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My Afternoon with Ondi

By Joanna Pocock.

Ondi with Anton Newcombe filming DIG!

Ondi Timoner texts to say she and her son Juki are running late. So I stand just inside the Catalyst Café in downtown Missoula, Montana and watch the rain bash the sidewalk. She’s in town for a retrospective of her work at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. She’s probably best known for DIG! (2004), which follows the ups and downs of The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre, whose careers capture the tension between making music and selling out. WE LIVE IN PUBLIC (2009) gets inside the life and mind of the Internet pioneer Josh Harris, who lays forth his prediction that our need for attention will eventually trump our desire for privacy (and how right he was). Her latest film, BRAND: A Second Coming (2015) examines the conflict between fame and political revolution as embodied in the British comedian, writer, ex-junkie, and political activist Russell Brand. Timoner is the only person to have won the Sundance Festival Grand Jury Prize twice for DIG! and WE LIVE IN PUBLIC (both are also in MoMA’s permanent collection). She doesn’t make films that are obviously out to change the world, and yet they get you questioning the logic and meaning behind art, commerce, activism, fame, and our footprint on the planet. Most of Timoner’s films follow impossible visionaries, people who pursue a utopian agenda at a cost. And this cost — this tension between what we want and what we are willing to give up in order to get it — is often where she focuses her gaze.

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Timoner and her son show up at the café just as a table comes free. She’s tall and attractive with a mass of blonde hair and jingling silver jewellery. Her energy is warm, expansive and nervy in that Big City way (she lives in Los Angeles). Her son says ‘hi’ from behind shoulder-length hair.

Once we’ve ordered I ask: ‘Have you ever had a subject get away from you?’

She looks thoughtful for a moment. And then a story unfolds. Like her films, Ondi is all about stories. 

I was with Don Was [the musician and record producer] in Capitol Studios recording a short film about Paul Westerberg. Paul went to the bathroom and Don handed me a guitar and said, ‘This is Keith Richards’ guitar. You play don’t you? Play me something?’ 

I said, ‘Yeah, that was my original dream but I kind of gave it up for filmmaking.’ 

Don replied, ‘Well, just play me something.’ 

So I played a few chords: a D, a G, and an A. 

Paul walked in and I handed the guitar back to Don. 

I picked up my camera and Don said, ‘I’ve got something to talk to you about later.’ 

So later that day when we were finished, Don and I were standing outside the studio when he said, ‘My hero called this morning. He wants to find a girl he can play guitar with. Would you be willing to give up filmmaking for six months and go on the road?’ 

I said, ‘Well, it would depend who it was with because things are going really well for me right now.’ My brother and I had just been nominated for a Grammy for a video about the band Fastball. We were on a roll for the first time in our young lives. I was around twenty-six.

The soup arrives, and we’re back into the story. 

Don said, ‘Well, it’s Bob Dylan. And there’s something about you that reminds me of him. I figure: camera or guitar—what’s the difference? There’s something about the way you intuitively handle your instruments… .’ 

I thought that was so interesting. At first I was just so humbled and blown away. I held onto the railing outside the studio. It was one of those moments you remember. I was thinking, ‘You just compared me to Bob Dylan?’ 

She laughs, sounding incredulous at her own story, and continues. 

 Don asked if he could give Dylan my number. 

I said, ‘Sure!’ 

Then a couple of days later my phone rang and this woman said, ‘Can you hold for Bob?’ and I said ‘Bob who?’ and she said, ‘Bob’, but she wouldn’t say his last name. Meanwhile I’m reaching for a tape—at the time I was filming DIG! and I was recording phone calls to use in the movie because the band members were either staying at my house or calling all the time. So I had a tape recorder hooked up to my telephone. And I was trying to get a blank tape in because I knew it was Bob Dylan and I wanted to tape the phone call. 

Dylan: ‘I hear you’re leaving for South by Southwest tomorrow.’ 

Ondi: ‘Yeah.’ 

Dylan: ‘Do you think you have time to come play guitar with me tonight?’

Ondi: ‘Well, I’m kind of dirty right now. I need to take a shower.’

Dylan: ‘Well take a shower. Take your time. I’ll wait for you.’ 

Ondi: ‘Can I bring my camera? I’m a filmmaker.’ 

Dylan: ‘I know. That’s an added attraction actually, but for tonight just bring your guitar.’ 

And then he gave me directions. We had a lovely conversation. A few minutes later the phone rang again and the woman who had called before said, ‘I heard those directions Bob gave you. They were totally wrong.’ 

So I get to his place, and I’m wearing a really weird outfit with a leopard-print scarf wrapped around my head like I’m losing my hair. He started saying, ‘Let’s play Stuck Inside of Mobile or let’s do Tom Thumb’s Blues.’ He assumed I’d know all his songs from their titles.

And I said to him, ‘I’m not so great with titles. Can’t we just play the Blues?’ So I start in on a Blues scale, and he asks me why I’m holding the pick the way I am, like I’m a banjo player. And the whole thing quickly disintegrated into a guitar lesson. 

And then we get talking about D.A Pennebaker’s, Don’t Look Back, which is one of my favourite films of all time. Dylan said how amazing it was that Pennebaker was able to hold this huge heavy 16mm camera as if it were light as a feather. And I said, ‘I do Yoga to stay strong and to hold my camera steady all the time.’ And then Dylan said, ‘Oh, I love Yoga. Do you know this one position?’ And he did this pretzel position. And then we progressed into doing different positions. He was doing a Downward Dog and I noticed this curvature to his lower back. I wanted to straighten it, you know. And my hand was hovering just above his back, and then I thought, ‘But I can’t just push his back down. This is Bob Dylan!’ 

We talked about my dad and his stroke when I was nine and about Dylan’s broken neck. He said he’d send me some songs and told me to practice every day, and that he’d call me in six months.

But he didn’t send them. And he didn’t call. It broke my heart. I felt I just wasn’t prepared for my audition with the great magician. Up until then I’d had this blessed life where I was in the right place at the right time. It was kind of shocking to me to have been so unprepared. That was the thing that hurt. I sunk into a depression but I kept practicing and writing songs. 

Dig

Our food is arriving in batches. Her son tucks in with the appetite of a twelve-year old. I ask Ondi if she tried to contact Dylan again.

‘Yes, I sent him a book called The End is Near! about Outsider Art. I thought he’d like it. And I never heard from him again. He is so mysterious. I don’t know if Dylan’s seen any of my work,’ she adds. 

Her son pipes up, ‘He’s probably seen DIG!

‘Yeah, probably. Anyway, I got on with my work. Between 1998 and 2000, I pitched a show to VH1. It was called Sound Effects and was about how songs affect the most pivotal moments in people’s lives. Music is the most powerful artform. It’s subliminal. It travels through the air like magic. My song would have been Bob Marley’s High Tide, which I listened to all the time when I was pregnant with you, Juki,’ she motions towards her son across the table. He smiles and shrugs in that way kids do when parents reveal themselves. 

‘I wanted regular people on the show, but VH1 wanted stars. We ended up with both. So I was at the Beale Street Music Festival in Memphis finding musicians for the show, and I interviewed Susan Tedeschi. I asked her what song had meaning for her. You could hear the music of the Allman Brothers wafting down the river towards us, and her boyfriend was in the band. She was upset at missing the show and said she couldn’t think of anything. ‘How about a song that you’ve performed?’ I asked. And she said, ‘OK, great. I’ve got one. Roll camera.’ And I rolled camera and she said, ‘Well, a couple of years back when I had just finished a show, someone came up to me and said that Bob Dylan had been in the back and he passed me a note from Dylan asking if I would go on tour with him. So I ended up on the road with him. On stage there were times when he would start playing a lead even though we’d decided that I would be the one to play the lead. I’d look over at him and he’d just smile back at me. It was the most incredible and challenging experience.’ 

I was standing there behind the camera thinking, ‘Wow. My camera has brought me full circle to actually meeting the person who got the gig I wasn’t prepared for. How beautiful! I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and she’s doing what she’s supposed to be doing. What an amazing journey life is.’

This feels so right for Timoner whose films combine the serendipity of lives unfolding in front of her camera with an ability to be in the right place at the right time. It’s pure instinct. 

Maybe because we’re in a small town, she brings up Mystic Pizza and says that when she watched it, it ignited a dream of running a pizza restaurant and living a simpler life. 

‘I often wonder what it would be like to go down that other road. I think we all wonder about those things. If I didn’t make films, I’d be an interior designer or a psychologist.’ 

‘You’d be a terrible psychologist,’ her son exclaims. They have one of those intense and honest relationships where they finish each other’s sentences.

‘Why do you say that?’ Ondi asks. 

‘You’re so sporadic and you believe in do-shit-ism. You’d tell people to just go out and do things,’ he pauses, checking that we are enjoying his teasing. ‘I mean you’re very interesting and unique but I don’t think you’d calm people down. I think you’d be a terrible cycle analist.’

‘Did he just say “cycle analist?”’ Ondi asks, turning to me, ‘You have to write that down!’ She then tells her son, ‘Just this morning some woman called me up. She’s starting out as a filmmaker and she had me on the phone for twenty-five minutes. I was giving her ideas, names and advice. I was really trying to help her.’ Her son looks unconvinced and Timoner says, ‘I feel sad you feel that way, Juki.’ 

I am reminded here of a scene in her latest film. Russell Brand gets annoyed at her for trying to analyse his motives, and she says to him from behind the camera, ‘Well, that’s sort of my job right now.’ It is her acuity and insight into Brand’s character that made it impossible for him to watch the film and be present when it opened the SXSW Film Festival. Brand had privately told her, that her film was ‘the price of authenticity. I can’t stand there on a red carpet and wave and watch this movie as if it were a piece of entertainment.’ 

Timoner turns to me and adds, ‘As a result of me making an authentic documentary, he experienced the fallout of his own inability to face who he really is.’ 

This is something that has followed her throughout her career. Both Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Courtney Taylor-Taylor (‘he just had to add an extra Taylor,’ she says rolling her eyes) of the Dandy Warhols have struggled in their own ways with having their lives captured so accurately on film.

I ask her about her next project, which is a biopic of Robert Mapplethorpe—another impossible visionary. 

‘It’s a scripted film. It’s non-fiction with poetic license. I optioned a version of the script in 2006. I took it to the Sundance Lab in 2010 where I had advisers like Robert Redford and Ed Harris and Michael Hoffman. They strongly proposed that I rewrite the script from page one. So I did. I rewrote it in the summer of 2010. And I’ve written it countless times since.’ 

It was her son’s idea to cast Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe. ‘I didn’t really know who he was, but Juki knew him from Doctor Who, and he insisted I take the meeting. Matt was by far the best of the hundreds of actors who read for the part. And he’s perfect. Zosia Mamet, David Mamet’s daughter, will play Patti Smith. She’s also perfect.’  

Timoner is happy where the project is now. ‘I’m spreading my wings. It’s exciting. But I will always continue making documentaries. I’m working on a short animated one about Yellowman right now.’ 

As I am about to ask her about this, Juki speaks up. ‘Can I tell her how you love doing normal chores?’ he asks.

Timoner laughs. ‘Sure!’

‘So, my mom works so much. She gets really enthusiastic about doing boring things. Like she’ll say, “Hey let’s take out the garbage, let’s take the leaves out of the pool. It’ll be great!” Or she’ll roll garbage cans down the hill and then want to race back up, and she’ll ask me to join her.’ Then Juki faces his mom, ‘Sometimes I look out the window at you standing on the driveway and it’s weird, you just look so happy,’ he says. 

There is talk of buying Juki some running shoes. But Ondi’s next film Join Us (2007) is playing in half an hour, so we pay up and cut through the wind across Higgins Bridge to the Crystal Theater. Stupidly I haven’t bought a ticket and there is already a line out the door. I queue up while Ondi makes an impromptu mailing list out of a ripped Big Sky Film Festival poster. She’s upset at the thought of people wanting to see Join Us and not getting in. Dozens are turned away. ‘I can’t believe I don’t have any DVDs!’ she exclaims. ‘I always advise filmmakers to bring DVDs to screenings.’ 

Join Us differs from Timoner’s other feature docs by containing multiple points of view. It focuses on a cult leader and his wife along with four families who escape their grasp. It opens like a film noir with one family arriving at night to Wellspring, the only accredited live-in cult treatment center in the world. The camera is up close on a woman’s face. She is confused and can’t tell if escaping from the cult will send her to Hell or bring her freedom. Her confusion is woven into other narratives including that of the cult leader with his collection of expensive German cars and terrifying views on corporal punishment. The film spirals outward to ask questions about America and faith and why this country leads the world in the founding of new religious movements. What we see over the next ninety minutes is harrowing. One of the children in the film, ten-year-old Parris Rogers, is that rare child who is born wise. “Just don’t die,” she says to her mother, who expresses her severe anxiety, fear, and shame at leaving the cult.

After the film, a couple of people from the festival try to set up a Skype call with Parris. But the Skype isn’t working. Ondi gets her phone out and calls Parris. She tries FaceTime, but can’t remember her Apple ID password. Her son gets on stage. He knows her password. Ondi then rigs it up so that Parris appears on her iPhone, which is turned towards a laptop camera, which is projected onto a screen. She is going to make this work, no matter what—here’s that ‘do-shit-ism’ her son mentioned. During the Q+A, intense questions are asked about Parris’s mother. She drank herself to death, Parris tells us. The room is silent. But unlike some of the other people in the film, Parris has come through the ordeal to face a hopeful future. Another story has come full circle outside the bounds of her camera.

As we file out of the auditorium, I see a dark-haired woman approach Ondi. From their exchange it’s clear this is the woman Ondi had counselled on the phone earlier that day. I make my way through the crowd towards the exit, while Ondi stays huddled with the woman with the dark hair. ‘I want to help you,’ I hear Ondi say to her as I open the doors and breathe in the rain. 

• • •

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Ondi Timoner is an American film director, producer, editor and entrepreneur. Preproduction has begun on her film about the life and work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanna Pocock is a Canadian writer living in London. She writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, JSTOR Daily, The Dark Mountain blog, and Litro, among other publications.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, July 29th, 2016.