“Russell Brand…he’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” director Ondi Timoner on making “Brand: A Second Coming”

The mercurial Russell Brand is the subject of Dig! director Ondi Timoner’s new documentary

He used to be just a naughty boy, but now he might actually be the messiah. Or, maybe, he is a bit of both. Viewers can make up their own minds about comedian-turned-political revolutionary Russell Brand after catching director Ondi Timoner’s (Dig! We Live in Public) documentary Brand: A Second Coming. The film is released in UK cinemas on October 23, having premiered in the country in a gala spot at this year’s London Film Festival. You can read the Smoke Screen 4-star review here.

Timoner only got invited onto the documentary project as a result of Brand being unable to find a director who could shape it into something coherent, even after years of shooting, and she at first simply planned to follow him on his comedy tour Messiah Complex. But over the course of an arduous, strange and fascinating shoot, Brand’s life took a very leftward turn. He broke up with then-wife Katy Perry, abandoned a blossoming Hollywood career, headed back to the UK in an attempt to overthrow the government, and thrashed out a manifesto called Revolution. The unkempt, mercurial comedian, famed for his libertine hijinks and cheeky public stunts, now found himself installed at the head of a political wave and a new icon for younger voters.

Timoner, a director who has twice scooped the Documentary Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, took some time out from the London Film Festival press circuit to discuss how the shoot took such a sideways turn, the challenges of gaining the trust of the notoriously media-shy Brand, and how the film fits in with her fasciation for “disruptors” of the status quo.

Ondi Timoner

The film premiered at SXSW festival, since then have you spoken to Russell Brand, has he made peace with the film following his refusal to turn up to the film’s launch event and see it again?

He had seen the film, but he was feeling sick from it. I don’t think he’s made peace with it, no. But he agrees that it was the right move: to make the movie about him. To see the myths, to see how fame plays out through his eyes. To see him be lambasted for trying to step out of that and do something different with his life. I think the journey is inspiring to watch though, and I think he’ll be happy with that. Its tough for him though, as he’s said to me, his life was tough enough to live the first time around.

What do you think about the more recent news that Brand has shut down his Youtube channel The Trews, and wants to spend more time educating himself politically?

I can’t imagine he wont come back to social media, in particular because it is such a powerful tool for organising people and disruptive activity. We couldn’t have the revolution he proposes before the internet, so he needs to use it.

How did you get involved in the project in the first place, was it through working on the short film Russell Brand’s The Bird?

No, I got involvedbecause of my work on Dig! and We Live in Public, Russell thought I’d be good at dealing with “difficult mavericks”. The film had already been shooting for several years, Oliver Stone originated it, but it was going under a different title called Happiness: which was built around Russell interviewing different people about the concept of happiness. You seen a tiny bit of that in the film: the scenes where he interviews Mike Tyson, David Lynch and others.

Russell never gave up creative control and took it over, he wasn’t happy with the way it was going, and went through various directors. At one point even he tried to direct it. So I ended up being sent the film and being asked to save it, and I didn’t see a film in there to save really. So I went to a meeting to give them notes on how to make it better, and Russell was at that meeting. He was so magnetic and intelligent, and I didn’t really see any of that in the footage. So that was my first hook.

Then I got sent his books and other material; actually I didn’t even really know who Russell was. I knew he was Katy Perry’s boyfriend, but I hadn’t seen any of his standup, I hadn’t seen Get Him to the Greek, nothing. But I was blown away, and I couldn’t believe that here was this really intelligent person, and I’d been thinking of passing on the project.

He pursued me to go to his standup show when I was still on the fence about doing it. I saw him with all his scattered papers and notes about his show Messiah Complex. I saw a person just grappling with the distracting tabloid celebrity cheap fame that he entertained, thinking it would make him happy, versus this immortality that figures from his childhood like Gandhi, like Malcolm X and Che, had attained as they had put something else before themselves. He was trying to figure out who he was going to be, and how it was going to work, even as those icons are being co-opted by pop culture. It was all so disturbing to him, but I thought it was really interesting; I could look at the role of ego and narcissism in people who want to change the world. That was the original concept then, I would watch this play out on stage, start a new movie pulling back the veil on Brand’s creative process, and go out on the road and film Messiah Complex.

I had no idea that he would then move back to London, try to overthrow the government, start The Trews, write his manifesto Revolution. He left the US, he’d just bought a house, Laurence Olivier’s house. I don’t think he’s ever been in it. He left and never went back. Who does that?

Messiah complex: Russell Brand at work

Some of Russell Brand’s work did have a political flavour to it though, as your archive footage shows.

Yeah and that made me want to seek out in the trajectory of the man. He comes from a lower middle class from a really common town which he jokingly called ‘the penitentiary of anonymity”: Grays in Essex. But you can see that he is pissed, pissed at the inequality, even back then, but he doesn’t have any power, except the power of his winning personality, to cause chaos in the streets, dress up like Jack the Ripper and try to stop a corporation taking over Spitalfields Market and so on. But he had to become famous before he could truly disrupt things. But now he is called a hypocrite for it. I’m not sure even he knows how to balance it out, he could give away all his money, but then he would have no resources to make shit happen.

How did you and Russell Brand work together, and develop trust?

I had to remind him that I wasn’t the paparazzi every day. It was extra challenging as I’d never made a movie about someone as famous before; they have all this armour. They have a way of managing anyone trying to get near them, with kid gloves on.

It took a lot of work to get the filming accomplished; as Russell is someone who doesn’t like to be documented, living his private life. But he knew we were doing good work, and I would keep challenging him, keep showing him that I was listening and that I cared, that I had respect for him.

At first the way that I established trust was by putting up boundaries. Like for example we were supposed to be going travelling, getting shots, and Russell hid from me for several hours. Then I got call from his management saying I could travel with him, but not ask him any questions or film him on the way. So I just didn’t show up at the airport. What was the point? I’d already told Russell that the thing I needed to make this work was travel shots! He called later and apologised, he took responsibility for trying to over control things before when filming before me, and now here he was doing it again. I showed him in that moment what I would not waste my time. It wasn’t about kissing ass to earn trust.

I did finally get creative control and final cut, when he moved to England and started doing all this disruptive stuff, that meant following him to do all the interviews with his family and friends. I didn’t want to leave my child at home to chase Russell around, do all this work, to then have him have final say. Given that there had been four or five directors before, obviously there was a story as to why this thing wasn’t getting done. Life is too short for me to put myself in that position, and I already ended up editing thousand of hours of footage outside of what I was getting paid for, I shot the movie, produced it, it’s a lot to take on only to have someone come along and tell you to change the whole thing.

Did he object to anything you wanted to include in the film?

Yes, and I did give a lot. I changed a lot of things for him, out of respect for him and his humanity and our relationship.  There were ethical reasons too, where he felt he was transgressing in the footage, or if it was really, really private. There were some scenes with Katy Perry which were cut too. I just drew the line where he started telling me where to put stuff. I told him; “you win in this film, at the end.”

There is a line Brand speaks where he shouts to a crowd: “I may be a narcissist, but I’m your narcissist”. Your film does engage with the question of where political idealism ends and narcissism begins.

I actually ask him in the film, in that scene in the car: “So you think you’re just better than everyone else?” I think he struggles with that, all the time. I think he knows he’s special. Of course he does! How could you not have the career he has had without being special? He loves chaos, he loves mucking about, disrupting. When shooting, he loved riding his bike and having us run after him, he loved the chase, all that. He’s a complete kid in so many ways, but also really, really serious! He can’t stand the fact that he is part of the distraction. He hates that our society is so unequal. But he also is in the one percent. So its this conundrum that he is trapped in. And it is so interesting.

What do you think Russell’s potential is as a disruptive figure? The defeat of Labour in the UK election in May had many questioning his reach. Has he maybe not reached his potential yet? Is that why he has retreated from the public eye recently?

I think he’s thought about that, yeah. He wears his heart on his sleeve in many ways. He said in The Trews after Miliband lost: “Maybe I just don’t have any impact in politics?”  He was very self disparaging. It was eye-opening for him, how much work there was to do.

We talked once in his tour van, and I wasn’t filming at the time, and he said to me that he doesn’t think that artists have ever had any impact on history, meaning he felt he wouldn’t be able to. I argued him I totally disagreed with that, and that our commentary was extremely vital to opening people’s eyes and seeing people questioning, holding up a mirror to society. He utterly disagreed. I nicknamed it “the art debate” and I really wanted to include it in the movie. It is interesting to think about the timing of that conversation, as he was about to write the Revolution book, but we had no idea he was! He didn’t say anything.

That book was his manifesto, but Russell comes from a very personal place with his humour, and I think he did that again with his book. So he mixed in his personal anecdotes and humour – as he really believes in the power of humour – in with his manifesto. People and critics did not like that. I think the problem was not just he was stepping out of the doc but that he turned it into this gonzo journalism, a self-reflective and slightly narcissistic manifesto. That was the problem. It was painful for him to be criticised so much on that book. He just feels like he can’t win.

But I think that he has the power to really get kids involved in a way that they never were before. He speaks to them, engages with them, he can explain and make politics entertaining. Look at The Trews for example; its great, and for him to think it cant make a difference just because Miliband didn’t win, well, that’s not right. Never underestimate Russell Brand, he’s like a phoenix from the ashes.

Brand: A Second Coming played at London Film Festival 2015 and is on general release on October 23.

“Russell Brand…he’s like a phoenix from the ashes,” director Ondi Timoner on making “Brand: A Second Coming”
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