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VIFF 2015 Interview: BRAND A SECOND COMING director Ondi Timoner

by Jason Whyte

(Editor's Note: This article is a modified version of an interview I did with director Ondi Timoner at this year's South By Southwest Film Festival.)

"BRAND: A SECOND COMING is the story of Russell Brand, a genius artist who really took everything he did to the hilt. He bought into all the major myths that we're sold of how drugs, sex, fame, money, and power is the way to happiness, attained them all - yet came up empty. So he started to look inward and wrote a transformative show called the Messiah Complex where he studied the difference between fleeting pop fame and the lasting relevance of his true heroes, Che Guevara, Gandhi, Jesus Christ, and Malcolm X. Through that work, Russell realized he needed to leave Hollywood and dedicate his life to debunking the lies we are all sold. Because he is a brilliant comedian, on and off stage, he is able to articulate what he feels is distracting all of us from engaging in a more active and present way in our lives, in our politics, in our culture. He goes on tour, moves back to England, starts a YouTube channel to expose the truth behind the news: the Trews, and writes a book REVOLUTION. It was a lot to encapsulate in a feature but it sure was an exciting ride!" Director Ondi Timoner on BRAND: A SECOND COMING which is screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival.

I first met Russell Brand in Austin at South By Southwest in 2008. He was promoting the movie FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL. I didn't know who he was then, but was immediately struck by his presence and knew he would be on my radar soon. What was it like the first time you met Russell and what led you to making a movie about him?

I went to a meeting in the early incarnation of a documentary Russell was making about happiness. He had interviewed all sorts of people around the world; celebrities, inmates and all sorts of people about what makes them happy. What I think he was grappling with was having become famous very quickly, and becoming a Hollywood star and marrying a pop star. Even though he had achieved his dreams, he somehow felt an emptiness, despite having gotten everything that he thought would make him happy.

The film Russell was trying to make with various different directors over several years was focusing on the meaning of happiness but the footage I watched felt scattered. I agreed to meet with the current production team to give them my thoughts on how to improve the film and was surprised to find Russell Brand at the meeting. I didn't know anything about him and asked someone if he was Katy Perry's ex-boyfriend. I had to be corrected that they had already been married and divorced, but yes that was the right person.

At that meeting I was very impressed with Russell's charisma and intelligence and felt indignant that none of that came through in the footage I had seen. His essence was missing from the film they had worked on for years. I felt that it was really an opportunity missed, so when Russell pursued me to take over directing the film, I went to see a stand up show just to put my toe in the water. He was starting to write the Messiah Complex where he talked about Malcom X, Jesus Christ, Che Guevara, and Ghandi; these transformative figures remembered down through the ages for making a difference in our world. At that cross-point I found his take on these Messiah-type icons riveting. At the same time I saw someone who was uncomfortable with his life, who was seeking deeper meaning and a way to be remembered forever. I felt if I joined him I could probably tell the story but only if he gave me creative control and only if it was a film about him and his search for meaning.

In a lot of ways looking at the issues in his own life's journey with drugs, sex, power, fame, money, all of those things that are external and yet sold to us as roots to happiness. He tried them all, took them to the hilt but wasn't happy. He wasn't satisfied. From Russell's beginnings in the small town of Greys, he always had sense of the unfairness in life and from an early age took steps to fight injustice, albeit with humour. A transformation was taking place in Russell Brand, as these years of film footage clearly portrays.

I did insist on creative control which Russell finally gave up; I think it was a first for him to let go of the control of his story. It was definitely uncomfortable for him when I pointed the camera at him penetrating, asking personal questions, getting into the pain and challenges of his own personal life. He said he lived it once and it was difficult then, he didn't want to live it over again. We did a little bit of a dance where we had a lot of mutual respect and admiration and even love for each other but there was a lot of resistance to getting deeper, raw and personal, which ultimately we accomplished but was a huge challenge to this film.

Talk about the process of getting the documentary together and the people you worked closely with on the production.

After Russell and I decided to move forward, I received thousands of hours of footage from him and then I really filmed pretty consistently from last spring on, beginning in England and other European cities on his tour.

As Russell's book REVOLUTION was released in America we covered the book signings in New York. I contacted his closest friends, his mother, his father and anyone who knew Russell well through his life to interview I saw as much archival footage as I could. I can't say enough about the team I have at Interloper Films; my co-producers Nicholas Corcorran and Brooke Mueller and my co-pilot and in the edit bay, Alex Hadden and on Russell's team Gareth Roy, who is the producer of the Trews, has been really helpful all along. Gareth was working on the film way before I ever took over because he is so close with Russell, and he has been absolute pleasure to work with.

Your process in documentaries has always been a careful, fly-on-the wall approach, which I love. There is also a slight journalistic edge while sticking to the documentary process. Is it the same process with BRAND? How long did it take you to put everything together?

I shoot, edit, shoot, edit, shoot, edit. In this case, I also had so much verite, archival footage to go through for the film but my process is really just to keep the cameras rolling and then mine for the gems buried in the footage.

What were your biggest challenges through the whole experience of the movie?

Russell Brand is incredibly present individual, so wherever he is is where he is focused. Getting him to plan anything was very challenging. Russell is also a very complex person. Part of what drew me to him is that he is contradictory in many ways, and a hyperbolic human are many of my feature subjects, if you know my past work. Russell seems like he is very much an open book, but what I found is that he is a very private person, and making this documentary has been very difficult for him. He would rather look forward, not backwards, and he would tell me often that living his life was painful enough the first time. We got there though in the end, and I think the results will be trans-formative for many people, and I hope the film will be cathartic for Russell as well.

Also, I had no idea that he would move to England, start the Trews, or write his book REVOLUTION when I started the project, so I was deep in post and had to get back into production quickly, and as recently as November 2014, to keep up with Russell! We had thousands of hours of footage to plow through. The resulting film is an exciting ride, an unfolding story, my favorite kind to tell!

I always like the look and feel of your work, so I would love to hear about the cinematography and the intended look for the project.

I am one of the cinematographers so it's a very personal relationship. I shoot most of my films, which I think is probably why you find yourself in the hot seat, in my shoes, engaged. With this film, I was lucky enough to have a fine cinematographer, Svetlana Cvetko, join me for my first big shoot in England. She is also a dear friend. Together, she and I worked on covering scenes, so many of which happened every day. We were really flying by the seat of our pants, but I think ultimately with both of us operating non-stop we came up with something active, edgy and beautiful. And like my other films, because I do operate the main camera, the film has very intimate feel. The audience gets to be right there with the subject, knee to knee in the van with Brand when I confront him. That immediacy is what I think you are talking about. Also, we film everything that we can as long as we have access to the subject, so there's a very present and in the moment feeling to the footage; if I am leaning into the interview, the camera leans in as well.

Additionally, I felt with Russell that it was appropriate to go back to shooting Super 8, which I did very much in the making of DIG! and JOIN US. In fact I used the same camera for this because I love the lens. I have shot more SUPER 8 on this film than I ever shot in my life. It's all throughout this film, and I think that very textured, nostalgic look, iconic feeling is very appropriate for this story and this character. Russell loved it too, so he always gave me a little something extra when I was shooting Super 8.

What are your plans to get the movie out to the world?

We have no attachment to distributors and so far all rights are available. We hope to sell it for theatrical distribution as well as every available outlet in the world be it VOD, VHS, and every possible platform we can put it on. We are open to different release strategies around that but one thing we also hope to do is keep the right to sell directly to Russell's fans.

And finally, the theatrical experience is always important to me, so I'm curious what you would say or do to someone who is being disruptive during a screening of your film?

I am with you Jason. I can't stand it when people talk during my movies. People ask me questions during test screenings and stuff and I don't even answer them. I act like I didn't even hear them! I think that's probably what I would do, I am more inclined to ignore the distruption, than to add to the noise in the room. With that said, I expect people will react to this film there's so much rock and roll in this movie that there's plenty of time to laugh out loud. In our test screenings, it has been a riotous response in a lot of ways, so I totally expect people to be laughing their heads off and that's great! It's wonderful to release a funny documentary that is also so meaningful, carrying a rich and important message.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 24th to October 9th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 09/29/15 17:40:43
last updated: 09/30/15 18:28:12
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