05/01/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Q&A: Award-Winning Documentarian Ondi Timoner Rocks With We Live In Public

Tonight, director, producer, entrepreneur Ondi Timoner takes her mission to self-distribute her provocative feature doc We Live In Public -- winner of 2009's Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize (which she won the year before for her challenging rock-doc DIG!) -- to multiple venues throughout the country. Star Adrian Grenier hosts tonight NYC screening in club Arena and there will be live streaming at:

In addition, Chicago will host a 24-hour recreation of Josh Harris' infamous and ground-breaking "Quiet" bunker -- he curated and funded an underground bunker in NYC where over 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days at the turn of the millennium. The Chicago bunker will feature live performance pods, including fire throwers, trapeze artists and celebrity DJs. Then the film will be released worldwide, cross-platform, via digital (iTunes), VOD and DVD (available March 2nd).

We Live In Public focuses on the several episodes in the life of internet pioneer Josh Harris who created the first web conferences; an online television network, Psuedo, before there was really broadband to transmit it on; an envelope-pushing art event called Quiet in a Tribeca building; and video documented himself and his girlfriend 24/7 as part of a cultural and psychological stress test. Harris has been praised and castigated; some think he's genius, others, a loon. We Live In Public was also the closing night film for 2009's New Directors/New Films festival.

The intense Timoner has made other provocative films such as DiG! -- a strange expose of the rivalry between two rock bands and the psychological damage done along the way-- but with this film she has grabbed whole cloth the idea of "indie" and is really doing it herself.

Q: We Live In Public is about so many things; it's this review of counter-culture and subversive culture, art culture, high/low culture; but how did you first intersect with Josh Harris?

OT: I actually started working at Pseudo in 1998. I was here shooting with [photographer/director] David LaChapelle for something I haven't finished, which is called Artists and Prostitutes; before his book I was calling it that. I met him through The Dandy Warhols who was shooting the "Junky" video and I was shooting DiG!, and he and I hit it off a lot so I started filming him in his studio and also filming, I think that scene where Courtney comes to New York and is dealing with the shows and he says, "If you don't have a hit they don't care about you," and he's walking down the street in New York; I was in town shooting that.

They were having sort of a downturn in their love relationship with Capitol Records, and a friend of mine, Jodi Wille - she has a company now called Process Media, where they put out some really excellent, interesting books -  she recommended that I go down to this place called Pseudo that was on the corner of Houston and Broadway, and she said, "It's an internet television network," and I said, "Internet television network? What is that?" and she said, "I don't really know but it's apparently pretty extraordinary; you should go down there and check it out."

So I went down to pick up some extra cash and was really blown away by the state of the studio. Just state of the art studios, like CNN or some major network, but literally no one could watch. I mean 0.1% of the population maybe had anything but basic dialup and there was no broadband. So it was just incredible and we were paid very well to shoot programming that was extremely niche and the quality of which was quite questionable.

I worked on Tanya's show, Cherry Bomb, and that's how I was able to get that interview with her which was pretty much a lynchpin interview in the documentary. But it was 2006 when I got that interview with her, when she's pregnant. She wanted nothing to do with Josh at that point but because I had had a relationship with her through Cherry Bomb I was able to get that. So I worked there for a little while; I met Josh but he doesn't really remember meeting me, and then the following year he was contemplating "The Bunker" and he called me, I was back in Los Angeles...

Q: So you've always been based in Los Angeles?

OT: Pretty much.

Q: You never really made a full move to New York.

OT: Well you know, I was born in Miami, Florida, and I went to school at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. So I would come down to the city all the time, and my first job in documentary was interning at WNET; it was PBS American Masters, and it was Helen Whitney, and it was Richard Avedon. So I would come into the city.

Q: So you started out with a more traditional documentary background.

OT: No, I didn't fit in. 

Q: You are a bit gonzo.

OT: I'm a bit gonzo; correct. When I was at Yale, Yale had no production facilities so I found a public access station opening right at that time in New Haven called CTV: Citizens Television. And they had this deal where I went to the opening orientation and they said, "If you let us show whatever you make you can sign up for three hour chunks of time to edit on our systems."

And it was a shuttle editing system where if you change one thing you have to change everything after kind of thing. But basically I just went out with a consumer video camera, and my first film was called 3000 Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera where I just drove across the country on spring break with my roommate and my brother David who was my collaborator for a very long time.

Actually, he and I started Interloper Films together, my little brother; he was a freshman when I was a junior at Yale, so we were in school together, so we would go to the public access station and cut footage together. So we just started doing things; we went across the country and I interviewed people in tollbooths and convenience stores about what they feared the most, what made them the most happy, and these debates would start.

I realized, oh my god; with a camera I can bridge into this other world and I can start talking to people and they'll answer me and they'll start talking. So I asked this one guy, "What do you fear the most?" and he went, "Women with video cameras." So it was called 3,000 Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera; that was my first movie.

Then I went ahead and did another one, which is kind of interesting. It just came up in a meeting downstairs, called Reflections on a Moment: The Sixties and the Nineties and it was about Hunter S. Thompson - who I also wrote my high school term paper about - his work, it wasn't really him in it. It was about the idea that those of us who were coming up in the '80s and '90s missed it; we missed the time when there was something to root for or something to fight against. There was nothing, there was nothing for us, and I was like, this is a problem with my generation.

So I went to [Grateful] Dead shows and I documented people about Hunter S. Thompson and everything from the '60s, that spirit that somehow we didn't have, and I felt like I had been born too late.

Now, I'm lucky enough to be breaking bread with D.A. Pennebaker and DiG! is ranked number two behind Don't Look Back and Pace Magazine is like, "the rock film of all time," and this man downstairs was just comparing my work to Frederick Wiseman, saying "there's no documentary filmmaker today that's closer to Frederick Wiseman than I."

To me, Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies is one of the most amazing films that I've ever seen. So I just had this revelation this morning that maybe I wasn't born too late; maybe I was supposed to actually be carrying the vérité tradition into this time, and actually that would be the thing I'm proudest of. If that's true, if I'm carrying the torch of some of the fantastic work that was done back then in terms of documentary, that's a great accomplishment.

Q: Films like yours show that this continuity goes beyond the '70s. The film contributes to making that statement. When I participated in Quiet I felt like it was a direct link (even though I didn't stay in the bunker), and that's why I think it's important you get this out there.

OT: It's not conscious right? It is just me and it's what I'm here to do. Josh called me; let's be clear about that. It's not like I sought him out and said, "Oh my god, I have to document this bunker."

He invited me to film this and I said, "What do you have in mind?" and he said, "Do you want to document cultural history?" and I said, "Well always, but what do you have in mind?" and he said, "I don't know really what it's going to be, but it's going to be at the end of the year and all these artists are coming together doing their installations. And I'll tell you this; if you are interested, I'll give you whatever resources you need to make it happen."

Q: Had you met him when he was doing the Jupiter Conferences -- the seminal internet events? that's when I first met Josh.

OT: No, I had no idea who this guy was. A lot of people were saying he's a business man trying to buy his way into the art world, he's a buffoon. I didn't know what he was, all I knew was that when I went down there, I was actually living in LA but I came to New York to make a pilot for a VH1 show that I had created for VH1 called Sound Effects; it was about music's effect on people's lives, quite an incredible show.

Q: How long did it run?

OT: It only ran one season and I actually resigned because it was being so mishandled by the executives. It was kind of the dark ages of VH1. Lauren Zalaznick was the head and she was based in New York so she really didn't have a handle on what was going on in LA. I interviewed 250 people around America about how a song would affect their lives, like if the lyrics stuck in their head.

It's usually a pivotal moment, like in my case I heard Bob Marley "High Tide" when I found out I was pregnant. Like if you had a divorce, or your first kiss, so these stories that people would tell about this death-defying car accident, and how this one guy survived thanks to Bruce Springsteen's record coming out. Incredible series.

Q: Did you retain the rights?

OT: Nope; it was a big learning experience for me at the age of 27. It helped to push me down the road of independence, which I seem to be charging down. I think that We Live in Public is holding a torch right now; we're kind of blazing a trail - if we succeed - and it is the Wild West still on the internet.

I mean, it's all coming to, so we're a little early. But using very little marketing money and reaching our audience directly as we are trying to do, and having important and influential supporters like Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Eliza Dushku, Jason Calacanis, or Fred Wilson putting our widget on their blog, or tweeting out.

Q: I very much believe in this idea of this level of independence.

OT: Well I thank you. I think everyone who has a voice out there that's contributing some of their air time or finger time to spreading the word about this film, because it is actually an extremely important social issue film.

Q: Then you work with Josh, and no insult to him, but there's a sort of childish, child-like or infantile quality to him that he still hasn't figured out whether that's a good or bad thing. But there's some sort of a weird genius to him. When you met him had his Lovey [the clown] alter-ego already been created? Or did Lovey not yet exist?

OT: I never saw Lovey show up at a Pseudo thing, but the lowest moment of my filmmaking career was when Lovey decided to bring three couples to simultaneous orgasm at the Quiet bunker in Lovey's lounge. Gay couple, lesbian couple, heterosexual couple, he was going to use the universal vibration, the sound "boing" and make that sound into a microphone, and in so doing somehow bring these people to orgasm while 100 people watched on. They were having sex on beds, being seen live in the room, and I was filming it.

It's not in the movie because we'd like the movie to show at Sundance. That footage has got to see the light of day at some point but we're still trying to figure it out. There are people in the office who have grabbed that footage and made their own cuts of it.

But anyway, point being, I'm standing there thinking, "This is the lowest moment of my career. Hands down." Just then a man walks up to me and says, "Are you Ondi Timoner?" and I said "Yeah," sort of ashamed to admit that at the time, and he said, "I need you. I need you to get on a plane with me to Africa. The oldest living civilization is being threatened."

At the sex show is when I got recruited. It's a crazy life I lead. Josh's alter ego was my way in to having compassion for him, ironically enough.

So DiG! goes on and wins Sundance, I'm on the front page of the New York Times, and I get an email from Josh, "Any interest in finishing the movie?" To which I replied, "No." And I thought, this is less pertinent than ever; maybe the bunker was somewhat revelatory the year after but who cares right now. And I don't want to be back in business with this charlatan.

So then a few months later he writes me again and says, "Will you get on the phone with me? We have a proposal." So I get on the phone with him and he says, "I propose that you are a partner now. 50% partner, creative control, I send you the masters right away." I'm sitting there thinking, "Wow. Okay, well this sounds not so bad and there's no deadline."

Because Bush was just winning the election the second time and everybody I figured in America was voting against their best interest so I was off to shoot a movie about mind control. So he said, "Here's the masters," and I said, "Okay fine, one caveat; I get to shoot you on the apple farm on the tractor."

He said fine, because at that point he was on the tractor. So we made a deal and he sent me the masters and I didn't finish the film; I just had some of the footage and media organized. I went and made my movie Join Us, about four families that escaped a church they realized may be a cult. I followed them and the cult leader over a few years.

Q: That's very ironic.

OT: It's so ironic. Look at it: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Join Us, and We Live in Public. I don't know what the heck's going on; I think I'm very interested in what people are willing to give up to belong or have their lives matter, is what it comes down to. Or the megalomaniacs. 

Q: Or the art of insanity.

OT: Yeah; all of that. But when I finished Join Us in 2007 I saw the first status update on Facebook. It said, "I'm driving west on the freeway," posted two hours ago. I thought, "Who cares?" Suddenly all these people cared. All of a sudden it hit me like this lightning flash and I had the clearest vision for a film I'd ever had, and that's how we were able to get through 5,000 hours in eight months of editing.

I started editing this in May of 2008. It's extremely complex filmmaking so it was really like an incredible team of dedicated people who saw themselves in this film, as most audience members see themselves, and really this lightening bolt of going from blindness to knowing exactly what the film is about.

It was about all of us, and it was about the fact that the bunker is a physical metaphor of the internet, and the dark side, and the risks involved, and we are in the bunker now, we are addicted to the internet in 10 short years, we are trapped in our virtual boxes, and Josh is Facebook. He says, "Everything's free except your image. That we own."

And even if you're sitting in your pajamas, logging onto Facebook, accepting the terms and conditions, and posting your photos online for that feeling of connection that you can have, you're not alone. It doesn't feel like it felt like to be in the bunker, but it's a very interesting study of what we will give up and what we will make public. And we are doing that right now in more and more ways and more and more of the time. And our relationships are becoming more superficial because of it. We're connecting out 10 times more with ten times less depth.

Q: So when you filmed Quiet, you had not only yourself but multiple camera people shooting?

OT: I had four camera crews and we had a multiplex. The first thing I did was get a multiplex system where I could feed the 110 surveillance cameras into one machine that would split them so I could see nine screens, four screens, one screen, as if I was a security camera person.

I would record those feeds, someone from my team would be there with nine VHS decks, we would choose which nine cameras were going to record, and one deck was hooked up to record the multiplex and we would record the boxes. I didn't like the bunker. I wouldn't have lived in the bunker; I had a pod and I tried it but I would never check into a society like that, that wouldn't be me.

I'm very resistant to groups. I didn't like the automatic firing range. And when the metaphor was complete about our lives, the one thing I couldn't figure out was what the neo-fascistic elements were all about; how does that apply to online? It applies in one way; this was the way I was able to work it out -- how extreme do the circumstances have to be that people will just check in, answer 500 questions on a questionnaire, subject themselves to interrogations, put on uniforms, and enter a society that they're not supposed to leave for 30 days, with an automatic firing range, having no idea what's going to happen to them?

They will give that up to be where it matters when it matters, to feel like they are somehow important or that their lives are significant. They want to be part of history. They want to be not just part of it; they want to be the highlight. So they are now clamoring for the attention. It was their chance to be at the Factory. But that's only for some; some people were checking in there just to escape depression or be a part of the community.

Q: I liked it because I could eat there.

OT: The meals were fantastic; the performances during dinner were phenomenal.

Q: Instead of it being a warning, you can see on the flip side, it's a positive reflection, a document of the continuity that the internet, that Josh, that Pseudo, has with a larger bohemian counter culture where the long tail has become the culture now. That's why I'm writing about it and why I think it's important. 

OT: It's an important history lesson and it begs the question of where we're headed from here. It's part of a continuum. I'm not going to let it go unnoticed.

Q: You're at the beginning of this whole other thing, and now you're in this whole new animal and how does it fit into this larger phenomenon?

OT: Well, I've had to take on another film. It's called Cool It, it's about solving the world's problems and the climate change debate and some other things in the world that need to be paid attention to simultaneously, and ways to approach that, and the controversy involved. It's inspired by a book called Cool It by the economist Bjorn Lomborg. I've started that film because I didn't sell We Live in Public, so it's not going to get my son to the dentist, and also because it is another extremely prescient, timely film [which generated controversy this year's as being a possible counter to the global warmers].

And another interesting animal to crack; I'm developing The Perfect Moment, which is a script that I optioned, did rewrites on, and am producing with actress Eliza Dushku. It's about the life of [photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith and their work. It's my first scripted narrative that I'm directing. But Mapplethorpe again; a cultural lightening rod, troubled artist, another New York story for everyone.

In terms of We Live in Public, it is absolutely in the middle of this and at the forefront of this. This film is a big billboard for Josh. Josh Harris has sought fame his entire life; he finally has more of it than he's ever had before.

It's a bit of a monster making thing; we flew him in for Sundance last year, he had a roundtrip ticket, we won Sundance, he never left. He is here to launch his next project and every bit that this film does, any attention, helps him possibly get back in game.

I would not have made the film if it was not about all of us, and this time in our lives, and I want to raise consciousness about our use of internet at this crucial tipping point and so I'm committed to it.