VIFF '09 Interview - We Live in Public director Ondi Timoner
By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/13/09 18:32:53
The following is a re-post of an interview that I did with Ondi back at this year's South By Southwest Film.
“We Live in Public” is the story of the greatest internet pioneer and visionary you have never heard of, Josh Harris, who predicted where we are all headed with life online before most of us knew what the internet was, and built a bunker underground in Manhattan over the millennium to prove out his theories. Shot over 10 years and culled form 5000 hours of footage, “We Live in Public” follows a walking cautionary tale in Harris as he overloads on technology, and ultimately tells the story of all of us and our inherent need to connect and be recognized- to have our lives matter- which causes us to make our most private information public as the internet offers us our fifteen minutes of fame everyday.” Director Ondi Timoner on the film “We Live in Public” which screened at this year’s South by Southwest Film, and is also screening at this year's Vancouver International Film Festival.
Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?
DIG! played SXSW in 2004 after winning Sundance as well. We are playing the Paramount again. Beautiful theatre… And yes, I will be there! Fun! I have a lot of experience at SXSW because I shot for Capitol records for four years in my 20’s and then shot some of DIG! there, before returning as a filmmaker.
Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I realized the camera was a bridge into worlds I could never otherwise enter. I could learn so much this way. So by my last year at Yale, I would only take classes in which the teacher would let me make a documentary instead of writing a final paper. This way I could learn out in the world and then share it with others. My first film took me behind prison walls to talk to women in prison, then deep into the music world to explore the collision of art & commerce, then into cults and mind control, through extensive work in Africa, and simultaneously into the internet and art worlds of New York in the 90’s. There are other journeys in there too – but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!
I wanted to be a writer first and wrote a kidnapping story called Torn Apart in sixth grade which won my elementary school prize, so it was printed and we had a book signing. And then I wanted to be the first woman president – until I was a page in the senate and realized I had to work outside of the system and infiltrate as an “interloper”.
I also recorded a record of original songs which I performed called Goodbye America when I was 16, but when I found the camera at 19, that was it.
How did this whole project come together?
Josh called me and asked me if I wanted to document cultural history. I asked what he had in mind, but he wouldn’t tell me on the phone. I showed up and he was building a bunker in lower Manhattan for 150 people to move into and live under constant surveillance.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?
Finding my love and compassion for my main character. Which is a requirement, in my opinion, in making a great film. Also, knowing this film HAD to be made and released now, as the virtual world is taking over; getting through that mass of footage and cutting it finely in 6-8 months was hardcore!
Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
Half the film is shot with surveillance cameras and half by me with the amazing help of really good friends that are DP’s and passionate associates willing to live in the bunker.
Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?
Since our premiere at Sundance this year, we have had such a passionate response to the film; spawning debates that last for hours. People write and say they cant sleep or have been up for days. I say the film could be billed as a horror movie…
Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?
Everyone who uses the Internet.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?
I am always inspired by the content. I find my films through total immersion and let the form follow the content through me.
How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?
I am excited to be embarking on a scripted film next. For me, having the freedom to tell the stories I want to tell the way I feel they should be told is the dream. So far I have worked very hard to live that dream and hope to keep going…
If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?
I have no idea. Besides playing music, I can’t imagine what else I could do and stay employed! I would love to teach kids to shoot and edit – especially in places around the globe where they could use these tools to communicate what’s happening there out to the world.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
Important. I am grateful that for all four features I have made, the press has seemingly understood and embraced the work for the most part. Now that the digital age has arrived, we are all critics, and I am excited at how many bloggers and tweeters are embracing the film, though it has only just started.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
One filled to the brim with people ready to go on the ride... red velvet is nice too.
How about The Paramount in Austin, or The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Wait a second, it’s on! All of my dreams are coming true! Yay!
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?
What if you could watch a film, forget where you were, and emerge smarter and more aware? Be entertained and have your mind blown simultaneously? I have got just the movie for you!
What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie?
I couldn’t say anything. When you see my movie you will understand.
What do you love the most about this business of making movies?
There is not one thing. It is the perfect ying yang of the outreach and collaboration, the journey to follow the muse and capture the serendipity of life and the prisms of humanity, and then the inner discovery, connecting the dots and sculpting that happens in the editing. Of course, the incredible feeling when the communication happens out to the world is the cherry on top.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Go do it. Make sure you care about the subject enough to follow it through for at least two years, and then do it. Start. If it’s meant to be, you will find a way to get it done.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
There isn’t one. There’s The Celebration (Festin), Over the Edge, Network, Ordinary People, Don’t Look Back, The Graduate. And many more, I love films that take me deep and make me uncomfortable, wake up and think.
Check the press and the rest at weliveinpublicthemovie.com!
Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF on my Twitter at twitter.com/jasonwhyte!
This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the film’s screenings, showtimes and update information, point your browser to viff.org. – Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com