How do you pack someone’s whole life into one movie?
It certainly sounds like a daunting task – taking decades of memories, experiences, fears, and romances, and finding a way to put them all in a digestible medium for an audience to experience.
Some may think it’s impossible – but it is, in fact, Ondi Timoner’s specialty.
When Timoner began making documentaries in college, it was a bit of a low moment for the genre. People had begun to associate documentary films with boring history lectures and public service announcements.
But as she soon quickly discovered, documentaries have the capability of being so much more. In her own words, the real lives of individuals are often stranger and more interesting than anything a screenwriter could hope to imagine.
Since those early days, Timoner has become one of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers in the world, with films such as DIG! (2004) and We Live in Public (2009) both earning the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, and both of which were acquired for MoMA NY’s permanent collection. Throughout her career, she has shown the ability to create both intimate portraits of individuals and explorations of complex societal issues. We caught up with her for a discussion about life, her career, and her philosophy as an artist.
JC TAYLOR: It’s been a difficult year and a half, almost two years for everybody. What’s it been like for you working as an artist through a global pandemic?
ONDI TIMONER: I’m fortunate to be a non-fiction artist in that regard. Documentary filmmakers had a better time because of the small crews we work with, and I found Zoom to be really helpful in terms of keeping up with my subjects. All you really need is a camera and a lav (clip-on) mic to get something done.
JT: Right, so has that allowed you some more flexibility as a filmmaker?
OT: Yeah, I mean, I didn’t go around like a one-woman band or anything. First, I took it as an incredibly much-needed respite, and obviously it was shocking, that first month, for all of us. It was just like, “Is this the end of the world, what’s going to happen?” That first month really felt like it was 6 months – like life had shifted forever. And in a way, it kind of did. It woke us all up to our need for rest and our need to focus more.
In my case, I tend to take on a lot. When the dust settled, and I didn’t have a thousand things coming into my inbox every day, it was a little bit of a chance to explore who I am at this point in my life, and what I really want to do. I also had to focus on my son because suddenly there’s a teenager here bouncing off the walls.
Then quickly the question became,“How are we going to finish Coming Clean?” which is the movie we had made about people working on the frontlines to solve the opioid epidemic. I was heading to New York to finish the mix for Coming Clean. Obviously, that wasn’t happening anymore; New York was hit so hard at the beginning. So, I ended up mixing the movie myself on Avid, which is not… I wouldn’t recommend it.
I had to meticulously go through every bit of the movie and Morgan [Doctor], my partner, cleaned dialogue – which she had done before but doesn’t necessarily prefer as an activity. We got to be together though, and she scored a bunch of scenes over that time. There was something very sacred about the simplicity of life over those many months.
JT: Wow. So, what did you learn in that period?
OT: I realized that I was making a film about love and connection going into the Pandemic, and in November 2019, I started an exploration of the scientific basis for our evolutionary need to connect and why we are having such a hard time meeting our needs these days. Why are relationships seemingly so difficult to sustain over long periods of time? Love seems to be what everybody wants, but it seems like very few people can find it, and I thought, “Where is that movie?”
So, I started this exploration. I was shooting in New York in November and December with the chief data scientist at Match.com and an oxytocin expert – then suddenly, the pandemic happened, and we went from a wired world of increasing isolation to complete isolation, overnight. And that was, in a way, a telescopic view into our future if we proceed like this, because with all these options, with the internet, and with online dating – we can forget about the qualitative importance of messy, sloppy, less easy to control in-person relationships – which are vital.
I realized that if I studied people in relationships or alone over this period and tracked them, I could track the greatest social experiment ever. So, I started filming people by having them film themselves. I wrote out a guide to how to self-document, and then also did Zoom interviews with them and then would give them assignments of like, “Here’s what I’d love to hear from you.”
I think it helped the people get through it. They felt like they were creating something, and I felt connected to a lot of different people and different places via that experience. The scientists continued to participate. They went from being talking head experts to being people in the pandemic who were just trying to get through this.
JT: So, this is a bit of a 180 here, but I want to bring it back, because I am curious about the timeline of your career as an artist leading up to now. Do you remember an inception moment when you first became interested in being an artist or being a documentarian?
OT: So, when I was at Yale, I went on a road trip across the country for Spring Break. My brother, who was a freshman when I was a junior; my roommate, John Krokidas who is now a filmmaker in his own right; and me.
I brought a little video camera. I don’t remember exactly why I asked my parents for a video camera for my holiday gift, but that’s what I asked for. I started interviewing people – just asking them what they fear the most, what makes them happy, and what they think of gays in the military (a hot topic at the time) – and I interviewed them in toll booths and convenience stores. Just whoever I ran into.
And man, debates would break out! I suddenly realized that life is much more interesting with a camera in your hand. Buying a bag of chips or paying your toll is no longer an absent-minded activity, it’s an exploration. It’s a journey. Everything became this exciting adventure with a camera, because if I asked a question, someone would answer it.
I was like, “Wow!” With a camera, I almost had permission to randomly ask questions, you know? And so, I interviewed one guy in the fast-food section of a truck stop, and I said, “So what do you fear the most?” and he said, “Women with video cameras.”
So that was the first film that I made. It was called 3000 Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera. So, I was starting to get into it, and my next project was going into women’s prisons to film interviews with the women who were imprisoned – to look behind their portrayals as crazy butch dykes, which were really popular at the time on late night TV. I took a class at Yale called “Transgressive Women in American Culture” and asked the professor if I could make a film instead of writing a paper. The prison let me in because I was a student, and the women were just happy to tell their stories.
By speaking to them, I learned so much about the preconceived notions and the stereotypes that I had in my own head. I guess I thought they might have committed violent crimes because of how they had been portrayed, but these women were very genuine, gentle people who had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks and needed that pair of Nikes or were married to a guy who was robbing a store, and they were driving the getaway car. They were mothers and daughters and sisters and, for the most part, people that we should be working to rehabilitate and re-integrate into our society, not shoved into a jail cell forever – which does, in turn, create more criminals due to the abandoned children they leave behind.
I would drive out of the prison and my mind was just blown, and I would realize that I was going to be able to share these stories and kind of free their soul in some way from inside those prison walls. For me, that was a power that I could not resist – and that really married me to the art form of documentary.
I ended up graduating from Yale and staying in Connecticut another year to finish my first feature documentary, The Nature of the Beast, which was about one woman I met in that prison, Bonnie Jean Foreshaw. She was everyone’s guardian angel, but was serving the longest prison sentence in the state for shooting and killing a pregnant woman, which she did by accident while defending herself against a man who was attacking her. That man testified to using the woman as a human shield, and he had an assault record on two different police officers. The story had so many incredible details of injustice, it was shocking.
I thought I could tell her story and get her released right away. But no one watched documentaries in the mid-90’s. The film did win awards – including from the National Society for Visual Anthropology (which made me realize that social anthropology is really what I am doing with this camera in my hand) and it went on PBS in the Tri-state area. It took twenty years, but eventually the film did help her get clemency, and I brought my son with me to be there to greet her as she emerged.
JT: Were there any documentaries you were watching at the time that inspired you?
OT: When I was first getting into it, it was really a dead time for documentaries. They were considered to be like eating spinach or reading a history book. I thought, “You know what? People don’t realize documentaries are fascinating because they equate the art form with learning, not being entertained.”
So, when I made DIG!, which is the first film I made after moving to the West Coast, I set out to follow bands on the verge of getting signed to look at the collision of art and commerce, because I wanted to follow life over time. My feeling is that time provides the greatest narrative in documentary and allows us to create suspense-driven narratives out of real life.
My theory was, if you track any one human life over a period of time, all of these unexpected things are going to happen. And if you’re able to trace the serendipity of life and connect the dots by actually culling the footage, you’ll have a fascinating story that inspires the audience to realize that though life deals hard blows they often lead to incredible breakthroughs or unexpected fortune. I wanted to make narrative films out of real footage, and that became my mission. I truly believe life is far more interesting than anything I could write.
So DIG! takes place over 7 years, following two bands in a star-crossed friendship and rivalry. It’s 2,500 hours of footage, which – I didn’t realize as I was shooting it – would take 4 years to edit. That’s something I had not calculated in my 23-year-old brain. If we really film life as it’s unfolding, then we have to edit all that down to make a cohesive film!
We Live in Public was culled from 5,000 hours of footage shot over 10 years, because many machines shot it too – there were 110 surveillance cameras. I don’t think there’s a coincidence there though. I really think if you can make films over time, where the audience is entertained by an unfolding story, and you don’t know what’s going to happen next, then you win their attention and can open their hearts and minds. Because you’ve got the person totally locked in. They’re into the ride. They’re laughing and crying, and then they realize at the end that it’s real. So, it’s a win-win.
JT: That’s so interesting to me, because I’ve always been curious – for you, when you sit down and you’re thinking about your next project, do you sit down and think, “Okay, what issue or subject am I really interested in right now and want to talk about?” Or do you have this kind of trust that something will reveal itself to you? Or is it both?
OT: I usually have so many things that I’m doing and wanting to do. I have a list that will last long past my greatest hopes of a lifespan, unfortunately. Even now, I just have so many things I want to do. I doubt I could do them all, and then things come up in our lives that supersede what I thought I would be doing.
For example, I’ve been working on a scripted film about my father, his airline, and an accidental stroke he had when I was nine-and-a-half that changed our lives forever. My father had founded the fastest-growing airline in the history of the world, it was called “Air Florida.” He was an incredible entrepreneur and leader – and the way he had grown the airline so fast was with love.
I lacked archival footage so I could never make a documentary about that airline and that time, so I set out to write a scripted film called A Stroke of Genius, and I’ve been working on it since 2015. However, in January, he was put in the hospital for breathing problems (not related to COVID, but to a slow-moving terminal illness, COPD). He had fallen so many times during COVID, it was becoming unsafe for him to be home.
Suddenly, Dad’s in the hospital, and when he realizes that he’s not going to come home again, that he’s probably going to be sent to a facility because it’s impossible to care for him at home, he desperately said, “I want to die.” He, the most tenacious person on earth, just decided that it was time. He had to die. He went from clinging to life and saying, “I’ll be there for everything in your future,” to, “I want out. I’ve served my time.” So, we did whatever we could to fulfill his wishes.
We got hospice started, and he came home to his house, and the way it worked in California, there’s a 15- day waiting period. I just cancelled everything in my schedule and went there over those three weeks. I spent day-in, day-out, caregiving for him, loving on him, and filming. I just started filming. I was so terrified to lose him and any memory of how he sounded and what his personality was like, I set up cameras on sticks and made it as unobtrusive as possible. That turned into a movie called Last Flight Home, which just premiered at Sundance.
For the months since he died, I spent time with my father, deeply laughing and crying late into the night. It’s the best use of my documentary skills to date, to be able to process my father’s mortality in this way. He let me film everything because he told me “I instinctively know you are on the right track.” He complains at one point in the movie about the lav mic when prompted by my nephew. “These pesky wires,” he says. I jump in, “Dad, I told you so many times you can take those off. I do not want a microphone or any part of this to interfere with the last days of your life. Please.”
And he snaps, “No.” – telling my nephew, “I don’t want to cross the director.” He was such a funny and adorable human being, such an inspiration. He was literally the greatest human being any of us ever knew, and now the world is getting to meet him. It’s truly magical.
So, to answer your question, I had no intention of making this film when I set up those cameras but what happened was so profound, I felt obligated to share it and help others with this type of journey. The intention to make a film about my father has been there since the beginning of my career, but I had no idea it would come to fruition in this form. Now the scripted film is getting set up to be made. Life deals us twists and turns we can never predict!
JT: Well, it’s just like what you were saying earlier – there was this whole new idea on mortality that developed over the last 2 years, right? So, it sounds like it’s a perfect movie for the moment.
OT: It is a perfect movie for the moment, where so many people have had to face the death of their loved ones – and most people didn’t have the opportunity to be with them to say goodbye. It is not a COVID movie at all, but everyone loses their parents, if things go as they should. It should never be the other way around. The film is almost the anatomy of a good death, because our family really rallied and surrounded Dad. Everybody was so brave and so loving. It’s very raw and real and beautiful… And you’re right there experiencing it with the family.
Every grandkid was there, sitting by the bed. The day before Dad died, he imparted wisdom to each one. They all had questions for him.
We don’t have any representations of death like this. There’s no deathbed rituals that we see. We don’t see that stuff. Also, you don’t usually get 15 days to say goodbye, so the audience is left with the question – what would you do with those 15 days? Also, the way we measure our lives, in terms of whether we are “successful” is explored naturally in this film, and upended. We see what true legacy looks like.
Anyway, I’m in the middle of, as you know, a movie about Wall Street – which is the exact opposite but inspired by my father and wanting to know more about the way things used to work in the financial world and how they do now as they’ve been disrupted by the Internet.
JT: (laughs) Quite a segue! Well, you were saying the Wall Street movie is this big subject that you’re tackling, but your career has shown an ability to paint these intimate portraits of artists, right? You made Mapplethorpe as a narrative film starring Matt Smith, and a deep dive on Russell Brand as a documentary. These are windows into individuals’ lives, but you’re also able to tackle big overarching subjects like global warming and…
OT: And the opioid epidemic.
JT: Right, and the opioid crisis. I mean, how do you approach those two types of films?
OT: That’s a great question. I’d say that my dad’s movie goes in the category of the artist. It’s a single character, whereas @Wall Street Bets is like Coming Clean in that it’s attempting to look at a massive subject matter, which is the disruption of finance and the decentralization of our economy. How do you do that? It’s a very complex, very rapid shift we’re experiencing as we speak, so focusing on one character would do a disservice to the subject matter.
There are two sides of my personality: One that wants to crawl into the crevices of someone’s soul and understand what motivates someone like Robert Mapplethorpe to live a life of conflict, to frame up everything and make it perfect. Why did he take this path, why was it irresistible to him, and how did he become the most controversial artist in history?
Then there’s the other side where I want to understand all of us and what we’re going through right now as a society. Like with the climate change film, Cool It. Bjorn Lomborg is the main character, but really, there’s no way to tell that story without understanding the solves, be they adaptation or geo-engineering solutions. So, I wanted to explore the labs of scientists on the cutting edge.
My egghead, Yale-y side is all about these intellectual pursuits. Let’s take something massive and make it a 90-minute one-stop shop. Same thing with the opioid epidemic. I thought there was nothing solution-oriented, which brought an understanding and compassion to the leagues of people suffering from this epidemic. I thought, “Okay, you know what, I can look at addicts and their relationship with policymakers and how they impacted policy by touching people.” And therefore, I can get both the policy side and get into the lawsuits that are crucial to understanding and solving this, but I can also tell the story of addiction in a way that reduces the stigma.
So, to answer your question, both of those kinds of films get me really excited.
JT: Today, you’ve got an incredible resume, and I’m wondering if you could go back and talk to Ondi at Yale, who’s bringing video cameras into gas stations, would you give her advice or tell her anything?
OT: Probably not. I’d probably just let younger Ondi go on her merry way. I don’t really have a lot of regrets. I’m very grateful.
That’s the one thing I’ve noticed- I really am so grateful. Grateful to have the life that I have, grateful to my family and my friends and to have found this career that’s so fulfilling on so many levels. It’s taken me around the world again and again. It’s allowed me to raise my son in a bunch of countries that I never would have been able to afford to expose him to otherwise. Tours of Israel and Bhutan – it’s just unbelievable. I’m grateful to be able to connect with people via my work and to help them in some small way. I’m just glad that I’ve managed to create work that people are interested in seeing on some level and are touched by, and that it is contributory to our society. I just hope I get to keep doing it.
So, I wouldn’t tell Ondi anything. Maybe, “Don’t start smoking cigarettes.”