Documentarian Ondi Timoner is used to handling challenging subjects for her work, which was good preparation for her latest project, Brand: A Second Coming. The subject of the film, British comedian and would-be messiah Russell Brand, is known as a wild extrovert who delights in declaring his delusions of grandeur tempered with admissions about his fears of inadequacy to packed houses. But he proved to be a very reticent interviewee.
Brand was resistant at first to Timoner’s suggestion that the film focus on his story rather than on the abstract concepts he’d envisioned for earlier iterations of the project, and though he did eventually consent to several in-depth interviews, he reportedly fought the filmmaker throughout the process and has yet to endorse the film, which was met with a very positive reception at SXSW. (Brand ultimately cancelled his planned appearance at SXSW, saying on his web site that reliving his past through the film was “painful and sad,” though he describes Timoner as “a director of peerless integrity.” He adds, “I know Ondi is an artist and I’m told the film is good, but for me, watching it was very uncomfortable.”)
Poster for Brand’s Messiah Complex tour
Timoner captures this dichotomy in the film, a fascinating look at this enigmatic performer who embraced fame and fortune, decided it left him unfulfilled and then re-invented himself in his act as a would-be revolutionary, comparing himself to men of action such as Che Guevara, Gandhi or Malcolm X.
The director, whose acclaimed documentaries such as We Live in Public and Dig! are generally many-years-long endeavors, was first asked to look at a rough cut Brand had put together with a succession of directors for a planned film about the search for happiness in the modern world. “I didn’t really know much about him,” she recalls. “I watched the cut and went in to see him with my notes about what I thought would make the film better. I hadn’t agreed at that point to take it on myself.”
Her first interaction with Brand was nothing like she’d expected from the screening. “I was blown away by his intelligence and charisma,” she recalls. “There was a certain magic to him that was not at all in the rough cut I’d seen. And I became a little bit incensed on an artistic level. Where was that essence? Why wasn’t it in the film?”
Brand strikes a Jesus pose during a performance.
Her interest was further piqued shortly afterward, when she attended one of his standup performances. “I’d never seen any of his shows,” she says, “and this was the very beginning of the Messiah Complex tour and he was still working that material out. Even in its earliest forms, I saw a way to tell a meaningful story about our journey as a society and the myths we’re told about what will make us happy.” So she returned to Brand and agreed to make the movie, with some conditions: “It had to be about him and I would have to have creative control. These were challenging propositions to Russell. He seems very public and very much out there, but he’s actually a pretty private person. Everything in his life is very planned. He’s been sober for over a decade but he’s struggled with addiction in various forms and he’s trying to lead a more balanced life. He loves chaos but he also has a very strong need for control.”
Timoner wanted to jump right in and shoot an interview with Brand at his Los Angeles area house. “We’d scheduled a two-hour shoot to help me start the process,” she recalls. “This is how I like going into it. Rather than ask people a bunch of questions off camera, I want to do all that on camera.”
But it got off to a rocky start. “I get there and I’m waiting around because Russell had some anxiety about our first interview,” she says. “He didn’t want to do it. He was on the phone and doing other things and his manager was trying to help get him to participate. I was running out of time.
Ondi Timoner and Russell Brand
“His friend Simon Amstell was on tour in the area with his comedy show and Russell told Simon to come over. When he showed up, it was a blessing because it allowed Russell to interact with someone besides me, and it turned out to be a great scene for the film. They disappeared behind closed doors and Russell came back just wrapped in a towel. Then was totally happy for me to film him. But he didn’t feel comfortable at first doing a straight interview. In fact, he never did one until I went to England almost a year later, when we did four very intense interviews. I brought pages of pages of questions and the shoots each went on for four hours.”
As is the case with most documentaries these days, it was shot with a mix of camera gear. Canon loaned Timoner an EOS C100, which she used extensively to shoot on her own—in cars, on the street, at some of Brand’s performances. Cinematographer Svetlana Cvetko brought her own EOS C300 for the most elaborate interview shoots, which were conducted over an intensive 10-day schedule in the UK. “She’s incredibly talented,” Timoner enthuses. “I could never have gotten so much great material without her.” These were the only interviews for which they brought any lights at all—and even these shoots with Brand, friend Noel Gallagher of the band Oasis and others were kept very simple, with about three or four units.
Timoner also used a Canon EOS 7D DSLR and several GoPro cameras, especially for capturing performance material and audience reaction from unusual angles. She likes operating the 7D, she says, but would use it when she could also record audio with a Zoom recorder, which associate producer Alexander Hadden would often hold. “If I needed to use the sound I recorded in-camera, I would use the C100 so I could monitor the sound. We didn’t have the luxury of a sound person, and sound is so important. Without sound, you don’t have anything! But I really didn’t want another body in the room, especially when I was interviewing Russell—especially somebody holding a big, fuzzy boom. Russell is so sensitive. That would definitely not have been good.”
Timoner shot some of the film’s most intimate moments with Brand from the back of a motorcycle.
She also shot a lot of Super 8 film on her Nizo camera with built-in Zeiss zoom. Some of Brand’s most open and relaxed moments in the film come while he’s riding a bicycle in death-defying fashion on a busy street, weaving between cars. Timoner shot all of that with her Nizo from the back of Brand’s agent’s motorcycle.
“Editing to me is the most horrifying, grueling and amazing part of the process,” the filmmaker declares. She cut a significant amount of the film herself and collaborated with editors Tim Rush, Clay Zimmerman and (her brother) David Timoner. The editorial team cut in Avid and shared common media via Avid ISIS.
While they cut, Brand was in England conducting his own “revolution”: attending protests, outwitting chat show hosts and generally talking up his concerns about social and economic unfairness. “So much of what he does in the public sphere right now is challenging the ideas that we’re being sold as truth,” says Timoner. “Every day he would be at another event. We’d get Google alerts and our archival list would grow and grow. Thank God for the Internet. Thank God for [entertainment attorney] Michael Donaldson and other people who are experts in fair use. Telling Russell’s story would be impossible without all that archival material.
“I was blessed to have a subject whose life I think was illustrative of a certain kind of transformation,” she says of Brand’s growing political commitment. “It made the editing that much more exciting because the story was still unfolding. But it could also be frustrating. One of my associate producers would walk into my edit bay and say, ‘Did you hear what Russell did today!?’ and I’d say, “I don’t want to know!”