Russell Brand is not a documentary subject for the faint of heart.
The English stand-up comic, TV host and actor became a celebrity in the United States thanks to his roles in the films Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to The Greek, as well as his short-lived marriage to pop star Katy Perry.
More recently, he is known as a political agitator and firebrand interviewee with zero patience for morning show fluff. In 2013, he appeared on the BBC’s Newsnight and told host Jeremy Paxman that he has never voted, never will, encouraged young people to follow suit and unequivocally called for a political revolution.
Two years ago, Brand’s management asked Ondi Timoner, the director of Sundance Grand Jury prize-winning docs We Live In Public and Dig!, to consult on a documentary he was making on the subject of happiness. Oliver Stone and the late Albert Maysles were previously tied to the project but she was hesitant to get involved.
She knew nothing of the 39-year-old star outside the tabloid coverage of his relationship with Perry and was not interested in the doc’s creative direction. However, upon meeting him she recognized something in his desire to reinvent and saw a more compelling feature based around his personal journey.
Timoner, who has spent the past few years producing short films and series via A Total Disruption – her web channel profiling Internet entrepreneurs – and advocating for creator-driven filmmaking distribution models, agreed to make a film on the condition she have full creative control and final cut.
Suddenly, Brand became the one who was reluctant get involved.
Last June, the pair appeared at Sheffield Doc/Fest to discuss Russell Brands the Bird, a short doc directed by Timoner about the comedian’s performance at Twitter’s headquarters. They also announced the feature, Brand: A Second Coming (pictured), which was produced by Timoner’s Interloper Films and funded by a consortium of backers called the Mayfair Film Partnership.
The doc, which opens the SXSW film festival tonight (March 13), follows Brand as he travels on his Messiah Complex tour, launches his YouTube channel The Trews, tussles with critics and generally grapples with the meaning of existence.
Ahead of the world premiere, Timoner spoke to realscreen about the film’s genesis, playing hardball for creative control and the similarities between Brand and the characters in her past films.
What was it about Russell Brand made you want to do a feature film about him?
At first I wasn’t sure when they came to me with it. It was a project that had been in the works for a few years and it was about happiness, and Russell’s relationship to celebrity and not being satisfied. It was not very personal. He was going around asking people of all walks of life how they found happiness.
Then I went to a meeting to give notes on how they could make the film better and there he was. I was just so impressed with his intelligence and charisma. There was a magic to him that is palpable and I’m not alone in feeling that. Like his agent said, he can own a room really fast. It made me upset that none of the essence of that man was in that film. That artist. That force. Why hasn’t this been more about Russell Brand? The more I learned about his life, I realized the film wasn’t personal and that it wasn’t about his journey.
So what convinced you?
I didn’t jump on the film until he asked me to come to a show, which was the beginning of the Messiah Complex tour. He was work-shopping some material on stage and I thought, you know what? I know how to tell this story now. He was comparing himself – from a humorous standpoint – to Che Guevara, Malcolm X, Jesus Christ and even Adolf Hitler; people who are known forever because they went to extremes for what they believed in, good or bad.
I was thinking, “Wow, he’s really grappling with that.” He’s grappling with Hollywood fame, which has turned into this kind of pop fame that is fleeting, that is superficial and might actually be a distraction from real issues. He was uncomfortable with that. I realized this was all part of his transformation and had to shoot a new film that would hopefully accomplish what he was trying to accomplish. So, I asked him if I could make a film about him and then I asked him for creative control. That was new territory for him.
And how did he respond?
We media dated, let’s say. We got together and we did some shoots. He came over to my house. We got to know each other a little bit. He was definitely uncomfortable with that concept but it came down to I can’t make this film without it. It came down this day I was flying to England and getting the signature that morning by text.
Not that he was going to turn it into a puff piece, but in the eventuality that he would, it seemed like a bad idea to engage. Luckily he had the faith in me to tell this story. I think at the end of the day he wanted to make an authentic film, but he was always uncomfortable with it. He is a very private person. Russell is a very fascinating, complex human being and that’s part of why I love him as a character. It made making the film difficult but we got there. We went toe-to-toe a lot. We challenged each other a lot. We also had mutual respect and admiration for each other.
How did he challenge you as a filmmaker?
Oh, he would just try to impede the filming. He would kick me out of the car, dodge a question or throw up resistance to me filming anything but the show itself and none of the stuff around it.
One time I just didn’t get on a plane. We had such a direct relationship, but I would hear through his manager, ‘Please don’t film anything but the show.’ I’m like, ‘But I’m actually going on this journey to film the journey, not as much the show!’ [laughs] So I said, ‘Since I can’t film the journey I’m not going on the trip.’ That was very early on. It wasn’t a power thing as much as it was, ‘I can’t do what I need to do so I’m not going to go.’
That was a great thing to do in retrospect because it helped form a relationship between us. Ondi is a dogged filmmaker and if she’s around she’s going to be filming and she’s gonna film everything and that’s it. And so that’s why I probably got politely asked to leave the car sometimes because he knew that if I was in the car, I’d be filming. If we’re in Heathrow Airport, I’m filming. When I have access to a subject, I’m filming. I film everything.
Do you see connections between him and the characters from your previous documentaries?
Absolutely. He’s not afraid. My TED Talk is called “When Genius and Insanity Hold Hands” and it looks at all of my documentary subjects. I have a network called A Total Disruption and I look at artists and innovators and entrepreneurs who are on the edge driving this Internet revolution that we’re part of.
That network is very much about impossible visionaries. Russell happens to be an impossible visionary. He says, ‘We’re gonna overthrow the government. I’m not gonna lead this thing but I’m just going to push it along.’ He says, ‘This [revolution] shouldn’t have leaders’ but at the same time he finds himself leading it. He’s a walking contradiction and a paradox. [So were] Josh Harris, who was the Internet prophet behind We Live in Public, and Anton Newcombe of the Brian Jonestown Massacre [from Dig!], but Russell takes the cake because he takes all these things to such an extent. He’s so articulate. He’s an autodidact so he’s able to really process his own trip in terms of modern mythology, falling for all of it and waking up to turn that into a very humorous wake up call for the rest of us. That’s also very poignant because he gets hurt along the way. He steps out of line and keeps going. I hope that will be inspirational to people because I think everybody has that potential inside them.
- Brand: A Second Coming screens at SXSW tonight (March 13) at 6:30 p.m. the Paramount Theatre; on Sunday (March 15) at 1:45 p.m. at Satellite Venue – Alamo Slaughter and on Tuesday (March 17) at Vimeo Theater at 9:00 p.m.
- Timoner’s short film The Last Mile screens on Saturday (March 14) at Rollins Theatre at The Long Center at 11:30 a.m., on Monday (March 16) at Topfer Theatre at ZACH at 1:30 p.m. and next Saturday (March 21) at Alamo Lamar C at 11:30 a.m.
- Ondi Timoner will participate in the panel Meet Your New Mass Audience: Collaborating with CNÉ on Tuesday (March 17) at the Austin Convention Center (Austin Suite) at 2 p.m.
Watch a teaser for Brand: A Second Coming below: