On a rainy night this week, Ondi Timoner found herself in the strange position she has been in numerous times since the spring: standing in front of a large group and explaining the behavior of one of the more polarizing celebrities of the 21st century, Russell Brand.
“What is he like?” “What does he think?” “Why is he unhappy with the film?” The questions and their subtext flew at Timoner, the director of “Brand: A Second Coming” -- a movie made with the cooperation and, until early this year, participation of its firecracker subject.
“It’s very complicated,” she said, one of several such replies over the course of 45 minutes. “Every [maverick] man or woman, they always have a little bit of Kryptonite that holds them back. I think we’re experiencing that.”
Brand, of course, wasn’t there. He has been AWOL since feuding with the documentarian over the film’s content beginning last January. The battle resulted in Brand walking away from the movie and, famously, skipping his own premiere at the SXSW Film Festival, along with every public appearance for “Second Coming” since.
The next day, as the tendrils of Hurricane Joaquin swept rain down on the city, Timoner sat in a café and reflected on a surreal period.
After months of toeing a line in which she was careful not to offend her subject, she was candid, expressing her appreciation, disappointment and, occasionally, frustration with how the process had unfolded.
“I’ve been speaking a lot for Russell, but what am I gonna do? What am I gonna do,” Timoner said ruefully. A moment later, she said. “It’s hard to feel like I won when there’s so much exhaustion.”
Timoner’s experience over the last year highlights the tricky unspoken rules that govern the documentarian-subject relationship, the charged complicity of the whole enterprise. The tale also carries a meta quality: “Second Coming” intends to reveal its subject’s discomfort with the celebrity machine. Then that story began playing out with the marketing of the film itself.
A noted indie filmmaker of such Sundance darlings as the rival-band doc “Dig!” and age-of-privacy film “We Live in Public,” Timoner had come to this project about two years ago, approved by Brand after a series of failed attempts with other directors, including Brand himself. She spent long stretches with the comedian in England and Los Angeles as he embarked on a tour named, not entirely ironically, “Messiah Complex” and generally morphed from a screen actor and tabloid fixture (that whole Katy Perry relationship) into a new, as-yet undefined celebrity activist and thinker.
Using her own footage and several hard drives’ worth of material Brand had brought to Timoner’s house, she cut it all into a film. The trajectory alone was striking. Brand, now 40, had gone from being a lonely child of divorce to a hard-core drug addict to a sober and burgeoning local comic to a Hollywood personality to, now, a hard-left activist and grenade-thrower. As was on display during the British election in the spring and numerous other times, Brand has been engaged in a radical and public questioning of the very capitalist and celebrity system that has given him the platform to make those criticisms, aware of those contradictions and powering through them.
His aim, as he and the title of his 2014 book grandly state, is revolution — an undertaking whose seriousness the films mostly leaves for the viewer to decide, Brand walking the line between conviction and showmanship.
In November, Timoner sent Brand a cut of the movie. He didn’t seem to have watched it, because there was no feedback for him; had he seen it then, Timoner believes, it might have been challenged earlier and gotten bogged down. “This movie was,” she said dryly, “the baby that shouldn’t have been born.”
It was only when SXSW announced in January that “Second Coming” would open its festival that Brand appeared to watch it for the first time — and promptly had a strident reaction. In a series of tense conversations and emails, he asked for about 10 changes of Timoner, many of which she said she grudgingly agreed to. She thought it would placate him, but soon after he renewed a call for larger adjustments. When she pushed back, matters became heated, culminating in a back-and-forth at the Sundance Film Festival. Brand, according to Timoner, told the director that he would “rather you shoot all my pets than have this movie see the light of day,” a threat she realized was sincerely felt, if a little grandiose. (“He has one cat. It’s named Morrissey.”)
Brand’s changes were basically seeking to remove anything personally revealing. Among them:
--He wanted to remove a scene of him arrested at a protest years ago while high and naked. (She cropped an explicit image but left the scene in.)
--He asked that a bit he did onstage about his childhood torturing of the family dog be removed. (She struggled with the question, then left it in. “I’m going to fall on my sword over a puppy,” she thought.)
--He wished that 30 new minutes of stand-up comedy performance would be included. (She added about a third of it.)
--He asked for playfully romantic footage of he and Perry in India cut. (She obliged. Perry does make some other brief appearances.)
--He was intent on having details of his very fraught relationship with his father, who appears in the movie, excised. (She left much of it in.)
The net effect of the requested changes would basically be to expunge Brand’s foibles in favor of him talking about ideas, largely with famous people. It would, she said, “be a total puff piece.” So she pushed back on most, telling him, “Let me do my thing and I promise you’ll become legendary.” “You’ll lose a little along the way and win at the end,” she said she told him. Timoner has garrulous and headstrong qualities in her own right, and one can conceive of her as both a worthy complement to, and a combustible combination with, someone like Brand.
Timoner thought he had been satisfied by the latest fixes when Brand had sent Valentine’s Day flowers to her. But a few days later he made his discontentment known again via calls and email.
Though Janet Pierson, the head of SXSW Film, said she would show the movie even if Brand tried to stop it, Timoner said she remained worried. Shortly before SXSW, he asked to speak to her about inserting more footage of his choosing. She said she wouldn’t, and called the manager to make it known she wouldn’t communicate with him under those conditions. Soon after, she received an email from Brand. It was a waving of the white flag.
“This is your film now,” he wrote to her, sounding a vulnerable note. He acknowledged that the changes he wanted would have eroded the movie -- “a propaganda piece with no personal footage, no vulnerability and no point,” he said in the email.
Still, he said, the movie caused him too much discomfort for him to be in any proximity to it.
“It would be weird,” he said “to show up to a film and watch me not get along with my dad as if it was a scene.”
“Please don’t be hurt,” he added. “It’s not a slight against you. It’s sensible self-preservation.” And Brand has stuck by that pledge, staying far away from the film and making no meaningful public comment about it. A spokeswoman for Brand would not comment for this story.
Still, though he didn’t stop it, the very threat of action and the prospect of an absentee star gave distributors cold feet. The movie was eventually picked up by Ignite Channel, a little-known microdistributor.
The movie has toured -- Canada, England, the U.S. and other points have been on the itinerary -- all without Brand. That has created an almost apparition-like feel; watching a movie about someone as present as Russell Brand while knowing he has, in fact, been absent has the curious effect of enlarging the already towering personality. He is not the first person to agree to an intimate portrait by an outsider only to have second thoughts -- Billy Joel comes to mind. But he certainly has done so in an unusually explosive, countercultural way.
Whether all this is a good or bad thing depends -- as it does, perhaps, with a parallel class of electoral outsiders this season -- on your world view. As the movie opens (it arrived in Los Angeles last week and in New York this weekend), it has been greeted with the same polarized attitude as its subject.
“Exhausting” is the word that’s come up in a few reviews, a function of Brand’s big personality and circuitous eloquence. It is also, as many favorable reviews have noted, surprising, showing an uncommonly successful figure questioning a glitzy status quo.
“I think he’s a threat, and why it’s why I’ve gotten a couple of bad reviews, the first in my life,” Timoner said. “It’s because Russell Brand poses a threat to the system. There are others like him -- Bono, but he plays along a little. And there’s Brad Pitt, who’s done so much in New Orleans and elsewhere, but he goes home to the Hollywood Hills at the end of the day. Russell says, ‘This is bollocks. I’m out of here.’”
Despite all the drama, Timoner said it is disappointment more than resentment that she feels. “This is just a lost opportunity for him,” she said, echoing a rueful note she has sounded at screenings. Still, pressed a little harder, her emotions prove to be more complicated.
“I feel he’s an absolutely remarkable, unique presence on this planet. And that he is also a bullheaded, callous, self-centered and often selfish person,” she said. “As much as he is generous and compassionate, I think he’s a walking contradiction. And right now, as the result of me making an authentic documentary, I’m experiencing the fallout of his own inability to face who he really is.”
She added that she has tried to separate her feelings about what he stands for and how he’s acted, and has not always found it easy.
“He said to me, ‘It’s not personal.’ But of course I broke my back to create as close to a masterpiece as I could. “
She paused. “If he walked in here now, I’d probably just give him a hug. I know what I’m experiencing are just his limitations.”