Interview: Ondi Timoner Digs Into MAPPLETHORPE

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Interview: Ondi Timoner Digs Into MAPPLETHORPE

I was looking a little more than unkempt the day I met Mapplethorpe director, Ondi Timoner, at a coffee shop near Pasadena, California.

My Los Angeles trip had just been extended a few days, which, while inconvenient as far as my laundry cycle was concerned, was rather fortuitous in that it allowed for my crossing paths with Ondi, who had just returned home from New York. While in New York, Timoner not only did the press rounds for her recently released biopic exploring the life of radical photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, but appeared at a 10th anniversary screening of her magnificently timely doc We Live in Public.

After a very brief introduction, Ondi remarked of my worn appearance, “You look like you’ve seen Dig!”, her career-making documentary on two burgeoning bands who’d come to encompass the tension between art and commerce among other creative/industry binaries. “I have…” I answered, downplaying my obsession with her breakthrough film. I’d go on to confess that “Yes, I’ve seen the shit out of Dig!”, but also that I’ve repeat-viewed We Live in Public, watched multiple commentaries for both films, and have avidly enjoyed her other fascinating docs, Cool It, Brand, and Join Us, which I’d just recently caught up with.

As a longtime fan, I was very excited to see how Timoner would approach this new form of cinematic storytelling, particularly by doing so with a real-life subject for whom she holds such clear esteem. Her protagonists have never ceased to infatuate in their respective quests for greatness, balanced with the realtime consequences of their relentless aspirations, and in her foray into the biopic, we get to see the fruits of another kind of Ondi Timoner passion project. Luckily, Mapplethorpe does not disappoint.

I ended up having a delightful conversation with Ondi, speaking not just of Mapplethorpe, man and film, but of her career at large and its resounding themes, which I continue to gravitate towards. In fact, I intend on following this piece up in a few months with a more expansive career-spanning article, considering 2019 not only sees the release of her first non-documentary project, but also both the 10th year anniversary of We Live in Public and the 15th year anniversary of Dig!. In the meantime, please enjoy this excerpt of our time discussing the complicatedly lovable Mapplethorpe.

For your very first fiction film, or non-documentary, why Robert Mapplethorpe?

Ondi Timoner: I like how you call it non-documentary. I mean, the words ‘narrative’ and the word ‘dramatic’ really don't work, because non-fiction films better have arcs and stories and things, and be dramatic. So I call them scripted. But why Mapplethorpe? Oh, he fits right in with the kinds of people that I like to tell stories about. He's what I call an impossible visionary.

He's somebody who saw things differently than society at the time, and couldn't help but express what he saw, and was determined that we should all see what he sees, and see the beauty in a life, and BDSM, and everything else. An LGBTQ lifestyle, that we were not in a position at that point as a society to embrace. And it was really like taking the underworld and turning it into fine art and sculpture, to the point where even photography became a collectible art form.

And it was just because he wouldn't take no for an answer, and he was determined that people see the beauty that he saw. So he took what he evolved from, being a verité documentary type photographer, to a studio photographer, who almost made Rodin and Michelangelo out of the male form, and female form, and flowers, and subverted all of it, and flipped it on its head.

And then by the time he passed away too young from AIDS, you weren't famous if he didn't take your picture. So before Susan Sarandon, or Sigourney Weaver, Donald Sutherland came into the studio, he would've been taking some probably black man's photo that he had slept with the night before, and then moved them out, and move in a celebrity. And it's all part of the same collection in a way, you know?

Yeah, I didn't really know it ended as commercially as that, not that, that sounds that commercial, photographing celebrities, or whatever, but I didn't realize he became so in vogue.

Oh, yeah. He knew he had to be famous young, because he knew he'd die young.

Yeah, I love the line in the film - forgive me for misremembering it - “I can’t die before I’m famous”.

(Pulling out her laptop to the get the quote right). You get to see all 58 drafts.

What was the date of the first draft?

I originally optioned it to produce and direct in 2006.

Whoa.

It was written by Bruce Goodrich, who is a production designer. He came to me and chose me to produce and direct the film.

I see. Was the title always MAPPLETHORPE -- just one word?

No, it was called 'The Perfect Moment', and it was the court case looking back. That was the original script. And I turned it into this unfolding story after I took it to the Sundance lab in 2010.

(Reading script) “I won't know what it's like to be 50... Yeah, how are you so sure?... I just know... Are you scared of dying?... Only before I'm famous... Then you better get to work.”

Yeah, that's a good line. So, when you accepted the project, when you decided to take it on, and you realized you were taking on somebody who you held such esteem for, what did the initial vision look like? What were your initial goals? What were the initial things floating around in your mind? How do you start organizing your ideas for this project?

I was interested in bringing him alive. I was never interested in making a documentary about him. I always wanted the mercurial aspects to dance on screen. I thought that he was so deeply flawed in so many ways as a human, but aren't we all?

And that if I could portray him in all of his colors, then I could inspire other artists to go ahead and pursue their visions without hesitation, you know?

Even if they felt like they had fatal flaws like him. That was kind of the motivation there -- the arc he goes through from being a really soft and tender human to being really hard-edged. And I think part of that is just withstanding the ridicule and doubt of the dealers at the time, who just didn't even see what he was doing as a collectible art form. I mean, even including Sam Wagstaff, who was a collector.

It wasn't that Sam ridiculed him. He just didn't even believe that it applied, but he fell in love with Robert, and so he ended up supporting him. And I think without Sam, there wouldn't be a Robert, really. We wouldn't have known of him, most likely. But yeah, I mean, I feel like he ends up becoming quite predatorial and framing everything up. And everything has to be perfect within the frame, but his relationships aren't perfect.

We see that with his brother...

And his romantic relationships are littered with infidelity. He's not good at tolerating imperfection. He doesn't do well with that.

Like, that scene where he's taking the calla lilies and throwing them out one by one, you know? He didn't like to see a flower on its way out. It was intolerable to him. And I think that he, in a way, it was a sort of self condemnation, you know?

Like, he was raised Catholic, is an altar boy. And I think his battle with the church, his internal battle with the church, is a big part of who he is and what drove his work. He loved the imagery of the Catholic church, but he also hated the fact that he had to feel like he was doing something bad by loving other men.

He was angry about that, I think, but he also loved the iconography, the sex, and the blood, and the gore. The things that the Catholic church wouldn't necessarily want you to love, he really was super turned on by. You know?

I love the moment where he's shooting his old priest.

Yeah, that's a little bit of poetic license on my part.

That's okay. So I mean, how much permission did you give yourself for poetic license?

I mean, I made up all the stories of what were behind the photographs, mostly. Like, a lot of that was just stuff that I imagined; I chose photographs that would help us with the narrative.

So, like, his father and mother giving him those flowers. And then that photograph of the flower with the knife, like, I thought, "What would the story be behind that picture? Why would he be putting a knife up against a flower? Look at that dramatic tension. Where was that coming from, you know?" And then I thought, "What if a perfect thing." Like, his parents at the opening, you know?

Was docudrama a good transition into “scrpted narrative” for you?

Docudrama? What's docudrama?

Yeah, I mean, docudrama is biopic, I guess.

Oh, a biopic?

Yeah.

Yeah, I'm interested in real life still, and I'm always gonna make documentaries too, but real life sometimes should be scripted. I mean, I don't tend to make films about dead people, and I don't tend to make retrospectives. Because if they are, and you need to tell some of the past, like with Josh Harrison, We Live In Public, or with Russell Brand, there's a way to do that, to weave that into a vehicle that's moving forward, that's alive, that's vibrant.

I'm a big believer, and the reason why Dig! was the way it was, was because I felt like people considered documentaries to be too educational to be entertaining, almost like eating spinach, or reading a history book, or something. And I felt like we needed to make something where It's Friday night, and you want to go to the movies. You want to see something that's unfolding, where you don't know what's gonna happen next, you know?

You don't know what's gonna come at you next. And the only way to really accomplish that in non-fiction, is to not know yourself. I had no idea what was gonna happen next when I was shooting Dig!, or We Live In Public, or any of that.

Yeah, that's pretty clear.

Or even Brand, you know? And so, you just kind of put yourself in a bit of a vulnerable position, and you kind of get in the car, and that's why it's called Interloper Films, it’s like in the group and taking notes, you know? 

So with Mapplethorpe, I really wanted him to bring him alive. I wanted us to see this incredible life unfolding, and I couldn't do it without the beginning, the coming of age story, coming into his art. And like peeling back the layers of an onion, coming into his sexuality. And then I couldn't do it without AIDS, and the AIDS epidemic at the end.

I felt like that was super important as well. So it kind of became this story in three parts. With the middle being this like, rebellious, '70s, kind of, him finding his footing in being the l'enfant terrible.

So when you're setting out to make a documentary without knowing where it's going, what is the litmus test of a project worth chasing?

It's always about the character, right? It's about having a question that you want to answer for yourself, that's gotta be something that you're gonna be interested in for years, and that you think might be relevant to a wider audience out there as well. That's really important.

I always say that in my masterclass and stuff, because you've gotta have that. It can't just be like, "I found you fascinating." You know? But like at the end of the day, a movie's carried by strong character, or characters, you know? And for me, complex people.

Absolutely. Did MAPPLETHORPE begin with a question?

People that can't help but do what they do, and what they are. You kind of loathe them for how they act. They act impossibly, but they act impossibly because they're taking on the impossible. And so, it's very inspiring.

But it's also like, somebody was raised their hand after the London premiere of Brand, and was like, "I've changed my opinion of Russell Brand 19 times during the screening." It's like, I couldn't have a higher compliment. You know what I mean? That's great. That means you're leaning in. That means you're grappling with your own issues. It becomes a much more complex viewing experienced than...

And I felt like with Mapplethorpe, like with Dig!, I could create an anthem? for artists. I could create a piece of work that would bring alive someone who really, really accomplished the impossible in a lot of ways, in a time in history that wasn't that long ago, and things were radically different politically for gay people everywhere. So yeah, I just thought this would inspire people. I never really engage in anything that I don't think will have deeper meaning, or impact, in the world. If you've noticed.

I love when Sam says to Mapplethorpe, "Your subjects must really trust you." And he responds, “They do…”

“They do.”

Do you relate to that line?

I love that performance right there.

Me too.

That line was an ad lib, I believe...

Oh, really?

... by John Benjamin Hickey, the fantastic actor who plays Sam.

How important has trust on your subject's part played into your career and to your craft?

Maybe it's an ad lib. Do you want me to look it up?

Not really.

Okay. Trust is huge. What they know about me is that I'm gonna tell you how I feel about things. I'm gonna tell you if I have an idea that the story's going in a certain way, I'm very transparent and...

Direct.

Direct. And very much an open book myself, as you can tell. I just feel like it's really important. I point the camera at different people, and I expect them to open up to me. And these are people that sometimes have big reputations to maintain, and also just humans.

And we all have... What do they say? ‘That secrets are what will kill you.’ More secrets more unhappiness, or something. We all have things that we are hiding, and ... It's not that my quest is to get them to tell me all their secrets, but they end up opening up a lot with me, because I don't have many to hide. I don't have much to hide either. I pretty much will say it all.

So at some point, Russell will ask me about myself, and he'll get full solid answers. And if he says something that pisses me off, he'll get me pissed off, and I'm not gonna be scared of him. And that's really important, especially for people that have reached a certain modicum of success. The greatest thing they don't trust is that they're not being deified, or that they're not being pussyfooted around, or however you say that. You know? That people aren't shrinking, or holding back from solid, honest...

Truth.

Truth, whatever their truth is.

So what might be some interesting similarities, or differences, between the trust required of a subject versus an actor, your lead actor? In this case, Matt Smith.

Oh, that's interesting. There's not much of a difference.

That is interesting.

Yeah, my doc skills came really in handy. I can't see how it's not fantastic training for making scripted films. I mean, getting on people's wavelengths, making them feel safe, making them feel like they can be themselves, making them feel like they can improvise. I would want that anyway.

For me, the success of a film like this, is based on the ability for people to be authentic, for you to watch this movie and believe it. That is all that matters, is that you buy into this story, and you forget that you're watching Matt Smith. You’re just kind of watching Robert Mapplethorpe. And that, I believe, happens, in this movie.

That's what we were going for. What else is there to go for? And so, as a doc filmmaker, I always try to get people to be their authentic selves, and to take their ego, and superego, and self consciousness, out of the picture. Same with actors. Matt always loves to surprise. He loved to surprise me, and surprise himself. And the challenge was we only had 19 days.

Oh, wow.

That was the problem. Yeah, that was the problem. We didn't have time to find it because we needed to capture the script. But I was very open as an editor, somebody who has edited all these films, I know.

I've spent literally... What is that thing that's like ‘10,000 hours makes you a…’ it's called Outliers, that book. It's like 10,000 hours makes you a master of something. It's probably, unfortunately, like hundreds of thousands of hours that I've been sitting inside an AVID.

Yeah, a lifetime.

Way more time editing than anything, really, than even shooting. And there's 2,500 hours of footage in Dig!, and 5,000 in We Live In Public, and I've just edited, edited, edited. So, what that does is prepares a director to understand when they have it, when he or she has it, has that take. And I have to sometimes figure that out in two takes, or one take.

I'd have to know that I had it in the edit, or I'd have to also sometimes take three scenes and combined them into one. Take dialogue from one scene and put it into another in the moment, because I knew that we didn't have time to shoot 17 scenes that day. It became this thing, where it was just like, we're shooting all on film, but we didn't even have time to shoot half the film that we had. So, we had to get to authenticity real quick.

Keep an eye out in the coming months for the rest of this conversation.

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Dig!MapplethorpeMatt SmithOndi TimonerRobert MapplethorpeWe Live In Public