all sorts of conscious decisions, so many that my head hurts to think about it. Scenes like the Mike Tyson interview, which was before my time. The whole scene’s incredible, and I could’ve chosen five favorite snippets from that. But in terms of who’s the camera on, I wanted to start out on Russell, because Russell’s the seeker at that point. He’s trying to figure out what to do to wake up the world to what he’s just discovering himself: that this whole celebrity thing is a great distraction from the great inequality that exists.
You also try to edit for humor and pace. You start on Russell asking a question on a single shot, not the double, and not the Tyson shot. It’s like, “Who is he asking this question to?” And it cuts to Mike Tyson, and it’s “Ohh….” Then Tyson comes out with the line, “Because the strong don’t give the power to the weak, because the weak want to be the strong.”
Having personally followed Brand’s career for a while, I was interested in seeing the film for that reason, to see his more contradictory moments explored in both his comedy and real life.
Comedy’s dangerous. You need to transgress and to make people uncomfortable. All of his heroes do that, you know? And I think he follows in their footsteps. Though what I found surprising working with him is that it doesn’t seem like he feels he’s as funny as he actually is offstage. For him, he’s a real perfectionist about the show and what the show’s going to be. He’s a pretty serious human being in real life, but he’s also hilarious. Like the scene with the girl in Essex, when she says, “You married Katy Perry!” And he says, “Sometimes you marry people to unwind. Maybe one day you’ll grow up and you’ll marry Katy Perry. And then how will you feel if some punk kid comes up to you?”
The audience reaction to that scene with Perry [an interview with her and Brand at home] was pretty telling.
They gasped. I felt a wave go through the audience. I didn’t make an edit there, or in Russell’s car ride with his dad. Because you have to know it’s true and it’s not me manipulating anything. It’s really something that as a filmmaker you appreciate, when something just exists and can say so much in so little time. It’s just a short little scene, but it speaks volumes.
With A Total Disruption and your various documentary work, it seems you’ve got about twenty strands going. Talking about narratives through time, is it a matter of checking in on these strands in, say, 2026, and seeing if there’s enough material?
In a way I’m like a VC with a camera. Boy, am I lucky, because I get to hear about these things really early on. I’m also very passionate about [“B.Y.O.D.”], because for all documentary filmmakers, it’s an opportunity for really an in-depth conversation that they’re usually not granted anywhere else. And for people out there it’s an incredible resource. There’s hundreds of episodes now.
I recently caught your chat with Jesse Moss and really enjoyed it. That’s an amazing film as well.
Incredible film. And he actually lived at the church the entire time. Incredible.
You’ve had kind a similar kind of immersion to that?
In “Dig,” I slept on the dirtiest couches in America, was arrested, [the band] all lived in my house at different points. And with “We Live in Public,” I was there basically 24/7. That was some harrowing stuff —I didn’t like the bunker very much, to be honest. I wouldn’t have been there if I wasn’t making a film. You end up in these worlds you can never otherwise enter and you get to explore them on behalf of the audience. I’m just hanging on for dear life, really.
Visit brandthefilm.com for more information on the theatrical and digital release of “Brand: A Second Coming”.