September 26, 2009

'We Live in Public' Director Ondi Timoner Shares Stories at DocU

A suggestion for anyone considering DIY distribution for your project: make sure you have a spokesperson for your film who is as charismatic as filmmaker Ondi Timoner. On Thursday, September 24th at IDA's latest DocU event, Timoner engaged in a fascinating conversation with IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt.

Funny, passionate, and balls-to-the-walls honest, Timoner held the room rapt for almost three hours as she discussed everything from the genesis of We Live In Public to the effect of social media on our lives to her admiration for musician Lucinda Williams...not to mention stories about being dissed by Al Maysles and tales from the arctic tundra. Her parents and five-year-old son were all present, and their interjections became a wonderful part of the conversation, adding to the intimacy of the event. 


Ondi Timoner snaps a self portrait with IDA Board President Eddie Schmidt at IDA's Doc U


We Live in Public
premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Documentary Grand Jury Prize. Timoner had previously received the Prize in 2004 for her film Dig! and is the only filmmaker in history to have won the award twice. WLIP chronicles the story of artist, futurist and visionary Josh Harris, "the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of," and in doing so, explores the larger story of the effect the web is having on our lives. The film has been traveling around the world on the festival circuit, and has now started its official theatrical run, which is being personally shepherded by Timoner and her team.

It's amazing that a documentary that has been received so well almost never got finished. Timoner shared with us the twisty, somewhat painful story of the film's 10-year journey, and bluntly described the rather contentious relationship between herself and her subject.

Harris and Timoner hooked up when the internet millionaire hired the filmmaker to document "Quiet," his experiment in communal living in New York City. For 30 days, 100 people lived together in an underground bunker at the turn of the millennium. Cameras documented their every moment. All amenities were free. The only catch? Participants had to give up all ownership rights of their image. Oh, and they had to wear uniforms, get fingerprinted and answer a 500-item questionnaire. Massive privacy invasion? Yep! But people were begging to be a part of it. 

After Quiet was shut down (perhaps having a firing range in the bunker was not the wisest choice?), Timoner documented Harris's next social experiment, in which he and his girlfriend lived together under 24-hour electronic surveillance and shared their lives online. The stress of the endeavor killed the relationship and Harris had a breakdown. Said Timoner, "This is probably the darkest – and probably my favorite -- part. The one chance he had for intimacy in his life was screwed up by the cameras."

After Timoner whittled down countless hours of tape to a feature-length cut, Harris absconded with her masters of the film. He had gotten a lot of scrutiny during Quiet and his relationship experiment, and he didn't like the way he came across. The now-broke Harris also stiffed Timoner on her final payments, something the filmmaker definitely did not appreciate.

Angry and burnt out, she basically said "F$!*k this guy," and took off for Africa to make another film. Eventually she moved to Los Angeles to finish Dig!, won Sundance and appeared on the front page of The New York Times. Harris, who had run away and was living in seclusion on an apple farm, saw the picture and e-mailed Timoner to see if she had any interest in completing the film. Her definitive answer: NO.

After Bush won the election, Harris approached her again. This time, he offered her 50% of the film, full creative control, no due date and all the masters, which he agreed to send to her in California. It meant she could work on the film far, far away from Harris, which Timoner said was a very attractive part of the offer. Harris also finally paid her the money she had been owed, and gave her some funding to complete the new cut. And with that, Timoner was back on board.

Says Timoner, "My one caveat was that I could film him on a tractor. I thought if he had any issues with the way he looked, this would be the litmus test. I got all the tapes, filmed him on the apple farm, and then filmed others about him. Manhattan became a character because 9/11 had happened. It became a snapshot of the end of era – hedonistic New York City in the 90s."

Even with the new footage, though, Timoner was still trying to figure out what the film was about. Why was it relevant? The film sat. She did other cool projects like shooting big-budget commericals for McDonalds, the Army and Ford, who sent her to the Arctic where she contracted frostbite during a shoot. She made another documentary, Join Us, which is about cults. She affectionately refers to it as her "jazz record."

Then, at the end of 2007, Timoner had a flash of insight while browsing Facebook. As she perused mundane status updates such as, "I'm driving west on the 405 Freeway" (this was before they passed no DWT laws), she suddenly felt like she was back in the Quiet bunker. Utilizing the latest developments of the web, people were willingly sharing every moment of their lives, living in public by choice.

"It hit me like a lighting flash. It was the clearest image of what a film should be. Streamlined. Precise. It arrived. BOOM!" says Timoner of her moment of inspiration. "For the other documentary filmmakers out there, if you don't know what's going on, don't be scared because blindness is a big part of the process. Even if you know what the story is going in, you're going to find times in the editing process where you're not going to have any idea if you're communicating anything that makes sense to anyone else. It's an important part of the creative process. Have faith. In this film I was there for seven years myself. Then I saw the status update, and the whole metaphor hit me. There is a tipping point - the virtual world is going to trump the physical."

Timoner's openness about her journey with WLIP was inspiring for those in the room listening. Says IDA Member Hilari Scarl, "Having graduated cum laude from Yale University and founding her own production company Interloper Films, Ondi could have come across as yet another privileged filmmaker who had many advantages above the rest of us. Yet she is subject to the same obstacles of making, selling and distributing her films...Ondi has not just survived, but thrived, because of her tenacity, talent and incredible smarts. Her candor and passion are mesmerizing, as she has no qualms of sharing actual numbers, names and intimate details that most filmmakers of her stature politely steer around...I left with a new-found confidence that in my isolation as a filmmaker I am not alone. I have a new hope in this world and her name is Ondi."

Right now Timoner is hoping that enthusiasm such as Scarl's will help fuel ticket sales for WLIP, which she is self-distributing. She even appealed to the DocU audience to try to help her get an interview on a local radio show that had so far declined to feature her. When going at it solo, every bit of word of mouth helps. Though she had a number of talks with distributors after Sundance, given the poor current buying climate, she felt that none of the offers were right for the film. She jokes, "You have to get your child to college, and I didn't think my child deserved community college."

One issue that came up during distribution talks with HBO was the idea that WLIP isn't a traditional "social issue" film, and therefore might not garner awards. Timoner disagrees, and relayed the story of how she flat-out told Sheila Nevins that though her doc is not about climate change, child prostitutes or immigrants trying to make it in America, she believes that dealing with the virtual world is indeed the social issue of the day.

Says Timoner, "As we play this film around the world, there are so many psych departments contacting us, opening divisions that deal with this subject matter, including ADD, online addiction, etc. It's in line with the story of the film, which says that at first we're going to like making ourselves public, but eventually it's going to hurt us."

So far, the online world has been quite kind to the film. Technologically savvy fans have jumped on to the project to help build out the website and provide live streaming capabilities for WLIP events (you can check out their channel on Livestream.com here). Celebrity tweeters such as Ashton Kutcher have helped to build a following for the film. Timoner says that when Kutcher (@aplusk) tweeted "WLIP is brilliant," 40,000 people watched the trailer in 24 hours. The one-sheet for WLIP is the first movie poster in history to feature tweeted reviews. Slashfilm.com picked up on it, and the poster became a story unto itself, generating another wave of publicity for the film.

Timoner is currently at work on a film about climate change, and broke the news that she's just gotten the thumbs up to do one of her dream projects, a film about Lucinda Williams. But right now, she's just trying to get through the theatrical release of WLIP, be a good mom and maintain her sanity. One of the most touching moments of the evening occurred when she responded to an audience member's query about how she balances filmmaking and being a single mom. To answer the question, Timoner relayed the story of how she celebrated winning the Grand Jury Prize for Dig!.

Says Timoner, "I didn't go out and party. I went home and breast fed, and then had a glass of champagne and got
in the hot tub. He kept my feet on the ground. It was
so enriching to be able to share that journey with him. For him, to
have been born at the same time as Dig! is an amazing experience. I've been
able to give him an upbringing I couldn't afford otherwise - 17
countries by the time he was at 2. He makes all of this meaningful."

Curious about her journey? Follow @wlip or @onditimoner on Twitter. Or become a fan of We Live in Public on Facebook. Or get the WLIP widget. Because as the movie eerily foreshadows, if you want to know something about someone, nowadays it's more than likely they will have already put it out there in public themselves.

For a list of theatrical and festival playdates, see the "Now Playing" section of WeLiveInPublicTheMovie.com. The film is currently playing at the Landmark Nuart Theater in Los Angeles.