Two days before Christmas, filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s Los Angeles home was suddenly thrown into pre-production mode. Her cousin, Benjamin, had arrived and was preparing to depart on Christmas Day for a walking journey across the United States to raise awareness for cancer, the illness that took his father’s life 40 years ago. He’d battled a self-destructive streak, survived two heart attacks and was ready to purge his demons.
When his documentarian cousin got wind of the plan, she gave him a Flip cam and began arranging for camera crews to follow his journey. “Generally, my life has been one happenstance – ‘Whoa, that’s neat, let’s do that!’ – after another,” she admits.
Timoner has turned such encounters into multi-year meditations on cultural change. She’s the only director that has won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize twice: in 2003 for Dig!, a doc about the dysfunctional relationship between rock bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, and 2009′s We Live In Public, a 10-years-in-the-making film about Internet entrepreneur Josh Harris, which she self-distributed online in the U.S.
In 2007 she profiled four families at a cult treatment center in the little-seen, self-financed Join Us and in 2010 she helmed the widely-distributed Cool It, featuring environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg. Now 38, she’s developing projects with HBO and CNN through her company Interloper Films and shopping around her first scripted feature, a biopic about photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
In what ways do you relate to Mapplethorpe as a filmmaker?
From the day one, I was always trying to make change with my films. Not on some massive kind of ‘Let’s start a revolution, let’s take to the streets’ way, but to inspire other people to express themselves, to question their reality, to think beyond what they know and what they think they know about people. The camera to me was always a way to learn – it was a bridge into these worlds I could never otherwise enter.
I relate to [Mapplethorpe] because he was doing that too. He became addicted, as I have in my life, to the camera. He just felt that [things were] all happening so fast that if he sat there and painted it, it would be gone before he could finish the painting. It would be over and he would be bored.
What films of yours are you proudest of?
I have a deep, deep, deep love for Join Us. A friend of mine calls it my jazz record because it’s my least known film. It’s a more direct look at something than what I’m looking at in all these other forms in my other films. Even Cool It is about a certain amount of mind control through fear and climate change.
I’m proudest of We Live In Public as an accomplishment. Distilling 5,000 hours down to 83 minutes in eight months was an absolutely inspired and grueling experience. I don’t know how much I slept, but not very much.