Exclusive Interview: Ondi Timoner – Director of Brand: The Second Coming – opens up on working with Russell at the Sydney Film Festival

Last month, director Ondi Timoner – perhaps best known for her incredible documentary DIG!, among many others – was in Sydney to premiere her new documentary Brand: A Second Coming at the Sydney Film Festival. Larry Heath had the opportunity to talk to Ondi about the film, about collaborating with Russell, his controversial no-show at SXSW and we find out where the film is going from here.

Thanks so much for joining us! Welcome to Sydney! How are you feeling? 

The jet lag is just starting to get to me! I did just come from Europe though *laughs* I don’t think that my body has any idea where it is anymore.

*laughs* I know the feeling all to well! So Brand: A Second Coming is premiering tonight at the festival – I can’t wait to see it. I was at SXSW where everyone was talking about it – not all because of the film itself though… 

People talked about it cause they liked it too! But yes, because Russell didn’t show up… it was big news.

And now we’re here in Australia in a few months later, and the screening coincides with the cinematic release of another Brand film, The Emperor’s New Clothes.

It’s opening today right? *laughs*

I think so actually! So has anything changed since SXSW? Has his opinion of the film changed… has there been any kind of development over the last couple of months as the film’s been premiering at different festivals?

I mean I haven’t talked to him about it. Though I’ve heard he’s going to be supporting the film, our film, coming up. I think through the positive reviews and the audience response, he’s realised it’s not derailing his message. It’s actually helping his mission in general. I think that was always he was scared of – and he’s still uncomfortable with – how personal it is and it’s understandable to not know how to talk about something that is your own life story in the way of “hey this is a great film come see it it’ll be entertaining!”.

He said to me, “OK I’m having a really uncomfortable moment with my father. Come see me be uncomfortable with my father.” Like he doesn’t really know how to talk about that. That said, he has a lot of respect for the film and he’s going to coming in support it… and that does matter…

It hurt our sales, the fact that there was this other film lingering on the horizon in Tribeca (the iconic NYC film festival). Then it came out that it was a Winterbottom thing. It hurt our sales at Cannes… that there are two Russell Brand films. That was a self destructive move in my opinion and it’s  a shame because in a lot of ways he really hopes that the people who’ve put money into this film, Brand: A Second Coming, in all of it’s incarnations before I came along, would recoup that money and I don’t think having this film come of nowhere, made in a very lickedy split way…

…Winterbottom gets it done…

Yeah it was done in a minute. Like I didn’t even know it was happening. I heard about it a month or two [beforehand], it was done on the side. I mean I was deep in post production here in America [pause] I’m not in America! *laughs* But I heard about it because they wanted to use some of my footage at one point and I was like “what is that?” I remember my publicist calling and saying something like it was announced to open at Tribeca. I mean Tribeca had been begging us for our film and we ended up taking the opening slot at SXSW and they just kind of back hand slapped us with like with Emperor’s New Clothes and announcing it right before SXSW. So none of that really helped us but luckily we still had great deals (for the film).

We’ve got a big theatrical release planned for here (in Australia) with Village Roadshow and in America we have a deal that’s yet to be announced, but it’s gonna be solid. So I don’t really care if Russell stands there on a red carpet and waves. I feel like our celebrity culture is a problem in itself and I think he feels that way too, so we agree there and I feel like his soul is on that screen. You’ve never seen Russell like you’ll see him in this movie so it’s not like I need him out front waving… why should that be a component? I don’t know but apparently that’s important to distributors because I guess it gets headlines. It sure got headlines when he didn’t show up. I mean people thought that was a marketing angle. People thought that we did that on purpose.

It all got people talking I guess.

It got people talking but it scared the distributors. Which I thought was surprising… what a great marketing angle! I mean a movie that Russell Brand is uncomfortable with? It makes me want to run to the theatres right? *laughs* Obviously I’m out of touch.

In some of your interviews that I’ve read from SXSW, it seemed to surprise you a bit though… he’s someone who seems to be so open.

I had shown him an hours worth of footage because as I was filming him he started doing all these things. It started with the Messiah Complex, but then (his YouTube Series) The Trews and the book happened and it became very clear that I needed to come back and film more. But he was never somebody who wanted a documentary made about him and I would only take on the project if he let me make it about him.

He was very reluctant to have me put the camera in his face again for another few weeks so I had to show him a bunch of scenes that I’d put together and when I was done he said ‘well done Onds’ and made way for me to film more so I was able to film the whole trajectory. My best films are these suspense driven films with unfolding narratives and I had shown him these scenes that mostly made the final cut. But when he saw the final cut, he didn’t react… positively to it *laughs*. I mean he said ‘great fucking film mate but it’s about me’. It was really difficult for him to to see himself like that. Not like he comes off bad, I made the film with love and respect and admiration.

It’s that it’s holding the mirror up.

It’s the past you know. He said “it was hard enough for me to live my life the first time around”… so it’s those vulnerable, personal moments where he’s getting lambasted that hurt and he’s a human. That’s what allows the audience to relate to him but that’s not a side of him he shows to anybody.

But he would have known that going into it.

I don’t think so. First of all he didn’t know how the book would be received and it wasn’t received well by the critics which affected him. He put himself out there and as artists we all do but I don’t know what it feels like to be slammed like that. I’ve never been there yet, thankfully. But I can’t imagine it’s a good feeling. I have a friend, who shall remain nameless, who has 2 films coming out this year and both have been slammed. A documentary and a scripted film and I’m just feeling for her. You put your soul into it. I don’t think that’s the only thing that’s difficult though.

His first girlfriend is in the film, his Dad’s in the film, his Mum’s in the film, his ex-writing partner is in the film. But I think at the end of that day he really wins because you root for him. He is an underdog in a lot of ways and that’s not how you think of Russell Brand most of the time… and that helps. I said to him you will win, but you can’t win by being perfect. You can’t win by winning the whole way through.

You’ve gotta lose along the way.

You’ve gotta lose along the way and then you’ll win.

Comparing your initial expectations to the final result, what surprised you most about the project?

I just didn’t know Russell at all going into this. I’d never followed his work in any way shape or form so I didn’t have any surprises. I think for me, to make really a good documentary, I don’t judge. People ask me, “are you mad at Russell for what he’s done, what he did during the post production process, what he’s done since the release?” and I say no. Who am I to be angry with Russell? I am me and he is he. I stand in my shoes, he stands in his. He has no idea what it’s like to stand in mine and I have absolutely no idea what it’s like to stand in his. I just tried to get as close as possible and build as many bridges for the audience to get there because I feel like the reason I made this film is it’s an incredible story of the myth that we’re sold that being famous will make us happy.

He discovered just how false that is and he was grappling with that concept when I met him, and started to write The Messiah Complex. I feel like he’s this guy who took drug addiction to hell, took sex addiction to hell, married the most famous pop star in the world, became a Hollywood star and came up empty with all of it. He has to face that and he doesn’t just stay there, order Pink Dot delivery, live in the hills and complain. Or get involved with a charity like a Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie doing amazing work in the world and still acting. He just ups and leaves. He’s writing a show where he’s loosely deriving humour from comparing himself to people like Che Guevara, Malcom X and Ghandi. People who put their lives on the line and then became immortal.

Not this cheap celebrity but lasting fame. That’s what he wants and it’s not that he isn’t narcissistic and ego driven. It’s just that he’s THAT ego driven, THAT smart, THAT courageous, ballsy AND determined to overthrow the government, paradigm, and live an interesting life to maybe be remembered forever. He’s willing to do whatever to live forever.

That to me is a story worth telling because I like to tell the stories of people, like Amanda Palmer, who step out of line and are willing risk it all because I think it empowers the rest of us to do that which is what I want to do with my work. That’s why I made the movie. I didn’t make the movie because he’s Russell Brand.

It’s inspiring to see you approach it like that.

That’s what it was for me, I don’t make films about celebrities. I guess you could call Amanda Palmer a celebrity but not really. I mean DIG! those were two unknown bands, Josh Harris We Live in Public. No one knew who he was. I make films about what people would give up to make their lives matter and this one falls right in there. Impossible visionaries, people who are impossible and do impossible things.

My last question is from a filmmaking point of view. Is there anything you’re particularly proud of that you got on screen in this film?

So much, I’m proud of every minute of this film. I had a team of great editors, editing wasn’t even in the budget and my son was so upset with how long it was taking he made me calculate the time. Russell just kept doing stuff so it I had to personally edit over 3000 hours. The editing I’m extremely proud of. The animation by Cohen Parr. I shot a lot of the film myself, I tend to do that. Challenging Russell and hanging in, I’m proud of working with him the way I did.

None of my subjects had asked me to change my film until Russell. They could have and should have but never did. I had creative control with Russell, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want your subject to be happy. I’m proud of the changes I made, but I’m also proud of where I drew the line in the sand. I’m really glad I put additional interviews and stand up in because it made the film better. But would it have been better if I’d left parts I took out? I’m glad they came out because Russell and I are on great terms. At the end of the day I can hold my head high knowing I didn’t sacrifice the film, but I also made compromises for the sake of my subject.

I don’t think that something many documentary makers can walk away saying.

It was a fine line to walk and a very, very scary few months in general. Nothing is more important than being good to the people in your life and people you love. Again after putting years, and I’m talking 18-20 hours a day, of editing until I had carpal tunnel, flying back and forth from London… it was terrifying. It was frustrating and I wanted this to be preserved for him, the world and for myself. Now I’m on the other side, thank god, and I’m here in Sydney.

I can’t wait to see it tomorrow night, I hope the screenings go well and thank you so much for your time.

I’m glad the film will continue to serve Russell’s mission because it’s a good one. It was made with a lot of admiration and respect.

Brand: A Second Coming screened at the Sydney Film Festival and will have a cinematic release later in the year. 

Transcript by Matt Rupp and Larry Heath. Interview by Larry Heath.