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"You Can’t Leave": An Interview with Ondi Timoner

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“You Can’t Leave”: An Interview with Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner is fascinated by troubled men of extraordinary insight; she calls them “delusional visionaries.” Her new documentary, We Live in Public, which closed New Directors/New Films Sunday, April 5th, follows Josh Harris, the tech pioneer who founded one of the first Internet marketing companies, and more or less invented streaming video. Harris channeled much of his fortune into unsavory social experiments, which anticipated an important cultural shift: the indecorous forfeiture of privacy involved in everything from reality television to Twitter.

Harris’s first experiment, “Quiet: We Live in Public,” placed a hundred creative-types in a basement on lower Broadway, equipped with sleeping pods, an interrogation room, and a gun range. Food, booze, and drugs were free; no one was allowed to leave; and everything was documented on film. Camera operators roamed the compound constantly, recording even the showers and the toilets. After police broke up “Quiet,” Harris and his girlfriend moved into an apartment outfitted with dozens of web-cams. For months, they broadcast every moment of their own lives online; the stunt only ended when the couple broke up, and Harris was forced to declare bankruptcy. At the time, Harris’s exploits looked like little more than bad art, symptoms of a decadent period in downtown culture. But in her documentary, Timoner contends that they served as inspired “metaphors,” warnings about how Internet exhibitionism would corrode personal autonomy.

In many ways, Harris resembles Anton Newcombe, the lead singer of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the focus of Timoner’s 2004 film DiG!. Newcombe was also a little too ahead of the curve; he was playing self-consciously retro psychedelic music in the 1990s, slightly before it was fashionable. And like Harris, he combined grandiose ambition with a craving for destruction (there’s not very much space between the “Quiet” bunker and the BJM heroin den). These men are gifted, but also deranged, and so obliviously self-obsessed that they can seem stupid. They exert power over fans and followers by organizing group experiences of intense, almost mystical collectivity; tellingly, Timoner’s 2007 project Join Us was about an evangelical cult leader. Timoner portrays these men with a complicated compassion, observing their oversize wills, their sociopathic amorality, and their suffering. They recruit her to tell their stories, but only because she lets them. “It’s like I’m their Leni Riefenstahl,” she admits.

That comparison is significant. Timoner’s documentaries are a bit propagandistic; she doesn’t engage viewers so much as direct them. Because her movies cover long spans of time, she relies on narrative voiceovers, which often become intrusive, telling us not only what is happening but what to think. We Live in Public brims with thrilling montages and potent music. At certain moments it can feel like Triumph of the Will set to “Moonage Daydream.”

But Timoner also shares Riefenstahl’s instinct for documenting cultural convulsions. We Live in Public, Join Us, and DiG! go a long way toward chronicling the millennial era, and the various ways people tried to escape and to connect.

Before you became interested in film, you were working on a record. What kind of music did you make?

I played guitar, and I wrote a record when I was sixteen called Goodbye America. It was about farms closing down—I wrote a lot of political songs because I hadn’t really been in love yet.

When you were a senior at Yale, you would hand in short films in place of papers. Do you remember what any of those were about?

I remember what all of them were about. That’s why I started making films instead of writing papers: because it’s the papers you forget about. You don’t share them with anybody. And I realized that with a camera I could travel into any world. I could ask any question, and most of the time people would answer it because I had a camera in my hand. That’s actually a really weird parallel with the bunker in We Live in Public. On a mass level, that way that people acted with cameras made me uncomfortable, and made me feel like people were just submitting themselves. But on a personal level, when I first picked up a camera in 1992, I didn’t feel like people were giving up their privacy or their freedom.

Where did you get the resources to make those films?

There was a public access station called Citizens Television that opened up in New Haven. And they said, You can make whatever you want, as long as we get to show it. And then they would give me three or four hours on their Shuttle system if I signed up for it. It was not an Avid—let’s put it that way.

Then I made the movie that won the Yale Film Prize [Voices From Inside Time]. It was for a class called “Transgressive Women in American Culture,” about women breaking rules. I took it specifically because I wanted to figure out why women in prison were portrayed as these crazy, mauling butch-dykes, these he-men. I used my status as a student and went and started filming women in prison.

I met a woman there whose life and case blew me away, who had saved all these other women, named Bonnie Jean Foreshaw. And I swore to her that if I could I would try to make a film about her, try to get her out. She had been railroaded to jail years before I hit the scene, with a less-than-one-day trial. It was just a classic miscarriage of justice.

Every interview led to five more, and it really became an investigation. Everybody else graduated, and I stayed in New Haven, making the film with my then-boyfriend, brother, and professor, with the constitution open on the floor and our phone being tapped by Connecticut police because we were so deep in. It just got dirtier and dirtier.

That movie became The Nature of the Beast?

Yeah, I finished it. But nobody was watching documentaries at the time. It goes on PBS, it wins some awards, it went to a few festivals. And then nothing happened. She was still in jail. I thought, I have to get this to the two million housewives who are going to write letters and get her out of jail, to turn it into a movie-of-the-week. So I moved to L.A.

I ended up getting a job working for Spielberg, for Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation. I thought it was going to be to interview Holocaust survivors; I was totally down for that. It turned out it was going to be, like, coordinating locations with a headset somewhere in central Florida. So I resigned. I stayed in L.A. and pursued turning The Nature of the Beast into a movie-of-the-week.

It was going so badly. Queen Latifah was going to play the lead; it was going to be a package at a major talent agency. They put this executive producer on it that apparently just needed something for her flagging career, and she didn’t give two shits about this woman or the case. The story was already incredibly dramatic, but everyone wanted to tweak it and make it gross. This woman had trusted me with her life rights.

I started wondering, Can I maintain my integrity and still reach a mass audience? How can I get these stories out there without them being totally perverted and distorted?

My theory was that my doc wasn’t reaching people because it was retrospective, and it was too educational to be entertaining. Documentaries up until then never unfolded over time. I thought, what’s different between a doc and a narrative? Why are people running to the theaters to see scripted features, and not docs? And the one thing I could figure out was that people don’t know what’s going to happen next when they’re watching a dramatic film. I set out to make my next movie unfold over time. I was going to choose some lives to film and capture the serendipity of life. My goal was, Do not get up and go to the fridge. You can’t leave; you can’t stop watching the movie. That’s the level it has to be at. That’s why DiG! was born, and it was ahead of its time for that.

That method also reminds me of some documentaries from the sixties, like Don’t Look Back and the Maysles’ movies. There’s a developing narrative that you’re capturing as it happens, rather than trying to reconstruct the past.

It’s verité, which I believe in totally. To me, Don’t Look Back is really the one film that has that feel, that you’re right there, that you don’t know what’s going to happen next. It’s like, God, what is he going to say to this journalist? Now he’s pounding on the piano? Dylan’s such an incredible subject. I really hope D.A. Pennebaker is going to come see the premiere of my movie.
But there weren’t any films like that at the time that I was alive. Somehow it was just not being done. Everyone looked at me like I was crazy because I was going into documentaries.

How much time were you planning to devote to DiG!?

I think if you film over a long period of time, time provides the greatest narrative. I didn’t set out to make a seven year film. I thought I was going to film ten bands, these little dysfunctional families, to look at the collision between art and commerce.

The irony of it is DiG! would have been an MTV series. But there were too many cigarettes and curse words in the film for MTV. MTV ripped it off, actually—they ripped off my thing before DiG! called The Cut. The same thing happened with VH1. The executive there saw an early cut of DiG!, because I was working on a show called Sound Effects there at the time. Two weeks later I come back from being on the road, shooting Sound Effects like a faithful employee of VH1. I’m standing in the cafeteria at Viacom and I hear about Bands on the Run, about bands fighting with each other across the country. It was the last time I worked for any of those corporations.
At this point I’m desensitized to ideas being ripped off, because you can’t actually replace the real thing. You can’t cast reality. It’s bullshit.

Television producers seem to have a storyline conceived before anything begins. You have years of messy footage, and you have to work out an overarching narrative. Does that happen mostly during the editing process?

I’m thinking about it the whole time. I have to know what moments to hit. And I have had to become more economical. DiG! was 2,500 hours of footage, and most of that was from the first four years. By the time I started editing, I realized, Oh my God, not only am I going to be here for years, but I can’t find anybody to help me because there’s no way I can possibly translate all this footage to them! So I was stuck. I was holding the bag. And then I thought, Well I may as well stick with the story since I’m editing. So I’d film every six months, seven months, something like that. That’s one thing you have to have is that instinct, to know when to film.

Were you afraid you’d miss something?

I knew I would, and you have to make your peace with that, too. You’ve got to realize that ultimately you’re telling a story. You’ve got to serve the story. Maintaining my integrity, to me, does not mean that what happens in a scene on a certain day doesn’t have parts from something I shot a year later, to supplement it. I can compress time and space, as far as I’m concerned, to tell the story.

I do that with We Live in Public also. The fishing trip that comes after the bunker was really a whole other project that Josh was doing called Tuna Heaven. But in the movie it’s just a fishing trip where he meets his love. He had actually met her earlier, but there was no way in the movie to bring the love interest in earlier. Films are like organisms, and they have their own life. They have a form they want to take.

With We Live in Public, I had never had a more clear vision of what a film should be. Thank God, because I had so much footage and so little time. I knew the film had to happen right now. I knew that it was really prescient for right this second, that it’s now the tipping point where the virtual world is really taking over. And I was lucky enough to have a great team of people come around me, so we could move through the footage fast. But still, I didn’t see all the footage. I had to make peace with the fact that I wasn’t going to see all the footage. And that what ended up on the screen had to serve the script.

So you worked from a script this time?

I never write a script in advance, but I did write a great deal of what this film is, and collaborated with others who have additional writing credit.

We occasionally noticed your presence in DiG!, but Courtney Taylor [of the Dandy Warhols] did the voiceovers. How did you decide to do your own first-person narration for We Live in Public?

It was really a weird departure for me. It was a process of elimination. I don’t really believe in omniscient narration. At least, so far for my films haven’t found that omniscient narration works very well. First I tried Josh, and it sucked. I tried Jason Calicanis, which was like the DiG! formula; you know, the best friend, the guy who made it. It didn’t work; he just wasn’t there for all of it with Josh. And then, it was like, Who’s going to narrate? What the heck? I think it was just kind of a group consensus, like, why don’t you try it? And what became really cool was that I was always available. I walked out of my house with croaky voice into the studio and laid down and did a voiceover every day until I got it right.

[Ondi takes a call on her iPhone.]

That was my mother. We just played the Sarasota Film Festival, where the population was like seventy years old, seventy five. I was worried that these people were just going to be terrified by the film. But they really were moved by it. They really got it.

Older people probably understand the disruption better. They could be more alarmed by how the Internet has altered social interaction.

Yeah, but our movie doesn’t start in green pastures with little house on the prairie. It starts with the Jesus and Mary Chain.

Like I do with every film that I do, We Live in Public tells the story of a microcosm, of a small story that’s also a huge story. So it’s the story of Josh Harris, and it’s the story of all of us at the same time. And there are two trajectories.

What were you planning to do with all the footage from “Quiet”? Did you have an agreement with Josh about what it would be used for?

I was going to make a movie about the bunker, but Josh took all the footage. Josh stole the masters. He didn’t like the way he looked. I was finishing the film in 2001, and went to Sundance to raise money for DiG!. I got back and my loft was empty in New York; he had taken all the tapes.

And then I won Sundance in 2004, and I was on the second page of The New York Times or whatever, and he wrote me an email, saying, Any interest in finishing the film? And I said no. Then a few months later he basically said, I’ll give you fifty percent of the film, I’ll send you all the masters. You’ll have complete creative control—that was the most important part. I said, OK, fine. He was thrilled. He was like, ok, she’s my saving shit.

And then I made Join Us!, because Bush won the election in ’04, and I didn’t see any relevance. The bunker was less relevant than ever.

I didn’t know what We Live in Public was about until I saw the first Facebook status update. I was like, You’re driving down the freeway? Who cares? But people did.

You’ve described We Live in Public as a “cautionary tale.” But I noticed that you’re on Twitter, and on MySpace and Facebook.

I don’t check MySpace at all. I cannot possibly keep up with the virtual world. I want it all forwarded to one place. But it’s good for connecting. It’s not good for, like, staying sane. Not all your friends on Facebook are really your friends. I don’t think the lingo’s accurate, and I think for new generations it can be confusing. It’s not a risk to me to be on Facebook, but I’m not putting pictures of my child up there, either. And he’s pretty cute.

You’ve immersed yourself in some pretty horrifying and decadent environments, like the heroin house in DiG! and the bunker in We Live in Public. Does having a camera insulate you from these surroundings? Did you ever feel in danger?

Join Us was the most dangerous, a truly dangerous film. I was at the cult leader’s house for dinner, and I would call my mother and say, if you don’t hear from me in the next three hours, send the police. He controlled these people’s lives, and if he had continued, they would have all done a mass suicide together. If he had asked them to kill themselves they would have, and he had them beating their children since they were born, to beat the demons out of them. And I could never tell if he was on to me or not.

Were you pretending to be more sympathetic than you actually felt?

I wasn’t pretending. I told him I wanted to talk to him about his book, and we just talked and talked and talked. And we worked our way around to what pastors should do and what role they should take in the raising of children. He had just overstepped his pastor bounds, and exploited his congregation. He felt that what he was doing was right. He’s like a grandfather. He’s like the father figure none of these congregants had ever had.

Charisma can take you a long way.

Mind control is incredibly interesting. For me, it’s as much about the believer. It’s as much about the people in Josh Harris’s bunker. What we’re missing, that we’re trying to fill in our lives. Anton had fifty to a hundred members pass through his band; in that film I focused more on other things, but I was fascinated by that aspect, how people followed him.

There’s something very sweet about us wanting to connect with each other, too. It’s a very human instinct to not want to be alone. From the moment the umbilical cord is cut we don’t want to be alone anymore. It goes a step further with fame: we see fame and celebrity as being happy and never being alone. Now we put ourselves out there on the Internet to try to get attention, anything that will make us feel better.

Josh and Anton both created environments where everything was shared, where there wasn’t privacy or loneliness.

Yeah, it’s like the sixties. That’s what the sixties stood for. You didn’t have to be alone; you could be on a commune. You’d all be hanging out together all the time.

Did Josh remind you of Anton?

No. I never really put the two together until I was in the editing process with Josh.
They’re both extremely prolific in a lot of ways. And they’re both extremely amoral when it comes to human lives around them. In Josh’s case he’ll admit it. When it comes to his art, humans are pawns. Like in the bunker, if something had gone wrong, I don’t know how bad he would have felt. It was really about the art for him.

Do you consider Josh a friend?

No.

What about Courtney?

No. I did at certain points. And I love every single one of them, by the way. Love. Like I cannot personally make a film about someone I don’t love. I have to access compassion and have to access true love, and find the real human connection there, or I can’t do them justice. Especially megalomaniac, tough men, who I seem to attract somehow. Josh asked me to do this film. And Anton said, I’m taking over your documentary; forget those other bands. And I think I’ve done them justice. But I was doing it for the story. I wasn’t a fan; it was about the story.

Melissa Tuckman blogs at Melitism.