Director Ondi Timoner on whether the outspoken comic really can change the world
Russell Brand has walked away from acting, but he’s about to be back on movie screens.
The new documentary Brand: A Second Coming depicts the British stand-up comic’s evolution from Hollywood star/awards-show host/husband of Katy Perry to leader of a nascent, and possibly ephemeral, political movement that shares DNA with Occupy Wall Street. The documentary, made by veteran filmmaker Ondi Timoner, is often unflattering: It depicts Brand’s seemingly earnest belief that he is a transformational figure in the mold of Jesus, as well as his tendency to barge into situations where his activism could make a real difference but immediately, irritatingly, style himself the sole leading expert.
But the film also frames Brand as a figure of growing influence the further he moves away from his midcareer successes in Hollywood and back to his roots as a politicized rabble-rouser. As a director, Timoner is used to elevating the strange and complex to the level of art; two of her previous films, the end-of-privacy film We Live in Public and the rock doc Dig!, are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. But Brand, given his complexity and the long-gestating nature of his documentary project, presented a special challenge. Timoner’s film will open the South by Southwest Festival tonight, and at the festival, she will also be screening The Last Mile, a documentary short about a prison-based tech incubator, and participating in panels about her web platform A Total Disruption. In conversation with TIME, though, Timoner homed in on Brand—the process of working with him, whether his comparisons to the Messiah go too far and whether his desire to tear down the government will ever get fulfilled.
TIME: How’d you end up making this project, and when? Given the breadth of time it covers, it seems like the product of years of work.
Timoner: He reached out to me. About two years ago. He had had a film he was trying to make for years that was started by—Oliver Stone and Al Maysles approached him. Al Maysles, who just passed away. Around Forgetting Sarah Marshall, they thought he was really intriguing, which he is. He had reached that point [in the trajectory of fame] where he was starting to become dissatisfied. You’ve been promised euphoria—where is that feeling of euphoria?
I assume they thought he was as articulate and a unique character. He is. Then they kind of put [producing] teams on it, and that didn’t go so well, as I understand it, and he took over the film. There was a previous incarnation of the film called Happiness. Russell was trying to make a film to look at how people deal with fame and what really matters. He was searching on camera, asking everyone from inmates in Angola Prison, to Mike Tyson and David Lynch. Those interviews are fused into the film. When I got the film, I got thousands of hours of footage dropped off at my house. If you know my work, you know: My past films are culled from thousands of hours of footage. I’m not intimidated by thousands of hours of footage. We Live in Public was 10 years in the making, and 5,000 hours of footage. But it was definitely daunting because I hadn’t filmed it myself.
Though the Tyson and Lynch interviews play in your film briefly, it does sound like Brand had initially been working on a very different kind of documentary than the one you ended up making.
When I first saw a rough cut of the Happiness film. I was called to see if i could fix it. And I looked at the cut and I didn’t see why this film should be made, necessarily. I didn’t think it’d be a good film. But I did see how it could be a good film, and I wanted to pass on my notes. Russell was asking people seeking questions, but there wasn’t anything about Russell, per se. I said to my manager, is that Katy Perry’s ex-boyfriend? Because they had wanted to talk to me about directing the Katy Perry film [2012’s Part of Me], so I knew who he was vaguely from Katy Perry. My manager said “They’ve been married and divorced.”
I came to it blind, and when I saw that cut, I didn’t think there was anything to it; I went to a meeting with the production team on it at that time, and Russell was there, and he changed my mind in the room. None of the essence of this charismatic autodidact was in the film that I could see. I became indignant and got upset on an artistic level on his behalf. I saw there was potential and this guy was amazing. Then I went away, and he pursued me. He asked me if I would come to his stand-up, and it was the beginning of the Messiah Complex tour. He was testing out ideas. And when I saw the show, I saw how I could make that movie. I could look at ego and narcissism and fame and pop celebrity and how fleeting it is, and look at the difference between that and iconography, lasting significance. That’s what motivates a lot of people to become famous in first place—they want to live forever. The way he went about it, comparing himself to Che, Gandhi, Malcolm X, comparing himself to heroes who put their lives on the line: That was a way to get into something interesting. Then I said, “Let’s do it, but I need creative control.” The day I got on the plane to England, I wouldn’t do it without a signature, and I finally got it. I also said, “This needs to be about you, your life journey, your life story.” You’ve taken everything to the hilt that we’ve been told will make us happy: drugs, sex addict, married the biggest pop star in the world, became a movie star. It’s your life story that tells us about the world today. And it’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster ride—I’m in post[-production] and the next thing I know, I’m in a plane because he’s marching on Wall Street.
It’s interesting because Brand clearly has big aspirations to change the world. And yet the government hasn’t yet been overthrown. Does this make him a failure?
Well, he’s only been working on that for a while. For me as a storyteller, his significance is in his inspiration—his transformation. For me, the film is about transformation. I hope that people will leave the film feeling activated and inspired in their own lives to look at their priorities. Not to say that Russell Brand is going to overthrow the government or that his goals are realistic. But that he would go for that, to leave Hollywood and its trappings behind—he could be collecting millions of dollars for being in Hollywood, but he’d rather be on the street marching for people losing their homes. In looking at Russell Brand’s life story we can all pull a bit of our own experiences out and go I wonder if I could do this or that thing. Maybe the next person who knocks on your door with a petition, you could say, Maybe I should have a voice. He’s telling people by example, You can do this, and you should do this. He’s telling us the things that should make us happy—drugs, sex, movie stars—are a massive distraction. And to make a documentary that was not a pedantic set of talking heads, but to actually have a dynamic subject who’s flawed in so many ways, so contradictory in so many ways, who comes under such fire and keeps trudging on: That’s a dream for a filmmaker who wants to change the world. Because it can reach people more than a film from a “survey says” kind of look.
OK, but do you think Brand’s goals will ever come to fruition?
Do I think his goals are realistic? I believe in impossible visionaries. I think it’s more interesting to look at the motivations behind his goals. Ego and narcissism are the vital components of people who are going to change the world and step out of the predictive paths of life. I’m interested in that. I don’t think you can push the envelope very far if you don’t set your sights way outside the window of what’s achievable.
It takes nothing away from the film to say I found his comparing himself to Jesus and Gandhi both provocative and a bit offensive. Did you?
Maybe it’s his way of trying on their shoes and mocking himself—he’s very self aware. He’s comparing himself to the most base possible version of [the public image of] those guys. It’s a joke, but is it? I love that gray area. I love that you’re uncomfortable. From that place, you’ll keep thinking about the film. If it’s an open and shut case, you’re just going to be fine with it, and it’s just another Hollywood movie.
Were there moments of tension in your putting this film together?
You can see it in the film. He’s always working on himself which is more than a lot of people can say. He’s got a really strong character and personality and so do I. He chose me because he wanted an authentic film made. He’s very uncomfortable with the film. I was thrown out of his car several times, politely asked to leave. I kept finding my way back in. Whenever I was around him, I was rolling, and he never signed up for that.
There was one huge fight where he stormed off in London and I thought the film might be over. The skies opened, it started pouring. I said, if I’m thrown off this island by Russell tomorrow, I have a great movie. And then we went on to have the best interview ever. By meeting Russell toe to toe—refusing to get on airplanes or shoot his shows because he wasn’t giving me what i wanted—at the end of day, it allowed him to have respect for me.
Are your feelings settled on Russell Brand?
It’s rare to see someone give it all up to lead. But is he giving it up or just going for a different kind of fame? That’s a big question. I haven’t drank the Kool-Aid. Though I do respect him very much.