Dana Knight speaks with Ondi Timoner about her new Russell Brand documentary and when and how he allowed access into his life.
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 popular culture offers up too many bad ideas and empty idols. The Independent spoke with the film’s director, Andrea Doane “Ondi” Timoner at SXSW 2015.
Dana Knight: Congratulations on another exciting and controversial documentary. Why Brand though?
Ondi Timoner: My manager called me and said there was this film on Russell Brand that needed saving, that it was a film he was making about happiness, and that I should take a look at it. And I asked, “Who’s that, is that Katy Perry’s ex-boyfriend?” And she said, “They were married and divorced but that’s the right person.” And I told Russell that a few times and he’s like, “I’ve heard it now. I get it, you did not know who I was.”
DK: Then maybe I should have asked “Why you?” Why did he choose you to make this documentary?
Timoner: Why did he want me? He made a statement today saying how much he loved Dig! But when he first met with me he told me that he loved We Live in Public. So I think he liked both Dig! and We Live in Public. And he wrote somebody once an email that I was cc’d on. He said, “Ondi knows how to handle mavericks.” So I think he understood that I understood characters that are not black or white, [with] a lot of gray areas. I know how to tell a story about someone who can’t help but do what they do. I call them “impossible visionaries.”
DK: I think Russell would like that label…
Timoner: I think so too. I gave a TEDx talk last year about my subjects; they are all impossible visionaries. I even have a network called a total disruption where we tell their stories – entrepreneurs, innovators, artists who all have to be a bit impossible. To try for the impossible, they have to be impossible on their way to doing it because people tell them they can’t do it, or call them crazy, or whatever. I really love that moment in Brand where Russell defines what he considers when people call him mad. Because if you listen to the voice inside your own head, over the voices from outside, people will say you’re mad. But in India they’ll call you a guru and say you’re in conversation with God. I appreciate his courage; I think he’s a very courageous man. However he’s not here in Austin.
DK: I know, I’ve just read his comments about the film, the fact that he found the film difficult to watch, etc. But I want to leave that for the end of this interview…
Timoner: Are we going to publish this in order of our interaction, is that your style?
DK: Not really, no, I often restructure my interviews…
Timoner: Good, because I’m very gonzo-style, I love gonzo journalism.
DK: That’s totally fine. But I want to go back to the first meeting you had with Russell. He says he gave you total creative control and I’m sure you wouldn’t have agreed to making the film otherwise…
Timoner: Well, I had to have total creative control. It’s not that I wanted it. He says I wanted it but it’s more that I needed to have it because he’s a celebrity. I said to him: “No one is gonna take this seriously if you don’t let it go and let me tell your story.” We went through a long period of him not giving me creative control until we got to know each other, where I filmed with him, I worked with him. And I think at the end of the day he understood that he needed to let go. There were five other directing teams I think before me. Starting with Al Maysles and Oliver Stone, and then Seth Gordon had a team on it. And then Russell took over the film at one point, he had a couple of guys in England directing it. He was trying to find out the meaning of life because he became famous and didn’t find it satisfying. And he was looking for what it takes to have a meaningful and satisfying life. But the way they were all going about it, it wasn’t about Russell. As Russell is a massive force, he’s extremely courageous and also still a little boy, quite insecure, who grew up in Essex. He’s both things and his vulnerability is right there on his sleeve, you can see it in his eyes. Yet he will walk into fire. And I appreciate that about him and that’s part of what fascinates me about him as a character. But it’s the same thing that prevented him from giving anyone creative control and prevented the film from being anything that would be interesting. The problem that I saw when they called me to save this movie was that he wasn’t really in it. I mean he was in the film, he was asking Mike Tyson questions, or [asking] David Lynch questions, or he’s in this scene with Katy Perry, or he’s at this prison. He’s in the film but it wasn’t about him at all, he wasn’t revealing much of himself, just that he was dissatisfied with fame.
What I realized is that his life story actually encapsulates everything that he was seeking to find out. And that was by far more interesting. When I met him, when he was at that meeting I went to with the original production team to tell them what I thought could be done to save the movie, there was Russell, and that person was such a force. The charisma, the intelligence were so overwhelming in the room. You leave his presence with like a buzz, there’s a buzz of electricity in the air…
DK: And that’s how you leave the film also, you managed to capture that about him.
Timoner: Thank you! The magic of Russell wasn’t in the other cut. And that upset me. And that actually was the first step towards me making the film. I didn’t think I was going to make the film until I met him. Then he asked me to come to one of his stand-up shows, he was working on the first bit of the Messiah Complex show. And I thought, oh my gosh, through that I could tell his relationship to fame and to immortality. To Ghandi and Che, these are people who put their lives on the line, these are martyrs. And even if he could become the next George Clooney, that wasn’t going to be good enough for Russell. Maybe there is some vanity involved in this transition he’s made, maybe there is some narcissism and a desire to escape being forgotten, to make sure he’s remembered forever, I’m sure that plays a part. I think that ego and narcissism are big central themes of the film. And one big question of the film is: How much do those things play a part? How vital are they as components to someone who would step out of line to the point where they would change the world forever? Can you actually do it without ego and narcissism? If you didn’t have those things, the amount of people who laugh at you and tell you to get back in line along the way, would make you get back in line.
So there’s that and there’s also in Russell a very deep desire, as the son of a single mother who was on welfare at different points, who worked hard, from a town that was downtrodden to begin with and now is worse, there was a true and honest desire to use his celebrity and all the power he has to fight the lies and the destruction we’re all being sold. I hope the film will help him on his mission. And I think it will, I see people responding positively to him from this film.
DK: But ironically he doesn’t seem to respond positively to the film…
Timoner: Oh, he was frustrated with me and I was frustrated with him through the process of making this film, but I’m a fan of the man. Everyone on the team was frustrated with him but we’re still rooting for him. And that’s my favorite and most exciting kind of filmmaking, when the audience is really in the seat of deciding how they feel, they are not being spoon-fed, you got both sides of everything. And I think that’s why it’s very hard for him to digest it.
DK: Going back to your collaboration, you had total creative control but there must have been a discussion at the beginning about setting up ground rules and boundaries, what you did and did not have access to. You said he was a bit reticent at the beginning…
Timoner: I did feel through the production that because he gave me creative control, he then tried to control what I shot. Because he knew when I had the footage I could do what I wanted. So he would throw me out of the car in a very nice way when he had someone in the car that he did not want me to film with him. And this would be very frustrating because the point of the day was that we were filming that person with him. And I would wonder, “Why is he shooting himself and me in the foot? Here I am in London, I am a single mum myself with my child all the way back in LA and he’s wasting my time.” Now I’m in a car following the car that he’s in. And I’d be like, “Is he doing this to drive me insane?” And then he would let me back in the car. And those 10 minutes I’d get in the car would be absolute gold.
The thing about filming Russell is just absolute gold, it just is. We had oodles of good stuff, it was like crazy to try to edit this film.
DK: But generally, what would he get upset about?
Timoner: With me? [He] and I didn’t really get upset with each other, there’s a little bit of a thing in the car where you see he’s a little pissed at me. Because I told him that I thought he was better than anyone else. He didn’t like that. He didn’t like me interrupting him. Here I am sitting in the car to interview him, he’s trying to read the paper, and just me interrupting him to tell him that I thought he was better than anyone else, he looks up at me like he wanted to chuck me out of the window. And it’s a tense moment, that entire car ride. My associate producer was saying last night that that entire car ride is a harrowing transcript to read, it’s like a crazy transcript to read. There’s so much tension. But as his manager said to me, “You’re getting the best stuff out of him.” I think it’s because I tried to have as much courage as I could, come what may, “I’m gonna get to the bottom of this, I don’t want to be fed what he’s serving me, I want to get past that surface layer.”
DK: So you tried to break him down a little bit?
Timoner: I wanted to break him down, yeah. He knew that, that’s why he threw me out sometimes. Because if I was around, I was always filming, I was catching stuff. And he knew that. But he liked that though. We heard him on the mic talking about me in Heathrow airport, watching me filming 10 feet away: “Check her out man, she’s just nonstop!” I think it helped to garner his respect actually.
DK: And his trust probably…
Timoner: I don’t know about trust… It’s the first time I made a film about a celebrity and it’s not easy, there’s never going to be 100 percent trust.
DK: Yes it’s a film about a celebrity but he is a controversial celebrity and that makes the film interesting. And people don’t know what to make of him anymore. And he doesn’t seem to know what to make of himself either.
Timoner: Yeah, he says, “Whatever the hell I am now.”
DK: Exactly. So what do you think he is now?
Timoner: I think he is a political disruptor. I think he is a disruptor across everything. If you watch what he did at GQ in the movie, when he says, “As soon as I saw it was Hugo Boss, they made the uniforms for the Nazi. […] That was a gift.” He sees opportunities to upset the expected. And he grasps onto those opportunities and he loves that. Right now what’s expected is that we’re all going to be docile and buy lots of things and compete with each other for attention and social media and just live these lives of distraction. And we’re going to buy the news that’s presented to us. And he’s like: “NO, no, no. This has got to stop. I’m going to start the truce and I’m going to start overthrowing the government, and I’m going to start speaking what I think the truth is, behind the news and behind what’s happening to us. And I’m gonna get out there and use my celebrity so that these women who are losing their houses suddenly have 100,000 petitions. And he’s getting slammed for it, of course, because he goes home to a nice apartment.
DK: But that is so unfair, that people would criticize him for that. He wouldn’t be able to make any changes unless he had that power and money and celebrity status.
Timoner: Exactly. So what is he supposed to do, give it all up so that he’s not considered a hypocrite? But I love that the film explores that. I’m always looking for ways to make a really intimate film, a film that is like fractals. My belief is that the deeper you get into one particle, the more universal the film becomes. Because one part is indicative of every other part. The deeper I can get to Russell and his experience of all of this kind of backlash and his fear and his insecurity and vulnerability. That’s the thing that I think is making him terribly uncomfortable right now, it’s his vulnerability. But the more we can get into that, the more everyone can relate. And the next time you see a petition coming your way or you see a movement, you might think twice about joining that and getting active. I hope the film will accomplish that because I think he is very inspirational. That’s why it’s called A Second Coming, it’s a joke of course, we’re taking the piss out of it in the middle of the film with his comedy. But it’s also “a second coming”, not “the second coming. And you can have one and I can have one and we all need to make a switch before it’s too late for all of us.
DK: I also felt that it is very painful for him that he is not taken seriously in his new role.
Timoner: Yes, when he says “I’m not talking to them, I’m not talking to them.” It’s that blink in between his statements, it looks as though he’s blinking back tears almost but it’s so heartfelt and his feelings are so hurt. It was the night after he did a pretty bad news night appearance, he was pretty manic. I didn’t show him the film but it wasn’t good. He was in a terrible mood, it was our last interview together. But I think it’s very human, something that we all go through, especially as artists. I’m standing on a precipice right now, tonight my movie world premieres, tomorrow all the reviews that have been embargoed are going to hit. That’s me out there, that’s not just a film I made, that’s thousands of hours of editing I did personally, that’s my entire team believing in something. And thank God I have the team I have, it’s the best team ever. We were intrepid and dedicated and we love each other. But there was a lot that hit us during this movie that we didn’t expect: the book, the government, the truce, he moved to England. We didn’t know any of that was going to happen. We were almost done with post when the book came out and we were on the road again folding that footage in. Then he saw the movie and had a little bit of a time with it, that was difficult because I respect him very much and I admire him and I definitely didn’t want to put something out there that hurt him. But I also thought I don’t know if he’s seeing straight. Almost like when you look in the mirror, you don’t see what other people see sometime. Especially when you’ve got something so personal coming out. I think we all get scared sometime. I think he’s a little bit scared right now. But he’s going to find that he’s embraced for his new role and for all the things that we’ve been talking about.
DK: How was the film financed? Russell stated that he had nothing to do with the funding of it.
Timoner: Yes, there’s a consortium of investors that existed long before I came along. He probably put a few thousand dollars here and there to move stuff around but he’s not one of the 21 investors.
DK: Do you think he was nervous of being suspected of using this as some kind of self-promotion?
Timoner: I think probably he would have been, right? Had the initial film come out, the one I saw two years ago when I signed on to this, I don’t know what would have happened. I don’t know if you would have liked it very much. I don’t think he would have. And they didn’t like it very much, that’s why they came to me. But I said to him, “I can’t save this film. I need to turn the camera on you. That’s the film I want to make.” And he was like, “Alright,” he accepted that. But then it was like, “We’re not making the film yet, now I’m coming to your house to visit, now this.” We spent some time together and it was a give and take. There was one time I was told I can’t film anything but a show. So I just didn’t get on the plane, I didn’t show up at the airport! In fact, it was during a Kickstarter I was doing for Total Disruption, I was invited to speak at an Entrepreneurs Breakfast where I thought I could raise money for the Kickstarter. So I went to speak about Total Disruption and someone tweeted a photo of that and he retweeted it from the airport lounge. He was at the airport where I was supposed to be with him, retweeting a photo of me on stage! And I did make $11,000 for the campaign that day. It was the right move though because he must have thought, “Wow, she’s a real filmmaker, she’s not just going to follow me around and not film me.” I just thought, “How can I spend my time most productively?” He’s not going to let me film him except the show? I can get a hundred shows! I need to film him travelling.
DK: It sounds like the making of this documentary would be as interesting a film as the documentary itself!
Timoner: I believe it would be, yes, and we actually have a lot of footage of the making of. Most of the people who worked on this film were interviewed as they departed the project. It’s brilliant stuff. But I don’t know if he’ll ever let me do that. Maybe for the DVD extras, that would be amazing! Because it started with the late great Al Maysles, that’s why we put “In memory of” at the end of our film. And Oliver Stone, in partnership. And some of the first footage was what Al Maysles did. Like that footage with Donald Trump? Al Maysles was operating the camera.
DK: Russell obviously did his research in choosing some of the most celebrated documentarians around…
Timoner: No, they chose him, they came to him. He was so flattered that Al Maysles and Oliver Stone would come to him, he was like, “Sure, I’ll let you make a documentary about me!” Then he wasn’t happy with the team so he took over the film. And he went to the next filmmaking team, and then the next filmmaking team. They called me the “Ondinator,” like in Terminator. But there were times when we didn’t know if this film would ever see the light of day. So this is a great day for us.
DK: It’s a great film and I hope you’ll patch things up with Russell…
Timoner: Russell and I are not in any kind of conflict. I’m just disappointed he’s not here, I never anticipated that we wouldn’t be together in releasing this film. And I’m very sorry for any pain and discomfort he has right now. But I think that time will prove to him that this is good, that it’s ok. I think it will be a cathartic experience for him but not without pain on the way. And I had suffering too, believe me, I’m not going to get into it right now but I’ve suffered quite a bit making this film.
DK: It sounds like it, from what you told me.
Timoner: Oh yeah. We all have. Even yesterday, we had the master film in a bag and we almost missed our planes coming here. Because for various reasons, wink wink, I had to break picture lock. So literally down to the last day, we were finishing the film yesterday. Then we were running through LAX trying to make the plane and get our boarding passes, my mother and son were travelling with me. We ended up on different planes! To San Antonio! We all got in at 3 am last night! And I said to my associate producer Brooke Mueller, she and I ended up on a plane to Dallas together, I said, “I think this is like Lord of the Rings, we’re trying to bring the ring to the Paramount Theatre, to melt the ring, but we cannot get to the theatre!” Then Alex, my other associate producer, tweeted out a post that my brother read to me, “The film is now at the Paramount Theatre.” And I was so relieved. I’m sure SXSW were relieved as well, right? What a faith they had in me!