Hi Film Folk!
Tell us a bit about your upbringing, going to Yale and how that led to documentary filmmaking?
I grew up in Miami, Florida and am the daughter of an incredible renegade maverick entrepreneur by the name of Eli Timoner who founded an airline called Air Florida, which was the fastest growing in the history of the aviation industry up to that point. He founded it the year I was born in 1972 and by 1982 his neck was cracked in a massage and he suffered a massive stroke. Although his intelligence was intact he was sabotaged and stabbed in the back and basically thrown out of his own company.
So I saw all of that from the age of 10 to when I was 16 and saw him go from a multi-millionaire to bankrupt by the time I was 20. So it was really interesting and formative (I’ve just written a screenplay about it actually). I learned a lot from him and I think my love of people who think outside the box, step out of line and dare to be different comes from that.
I never thought I was going to be a documentary filmmaker, I always thought I’d be a writer. I’d won a sixth grade writing award. Then, I wanted to be the first woman President of the United States and I worked on the senate floor and I thought it was so incredibly backwards and disconnected – nobody seemed to be listening to anybody else talk – and I became very disenchanted with the American political system at that point, so I thought maybe I could make change from without it.
When I was at Yale, I picked up a camera and started filming women in prisons and asking them about their lives and really breaking down the stereotypes that I had been fed; of butchness and violence. They were mothers concerned about their children – some had drove the getaway car or just needed a pair of Nikes. Most of them had been in prison from the day they were born because of the poverty they’d been living in.
I would drive back to Yale with the tapes and feel that I was freeing some part of them. I was practicing some kind of alchemy by taking their stories, which had been silenced, and giving their lives a meaning that perhaps they didn’t have before. Kind of bridging a gap between we, the taxpayers, who are paying for them to be in prison, and they, who are trapped in that system.
It was a really powerful feeling and it made my first film called “Voices from Inside Time” and it won the first ever Yale film prize and I got a grant to make a film about a woman I’d met in there. That’s how I started making ‘The Nature of the Beast’, my first feature film. When that came out in 1994 and when on TV in the tri-state area – on PBS and yada yada – I thought I would be getting her out of prison when people saw the injustice of her story. But then I realised that nobody was watching documentaries back then and I thought ‘Oh, OK. I need to make an unfolding, suspense-driven narrative that feels like a scripted film’. People want to escape when they go to the movies. They need a story that is not a retrospective but is something unfolding and that’s when I started making “Dig!“
Also, my brother and I learned at a public access station. Yale didn’t have any production facilities, they didn’t think that was important at that point, they were just doing theory classes. Luckily a public access station (a community station) opened in Newhaven, Connecticut, right then. Like Kismet. It was called Citizen’s Television. We really learned and taught ourselves how to edit when we got access to the Avid. It was like discovering God with the Avid [laughs].
My brother, David, who has edited on Dancing with the Stars for 7 years and edited on Brand, edited on Cool It and most of my films with me. You can tell by the style we cut with that we taught ourselves. It has a certain style.
‘Dig!’ (about The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre) is very popular and you were with them for 7 years! What else did you get up to in that time?
I was doing music videos and EPKs (electronic press kits) and when I was 27 in 1998 in the middle of filming Dig! ,one of my EPKs (you get $15k and follow a band around) got nominated for a Grammy as best long form music video. When they called me to tell me I said ‘you must be making a mistake, I’m a filmmaker’ and they said ‘no, no, no. We really loved your EPK’ and I was like ‘What?!’
I then submitted to Sundance and that was in part because I was giving birth to my child and I didn’t want to bring my son into the world with Dig! still going on. I didn’t want to bring this rock saga into motherhood. I kept trying to get other editors on it but since I had been there for that 2500 hours of footage it was hard for me to catch and editor up on all of it.
So I finished it with this deadline the week I gave birth and sent it off to Sundance. We won and that kind of changed my career.
OK, so in Brand, you came in mid-way through. Tell us a bit about how that happened and how long the shooting process was on that?
So for Brand it started for me in March 2013 and it was 2 1/2 years. We decided to shoot a whole new movie. They came to me before to fix what they’d been filming with a number of directors. It was a film called “Happiness” and it just felt like a hodge podge. I couldn’t figure out how this could be a film that could be cohesive and dramatic.
I didn’t really know about him but, when I met him and learned about him, I thought I could make a film about his journey through life. Getting everything that we think we want, going for it with gusto and getting it all, only to come up empty and have to search for a new life that matters. We all want our lives to matter but it’s about how we go about it. Are we after fame for fame’s sake?
In a way Brand is the rise and fall of the 15 minutes of fame. You see a person get more than 15 minutes of fame and still come up empty. Because he was famous for whatever tabloids wanted to make him famous for that day. They still are doing that.
What he’s trying to do is figure out how to have impact in this world that will last forever, I think. In that way, he needs to go after things that are more important and bigger than just his own individual pursuits. So he starts modelling his life after Gandhi and figures who are immortal and have become martyrs. You can see him testing the waters in his comedy but then he full blown goes that route.
It’s not like Amy where she’s dead. He’s alive and this is an unfolding story. I promised I would complete it by the end of last year and I did in the form of a rough cut but then he had issues with it and I worked with him as much as I possibly could, all the way through to the premiere of SXSW. I was battling him in a non-violent, resistance way. Trying to keep my integrity while honouring the subject.
I needed to present him as a human being – 3D – and not some kind of hero. Nor a villain. Nor any kind of 2D character. I really wanted all of us to be able to relate to him because I made this film for the sake of people waking up and realising that they always have an option to have a second coming themselves. The only way to do that was to present Russell more vulnerable than he’s ever been seen before, which is what he took issue with.
What’s really interesting is that your subjects are living. Is that much different from say working with an estate?
Yes. Definitely. More challenging but also more fulfilling as an end result. It’s a much more complicated process to get through the juggernaut of making a film about a live, charismatic person who’s used to having 100% control over what he presents to the world. I think it’s also a lot more exciting to walk out of Brand and realise that the story’s unfolding.
You can’t make Brand into a martyr while he’s alive. I could have done that if he died. I could have absolutely taken the footage that everybody’s seen and turned that into a hero piece. But that wouldn’t fly now and I wouldn’t be really interested in doing that. I think it’s much more exciting to say ‘hey look at this person who constantly throws himself on the front line of everything that he believes he should be on the front lines of’. He gets lambasted and attacked for daring to step out of line as a comedian and start talking about drug policies and politics.
The fact that he is lambasted for those things and the fact that he still has the courage to go out there and do all that stuff with his flaws is inspiring. We all have flaws. He’s painfully aware of his, and still gets out of bed and dares to say ‘listen to me, here’s what I have to say about this.’ He doesn’t let that stop him and I think that will hopefully inspire other people.
It also comments on society and how much we limit ourselves by putting people in boxes. It’s more of a comment on society than on Russell Brand in that way.
You’re also working on a film about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. What drew you to this story?
He’s a cultural lightning rod. He’s somebody who couldn’t help but do what he does. I call these people impossible visionaries. He saw that our society was marginalising an entire population that he found absolutely fascinating and both unleashed in him both his own sexual desire but also artistic sensibility. He saw gay sex and forms of intimacy that were considered taboo in a sculptural way. He subverted our understanding of that way before anybody was willing to take that on.
The story is one that absolutely needs to be told and will, again, inspire people to step out of line.
I also just shot a Bob Marley music video about civil rights. It’s set to ‘I Shot the Sheriff‘ and corresponds with a box set Universal is putting out with Tuff Gong for what would have been Bob Marley‘s 70th birthday this year.
What’s one piece of advice you can give to an aspiring documentary director looking to follow in your footsteps?
The most important thing to realise is sound is vital. You’ve got to have good sound. You could miss the entire image and go and shoot something later to go with it but if you don’t have the sound , you don’t have the scene.
In We Live in Public towards the end of the bunker with the SWAT team, we didn’t have sound. We were taken by surprise and we didn’t capture sound that morning when the police came in that morning. No matter what happens, don’t go hide under your bed if you don’t get the sound. But try to get the sound [laughs] We figured out a way to get around it.
I tend to go without a sound man and keep it just to a small team, mainly to be unobtrusive. I always have a camera in my hand. I might shoot only 50% of the time or 100% or none of the time but I like to have the option because if you’re the director, people are going to be talking to you and as you can see in Brand, he’s actually talking to me. It’s way more direct to the audience, and way more compelling, if I actually capture the footage myself while he’s looking right at the camera.
The other thing is: don’t think people will wanna sit through a lot of umms and ahhs. Realise that you don’t need to slap down a soundbite as you recorded it. You should edit out and prune the dialogue so that you keep people engaged the whole time. If people are pausing and reaching for their words then your audience is gonna get up and go to the fridge. You wanna hold them there. There’s no excuse for it.
There are thousands upon thousands of edits underneath what you’re watching in both Brand and We Live in Public. Dig! I was younger. I was less evolved as a filmmaker and that’s why it has a sort of DIY feeling.
BYOD is ‘Bring Your Own Doc’ and is a weekly talk show I’ve been doing for 4 years. It’s the only talk show dedicated to documentary in the world – filmmaker to filmmaker. We film in a studio in Beverly Hills but we also cover Sundance and SXSW and some other festivals.
It’s a great opportunity for me not just to be inside my own films and my own rocket ship but actually paying attention to some of my colleagues work and showcasing some of the best films in the world as they’re coming out in a deeper way than the news cover them. We did D.A. Pennebaker about “Don’t Look Back”.
A Total Disruption is a site I founded for entrepreneurs, innovators and artists to kind of take advantage of this time in history. There are hundreds of interviews and episodes and a course also. I wanted to make these people – the founders of Twitter and Instagram etc – relatable.
We also have Lean Content. It’s a 10 part course that you can take that really gears you up if you have a project you’re just starting or one you’re filming and are thinking ‘how am I gonna distribute or market this?’ it’s perfect for you.
Thank you, Ondi!
Brand: A Second Coming is released in the UK today.
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