Brand: A Second Coming is the latest documentary from Ondi Timoner, charting some of Russell Brand’s hope for worldwide social revolution. The film also was one of the rare documentaries to be the opening night film of South By Southwest.
After the movie’s premiere, we had a chance to sit down with Ondi and discuss the project. We talked about opening the festival, working with Russell, the process of choosing what to cut from a documentary, and much more. Check out the full interview below!
First of all, congrats on opening the festival.
Timoner: Thank you. It’s an awesome honor.
How’d it feel when you found out you were opening SXSW?
Timoner: I was very excited, especially because my whole family was over. It was New Year’s Day. Janet (Pierson) called me and asked if I had a moment to speak. Called me on New Year’s Day 2015. I was making turkey bacon and eggs with my entire family being over for the new year. I couldn’t think of a better way to go into the new year than knowing a film I’d been throwing my entire self behind and all my life and team, so many of us worked tirelessly on this day and night, knowing that it was going to open South By Southwest at the Paramount Theater. Great way to go into the year.
I think this is the first doc in the decade (to open the fest). I think that reception has been wonderful and that Janet is pleased with her decision, which is also very gratifying. I think it set a good tone for the festival. People left inspired and charged up, which is what they should do on opening night.
Before you started on this project, why Russell? What was it about him?
Timoner: He’s like a cultural lightning rod that embodies… He’s an autodidact. He’s incredibly articulate. Very funny. It’s very rare that you can make a hilarious documentary that makes people cry. He has it all. He’s a hyperbolic character. He’s got a lot of contradictions that he’s always working on. He wears them somewhat on his sleeve. More than anything, his life journey encapsulates the problems that we all bear in terms of our misconceptions about what will make us happy in life. He fell into a lot of different rabbit holes along the way to where he is now.
It was a great opportunity to make something about a person who becomes a drug addict, then a sex addict, then a Hollywood star, marries a pop star, and has it all. Then, I should say, recovers from drug addiction, sex addiction along the way. He really has it all, and he gives it up. He starts to look within because it’s not satisfying to him. And I think there’s so many young people that follow Russell Brand. More and more and more all the time. I thought it was a real opportunity to do something important and transformative that could speak to them. We can actually reach them with this story. Instead of saying, “Don’t do drugs” you see a person gradually destroy themselves on drugs and have to leave them behind in order to succeed. You see a person have it all come up empty. You see what he does and where he is now. And that all takes place on camera. You see how cheap and superficial fame can be these days.
It’s pretty easy to get famous, but it’s pretty much a road to nowhere unless it’s actually built on a foundation of something that’s important and transformative. He came to realize that and he’s living it. This takes a lot of courage and I hope people, especially young people, will make a switch earlier in their lives from seeing this. Some people are crying leaving it.
Was he relatively comfortable with having so much of his life documented?
Timoner: No. Surprisingly not. I kept going, “How is this possible?” He asked me to make this film and then when I said we needed to make it about him, he was very on the fence about that. Then he agreed to that, but he was never comfortable again. He was comfortable with me though. I think he was more comfortable with me than a lot of people. But when I had the cameras rolling… He’s an extremely aware and awake human. He’s very conscious and very much living in the present. He’s aware of every little thing.
One time he came over to my house, I think to really understand who I was as a person before he gave me creative control. We had an extended conversation on this visit and he disappeared with my son for a while. He’s very comfortable with kids. He ran off with my son, I went to go find him and I found him lying on the bed in my guest room looking at my son as he fed crickets to his lizards. As I walked in he points out that there’s one loose in the corner and that’s there’s another one over there. He had already spotted… There’s nothing he does recognize in a room. So there’s no hiding a camera or putting a GoPro up and then he’s not aware of it. He knows what’s going on and I would be politely asked to leave the car many times. But when I was in the car, I got great stuff. And he knew, if Ondi’s going to be around, Ondi’s going to be rolling. And ultimately I’m going to be able to use it to tell his story. As soon as he gave me creative control, he worked to make sure I was under control the best that he could. So we went a little toe to toe. We did a little square dance.
Why now? His process isn’t complete, not that processes are ever complete, but why was it this point in what he’s trying to do that you wanted to highlight?
Timoner: I just think it’s such current events you’re watching when you’re watching this movie. It’s hot of the presses. And what is pictured that he’s up to right now, is exactly what he’s up to. If you go to the internet after you watch Brand: A Second Coming, and you search Russell Brand, you’ll find that he’s involved in stopping another building empire from destroying ordinary people’s lives. You’re going to find him doing a comic relief charity event opposite the premiere of this film. He’s dedicated to his mission, and I feel like there’s already so much living crammed into that movie. That movie moves fast and it’s got a lot in it. Thank god I did it now.
I think some of these projects are bigger than any of us. Some of my bigger films like Dig and We Live In Public, I feel like I was just kind of tapped in this weird way. I’m just kind of going along in my life and then I’m that person who walks through that door. The door opens and I say okay. Or I get an email that would maybe concern other people, but for me, I find it intriguing. And I’m willing to kind of take those steps. I get on that bus and I follow it, but I don’t know where the bus is going. The bus was supposed to go to this place. I thought it was the Messiah Complex tour. But then it became a move to England. A series of storypoints that I had no idea would happen. The Trews. A book about revolution. Paxman. MSNBC. There’s a lot in there. His mom, what’s happening with her. One of my favorite things to do is to solve those kinds of puzzles. To write a film after I’ve shot it. Just follow the muse as it’s happening. That is the key. To be like a hunter gatherer when you’re out there. You leave no stone unturned. There’s ten people out there, you’re listening to alternate conversations. You’re figuring out in what priority you need to go on things. You don’t miss anything. The more you don’t miss the better. Get good sound. And then editing is all about weaving that material together to make something meaningful.
I feel like I couldn’t have hoped for more. I thought it was going to be the Messiah Complex and we were going to look at fleeting fame versus living a transcendent meaningful life that some of his heroes have led like Che Guevara and Ghandi and that he might be building himself into the mode of. Questioning ego and narcissism and what roles they play in changing the world. Themes like that. I thought that’s what it would be. With like his general backstory built in, since it’s fascinating. Breaking down some of the myths of consumerism, but it turned into this other thing where Russell, every single day, was doing something else that was just outrageous. And it just kept happening while I was making this film. I kept going into post-production, kept editing, but then there would be another, “Did you see what he just did?” Some of it, thank god for the internet, we just kept up with on the internet. Some of it we had to book tickets and go shoot again. We just kept up with it. We stopped shooting November 2014. That was pretty recently.