I Am The Interloper: An Interview with Ondi Timoner (BRAND: A SECOND COMING) / by Samuel B. Prime

Editor's Note: Ondi Timoner is a documentary filmmaker best known for tackling and taming enormous subjects, best typified in DIG! (2004) about the contentious, competitive rivalry and former friendship between bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. With her latest film, BRAND: A SECOND COMING, she again tackles an enormous personality - Russell Brand - who caused something of a stir at the SXSW festival when he simply did not attend, despite a coveted opening night slot and a much-anticipated key note speech. Instead, he issued a statement. The press had a field day. Here, now that the dust has cleared, we talk about the aftermath. 

- Samuel B. Prime, Founder

Samuel B. Prime (SBP): So, how did the SXSW festival go?

Ondi Timoner (OT): Oh, it was a madhouse! It was a circus! Just crazy. It was awesome in a lot of ways… and it was disturbing in some ways, but overall I think it was very successful. 

SBP: I am curious... In what ways was the festival was disturbing?

OT: It was disturbing because when Russell [Brand] didn’t show and he released a statement as to why he didn’t show, basically that turned into hundreds and hundreds of pages of press, intrigue, buzz and all this stuff about why didn’t Russell feel comfortable enough with the film to come to the premiere. And while that worked to our advantage in terms of people understanding that this is a real, authentic film and not a celebrity puff piece – which it is not. It really did upset him, genuinely, or made him uncomfortable. This helped people to look at it as real and not something that he commissioned or controlled. That was a positive. It also caused a lot of attention to be on me. For example, it’s probably unprecedented that there would be a red carpet full of journalists and video cameras trained on one single filmmaker and that filmmaker is a documentary filmmaker. It’s pretty weird. On the one hand, it’s exciting and its great for a film to have that kind of attention, but on the other hand it was ironic because some of what the film actually deals with is Russell’s reaction to celebrity and the way that celebrities are treated and the way that the truth is distilled and distorted. And the same thing started happening to me there.

SBP: It sounds almost as if your story could make a second film or a companion piece.

OT: If we weren’t so overwhelmed with finishing the film itself still, I would probably think that, too. We recorded a lot of stuff. We recorded the Q&A at the premiere, which was awesome. The premiere was 1,200 people at The Paramount Theater - people laughing, clapping back at the screen, a really, really passionate response, and so gratifying. I personally have had a lot of exciting moments in my career, but I’ve never had a movie have that kind of massive premiere. At Sundance, when my movies have played there, they always premiered in a regular little theater – a couple hundred people – and then when they would win Sundance, then they would get to play Eccles and play the big, huge theater. And my mind would be blown ten days later. It’s different for me as a filmmaker to come out of the gate with a film playing that kind of a massive venue. It’s really pretty awesome. So, that was exciting, but when I was doing the Q&A and was asked about Russell and what I changed for Russell and how I handled that, and I wanted to answer those questions as thoughtfully as can be on a stage like that – and truthfully – but then I said I want to commend SXSW and Janet Pierson because when Russell reacted to the film and expressed serious reservations about the film when I was at Sundance in January, I ran into Janet and I told her what was going on because I wanted to make sure she was in the loop because we already accepted the opening slot – and the first documentary to open South-By in a decade, and it’s a good deal, and all of a sudden the star of the film is going “Oh, my God, I can’t believe you have all this material in the film!” And I commended her for standing by me. The press picked that up and turned it into that Russell was trying to block the premiere. Of course, they just loved that, but I never said that, ever. I never would have said that. He never tried to block the premiere.

SBP: For better or worse, he wanted his opinion to be out there, as well.

OT: He just was upset and I was scared that he was – I didn’t know what was going to happen. His first reaction was horror. It was an opportunity for him to work on it himself, a lot of people worked on it with him, and I worked on it with him over the next couple of months to where it finally saw the light of day and in very much the same form as what he saw in the first place. He should be commended for putting aside what were intense, personal gut reactions and allowing this to see the light of day. He deferred and let go.

SBP: So he didn’t necessarily have creative control?

OT: He gave me creative control, but he expressed serious reservations. Red flags went up and when I told Janet Pierson, she said, “We stand for freedom of speech in Texas and SXSW was founded on those principles.” I couldn’t believe her reaction. I was shocked at just how unfaltering she was in her reaction and I just expressed that respect for her on the stage. That’s what was distorted. Things like that or my outfits being described or where I bought my clothing. It just became things that filmmakers don’t usually don’t have described because I think that he wasn’t there for them to feast upon – and this is what I wrote him later – so they ate me alive, in a way. And I have to say that the press in general was so kind to our film, so supportive of our film. We have pretty much glowing reviews - for the most part, a really positive reaction and a lot of really solid, awesome coverage. It’s just a few people that go for sensational headlines and these days with Twitter and everything being so intensely competitive online on a social media level, journalists are trying to grab people with their headlines. You even see the length of time that a review or article will take you to read – now that’s at the heading, like ‘this read takes one minute and eight seconds.’ I’ve never seen anything like that before now, but it’s getting out of control. They’re like, “RUSSELL BRAND TRIED TO BLOCK THE SXSW PREMIERE.” No, he didn’t and that’s not what I said onstage at the premiere. I literally had to write my documentary’s subject, who was already uncomfortable with the film in the first place, but released a statement calling me a ‘director of fearless integrity’ and ‘a beautiful person.’ And then I spent the next seven-to-ten days worrying that his feelings were going to be genuinely hurt and that he’s going to think I’ve thrown him under the bus, when I haven’t done any of those things. That’s why South-By was a little bit disturbing.

SBP: My question would be with particular attention to BRAND, but also your other films. When you are making a film about someone so specific and you have a subject who is a living, breathing human being, are there any ground rules set beforehand, whether informally or contractually?

OT: Yes. I came on the film. Russell asked me to take over the film. He had been trying to make a film for several years with a bunch of different directors and they were all trying to make a film about happiness. I didn’t see a film in it. I didn’t think there was one to be made out of it. 

SBP: It sounds like the one thing that was missing was him?

OT: When I met him, I was blown away by his intelligence and charisma, his super quick rapid-fire vocabulary. I felt that what I had seen was not capturing that essence in any way, so when I saw his stand up show and he continued to say, “Have you looked at the footage? Have you considered taking this on? What do you say, what do you say?” I said, “I say ‘yes,’ if it can be about you - and if you give me creative control.” And the creative control aspect of it was something that didn’t happen right away, it happened as a process after a period of time, almost a year later, getting to know one another, me filming here and there. It wasn’t like ‘I won’t roll a frame until…”

SBP: Building trust…

OT: Yeah, we built trust for each other, which is why I couldn’t just enjoy all the attention the film was getting at SXSW. I was really sorry about all the negative headlines that I had absolutely no control over, which were basically lies, and so I felt great on the last day at South-By when I wrote Russell the night before. I spent a couple hours just detailing what was particularly disturbing about the press that he was seeing – that I imagined he was seeing – and he wrote me right back and he said, “You’ve cleared my doubts and put a smile on my face.” And I wrote him back and said, “Thank God… you understand.” I told him about the irony of how he was treated and how I was treated. And also the fact that I videotaped it myself – we recorded all of these Q&As and a lot of the interviews. I said, “I can’t imagine you would even want to see the raw footage of what I actually said, but I have it recorded.” So, in terms of your idea of making a piece about the release, it would be a really awesome extra and maybe we’ll get there one day.

SBP: It seems that the danger – or the potential danger – of making a film about someone so specific is that as a filmmaker you are naturally beholden to the film and what the film needs, but then there is also a very… seductive… opportunity to also feel beholden to the subject. How were you able to negotiate those two perspectives?

OT: I do feel beholden to the subject. I have an immense amount of respect for Russell anyway. I just do. I think he’s great. That’s why I wanted to do a film about him. I didn’t make a film about him because I thought he wasn’t. I thought that his life encapsulated a certain kind of awareness that wasn’t there right away, that you can see unfold on-camera. It’s a transformation that you see happen and a courageous, conflicted subject at the center who wears his heart on his sleeve in a lot of ways. You can watch this film and feel like ‘maybe I can do this myself.’ It was an opportunity to make something that reached a lot of people, n particular a lot of kids, and help them to find that reservoir within themselves to look passed the more superficial interests that we are sold every day. You can live a meaningful life. You can see it unfold with Russell. He had the courage to do that. So, for me, the access [to Russell] showed me that he is actually – believe it or not – a very private person. When he’s in public, he’s in public. But when he’s in private, he’s in private. It was a constant back-and-forth negotiating my access to him – and this is why I was surprised by his reaction to the film, because he looked at my footage a couple of different times. I sent him some stuff to show him that he was in good hands. Because he is a celebrity – and after what I went through at South-By I can relate – he doesn’t have trust for most people. Why would he? And he’s been through it with great filmmakers on this film. He had a bunch of great filmmakers, people with sterling reputations the likes of an Oliver Stone or the late Al Maysles or Clay Tweel and Luis Lopez, who just came out with Finders Keepers (2015) and Print the Legend (2014) – really good filmmakers. [Russell] wasn’t happy all along the way, so why should he be happy with me? He just was. I would send him an excerpt and he’d say, “Well done.” On some level, I think he just doesn’t like to be documented. He doesn’t like the process…

SBP: The idea of creating a record of oneself…

OT: And two years earlier he was a different person, whereas now he doesn’t want that kind of attention. The story he has told is true. He has changed markedly – the tea, yoga, and all that. It has changed him from someone who really needed approval and attention at all times to somebody who doesn’t need it quite as much and doesn’t need a camera following him around – doesn’t necessarily want a camera following him around – and so it was ironic. He said, “I don’t really want to do this, I just want to finish what I started. But I don’t want to do this.” He needed to finish what he started because there were investors who needed to make their money back. And I swear to God that if those people weren’t waiting in the wings with [Russell] needing to do right by them, he never would have done this film ‘cause he really didn’t want to do it. He’s not somebody who wants to retread all of the mistakes he’s made in his life. That’s not fun for him. That’s not the path that he’s on now. And he’s determined to change the world. It didn’t intuitively make any sense to him that people should want to hear about [this part of his life], or that it would be a positive in any way for people to focus on his drug-addled past, his promiscuity, and decadence of his earlier years. Why would he want that when he’s trying to focus on people seeing him as one of the big thinkers of the world and as someone who could lead us to another way. Another irony is that [this change] has completely helped his mission to have his story out there. Because when people see [the film], they have no idea where he is coming from now…

SBP: So, it sounds like it was a perfect storm of elements that combined to get this film finished even though there had been so much work on it for so long, that being: the catalyst to make such a dramatic change in his own life; not wanting to mess with other peoples’ money, and also that you and he clicked. What was it about the two of you that made it work?

OT: There were a couple of things that stand out about that. You spend so much time with people and there are so many intense moments that happen when you are documenting someone and especially when that someone is so tense. I remember when he called me his ‘ginger ninja shadow.’ That kind of made sense to me, you know? There is something about us that I do think we were kind of fated for one another. We have a similar vibe. We are both really forthright people, really passionate people, and really outspoken people. Really fast on our feet. He would challenge me because he is so, so smart – genius-level smart. He would challenge me to be one-hundred percent on my game. I would sit and meet with him in the van, when on the road, and he was a master at twisting an interview around. He’s been doing millions of these interviews, so what’s going to make mine [as the film’s director] any different and why should he open up to me? This was the attitude going into every single one. It didn’t matter how many good ones we had. Russell was like, “What do you want and what are you going to do and how are you going to break me down? Because you are not.” It would be like a game of cat-and-mouse, in a way. But I loved that. I loved that challenge because I have a lot of really interesting characters in my movies before. I’ve had a lot of visionaries at the center of my stories. Not just someone who is famous, but someone who is really, really smart. I loved the challenged of someone who was jaded, smart, famous, and knew how to manipulate journalists. I think I rose to that challenge. I liked rising to that challenge. He appreciated that. You can see it in the film. You can see that he appreciates it when I challenge him, in a way. He probably can’t stand it, but then he ends up respecting me for it every time. We got in a couple of fights and when we would have a conflict, the next time we would have an interview, it was better because I was able to stand up to him and at the same time treated him with an immense out of respect, which I do have for him, and I treated him with an immense amount of love. I can’t actually make a film about a person unless I find a place of love for them. I genuinely love Russell. You could tell that he felt that from me. He wouldn’t have had me around if he didn’t feel that way. And I think at one point his manager said, “You’re getting better stuff out of him than anybody else, but I can’t stick around you two for more than a few minutes. I can’t handle being in the same vortex as the two of you."

SBP: It seems that with the approach for this film and previous films of yours like Dig! (2004), the title of your production company – Interloper Films – reflects very accurately what you are doing in a creative sense, which is changing who occupies the role of the interloper. 

OT: You’re asking who occupies the role? 

SBP: Perhaps most people would think of a documentary filmmaker as a kind of interloper – an outsider looking in – but what you seem to be doing is switching that role so that you actually become part and parcel of the film and someone like the manager you spoke of earlier then becomes that interloper, the person who doesn’t necessarily belong. 

OT: (pause) I think I am the interloper.

SBP: You are the interloper?

OT: I think so. I am the person who is in the group and taking notes. I am the person who is right there participating, falling into all sorts of situations alongside my subject, helping my subject in any way that I can, riding on a motorcycle to keep up with them, adjusting to the situation, and becoming part of that life – but taking notes all the while. To me, that’s what an interloper is: somebody who manages to infiltrate a scenario, but not invisibly, participatory. 

SBP: From what you are say about Russell, it seems that you are an equal part of the film or just as much a part of the film as he is. 

OT: I don’t think so…

SBP: Or, rather, a part of the film – if not exactly an equal part, an essential part.

OT: Not like Michael Moore. I just want to be clear that I’m not like Michael Moore. [The film] is not about me, it’s about [Russell]. It’s only about me insofar as our dynamic, which is illustrative of his dynamic with everyone because it is specific to me. 

SBP: I didn’t meant that you were visible in a literal onscreen sense. I do think of the word ‘interloper,’ though, as having a negative connotation - someone who is unwelcome or unwanted. Hearing your definition, you don’t seem to apply the term in the same way. 

OT: Well, I did get thrown out of the car a lot of times, in this case., but not in a mean way. [Russell] was always very nice about it, but I think that I was probably unwanted in a lot of ways, but then he liked me personally. He liked me, but he didn’t like this film. From the moment I came on to the project, he had something against the film. He was tired. He was leery of making this film. The film itself was not wanted. He always carefully defined, too, that [his reactions] were never personal to me and he was always sensitive to say, “You’re doing great, you’re awesome, now get out of here.”

SBP: Perhaps a true Interloper Film about interlopers…

OT: Yeah, basically. It wasn’t easy. It was not easy making the film.

SBP: Do you think that Russell will ever see the film?

OT: He has seen the film. His statement is a little bit obtuse in that way. He finds the film uncomfortable to watch. What he’s saying is that he can barely stand to watch the film. It is not an easy experience for him and he can’t watch it from an objective standpoint – which is completely understandable. He has seen it. That’s why he had such reservations. 

SBP: So, he ultimately understands what the film was about, what it contains, and that there is a certain lack of comfort that comes with putting that out for the world to see?

OT: He’s more comfortable looking forward and living in the present than looking backwards. That’s the gist of it. There are flaws, foibles, and private moments that he would never have wanted to see exist in the film. He also expressed to me that he understands that his discomfort is the price of having an authentic film. That’s the price to pay for a better film than he could make himself.

SBP: Discomfort as the cost to achieve art or reality.

OT: I think the process makes it truly transformative for other people, something that might be really meaningful and personal and hit people viscerally. Russell's smart enough to see that the results are completely fascinating.