Saturday, 8 January 2011

Ondi Timoner

from The Pictures #4

has produced some of our favourite documentaries of the past decade. You’ll most likely know her from DiG! (2004), the odyssey of Anton Newcombe and The Brian Jonestown Massacre and their friendship and jealous feud with The Dandy Warhols as both bands struggle to make it (or struggle against making it), and from last year’s We Live In Public, the story of internet pioneer Josh Harris.

Harris was one of the first to cotton on to the potential of the internet, and set up a series of pre-broadband web TV channels, before launching an auspicious Big Brother style project called “Quiet: We Live In Public” in which 100 artist residents were denied all personal space save an open bunk, filmed around the clock on myriad webcams and able to watch eachother 24/7. The results were chaotic, fascinating and occasionally depraved, as self-control was abandoned, positions of authority were abused and the experiment began to disintegrate under it’s own conditions. Harris followed this by rigging his own house with hundreds of cameras and putting his daily routine and relationship with his girlfriend under constant surveillance, broadcast to the world via the internet, and allowing the world to interact and chat with the couple. Harris’s relationship collapsed under the strain, his fortunes soured, and eventually he fled the country to avoid his financial woes. Ondi’s film follows Harris from the glory days at the turn of the millennium to the present, ultimately asking powerful questions about our use of the internet and the extent to which we share our private lives online.

Ondi Timoner’s documentaries are very much about time, accompanying their subjects through years of their lives and witnessing these lives unfolding. Join Us (2007) follows the intimate story of a group of families as they grapple with the emotions and crises faced when attempting to leave a small-town cult and un-do years of brainwashing. The families are candid in revealing their experiences – their horror at their own blindness, their feelings of loss and loneliness, their compulsions to return - and Ondi’s camera is open and sympathetic, yet when meeting the cult leader, the Pastor of their church, the film does not assume a position of judgement, allowing the Pastor to voice his own seemingly heartfelt, if delusional, side of the story with equal emotion. The disappointment and confusion of the Pastor’s faithful wife is particularly affecting.

In spending such lengths of time with her subjects and immersing us in their world in such a direct and honest way, Ondi has created a series of unique and fascinating films, each one bringing to the fore the larger questions and implications of the story, while remaining at the same time intimate portraits, films about groups of people who are at turns lost, obsessive, misguided, driven, destructive and brilliant. We recently had the pleasure of speaking to Ondi about her own journeys and obsessions.

The Pictures: How did you get into filmmaking and what did you make of your early work, did you enjoy it?

Ondi Timoner: My early work? What do you mean, do you want to talk about the very beginning?

TP: Yes, I do.

OT: Starting at the very beginning. OK, well I was 19 and I asked my parents if I could have a you know little consumer video camera for Christmas or the holidays and they said yes and they gave me a camera that I ended up calling Flo, that was her name, and I took her on the road and first thing we did, me and my brother was go across the country and we interviewed people in toll booths and convenience stores about what makes them happy and what they fear the most and what they think of gays in the military cos those were sort of the questions of the day and I quickly learned that my camera was this bridge into worlds that I could never otherwise enter, and that it was in fact you know, a way to learn, and, in an extraordinary way that I had never had access to before and I’m not the kind of person that, I’m not like a book learner you know? I’m a, more of a people learner, I learn from other people and from interaction and, even at Yale where I was, at Yale at the time, I would get so much more out of the lectures you know than I would out of the books and so this camera became like this way in and by my senior year I only took classes where the teacher would agree to let me make a film instead of write a paper for my final project.

TP: Oh cool.

OT: So by the end of school I was making a film about women in prison called Voices From Inside Time for a class called Transgressive Women in American Culture and it was really quite, quite an incredible way to learn and so when you know I graduated, a lot of people graduate from Yale and go on to these very high paying jobs and everybody was kind of looking at me when I said I was gonna go be a documentary filmmaker but I felt like it was just the perfect yin-yang because I would go out into the world, say I went to the prison, I would have this access to speak to these women you know and really humanise them and find out why they were in there and that they loved their children and break down the stereotypes you know? And learn myself and be there for as long as it took and give myself over to the muse, and then I got to go to the edit bay, and Yale had no production facility so we did everything at this public access station, ha, and you know, thank god for the public access station but I would go to the edit bay and be in this quiet room, in all that I had learned and sorted out and figure out a way to communicate it for other people you know? So that they could learn and so it was like to me a perfect yin-yang and to this day you know the editing process is where the writing happens and you know I followed these films, these stories over a long period of time and it’s absolutely incredible to… to give, to basically work for 21, you know the first time on my movie Join Us I showed up at the cult treatment centre and shot for 21 hours that day, and I was blown away that these people who had just been through a mind control situation where their lives and their privacy and money and everything had been taken, their children had been beaten and yet they were opening up to me, and I just followed the muse you know and then you just, you put yourself in these situations where it’s not about you at all, it’s totally about life and capturing the serendipity of life and capturing the nuances of human experience and then, you know, then you go to the edit bay and it’s all about private time, quiet time, sorting it out and figuring it out and that’s where the revelations come a lot of the time, and so anyway it’s just been a beautiful process but I’m also moving into narrative films now.

I hate the word narrative, I’m sorry. Documentaries, my documentaries have narratives, ha, they have stories and they’re also dramatic so what I say is pre-scripted films with actors is what I’m moving into.

TP: Yes, fiction? So you mentioned that the films have very long stories and you have all the time to get to know the subjects, and I think that makes them really satisfying as well, that you can see everything unfold over such a long period… How do you tend to choose subjects, and is it always the case that the story goes on for a long time and you’re around for a long time, or does it sometimes cut short or… do you tend to try and find stories where there’ll be that length to it?

OT: No these stories find me. I can’t even take credit for finding them per se, I just have a strong intention, like for Dig I was really intent on exploring the intersection of art and commerce cos I’d made this film about this one woman in prison after the one I mentioned to you and that was called The Nature of the Beast and I had this woman’s life rights to go try and get it… I realised that people weren’t watching documentaries in the early ‘90s, and so I tried to get it to you know a larger audience by turning it into a TV movie or what have you, something to get 2 million housewives to write letters, and I quickly realised that you know the integrity of the story was being threatened by the industry, you know so here I am 21 years old and they’re like ‘this is a great story, you’re a producer, now get out of the way’, basically and so I started filming bands on the verge of getting signed to look at what would happen to me, and I was filming 10 bands over a year, that was my goal, and then I met Anton and he’s like ‘forget about those other bands, I’m taking over your documentary’ and I thought yeah right, and then he did, he did you know because I had my eyes open and he was, he was so compelling because he had such an antithetical relationship to the business and he was much more of a hyperbole than a lot of the other artists and musicians that were cowering in the shadows of the industry, do you know what I mean?

So he was quite, you know quite exciting, and then he actually said go meet the Dandy Warhols, we’re gonna start a revolution together, and I thought well I’ll go meet them and I did and they had no idea that he was planning to head up there to make a record with them and I thought well this is incredible, here they are, totally on the verge of getting a record out on Capital Records, ready to play the game, comfy cosy, totally stable band in Portland and this guy’s coming and they don’t even realise it, he’s coming to like start a revolution with them, haha, so…
So eventually really I realised that I could look at everything I was looking at with the 10 bands with these 2, and then the story just kept going you know, and it’s not like I chose it as much as I just sort of you know stuck with it, I have tenacity and a sense of you know, I have tenacity and a sense of where to show up.

TP: Do you see yourself as… How involved are you in what actually happens in the films, like do you see your role as kind of a journalist-investigator, or are you more of a participant, or do you think it’s somewhere in between?

OT: I believe I’m an Interloper, it’s like what my company’s called.

TP: Oh, I see!

OT: Yes, I’m in the group but I’m taking notes at the same time.

TP: I didn’t notice that, the name of the company.

OT: Heh.

TP: But you’re in, briefly, a couple of the films, I think you’re in..

OT: Yeah, I’m in the bunker.

TP: What was it like staying in Quiet? Were you there the whole time? It looked pretty crazy…

OT: It was somewhat like playing dress up or something, it felt like this totally artificial community where we were supposed to be, you know all of us together and friends and you know it just kind of felt really, I don’t know how to describe it. It didn’t feel real and it felt uncomfortable and then it also kind of felt fun sometimes, like cereal bars, I expressed in the movie, but it was uncomfortable to be around these people that you didn’t know who they were, what was gonna happen or what they really were thinking about, you know like that woman attacked the other woman and there were people there, there was not a feeling of security to the place.
It’s kind of amazing that it came out, that Josh got off as easy as he did.

TP: It looked like it had the potential to be pretty disturbing…

OT: Haha, it was, it was loud too, it was anything but quiet. He called it Quiet: We Live In Public and it was, you know, loud.

I was only there to direct it more than anything. I do believe that I should try to experience and be a part of what I’m filming to the extent that you know it’s good for the film, so I was there and I had a pod but I also had a hotel room and I also, you know, my thing was I had a walkie talkie and I had four camera people besides myself and I had a multiplex system where I ran the 110 surveillance cameras into one machine and then recorded to 12 different VCRs so I could record 12 different individual cameras and then one that I could do 9 screens or 4 screens so that was part of the art to me, was to record the pod situation or the virtual box situation as a metaphor for the virtual boxes that we’re all sort of in now and also use that as a way to monitor the place and know where the action was and be able to deploy real digital cameras with people behind them, you know what I mean?

TP: Going back to the way that the stories are very long and also that they have a lot of different film formats within them- I don’t know if that’s done in post, or if you experiment along the course of filming, but it gives a collage effect to the whole thing. Is that conscious and were there any particular influences on that style of filmmaking, or is it more just about experimenting with it as you go along?

OT: What was the original… experimenting with what? I think I missed…

TP: The look of the image, and the different formats that things are filmed on, like I don’t know if that’s done during filming or it’s a post-production thing.

OT: In all my films?

TP: Maybe not so much in Join Us, but in DiG certainly and in We Live In Public…

OT: Yeah, well in Dig, what happens is you end up filming over time and then technology changes, so you know I was filming on Hi-8 cameras and then me and my brother, back when my brother and I were following the bands in the early, mid ‘90s we had those kinds of cameras, then I remember the Hi-8 camera got stolen and it was the greatest thing that ever happened to me probably because it forced me to upgrade to digital and thank god because the avid wouldn’t read Hi-8 and we always had to transfer the Hi-8s to digital, and when we transferred the Hi-8s to digital they went through sort of an effect where they started to look different and then you know we had Super-8 which we always loved to shoot and then we had 16mm and 35mm by the end, so there was just a lot of time going by and the ability and financial resources changing and technology changing and then at a certain point with Dig you know it’s all about putting it in a washing machine basically and making it look like it sort of fits together, like a quilt or something you know? And I love that, I think it’s totally appropriate because I think the goal of any film that, I mean certainly a documentary film and probably any film, but it’s easier with a pre-scripted actor film to create an environment that makes people feel like – people meaning the audience – feel like they’re there, they’re immersed you know. When you’re doing a documentary my whole thing about filming stories over time is that time provides the greatest narrative, and because suspense, even the slightest not knowing what’s gonna happen next, allows people to interact with a film in the way that a historical looking back film cannot do. Just does not happen. So that’s why... Hang on that’s my phone. Hold on OK?

OT (returns): …I had to talk to her, she’s my producer.

TP: Oh don’t worry about it. Umm…where were we? Talking about a quilt, and Dig, and….

OT: Quilt? Oh yeah yeah yeah. So it’s a very organic process of just kind of you know, whatever works. The form should follow the content. It’s very important that the film feel like what it is, so with We Live In Public it’s more of a silver bullet kind of film and even though some of the footage may look degraded cos it was recorded on a VHS, it’s still put inside a graphic motif that looks like today, it looks like our lives with the internet today and it feels like you know the music and the images and the graphics all feel like a combination of the cold steely technology and the kind of warmer humanity breaking through or trying to break through or how the virtual and physical worlds interact, you know I feel like all of that is in the look of We Live In Public, and so I’m quite proud of that and I feel like, or you know not proud but I’m happy that that’s how it turned out, then Join Us, same thing, Join Us feels very pastoral and is slower and quieter and it’s not as many formats because all that worked for that film was digital because it had to be extremely low impact because we were in on these therapy sessions, we were running into the cult leader’s house or we couldn’t really do anything more than that and then there was some surveillance when they go to the church, and then there’s Super 8 because it’s appropriate for them, you know?

But as soon as I put John Lennon – God in, on the credits, it was like no way, no way that the film could, the story could handle a big song, it needed like you know, it needed to have Iron and Wine and it needed to have Sufjan Stevens, whereas We Live In Public could have Jane’s Addiction and Nine Inch Nails and needed to have that, so, yeah, hope that makes sense.

TP: It does, and I think it’s a good parallel to draw between the music and the type of film it is cos in that type of documentary it can often feel quite musical, the image and film itself can feel quite musical, I mean especially in your films I think-

OT: Yeah, music’s really important, to me music’s the most powerful art form, hands down. It has the power to infiltrate your soul and your mind and your subconscious in a way that even film can’t do it in the same way, any visual medium can’t, you know it’s just, you’ll be able to listen to a song and the lyrics will go into your brain because of the beat, because of the rhythm of life and how that interacts and how the music actually is that, you know?

TP: Yeah, it’s really personal, it’s talking to you as you listen…

OT: Yeah and so you don’t even realise sometimes, you can be asleep and listening to music and wake up and have the lyrics in your head, that just doesn’t happen with any other art form, so it has the power of osmosis and it’s crucial to film.

TP: It is… I had three more questions, um, two of them fairly heavy, one nice

OT: Uh-oh.

TP: So… it seems like a lot of the subjects in the films are really driven people, but a lot of them in two directions at once, so they’re looking for very positive creative and producing very creative things, but often in a very self destructive way.

OT: Yeah.

TP: Like somebody in Join Us mentions their paths leading to death, I think the people in Dig talk about Anton’s house smelling of death.

OT: Yeah, well that’s cos he was on heroin you know?

TP: Yes, not so good.

OT: Haha.

TP: So is that dual path something that interests you in particular, or is it something that just tends to exist in the types of subjects that you look for?

OT: Um, you know… I’m not clear on why it is that I have been sort of swept up, I mean Josh Harris called me and asked me to document the bunker, Anton said he was taking over my film, you know with Join Us it was more of Bush won the election and I thought there was some kind of mind control in America and I ended up at a cult treatment centre and once again sort of a megalomaniac male, person who can’t help himself at the crux of the story. I don’t know why that is but I think the films are really all about us, and not only because these people are hyperboles of characters that have some relatability to all of us, you know whether it’s feeling like, it’s really man vs. system you know as a central conflict, even my film about prison and about this woman in prison it’s just kind of like, they’re all like that, and right now my first scripted film, pre-scripted film is about Robert Mapplethorpe and him like you know, busting through with this imagery that made people go crazy over here, freak out and say oh it’s pornography, is it art? And he couldn’t help himself. He was a catholic and he couldn’t help himself. I don’t know if that’s just what appeals to me but I wouldn’t make, really I wouldn’t have made for example the film about Josh if it wasn’t about us. We Live In Public is really only in existence because of Facebook because I saw the Facebook status updates and went holy shit, I get it now, I get why this is, as opposed to Josh being Bill Gates or something, he’s not. So it wasn’t like I was like let me make a film about this crazy man who sets up this bunker, who’s like a web pioneer, I didn’t think it was that important for the world to know about Josh Harris until I realised that he was this big huge walking cautionary tale and also had some visions that have, that he created, whether he knew it or not, a physical metaphor for life online that is, you know granted, a fun house mirror but still food for thought for all of us at this crucial time, and so yeah, I don’t know if I’ve answered your question but… there’s more information haha.

TP: Yeah, you kind of answered the next one as well, it was, I put it in different terms, but it was about how the kind of male, almost religious leaders tend to be these central characters and they do tend to get people following… I mean obviously the most literal example of that would be Join Us, but in Dig there’s that bit where they go up and somebody says “are you in a cult?” and they say “oh, I don’t know” and, yeah, I think you kind of answered that.

OT: Well there is this idea, it’s about what we’re willing to give up to have our lives matter, that’s what the films are all about, every single one of them. They’re not about those leaders because- I mean they are to some extent but the real, the real point of interaction between the audience and the material is around the person’s life themselves… Like, I make these films for all of us, not because I think those people are extraordinary, not because I’m obsessed with cult leaders, but what these kinds of charismatic leaders do and you know charismatic and conflicted and misguided and inspiring and you know gruesome characters do is they somehow compel people to give up their privacy, their freedom, their you know whatever the hell else they were doing to follow them you know? And it’s like what are we missing that we need that, and why, and what are we doing every time we go and post something on Facebook because that’s not one person but we’re giving stuff up all the time now, cos we need our lives to matter, we need to feel significant, we need to feel like we did something on this planet, even if it’s post a digital photo and have somebody say “you look so cute!” you know?

TP: It’s true.

OT: It’s like a phenomenon that I think is pretty compelling.

TP: You really don’t realise who stuff is going out to either, I got an e-mail this afternoon from someone working for a TV company saying that they’d read a story that I’d posted on a forum about two years ago about almost being mugged and fighting the guy off, and they wondered if I’d be up for being interviewed on camera and I thought how the hell did you track me down from a post on a forum two years ago? It never crossed my mind…

OT: It makes you wonder if Josh was right, that actually the computers are gaining consciousness. I’ve got to admit that I’ve wondered this myself now because I have this Google alert on my name and on We Live In Public and literally the internet generates these stories, it’s pretty wild, like they’ll come up with something from two years ago and re-post it and it’s like who’s doing that? I can’t imagine someone sitting there doing that you know?

TP: No, it’s strange. OK, the last question – what are you working on next?

OT: I’m leaving for the Sundance Lab on Tuesday to workshop my first feature film about- hold on I have to write one thing really quick… OK. So I’m taking my film, my first pre-scripted film that I intend to make, that I’m producing and directing and writing with another writer Bruce Goodrich who generated the project originally like 8 years ago, and we’ve been developing it ourselves for two years and me and Eliza Dushku are producing it together, and it got into the Sundance Lab which is an incredible workshop for directors that is just amazing, it’s highly competitive but it’s just incredible, they’re basically investing in my film school education and I’m going there and shooting a bunch of scenes and it’s gonna be awesome.

TP: Sounds like a lot of fun.

OT: Yeah, doing it on Tuesday, I’m going to Utah for three or four weeks, they’re flying me in and putting me up and we fly in actors and we shoot, we then work on the script and you know make a movie, so we’re doing that and that’s gonna help a lot and then also I’m completing a documentary right now about climate change and the climate change debate and that as the sort of debate around it and then Bjorn Lumberg the very controversial climate or political scientist-economist who is sort of at the centre of a lot of this climate change debate, and I’ve been shooting that for a year and that’s what I was on the phone about and we’ve got editors here, and I’ve got to get off this Skype thing and start paying attention to that, but that’s gonna come out in September, October, so another documentary. One last one for now and then my first pre-scripted actor film which I’m just absolutely thrilled and excited about doing. I really think that you know I’ve taken documentary about as far as I can right now, We Live In Public, and that it’s time for me as an artist to stretch my wings and tell stories in a different way and I think I can bring all the authenticity and all the knowledge that I gained from these incredible 17 or 18 years in documentary to really help me with the narrative films, or the pre-scripted films, and then motherhood, I’m mother to an incredible young man named Joaquin who is six years old, and it’s a full time job. So I’ve got three full time jobs, haha.

TP: Ha, that sounds exhausting.

OT: Yeah, it’s very exhausting but I live a very rich and full life, I’m honoured and glad and please send me a link to this when you have it done, I do have to run Garry but I wish you the best of luck.

TP: Thanks and bye.

Interloper Films

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