Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner opens SXSW with "BRAND: a Second Coming," following outspoken comedian and activist Russell Brand through his childhood in England, his rise to fame, his battles with drug addiction and his recent transition into proletarian prophet and media critic. All of which meant spending quite a lot of time with the man himself, a man Timoner says should not be so easily dismissed.
As someone who's spent time interviewing Russell Brand in the past, I was impressed by what you managed to get out of him.
Yeah, it is hard. It is not easy. He likes to control the flow of things, and he's very good at it. I think he's referred to himself as an autodidact before and it's not off the mark. He can definitely spin things around. But he was really good with me, I think, in a lot of ways because we developed a trust. But because he had given me creative control he also tried to control every little aspect of everything along the way and assert his authority over his own life — limits on his own life. I was thrown out of many a car — nicely, of course. And then I'd get a call five minutes later to get back in the car. But I think we got there in the end. I wasn't afraid to express my opinion and challenge him along the way, and I think he probably appreciated that. Maybe not in the moment, but I think it helped to forge a mutual respect for one another.
It's fascinating how because of his persona and personal history, critics find it so easy to dismiss him despite the content of what he's saying.
He's never really answered me on this question, but I think a central question of the film is are ego and narcissism essential components for anyone who's going to change the world or step out of line? And has he left Hollywood because he realized, "You know what? This is fleeting fame. I want real fame. I want to be transcendent, I want to be immortal, I want to be Gandhi, I want to be Che, I want to put my life on the line for something. I want to give it everything and be remembered forever." Whether or not that is true and a motivating factor with him, which I think it might be to some extent — certainly not all of it, I think he deeply cares about the ordinary man — he had to build fame to be able to be in this position. He's in a very unique position where he speaks to millions and millions of people, and he adds hundreds of thousands or subscribers and Twitter followers weekly. He's a powerful voice right now to the masses, and no one can deny that. And I think that's very threatening to the entrenched power structure. And I don't think he should be dismissed at all. I think he's incredibly intelligent, incredibly articulate and often absolutely right about what he's saying we should look at and the fact that we're being dealt all these distractions and the way that Fox News manipulates the truth and turns it into, really, lies. More power to him. I don't think the film is a puff piece and I don't think it lets him off the hook for all of his contradictions, and it calls into question some of his motivations. But it certainly should not call for dismissal. If anything, I think it will have people taking him more seriously, and I think that's a good thing.
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It's impressive how close to the present this film goes. How do you find a stopping point?
It was crazy. When I got involved with this project, he was just beginning to write "The Messiah Complex," and he had been filming a previous production called "Happiness" for years and years with different directors. It actually started with Al Maysles who just passed away and Oliver Stone. It was kind of this albatross that he didn't know what to do with. I saw a rough cut and didn't think I could make a good movie out of it, but he just blew me away in the room and I was upset because none of that person was in that edit that I saw. When I saw the stand-up I said, "OK, I can do this, but I'm going to need to shoot a whole new movie that's about you. You're going to have to actually let me tell your life story because your life story encapsulates everything that you're trying to figure out." And I said I needed creative control. Those two things, he was definitely uncomfortable providing, but he did give both of those. We did it, went on the road and then went into post-production when suddenly he launches Trews. And then he never comes back from the tour, and every day the Google alert on his name is chock full of more disruption and more disruption. It was this cascade of stuff. We just kept having to add more into the movie and take more out of other parts. I was on the road with him as late as the beginning of November 2014. We were adding Trews and other online stuff that he'd done up to January or February. We locked the cut a few days ago. So it's hot off the presses, really.
What do you anticipate from opening SXSW with this?
I'm pretty sure the audience is going to respond positively. I think it's a really uplifting film in a lot of ways and a really inspirational story, and I'm just really lucky that I've been able to tell this story. I hope that it will resonate with audiences and ignite people to be more open-minded the next petition that comes their way, to maybe get more involved in their lives. And I hope it's going to set a tone for SXSW because there's such a great line-up of films and entrepreneurs coming in and people coming together. I think with this film opening, it's going to hopefully get everyone thinking about how can we collaborate and make change. I think it's going to be really exciting for me to have the tone-setting film and then to see what it does and how it maybe changes the conversation. I think it will just add to the fodder that is the magic of SXSW. I hope.
Follow Ned Ehrbar on Twitter: @nedrick