We Live in Public: Interview with Ondi Timoner

We Live in Public

Format: Cinema

Release date: 13 November 2009

Venues: Greenwich Picturehouse, Odeon Panton St, Ritzy (London) and key cities

Distributor: Dogwoof

Director: Ondi Timoner

USA 2009

90 mins

What do you do next, once you’ve won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival? Well, if you’re Ondi Timoner, you make another documentary and you win the Grand Jury Prize again (making you the only individual to have won the gong twice!). The first of those two films, Dig! (2004), charted the mixed fortunes of two bands, Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. While she was making it, Timoner was also working on her latest award-winner, We Live in Public, a documentary shot over many years about the antics of Joshua Harris.

You probably won’t have heard of Harris, but some believe he predicted the future of the internet, not just by creating one of the first live streaming web channels, Pseudo.com, but also by conducting experiments on exactly what people would be willing to sign away for their five minutes of fame. One such experiment featured in the film was set in an underground New York ‘bunker’, where more than 100 people agreed to live in the month leading up to the millennium. The bunker was packed with cameras that followed every move made by the dwellers, who were also subjected to regular humiliating interrogations. Electric Sheep‘s Toby Weidmann met Ondi Timoner to find out more…

Toby Weidmann: How did you first meet Joshua Harris?

Ondi Timoner: I had worked at Pseudo.com for a little while on the Cherry Bomb show, just to pick up some extra cash while I was making Dig!. My initial impression was that he was something of a buffoon, that he was a businessman trying to buy his way into the art world. I certainly didn’t know whether he was a visionary or not – time is required to prove that. He didn’t sit around making verbal predictions either – he didn’t know what he was doing himself. But I did think he was somebody who spent his money in very extraordinary ways and I appreciated that. He affected people’s lives in that way – he was out buying bunkers in the middle of Manhattan when other people were buying houses, and that’s cool. But I didn’t know what to think of Josh…

TW: Did you have any inkling at the start how the story would pan out?

OT: I follow my subjects like I followed those ‘choose your own adventure’ books as a kid. That’s how I live my life. I have a gut feeling about certain things at certain times and so far I have been lucky enough to be picked for the gig…

TW: You are part of this story though, because you were there in the bunker, weren’t you?

OT: Yeah. Josh called me and asked whether I wanted to document cultural history. I said: ‘Always, but what do you have in mind?’ He said: ‘I can’t really tell you that, I can’t articulate that because I don’t actually know. It’s kind of unfolding, but I’ll provide you with whatever resources you need to do the job right.’ So I walk over there and they have these men moving all this metal into the building, which they were using to build the ‘pods’. Inside, there’s a guy hanging surveillance cameras from the ceiling. I asked what he was doing and he said he was putting 110 cameras in this place. And right there, I was like, ‘I’m in’. The first thing I did was to get a multiplex system so we could put all the cameras through one machine, allowing us to record the cool images, from the living pods you see in the film to the four ‘walkie’ cameras I had going, so we could ‘walkie’ out what was going on in different spaces in different rooms. We used this system as the eyes of the place. That was crucial but we still had no idea what it was all about.

TW: The film nearly wasn’t made when Harris pulled the plug on it after you edited a rough cut of the bunker material in 2000. How did it get back on track?

OT: After we won at Sundance for Dig! in 2004, I got an email from Josh asking if I was interested in finishing the film, and I really wasn’t because by then it was less relevant. But he wrote to me a few months later, and he said he would give me 50% ownership and full creative control. I thought that was a pretty good deal, and I also felt it was an opportunity to finish what I’d started – especially with no end date attached to the project. So I caught up with those who were in the bunker, and with New York post-9/11. But I still didn’t know what the film was about until I saw Facebook and read my first status update. Then I realised the bunker could be a metaphor for the internet. The only thing I was having a hard time with was the neo-fascistic elements of the bunker, because the internet doesn’t feel that way – it doesn’t feel like you’re under interrogation, it feels like you can be yourself. Then I realised that that part of the metaphor was crucial because Josh was testing the limits of how much people would be willing to give up to be a part of this. They would answer 500 questions, they would submit to these interrogations, and that became like the terms and conditions that you just accept on the internet. You never read them. Facebook owns all our content. As Josh says in the film, ‘everything is free except your image – that we own’.

TW: Are you a fan of the internet?

OT: Yeah, sure, but as powerful as it is for good, we’re paying a price. I think we’re only just becoming aware of that now. The film is definitely a dark vision of it, but it’s important to present the dark side. For a lot of people the film serves as a wake-up call. It’s a shock and it provokes all sorts of reactions. I wouldn’t have told Josh Harris’s story if it wasn’t a metaphor for all of us. There are incredible aspects that the internet brings to our lives, but our identity and our relationships are changing, and a lot of it is more superficial because we can communicate with 500 times the number of people at one time, and we can’t possibly communicate as deeply. Are your Facebook friends your friends? I don’t know, maybe you should go have coffee with them and find out. I really dislike that term – ‘Facebook friend’ – and I think it is dangerous to call them that. If that’s what friendships have become, then we have a problem.

TW: It’s being released theatrically and on DVD, but will it also be available for download? Given the subject matter, it seems well suited…

OT: It is going to be available to download, but it has to be available for the Oscars and they are old school [ie, it needs to be released theatrically first]. We feel it’s an important film, but maybe it’s a little edgy for them… We’ll see. We’re at least going to give it a shot. Dig! was disqualified from the Oscars because it went on TV too early, so we can’t put the film on the internet until then. But it should be a huge stunt when it does happen and it will be exciting to see how it does. There is a potential for We Live in Public to blaze a trail.

TW: What are you planning on making next?

OT: The story of Robert Mapplethorpe as a narrative. It’s perfect for me, right? I’ve met the Mapplethorpe Estate and I have the exclusive rights. Eliza Dushku, the actress, and I are producing it. It’s about him and his relationship with Patti Smith and about how he acted as a cultural lightning rod, pushing the boundaries of art, even beyond his death. I’m really excited about it. It’s called The Perfect Moment. I’m also engaged to make a documentary called Cool It, about the controversial environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg. He wrote a book called Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist’s Guide to Global Warming about global warming and economics and what we need to prioritise. It’s more of a political documentary and very different from the other films I’ve made.

Interview by Toby Weidmann