Facing the Grand Jury twice

Documentary filmmaker Ondi Timoner just won her second Grand Jury prize at Sundance this past weekend, and she says the feeling is like 'having a birthday fifty times over.' Now that she's back home from Park City she spoke with realscreen about making We Live in Public and what it taught her about the Internet and reality TV.
January 28, 2009

Back in 2004 Ondi Timoner won the Grand Jury Award U.S. Documentary for Dig! and she just won again, this time for her doc on Josh Harris, a dotcom millionaire and artist who, in 1999, created a bunker where people literally ‘lived in public’, allowing Harris to broadcast their images and lives over the Internet. Timoner spoke with realscreen about working on We Live in Public over 10 years, while she simultaneously completed Dig!, her doc on the rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, and then Join Us, her documentary examination of an American cult.

How much does winning a grand jury prize at Sundance help in selling the film?
It’s hard to say because last time, with Dig!, I had sold it two hours before [I won], and this time I purposely did not sell it before getting the prize. I didn’t think I’d get the prize because nobody’s ever won this twice so I did not think I could get the prize. I was later told by the jury it was unanimous. I was blown away, I was so touched. The jury is mostly composed of filmmakers that make different films than I do and I thought that they may not appreciate my film because it’s pretty outrageous and in your face.

I don’t know how much it helps. I know that the companies that were interested before we won the award are more interested now. They were already going to screen the film but I think it’s an easier path for us at this time. We have a lot of interest both theatrically and from TV – and that was before we got the award – because it’s a very entertaining film. I set out to make the Internet as sexy and as compelling as I could.

You worked on Dig! at the same time you were working on We Live In Public. Both seem to feature somewhat volatile subjects and situations; how did the two experiences compare?
Actually it was Join Us that was totally risky. When I would go to the cult leader’s house for Join Us my mom would know that if I didn’t call her in four hours to call the police. And the bunker [in We Live In Public] was pretty crazy too, you just felt like something terrible could happen there.

In Dig!, also Anton [Newcombe] would attack people on stage or I’d find myself sleeping on the dirtiest couch in America with his feet in my face. I guess I always looked at it as an incredible opportunity to be in worlds that I could never otherwise enter with my camera.

It’s kind of like why I’m on the planet; to go into these worlds, somehow capture the serendipity of life and recreate it for people.

After working on this project, what’s your feeling about the phenomenon of people exposing their lives online and the abundance of reality TV programs?
It’s built into human nature. It’s a tragic need from birth. What happens is we’re born and we leave the womb and we’re alone from that moment on and we spend the rest of our lives trying not to be. We look at famous people and we think they must be happier than we are; they seem surrounded, everybody seems to like them, they’re smiling all the time, everybody wants them and we want that for ourselves. And I think it’s quite obvious we’re born with this deep-seeded need to have our lives matter and a lot of people will do anything to have that come true.

That’s what was so hard for me to see in the bunker. I’d watch these people and I was like, ‘What are you doing?’ It made me depressed a little bit.

What was it like trying to cut down 5,000 hours of footage in a year?
Whatever’s in this film has got to be amazing, and whatever doesn’t make it, or I don’t see, I have to make my peace with that right now. We had an amazing team and I had different assistant editors dedicated to culling through massive amounts of footage for me to then see and decide on. It was a very orchestrated process and it was thanks to the Internet that we got it done because we had copies of the footage on seven different Avids at one point and we would shoot cuts back and forth. Basically I would cut a sequence, [my co-editors] would cut it, send it back to me and I’d cut it again and send it back to them with my initials on it. We’d do it over Instant Messenger. I didn’t physically see my editing partner, Josh Altman, for about eight weeks. I was at my house, he was at his house. We didn’t see each other until the first test screening.

What’s next?
Now it’s about making the deals, selling the film, putting it with the right distributor and also my next move; which festivals we’re going to, which invitations we’re accepting, raising the money for my next film. But I’m going to worry about that tomorrow. Today I’m going to put my house together.

The March/April issue of realscreen will feature more on Ondi Timoner and the making of We Live In Public.

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