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Ondi Timoner

Russell Brand documentary: Ondi Timoner Interview

16 October 2015 Nick Chen

BFI London Film Festival 2015: Two-time Sundance winner Ondi Timoner on directing Brand: A Second Coming, and why the documentary has been disowned by Russell Brand for revealing too much.

Ondi Timoner is no pushover. The American director’s eye-opening Russell Brand documentary, Brand: A Second Coming, had its gala screening last Friday at London Film Festival, where it played to a sold out crowd – with a notable exception in the star himself. Brand may be a media-loving narcissist, but he’s disowned the project for doing too fine a job at unpeeling the layers. That makes you want to see it even more, right?

Famous for directing films like Dig! And We Live in Public, Timoner didn’t allow herself to be controlled by Russell, and has delivered a more nuanced, complex study for this reason: tapping into what makes Russell tick, and if by leaving behind Hollywood for politics he’s actually swapping one celebrity fantasy for another. To find out more, we met with Ondi Timoner for Irish coffee at The May Fair Hotel moments after the second festival screening.

London Calling: You saw it last night with the audience?

OT: People were screaming at the screen. With Peter Hitchens, one guy said, “Off with his head!” One lady was talking back at the screen as if she had a mental problem. People were shushing her. It’s almost like your culture is more repressed, but in some ways you act out more, like at football matches and last night at the movies.

LC: You’re the sixth director on this project. What did you bring that the other directors didn’t?

OT: I filmed a whole new film. Every other director – and there were some talented ones along the way – was over-controlled by Russell. They were not able to film his personal or private moments of any kind. I said, “If you let me make a film about you and you give me creative control, I’ll make the film.” I made tons of changes for him, to try to appease him, but there was no way to appease him.

LC: When did he last see an edit of the film?

OT: Three days after it was announced that it was going to open SXSW.

LC: Were you there with him?

OT: No. It took him seven-and-a-half hours to watch one hour of the film. Then he called me and said, “Incredible film, but unfortunately it’s about me.” He sounded all worked up and really agitated. And then he gave me a bunch of things that he said absolutely had to come out, or the film couldn’t see the light of day.

LC: What kind of things?

OT: Stuff with Katy Perry – home video footage, right before their wedding, that showed they authentically loved each other. He wanted me to cut out him naked on the police van. He said he’d been looking for it for years to burn it. It’s funny, because he talks about it in his stand-up and he doesn’t want anybody to see the footage.

I did things I didn’t need to do to make him happy. He wanted me to do six extra interviews. I agreed to do those. He sent over 30 minutes of stand-up he could have sent two years earlier. I put about a third of that in. I did everything I could, but then he sent another list, another list, and another list of demands for changes. He wanted Topsy the dog gone. I couldn’t cut Topsy. He wanted the little girl on the street who yells, “You married Katy Perry!” gone. A lot of stuff.

LC: The bit when he’s nervous and locks himself in the bathroom before going on The View, I imagine he hated that.

OT: He wanted that gone. I was like, “If I cut these parts, no one’s going to relate to you. You won’t have any vulnerability. You won’t have any humanity. Right now, you win at the end of this film, but only because you lose along the way. If you win all along the way, you lose.”

He wanted to be bulletproof. Russell seems like an open book, but it’s because he’s presenting what he wants you to see. He doesn’t want you to see him scared or concerned or sad.

LC: For so long he’d co-write and co-host with Matt Morgan, this person who knew all his secrets and kept him grounded. But then he went to Hollywood and mostly went solo. And now he’s also pushing away your film.

OT: I think Russell isn’t ready. He wants to be a bigger man than he is. Russell is very courageous in some ways, and really, really, really small in other ways. Like a child. Prior to this day, I’ve been nothing but kind about him abandoning the film. But what he did last night, not coming to the premiere, I then found out there was one empty row, and he called off the cast. He called off everyone that said they were coming to the movie, and told them not to come.

That is beyond belief. First of all, why would they listen to him? What the heck? Matt wrote to me anyway and said he would love to see the film, but he doesn’t want drama with Russell. Why would he stop people from seeing a film that everyone on his team has told him is good for him? And they’re all going to see it eventually because it’s coming out here theatrically and on VOD and DVD, and it’s going to last forever in the public sphere.



Why would he deprive his mother of experiencing this beautiful film about her son? How is it he has so much self-doubt he not only can’t come himself, he needs to talk everyone else off? It’s almost like a vengeance, like he was trying to hurt me. Which he didn’t succeed in doing because I had a wonderful time.

But it made me really disappointed in him. It’s sad he’s not taking advantage of this time to talk about the issues that really matter to him. People are leaving with so much respect for him. I’ve crafted something real that shows all the things that are amazing about Russell Brand and why we should listen to him, but shows also that his motivations are mixed. And that’s OK. He’s flawed, and that’s OK. Other people will look at their lives and go, “Hey, I’m flawed, but maybe I can do something. He had the courage to do that. Maybe I can do something.”

And he goes and tries to hurt me, by talking the cast out of coming to the premiere? He hoped I would suffer last night. That’s crazy. That is so disappointing. What a child. How childish. It’s like a schoolyard bully. Don’t you think?

LC: It’s mentioned a lot on his podcast that he gets on really well with children.

OT: He does. It’s like he’s never grown up.

LC: Are you still communicating with each other? I mean, not just with interviews like this.

OT: I wrote to him urging him to come by and exchange hugs with me, and saying I’d love to come visit him this weekend and see his café. And I haven’t had a response. The response was him calling everybody and telling them not to come. So I’d say we’re pretty done for now.

He knew that I cared for him. And he knew that I’m a person of integrity. He even said that in his SXSW statement. He said I’m “a director of peerless integrity”. Even when he did let go, right before SXSW, he said, “OK, I’ll let it go. It’s your film now.” And he wished me well. Then he pulls out of SXSW. But he still wrote me a personal note explaining that if it was in his hands, it would have been a pointless film and that I made something great. He knows that. Then he goes and stops everybody from coming to the film last night? What happened there?

By the way, since then, the reaction has been really positive for him, on a level that nothing about him has ever done; nothing he’s been in and nothing about him. So why would he then try and hurt me? He’s a brilliant man. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t regret having made the film. But I am disappointed in him.

Brand: A Second Coming played the BFI London Film Festival as a gala screening. More information can be found here. It opens in UK cinemas on 23 October.

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