Ondi Timoner, known for her documentaries "Dig!" and "We Live in Public," has chosen a new subject: Russell Brand. "Brand: A Second Coming" follows Russell while he begins his stand-up tour, Messiah Complex, only to put that on the backburner to instead try to rally the world to revolution. Thankfully, this isn't your stock stand-up tour movie that simply beats out bits with clips of the comedian doing press, getting "real" in his hotel room, and talking about how hard it is being funny. It's an honest-to-god look at Russell Brand and why he is the way he is. It also challenges viewers to look at the world around them and question what it means to have a fulfilling life: You see Brand achieve everything our society tells us should make us happy -- fame, money -- only to be immensely disappointed when he gets it.
I sat down with writer, director and producer Timoner to talk about Russell and the difficulty of documenting him.
I watched your TED talk and I gathered that your focus is on people who had to give up a lot to have a fulfilling life. Is that correct?
Yes, it’s kind of twofold. There are people who have to give up a lot to have their lives matter. And then there are impossible visionaries. They inspire people to step into the impossible and have their lives matter. Which is something regular life does not provide us an opportunity to do. In terms of, “What am I doing with my time on earth? Is it fulfilling? Is it creative? Is it adding to the universe? And to society in general?” We’ve been taught to want other things.
Yes, it feels good to be told to do something and then to do that and be told you’re a good boy. I can see how people would get addicted to that!
(Laughs) Yeah, you get praised for drawing inside the lines, don’t you?
Oh, yeah. Do you think you focus on these people because you find yourself to be that person?
I might have become that. I mean, Russell calls me his "ginger ninja shadow." I might have always been that and maybe that’s why these people are drawn to me. Maybe that’s why I’m drawn to them. I don’t know if I’m a visionary. That’s a bit out of the realm of humility to say. To admit to you that I think I’m a visionary, you know? I’m pretty tenacious. What I took on when I took on the project was really difficult. You know, making a film about Russell brand is not easy. It’s like taming a Tasmanian devil. He doesn’t really like to be documented. He likes to perform. And he’s a very private person.
Yeah! But he asked me to make this film really hardcore. And when we agreed to do it together, we agreed it would be about him and I would have creative control. Once he agreed, he tried to control everything else in a way. Whether it was dashing the itinerary or negotiating how many times I could be in the car. Or whatever it was. He’s so jaded. He doesn’t want his life to become the subject of another tabloid piece. He doesn’t really want everyday to feel like he’s living for the camera. At the same time, he asked me to make this film. And he cares about what it is that he’s doing. He cares to have that documented. So it’s that tug of war all the time where he would ask me to leave the car. And then I’d get called 5 minutes later to get back in the car. But I love the guy, let’s be clear.
Do you think the time in the car was rehearsed or was it genuine private time?
No, I got private time. To the point where his manager was like, “I can’t stand to be around the two of you in the same vortex for any length of time.” 'Cause I would get under his skin. I think on an intellectual level, he’s a genius. And I would just give it my all to rise to his level and go toe-to-toe with him. Because you don’t get anywhere with people if you just praise them. There are many sides to a human being and I love the gray area. I don’t want to make just a straight hero of someone because it’s not true. He’s somebody who has walls around him. At the same time, he’s the most open guy on earth.
Where does the Russell story end? Does he have to give up anything else?
It’s so hard to say with a man that unpredictable. To see him start Trews and then this hockey-stick rise of attention. Then he walks away from that. I went back to document him as he was writing a book, and we didn’t even know he was going to write a book! And alongside the books came all these social movements and the opening the Trews café. He’ll always do stand-up. It’s where he lives, spiritually. Is he going to give up everything the western world has to offer? I don’t see that happening. But then again, I would’ve never predicted he would leave Hollywood.
Like [in the film] when he sits in that hut in Kenya and says to that woman, “As a white millionaire, I’m uncomfortable.” People don’t say that. They think that, but they don’t say it. A lot of times he puts his foot in his mouth but a lot of the time he says things that are just so true. And he does things that people aren’t willing to do. That’s why I loved making a movie about him. I hope people take this as a second coming for themselves. I hope it will inspire some people to go home and think, “What am I doing?”
Now, will he become a politician? I don’t know. But I don’t think he thinks commentary is enough. We had a debate about this. And he doesn’t think being an artist is enough to change the world in a significant way.
So does he think he’s a messiah?
I don’t know what he thinks because I’m not Russell. I don’t know. He has a self-destructive element of his genius. It’s like some ying-yang balancing of the universe. And when he looks in the mirror he isn’t seeing it accurately like the rest of us. I don’t think he can see what we see. And I think he has a lot of self-criticism. And he thinks if he’s not funny every second, it’s not worthy.
I think this documentary is definitely a huge step in Russell’s campaign to be taken more seriously. It’s even more powerful than that clip of him on "Morning Joe." So great.
I had to put that in the movie.
How have the first screenings been going?
Great. It opened SXSW. I believe it was the first documentary in a decade. It was a very cool honor to open the whole conference. And it played twice at USC. The students just loved it. I kind of made it for them, actually. I made it for kids to tell them to stop wasting their time. If they can see a role model go and get everything that they want (become a Hollywood star/marry the world’s biggest pop star) and then just walk away from it. Like, the proof is in the pudding. That’s why I said to Russell that this movie couldn’t just be you going around talking to people. Your life story has it all. You grew up thinking you needed to claw your way out of the “penitentiary of anonymity,” as he calls it. In this, you get everything you ever wanted and it’s SO profoundly disappointing.
I also think it’s incredibly inspiring how he’s able to stay sober. 13-14 years now. And to help so many addicts while he’s being lambasted for stepping outside of the box that he’s been put in. I mean, he really didn’t like the headlines that I put in the movie. But I told him, you don’t win in the end if you win all along the way. If you lose along the way, you win in the end.
If it’s nonstop praise, it wont be a good movie.
That’s what I’m saying. People don’t want to root for a guy who has everything great happen to him all the time. They want to see you scared in the bathroom trying to get your shit together before you propose that America should overthrow its government.
On "The View"!
On "The View"! You know what I mean!? They want to see that you’re facing down your fears with courage. If it looks too easy it’s like, fuck it. So I had to protect the film for his sake. I even fled to Southeast Asia at one point. He was just sending so many changes and notes. And then I got invited to show my work to the Queen of Bhutan. And so I said, “I think it’s time to go to Bhutan.” But then two days later, I contacted my Mom to let her know I was still alive. And my mom says, “Did you get Russell’s flowers yet?” I was like, ha ha, but then she says, “No, his office contacted your office to see where you were to send you flowers.” And I looked at these exotic flowers on my desk and lo and behold, there was a note from Russell. And then 10 more changes came in. The changes just kept coming in. But I said, the last thing you want is a puff piece. And he said “Well, that’s the second worst thing that could happen.” Meaning that this was the first. I think he thinks this film will derail his mission but he should know by now that it’s only going to help.
"Brand: A Second Coming" premieres in New York Oct. 1.
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