Film maker on Russell Brand, Anton Newcombe and more...

When Dig was released in 2004 following seven years in production, filmmaker Ondi Timoner redefined the humble music documentary. With its stark depiction of the tumultuous rivalry between neo-psychedelic rockers The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols in the mid 1990s, she was able to capture the madness of life in a band in a way few filmmakers had before. Today it remains one of the most compelling insights in to the world of rock, with its candid portrayal of the complex love-hate relationship between frontmen, Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor-Taylor, and its unflinching insight into the pitfalls of success and ego.

With Brand: A Second Coming, Timoner sets her sights on an equally intriguing subject – comedian turned revolutionary activist Russell Brand. Crafted from thousands of hours of footage, much like Dig, it offers a fascinating snapshot into the mind of an enormously divisive figure – one who also happens to be a unique product of contemporary celebrity culture. Fittingly, and also not unlike Dig, it’s a project that has subsequently drawn the ire of its subject, with Brand refusing to promote the film in light of his issues with the way in which he feels it portrays him.

Paul Weedon recently sat down for a chat with Timoner at the BFI London Film Festival to discuss her work and her experience of waging peaceful protest against a self-appointed modern revolutionary, as well her reflections on Dig, which still continues to generate discussion and divide opinion amongst members of both bands over a decade later.

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Hi Ondi. Congratulations on the film.
Thank you.

What drew you to Russell as a subject? I’m aware you made a short film, Russell Brands The Bird, with him prior to working on a full feature film.
Actually, he came to me. And at first I didn’t even really know who he was, even before I made the Russell Brands The Bird thing. I mean, once I understood who he was and I met him in person… he’s quite striking and charismatic and intelligent and he had a lot to say. He was really funny. But the footage that I saw that they wanted me to try to save for them really, really didn’t win me over and I was going to pass on the project. Then I met him and I thought “Why is none of that charisma in the footage that I saw?” That’s kind of a travesty. Then I became more interested and he invited me to a… well, he didn’t invite me, he begged me, basically, to come to a stand-up show. He was on to me everyday about it. He does that kind of relentless seduction thing very well.

And so I went. I went about half way through the show and he had all these papers all over the stage and he was working out this… I guess what became The Messiah Complex, but he was grappling with all that stuff – the way that pop idols, like true icons, have been co-opted by pop culture, like the Mercedes Benz logo on the Che Guevara – all that stuff. And I thought this was really interesting to look at fame and the different versions of fame that we have available to us through the eyes of this man who sought it so desperately and got it all and then came up empty.

When I thought of that as an idea – to look at the role of ego and narcissism in someone who’s clearly so egotistical and megalomaniacal and narcissistic, but is out there trying to change the world – I started to think, “Well, what if all the other people who have tried to change the world need that too?” Because if you are that bold to say, “Okay, I’m going to go and lead a movement. I’m going to overthrow the government. I’m going to write this manifesto of how we should all live. I’m going to step up and be a leader” like that, you probably have to face down some ridicule and some doubt along the way, which means you probably have to be pretty egotistical, or at least have a pretty healthy gusto overcome that.

He’s notoriously frustrated by the way the media often depicts him. You capture that very candidly in the film. Did he have any say over what you could and couldn’t do with his image?
No. I mean I had creative control because I wouldn’t take the project on without creative control. And it actually came down to the day that I was supposed to fly to England. I had already been filming for a long time, but I wasn’t going to make the commitment to come and make the real movie that we were planning to make where I was going to interview everybody – all the people that you see in the movie – and follow him on The Messiah Complex tour and then what led to The Trews and all of that, and the book, everything that followed… I wasn’t going to get on the plane without a creative control release signed, because I knew that I wasn’t the first director… I had been brought in to save a project that Russell took full responsibility for destroying up to that point by over-controlling it.

And I thought, “Well, Russell is very aware of his issues – if he is admitting to over-control then what’s going to happen at the end of this and after I’ve put in all this effort?” And it really truly was a herculean effort. It’s thousands and thousands of hours of footage, some of which had been inherited, a lot of which we’d shot also. We shot a whole new movie and I edited thousands of hours on it. There wasn’t even the budget to edit it, but I’m an editor as well, so I just took all that and at the end of that Russell freaked out, as one might have predicted. And he demanded a lot of changes.

What kind of changes?
First, he said, “It’s an incredible film, but unfortunately it’s about me” and listed a bunch of changes, some of which really made the film weaker, but I went ahead and did them out of respect for him. And I agreed to interview six more people he wanted me to interview… I mean the schedule was over. It had already been announced that it was opening South By Southwest. The budget was gone. And I said, “Okay, I’ll go and interview six more people”. And he sent over thirty minutes of stand-up he could have sent over two years ago, that he insisted go in the film, of which I used maybe less than a third, but I still used some of it.

Some of it was great and some of it was really unusable and he wanted to get on the phone and tell me where to put it. That’s where I drew the line. And I said “I’m not a construction worker. I’m an artist and I know where to put this footage – it’s not going to work in the movie that I’m making at the moment.” I mean it was basically a finished film, and so I just drew the line at a certain point.

There were things that he asked me to take out that were vulnerable moments, or moments where his feelings were hurt… anything like that where he feels like the audience is going to laugh at him instead of with him, which is crucial for a good movie…. crucial… And I just didn’t take them out… I never actually said no. I just didn’t take them out. Sort of like Gandhi – it was non-violent resistance.

That was the only way?
Yeah, really. Truly. I mean I had to literally not say ‘no’, not get in a fight with him, because he told me on the first call, ‘What I wish you would do is you would fight with me, because I care about you. I wish that you would fight with me, so that we could get in to a big fight and I can pull this movie and I can stop this movie.’ And I thought, well, note to self - don’t fight with him. And I just didn’t fight with him and I just didn’t do the things that I couldn’t do – for the sake of him – for his sake. I said to him, “Russell, if you don’t lose along the way, you won’t win at the end. You win right now at the end, but only because you lose along the way. If you win along the way, you lose at the end.”

But he couldn’t see clearly. He still can’t. He was talking people off the movie last night. He was literally calling people from the film yesterday and telling them not to come last night [to the Gala screening at the London Film Festival], like vengeance on me for making a great film about him. It’s so small. Until he gets bigger he’s not gonna… until he grows up, I don’t think he’s going to be able to follow through on his revolution in any significant way.

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Looking back, there are some parallels with Anton when you first met him. It’s been 11 years since Dig was released now and I know both parties have expressed ill feeling towards the film. Courtney has since spoken out against the film. Did you reflect on that experience much while working with Russell?
Well, Courtney did the narration before I finished the film, then bought out a theatre in Portland to celebrate the release of the film, loved the film, was so, so stoked about it, and five years later, I was in Australia for We Live In Public and I literally get a Google alert that Courtney Taylor-Taylor – he’s added another Taylor to his last name – has come out against the film.

Five years later?
And I’m like, how do you change your opinion five years later? Because he couldn’t live it down. He couldn’t get past it. He could never be Mick Jagger. There was no more mystique after that; but I’m not the one who danced around in blue underwear in my hotel room and had Ondi sitting there with a camera… and so sweetly excited about the dates that he’s going to go on tour, or whatever.

Like, all those moments are really just lovely. And it’s not like he’s not a rebel in the film - he’s fighting with Capitol Records in the film. He’s just not as much of a rebel as Anton. And so he comes off as kind of the control group versus the radical. And that he regrets now because he’s known for Dig more than he’s known for anything. And I saw him once and I said to him “How are you Courtney?” and he said “Oh, I’m fine… living off the past.”

Yeah. And this was a sold out show at the Wiltern. And I said to his manager, “What’s his problem?” and he said, “Well, I tried to explain to him that it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand you’ve got stability and you can always pack a theatre now because of Dig. On the other hand, you’ll always been known for Dig.”

And I don’t think I did them a disservice though. And I certainly didn’t tweak the story. I mean that is what happened. There’s nothing in that film that didn’t happen. Nothing’s fabricated, except we all went out to the desert and did that photoshoot together, because I had a dream. And that’s a beautiful shot – that Super-8 shot of Courtney getting in the car and Anton walking off in the distance. That’s the only set-up stuff and that’s all of us, again, living an awesome life together and being creative together.

What about Anton?
In terms of Anton, his ex-girlfriend when she saw it in Lincoln Centre said, “Well, maybe his problem with it is he didn’t play every instrument and record every song and this is something that you made”. He does everything himself. And I’ve never known from Anton what his problem is. He’s never articulated what his problem is. Since then he’s had show opens like Boardwalk Empire, the whole band’s married, they pack any 5,000 seat arena, they have career stability, in a way. They were playing to two people when I first started filming them. He’d basically pissed off everyone. And now he’s a legend - a legend forever.

And Russell said to me, “Well, I liked Dig” And I said, “Well, Anton didn’t change a thing in Dig. He watched it before it came out and he didn’t give me a single note. And now he’s a legend. Like, let me do my thing, Russell. I swear to God. I have your back.” And I feel the same about Anton. I feel like I’ve done him a service in life. I’m really… I’m still waiting for my thank you note.

Did it affect your appreciation for their music? I saw both bands last year and they were brilliant. They still have the same incredible energy that you captured on film all those years ago.
Oh, yeah! You know, I wasn’t a fan going in. I was making a film about the collision of art and commerce and whether or not one could maintain one’s integrity in the face of doing business and reaching a mass audience. That was my question, and it was really a question I was trying to answer for myself, as a young woman entering the field, having made a film about a woman in prison and feeling like it was getting really contorted by Hollywood. So I started turning to bands, and I looked at ten bands and I heard the music of The Brian Jonestown Massacre and I thought they were awesome. I’d never heard them before and I went to a show and Anton showed up late to play the gig – that’s the first scene in the movie. It was his birthday and they ended up playing on the sidewalk and then playing at this apartment.

And he says to me: “I’m the letter writer and they’re the postmen, the record company’s a mafia - we’re gonna start a revolution in the music business.” And two weeks later they came down to play that Viper Room show and destroyed that industry showcase, which was insane.

Which is one of the greatest scenes in any documentary I’ve ever seen by the way.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was insane. It was one of the greatest things I’d ever filmed at 23 years old. And the bouncer, Ed, came out and took the freaking tape. And I just stood there on Sunset Boulevard crying – just crying. It took me ages to get the tape back. And I still can’t believe I got the tape back, and I did... And the guy who gave it back actually subsequently disappeared, by the way. No body or anything.

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No way?
Yeah. The Viper Room’s a pretty crazy place. But at any rate, my point being, the day after The Viper Room, Anton said, “Forget about those other bands. I’m taking over your documentary.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not going to argue with him, because he just beat up his guitar player, but he’s not taking over my documentary”. He was like, “Go up to Portland. Find The Dandy Warhols. I’ll set it up for you. We’re starting a revolution in the music business.” And I was like, “Well, okay. I’ll go and see The Dandy Warhols”. He told me that they had just signed to Capitol and that was perfect. It’s the perfect dichotomy – they’re about to do a major label deal, he just blew all chances of a major label deal the night before and now he’s moving up there – why not go up there when he’s moving up there?

So I went up there and met Courtney. And Courtney sits back and says, “I sneeze and hits come out”. And I told him that Anton was coming up here to start a revolution with him, and he said, “What are you talking about?” He had no idea that Anton was heading up there and that was the point where I thought this was interesting. It almost felt like they loved each other… they were like star-crossed lovers, in a way. Each had what the other one didn’t and each wanted what the other one had. And they became rivals very quickly when Courtney rejected Anton – he came up north and Courtney showed him the door, basically, and that’s when Anton got really resentful.

They would then claim that I fabricated that stuff, but that’s not true at all. I mean, we were standing there in Portland and Anton was abandoned by Courtney at that time, who appreciated Anton but from a distance. And then Anton started writing songs about the Dandys and stuff. And it all kind of unfolded on camera. It was just stranger than anything we could have written. And we documented it the best we could. That’s what it is. It’s called Dig.

What is it that motivates you as a filmmaker?
I just think, like, I guess I go for the grey area. I want the audience to think – this is important actually in answer to why Dig and Brand now have put off their subjects, right? I really believe that the audience should be empowered to come to their own conclusions, or you don’t have a good film. If you spoon-feed people and you just give people a straight-ahead here and there’s nothing in it, there’s nothing to grapple with. There’s nothing to wrestle with. There’s nothing to talk about afterwards. And I think the reason my films stand the test of time is because there’s a lot to wade through and think about and laugh about and cry about. All of that’s in the film because you’re looking at people who are really inspiring because they can’t help but do what they do and they have the courage to do it against all odds. These are great characters, but they’re also flawed – really flawed – and if you shy away from that, you don’t show those flaws then there’s nothing in it for people to relate to, because everyone’s flawed, you know? I just try to tell authentic stories, and sometimes you get burned for that.

But from an audience perspective, it’s worth it.
Yeah, and that’s who I’m making it for, right? Why am I making my art? So I can get people to think about their lives and question what really matters. In the case of Brand, I really hope people leave the theatre and think, “I wonder if I should have a second coming now. I wonder if I should step out of line and do something that really matters, and maybe it’s not that thing that I thought it was. Maybe it’s not a thousand likes on Instagram.”

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Words: Paul Weedon

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