Sundance 2024 Interview: DIG! XX, Ondi Timoner and Joel Gion Talk About the Passion

Contributor; Toronto
Sundance 2024 Interview: DIG! XX, Ondi Timoner and Joel Gion Talk About the Passion

When documentary filmmaker Ondi Timononer and her brother David set out in the mid 90s to capture the tribulations and hopeful ascent of ten indie bands as they attempted to navigate the big bad record industry at the end of the 20th century, it’s unlikely that they ever dreamed their first feature effort would drastically change not only their own lives but the lives of their subjects, which would fatefully be whittled down to just two psychedelic revival groups: The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols.

I would go further to say that Dig!, the culminating film of the Timoner siblings’ seven-year shoot, has affected the lives of its fans as well, and I’m speaking here from personal experience. I was 20 when Dig! was released on DVD in 2004 and I played the shit out of that double-disc edition, pushing it onto all visitors who’d lend me their eyes. Over time, the film nested inside my brain to stay.

The film epitomized everything exciting to me about the rockumentary genre. On the one hand, it’s this unabashed and oft-unhinged celebration of the Bohemian spirit, as represented by the parallel and occasionally dueling drives of BJM vs The Dandy Warhols.

On the other, it's a timeless art vs commerce parable that lays bare the psychological shackles of major label aspirations. Meanwhile, there’s a whole other kind of rock doc within concerning the correlation between genius, mental illness, and leadership… and it’d make a helluva double bill with Roky Erickson: You’re Gonna Miss Me.

In the words of the film’s most tragically compelling subject, and also its most mentally-daunted, BJM’s Anton Newcombe, spoken on stage to a crowd at LA’s Viper Room right before his band’s concert descends into legendary disaster: “(Ondi and David) are making a movie about how stupid people are and how beautiful they are at the same time.”

It’s been 20 years since Dig! was unleashed upon the world at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival (pictured above), where it won the Grand Jury Prize, and since then the times have changed so drastically that the film now plays like a historical document of a far-bygone era. In terms of its window into the record industry, since the bulk of the film exists before and in the infancy of the Napster revolution, given the resulting industry/pop-cultural seachange, I feel like Dig! is a more archaic watch today than, say, Don’t Look Back would’ve been in the 90s… I wonder anyway.

I’ve been wondering many things since having the profound pleasure of watching the favorite documentary of my lifetime undergo the anniversary redux treatment. With a running time of over 30 added minutes, and far more exciting, an added voice-over from BJM’s beloved Bez-like holy fool Joel Gion to balance and add some invaluable context to the pre-existing cut (which consists only of narration from The Dandy Warhol’s Courtney Taylor), for fans of the film and its still active/still crazy bands, the epic new cut, deemed Dig! XX, is a 2024 miracle. 

Last week Dig! XX enjoyed its Sundance premiere to celebrate the film’s now 20-year-old Park City victory, and I’d be shocked if it doesn’t also play at SXSW in a few weeks. Regardless of where it appears next, blessed Dig! fans can not only look forward to getting their hands on this wondrous new cut in the impending future but Gion’s memoirs as well, which in part inspired XX, as Ondi discusses below.

Being a big fan of all of Timoner’s work, the following interview is the second time I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Ondi, but it is my first time getting to meet and converse with the singular, the hilarious, the jangly Joel Gion. While I would’ve preferred to go long-form, given my passion for the film’s myriad of themes -- three hours would have been nice -- I nevertheless greatly enjoyed my discussion with two of the multitude of minds contained within Dig! Enjoy:

So how did this all come about? When did you guys first start talking about doing an anniversary cut and reopening the past in this way?

Ondi Timoner: For years now people have been saying, ‘Are you going to make Dig! 2? We want more!’ or ‘Isn't there just a ton of footage? Can you just release some?’ And, you know, we've just been busy making other films, and yet Dig! and the passion for Dig! never waned in the world and we're super honored by that.

And we also feel like the tapes aren't getting any younger. You know? So like if it's 20 years ago that it won Sundance, we started filming 27 years ago and some of those tapes are disintegrating, and my brother and I early last year approached Joel about doing an animated series with him, with his writing.

We were always kind of just trying to wrap our heads around, like, what would this look like? And then we just decided, ‘Oh my God, the 20th anniversary is coming up’ I cut the original Dig! because my brother David had major life stuff going on right then and he couldn't participate in that. But he's a great editor, too.

So I said to him, Look, I'm on two major features right now, but if you have the time to dig in and be the editor this time, I'm down to direct. And David was reading Joel’s Patreon writings, and he said, ‘Ondi, you should really check some of this out.’

So he sent me like 200 pages of it and I just started listening to it and I realized, oh my God, this could be a new way of doing an extended anniversary. Like if we could involve Joel because he's so brilliant and I've always felt he was a comic genius. We flew him to Sundance to get his career started in that regard with the original Dig!. So this is our second Sundance together.

But yeah, we approached him about narrating a new version in that way, taking Courtney's narration and not removing it, but just balancing it with a voice from inside Brian Jonestown and one that could be inspired by some of Joel's writing.

We were drawn together as just a new take on the film. And then, thanks to Joel's narration, we're able to bring the story up to 2024.

Speaking of present-day BJM, how far were you in the editing process when November’s Australia incident happened?

Ondi: We were pretty much done. Joel had just come back to the States and we all sort of touched base on it and realized like, this has to be part of this film.

So Joel, on your Patrion, was this your upcoming book? Were you sort of reading chapters of your book in-process?

Joel Gion: I was, yeah. It was kind of a spot to demo my writing. I just discovered writing late in life. I always wanted to be in a band and that was what it was going to be. And then off a suggestion of a friend, I started writing and I just it immediately fell in love with doing it and just coming from a source of pure joy.

I started posting on Patreon where I was able to give myself deadlines. I would do 2500-ish words a week and I had a couple of hundred people following me so I had to really bring it. So I schooled myself in writing where I had about a thousand double-spaced pages and now my book’s coming out. It's about a third of that writing, which is really a matter of like page count rather than like, ‘Oh, this is the good stuff.’

And it was great to have David on there. And he would chime in once and again, which made me feel really good. And so the relationship kind of rekindled again during that process, during the pandemic, I think was when he caught on to it.

I'd been doing it for almost a year before every week. So this dialog started and the more it grew, the more we felt it was like puzzles being put into place that were meant to be. Right up until the end.

Even with Melbourne; there were things I wasn't prepared to talk about or go to, but the longer we ended up cruising the life, universe, plan, game to where it ended up, it all just made more and more sense as it went. So I'm comfortable. I'm probably in a lot of trouble, but I'm comfortable with my participation level in it in regard to everything.

Cool. Your Instagram post was pretty brilliant -- the Sly Stone autobiography reference. I know you to be a giant fan of the history of rock & roll and psychedelia and all that, so now that you too have a book, I'm wondering how it feels to have graduated into becoming a character in the story of rock & roll.

Joel: Well, I mean, I got to say, man, it feels pretty good to be here, you know?


Joel: I'm a huge cinephile on the side. And in my book, as in life, I'm kind of wishing that life would be like a movie that's constantly referencing movies that you know mean something to me. And these scenarios I get myself into… I got to accept the fact that life's not a movie, but it's like, I mean, oh wait a minute, life was a movie. You know what I mean? So, it's great. We'll all live for a lot longer than we were going to because of Dig!

For someone like myself who has been such a huge fan of DIG! for the last 20 years and who’s long lost count of how many times I’ve seen the film, this new cut with its wealth of extra footage and new narration is not just a blessing, but also kind of revelatory as far as how it fills in some of the gaps of this story.

For example, while I’m very familiar with the scene where BJM are in the backyard playing sitars and fighting, having just moved to Hollywood, I had no idea what the actual fight was about, and to me, it ended up feeling quite significant.

Ondi: The criteria for what we added in Dig! XX is context. So it was always looking at, ‘Okay, this is fun and everything’ or ‘this is cool’, but what is it going to give the audience that they didn't understand the first time? And it was taking those quintessential scenes and adding that context. So it's great that you feel like ‘I don’t think I knew why the Viper Room fight happened,’ you know, and things that also feel like minor details, but end up becoming significant. As you said, it leads to the Viper Room fight.

Joel: We'd been given a few hundred dollars, like Matt complains, to go down there (to Hollywood) and have a place and buy smokes and eat or whatever it is. And Anton did indeed spend the money on sitars. He was so excited that we finally had some money. But the context of why it all went the way it did was because we -- mainly me and Matt -- had never seen this version of Anton before. This was kind of the beginning of that guy.

Wow. When did you meet him?

Joel: I met him in 1992? I had seen them play around the Methedrone / Spacegirl period, and I was just a big fan. And I won't go far down this road, but it's in the book. I tried out for guitar for them in ‘93 and I failed miserably because I didn't know how to play. But I met Ricky, who was in the band, in the bathroom smoking a joint in a club, and he liked the way I looked so he invited me to an audition. I couldn't even play, but I just went anyway because I wanted to be in the band so bad and I failed horribly.

But anyway, fast forward a year and a half later, and Brian Jonestown were playing in the basement of the apartment I lived in, and (Anton) just offhandedly invited me to come up to play maracas or something. And I did. And then I ended up in the band and back in those days, Anton was super even keeled. I don't want to use the word zen, but he was driven and determined but chill and mellow at the same time.

And very endearing and very much a beacon-esque entity that you were just like, ‘Where are we going? Because I'm going there with you’. And then when we went down to L.A. and we're hanging out at Greg Shaw’s, he just started to flip into this other thing, and by the time we're in the back yard, everyone's just frustrated.

And the warm beer is filling up the insides of people. And by the time we got to that night, we were all just like, ‘What the fuck is going on here?’ So I start retaliating by just fucking with everything because now I'm drunk as shit. And that's it. You know the rest. But yeah, we had never seen that version of him before, like that.

Ondi: As Anton said, ‘I never do anything wrong and that's why I don't say I'm sorry.’

Joel: He still doesn't.

Yeah, apparently.

Ondi: So this is a perfect example of where Joel's narration makes this film what it is. Just freezing on each of those guys and being able to understand who that guy with the collared shirt is and who this guitar player is and why we're not going to see him again in the movie.

Haha, exactly! Well, it's also an excellent window into the mechanics of documentary filmmaking. Take the scene when Matt officially quits after being bitten by Anton. We’d seen his phone call before, but now with Joel’s added context, we hear the detail that, ‘Well, Matt was wielding a knife!’ And we didn't know that the first time. So it’s a great illustration of how the audience only has one reality.

Ondi: Some of that, Zach, would just come up. Me and David and Joel just had such a good time doing this. 'Cause we would just chat and banter and Joel would be like, ‘Well, actually, he did have a knife.’ And I was like, “Oh, my God! Say that!”

Well, that's relevant!

Ondi: Yeah. So it was that kind of stuff. The fun thing about playing with period, you know, when you get to the end of the Viper Room scene and being able to actually use more of the Viper Room scene, which we had to cut down because back then, films had to be shorter, right? Generally, the appetite was for shorter films. Even Sundance said, ‘Can you take out like 15 minutes? We're not telling you what to do, but we'd appreciate it.’ And so I did.

And so being able to have (the clip of Anton saying) “This is for Ondi and David, They're a brother and sister team. They're showing how beautiful and stupid people are.”

Yeah! What a perfect moment! How was that not in the film?

Ondi: That sums it up, right? So this version is all about period context, too. Like including The Gilmore Girls spoofing (the Viper Room) word for word afterward. It's really like so much fun to be able to look at Dig!’s impact on the culture since then too. I also like sharing and shedding layers and adding another layer of humor into the film.

I guess particularly with The Viper Room, because adding the context of the sitars being the root cause of the fight, it even gives the scene a tragic punchline at the end with Anton saying, ‘You broke my sitar!’

Ondi: Right, exactly. You didn't know what that meant. Like, it's such ironic full-circle karma.


Ondi: “You broke my sitar, motherfucker!” I love that. Some of the best lines of the movie, in my opinion, happened that day.

In my notes, among my endless thoughts about all the great topics and themes contained within this movie is just a simple descriptor: ‘immensely quotable.’ The film just has so many incredible lines, and this cut just shows how even the outtakes are full of priceless stuff. At the moment, I'm thinking of the fellow at the Cleveland show, ‘Mr. Crack and Slack,’ for example. “This is the band that rules!” Joel, do you remember that happening?

Joel: Of course! No, it's the only part of the movie where ... 'cause people have problems with how they're portrayed, and I certainly don't. I've always contested that throughout all the years. But if I had one regret, it would be when he's backstage with us and I kind of look at the camera like, ‘God, look at this nut job,’ and he saw me do it and I feel so guilty. Because he sees it and he changes. But that's all I got though!

Ondi: You know when somebody comes backstage, it's understandable that you would be like, ‘Who is this guy?’

Joel: He gave us this crank phone call tape and we listened to it incessantly for the next few tours. Mount Ocean Castle; totally stupid. But at the time it was really funny. And that was his message to us, right? You have to listen to this crank phone call tape. And we did. And he was right! Crack and slack, man!

What does crack and slack mean?

Joel: Well, you got to put a crack into the end of the system so they could slack up and cool out so we can all be cooler. Uh, I think that's society? I’m pretty sure.

Ondi: I wanted to put it in the end credits. We were just wrapping up the special thanks and my end line was going to be ‘crack it up and slack it up. To all the Dig! fans everywhere, crack it up and slack it up’. But we ended up going with ‘you are the letter writers,’ which is equally awesome. But yeah, I give my interns this advice all the time. ‘Just remember, crack it up nice, crack it, and slack it.’

Joel: You should make a T-shirt.

Ondi: Yeah, 100%. Dig! shirts that say, ‘Crack it up and slack it up.’

Joel: And a bumper sticker!

Ondi, I liked the added context of the photoshoot, because that scene is interesting on so many levels. I enjoyed it as a unique look at the filmmaker/subject relationship. You don't have that much dialog in the film like that and it seemed to me like a rare moment of you two addressing this documentary you were both making together. “I let you into my life, despite the fact that you don’t have any money…”

Ondi: I mean, that lead-up to the photo shoot could go on and on like that. It could be like a ten-minute scene. There are parts from the original movie, like when he says ‘You're going to use your license, you're going to use your ID, you got to help. We're going to pawn one of my guitars so we can have some scratch here…’ as he’s scratching his neck.

It's sad, but I always do kind of chuckle at that part because of the idea that he’s saying scratch at the same time. But the new part is when he says, you know, ‘Whoever is in the band is who I say is in the band. And people come and go, etc. So that’s what we’re gonna show so long as you don't fuck this up!’ All of that is new.

Overall, that was just a really, really dark time where he also destroyed the funding for the film. We had found an investor who was of great significance and who was ready to jump in as a producer on the film and bring us the funding we dearly needed to make the film. And (Anton) showed up dressed in white with like seven women dressed in white and threatened to kill him if he got involved. So that was a tough time.

Joel, I sense that the reason you're not really in any of the fights in DIG! is that you don't have much of an ego. It seems to me you take everything with a bit of a grain of salt and have a sense of humor about most things. This new motel scene, I think it’s new, is the most conflict we see between you and Anton.

Joel: Yeah, getting in the middle of it. I might, by just pure humanity, have to get in the middle of things from time to time. And that was one of those times. And I would have been there in Melbourne probably too had I lasted that long, but circumstances brought me away from Melbourne, so I wasn’t even there for that. But you know, I would have been in between those two had I been there because that's kind of one of the roles I have to play.

But when they were filming, I was always aware that there was a camera and the dreamer in me, even though I was living in some damp practice space in Portland, the dreamer in me could still imagine a movie audience in a theater watching when they're filming us.

And so that's how I approached it. ‘Hey, we're on! It's action!’ So I don't have a problem with any way I appear on the camera because I meant to look stupid when I was being stupid, you know? So that's a big difference. I guess (others) didn't realize that people might laugh at them in ways they preferred them not.

But you're probably not getting swallowed up in these types of scraps off-camera, are you?

Joel: No, no, no. I've never. Yeah, it's not my style.

Ondi: I mean, it is not easy sometimes when Anton is overwhelmed and I think, frankly, it was, irresponsible for whoever planned (the tour) to put him on the road for two and a half months straight.

Joel: That's one of the ingredients in the lab experiment that exploded on everyone. That is definitely, definitely one of them.

Ondi: As soon as that happened in Melbourne, I thought, ‘well, I don't know if that would have happened if you were there,’ you know, like I think you would have to be able to stop it. So there’s that.

I sure wish we weren’t running out of time, but in an attempt to squeeze a headful of thoughts into one question, it's been 20 years since the release of this iconic film that’s just so loaded in so many ways.

It’s this document of a now ancient moment in the music industry, it involves so many different peoples’ lives and has become this pop cultural thing where suddenly it's affecting the lives of strangers, people like me. I mean, I can't imagine how you even begin to reflect on something like this...

Ondi: Except for Last Light Home, my latest film, this film has impacted so many people in such a positive way. I mean, Last Light Home is by far more impactful just because we all lose those that we love. But Dig! has launched so many artists. It is beloved by so many artists and it's been so touching to me throughout my entire career, especially the reaction I get whenever I put a soundtrack together.

I remember when I did We Live in Public. I mean, we got a $1,000,000 soundtrack for the budget of a documentary! Like $100,000 or something because Perry Ferrell and Trent Reznor and David Bowie, may he rest in peace, and Spoon and Jamiroquai and Sigur Ros, they all came in because they loved Dig! and they would watch that film.

And that love is a gift that all of these musicians gave me by allowing us access to their lives. And we all kind of came up together in our twenties and I look back on that time very much like my coming of age and the fact that those thousands of hours of footage ... you know, the father of my child who also is no longer alive, he asked me when he first met me, ‘What is your dream?’ Because he wanted to make the next Terminator.

And I said, ‘You see all those tapes? I just want to put them on one tape that I can share with people.’ And that was my only goal. You know, I didn't have a huge career plan after that. I just wanted to make something good people could watch.

And the fact that it's so DIY and that my brother and I had to kind of cobble it together over the years. I think that’s part of why it inspires people that they can go and do whatever they want to do. And to me, that's a great thing. And I hope that Dig! XX opens this story to a whole new generation because it's a timeless tale that everyone relates to, whether it's Kurt Vile or Dave Grohl or Jonah Hill, they all say it's one of their favorite documentaries of all time. They see themselves in it, even if their life hasn’t been quite as crazy.

How about you, Joel? You're a part of this loaded thing, you're in pop culture history now. So in retrospect, what do you think about this film?

Joel: Well… I'm glad that it exists. It helped raise the profile of both bands regardless of what some of us want to think. You know, we went from 400-seat theaters to concert halls and headlining massive festivals around the planet after this.

Like I say, I don't have any issues with how I look in it. You know, I grew up on the Beatles! I wanted life to be A Hard Day's Night and that was my inspiration. So, yeah, man, I'm jazzed on that movie and its existence.


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Dig!Joel GionOndi TimonerSundance Film Festival

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