Ondi Timoner: Why Russell's spurned Brand: A Second Coming

Hell hath no fury like a filmmaker scorned. At London Film Festival, Ondi Timoner discusses her new documentary following stand-up comedian Russell Brand and her falling out with the wannabe revolutionary

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 13 Oct 2015

When it comes to image, Russell Brand is the stand-up equivalent of Bowie or Madonna. He’s always reinventing himself, from greasy haired Essex lad to coiffured Dickensian dandy, to robes-wearing shaman.

These evolutions are essayed vividly in Ondi Timoner’s brisk and lively Brand: A Second Coming, which brings us up to the comedian's most recent incarnation: revolutionary for the YouTube age.

It’s fair to say that a large section of the public and the media are nonplussed about Brand’s current status. Despite his infamous love-in with Brand on Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman is one of the skeptics. The film opens with Timoner asking Paxman, “Do you think somebody like Russell Brand could overthrow the government?”

“That’s a really stupid question,” fires back Paxman. “That’s like asking me, is he the Messiah? He’s not. He’s a very naughty boy.”

Timoner has form with naughty boys with god-complexes. She made We Live in Public, about eccentric millionaire and surveillance-culture artist Josh Harris, who fancied himself as a dot.com Andy Warhol. And in her brilliant 2004 film Dig!, a rockumentary masterpiece, she followed self-proclaimed (and possibly genuine) genius Anton Newcombe of The Brian Jonestown Massacre as he frittered away his talents on drugs and a refusal to “sell out,” while his mediocre best mates The Dandy Warhols made the A-list.

Brand is built of the same DNA: hugely talented but prone to self-destruction. In Timoner's new film, we get a glimpse into the meteoric rise of UK comedy's most charismatic eccentric. We see him visit his childhood home; stab himself onstage at the Edinburgh Fringe; compare himself to Jesus and Gandhi on his stand-up tour; awkwardly interview his soon to be ex-wife Katy Perry (“I control the pussy,” the singer blurts out incongruously as Brand mollycoddles her), and trying to have a philosophical discussion with his disinterested, Del Boy-like old man, who'd rather talk to their cab driver.

We spoke to Timoner at the London Film Festival, the morning after Brand: A Second Coming's UK premiere, at which Brand was a no-show. Like her films, her answers are warts and all. She doesn’t hold back.

Ondi Timoner filming Russell Brand

The Skinny: What was your initial impression of Russell Brand before starting the film?
Ondi Timoner: Before I started I didn’t know who Russell Brand was, so I didn’t have any impression of him.

So what made you want to get involved in the project?
His team approached me to save a film that Russell had been trying to make. I looked at the footage and I didn’t think there was a film to make from it, not one that was going to be transformative in any way or worth making, per se, in the form that it was in. But then I met him. I went to the meeting to give notes on how they could make it better and he was in the room, and he was just so charismatic and intelligent in person and I thought, Why is none of that in that thing I just watched?

What form was the film in at that stage?
It was really just him going around seeking happiness, or I suppose the definition of happiness or how people have meaning in their lives once they've become famous. I don’t know what number director I was but I said to him, “Listen, you’re really interesting. There’s none of you in this film.” And I said to him, “If you really open up to me and let me talk to your friends and collaborators, then I’ll make the movie.” So we turned it into a film about him. And I also needed creative control. I didn’t know what these other directors had been through, but he took full responsibility for over-controlling the film up to that point.

Given that he’s so fame-hungry, it’s strange he was so reluctant to build the film around himself?
I think he has a side of him that he presents to the public, and then a very serious, private Russell. When you’re a famous person, you’re used to people taking bits of you and misconstruing them and exploiting them – the paparazzi flashing in your face, he hates that. So I think he wanted to preserve part of his life that was personal – what little of that was left at least. But, he also wanted to make something meaningful. And the fact of the matter is, his life story tells a story of someone who’s bought into all the myths of happiness: drugs and sex, and sleeping with thousands of women, and becoming a famous movie star, and then marrying the biggest pop star in the world, and then realising that he was part of the distraction, part of the problem, and not being able to turn away from that; feeling like a puppet. And then thinking, Wait, it’s not fame itself, it’s what you’re famous for. He decided he wanted to be famous for something more than this. And that, I think, is a valuable story to tell. So that was what I set out to do.

Brand seems very self-aware and conscious of his own image. Did that make it difficult to get under his skin?
He is and he isn’t aware of the image he tries to project. I mean think about it: he hasn’t shown up for this film. That doesn’t look good. He asked me to make the film, and I bent over backwards to do it. I did everything I could to make him happy. I made a film where he looks great in a lot of ways, right? When you leave the theatre, you’re rooting for him. Because he’s a human being in this film. He’s vulnerable, and his feelings get hurt, and he fails sometimes, and he makes bad choices, then he makes great choices, then he wins. It takes you on a journey that’s real – you see the real Russell, and he can’t handle that. So there are limitations to how self-aware he is. He is very aware of a lot of his flaws.

Can he overcome those flaws?
That’s the question. I don’t think so. He over-controls everything, all the time. He told key people who are in the movie, who were on the big screen last night, not to attend, I found out afterwards. To me, that is just so small and selfish. Because they would have enjoyed it. And if it was to hurt me it didn’t work, because I had a great time and I loved seeing how much the audience loved it.

The audience did love it! Notes from the Twitterati:

Does he know the public’s reaction to the film?
I wrote to him personally and said, people really have a respect for you that they didn’t have before when they leave this film. This gives you a platform to speak built on your hard-earned life story. Show up. Give me a hug. You don’t even have to talk about the film; talk about what matters to you. And his response is to talk people out of coming or tell them not to. To me, that seems like he’s got some more evolving to do, you know? He can’t get out of his own way. But that’s how geniuses are: they’re always self-destructive. I’ve experienced it time and again.

There’s that great moment in the film where you call him out on that. That he always thinks he knows better than everybody else...
In some ways, that attitude is helpful. It allows him to continue on his path despite the doubt and ridicule of others. That’s great. That’s part of why I made the movie about him: because I like inspiring figures who do what they’re going to do and they do it against all odds. Impossible visionaries is what I call them. But he’s so self-destructive. And he’s being self-destructive right now. He’s missed a great opportunity with this thing that he asked me to make for him and I did. He could be on every talk show talking about global warming, or housing, or overthrowing the government, or whatever he wants to talk about right now. And he could have pushed the film in any way because, the fact is, we made it with the same mission, which was to wake people up and get them thinking about the choices that they’re making. That’s exactly what the film does, so he could have magnified its power. But instead, he’s going to do everything in his power to scuttle it. To me, that’s self-destructive.

"It’s the people who step out of line who push our society forward and I want to unleash that in more people" – Ondi Timoner

Have you ever experienced other subjects objecting to your film?
No subject of mine has ever asked me to change the film. Ever. Until now.

Not even Anton Newcombe on Dig!?
Anton didn’t ask for a single change. He was smart enough to know that he would be legend forever because of that film.

Why do you think you’re drawn to these charismatic, self-destructive people?
They approach me. For We Live in Public, Josh Harris called me. And I am, of course, not dragged kicking and screaming into making the movies. I think they’re amazing characters; they’re inspiring. Like I said, even though they are megalomaniacal they act impossibly because they take on the impossible and they just can’t help but do what they do. I feel like we’re rewarded from day one for drawing inside the lines: “Oh, what a pretty picture,” they tell us in kindergarten. When we stay the course and when we follow the rules we’re praised. It’s the people who step out of line who push our society forward and I want to unleash that in more people, so I tell these stories for that reason.

Released 23 Oct by Metrodome