When Ondi Timoner, Award-winning American filmmaker, was persuaded – “seduced” as she remembers it – into directing a biographical documentary about our own cultural chameleon Russell Brand, she little thought she’d be pulled to such extremes of emotions – joy at discovering the depth of a man she’d only vaguely registered as “Katy Perry’s boyfriend”, frustration as he dodged her attempts to pin him down on film and, today when I sit down with her in a London hotel with the UK premiere only a few hours away, fully-fledged annoyance. Because she is now promoting this film on her own, and without the added weight of his attention-grabbing charisma. Her leading man, it transpires, has done a bunk.
“I’m pissed off today,” she chuckles. “My mood changes each day. But it’s the premiere today, I’m a little bit upset because he’s talking other people off the carpet. I’ve been disappointed. Everybody seems to not be coming.”
Russell Brand admits to director Ondi in the film that he is "a narcissist who doesn't want to be filmed - good luck"
The film is ‘Russell Brand: A Second Coming’, a project started by Russell when he was living in Hollywood, courting a pop singer and starting to make his name as a screen star. He intended to make a film about happiness, interviewing such disparate subjects as David Lynch and Oliver Stone but, once Ondi got hold of the material, she realised this was unfolding story around Brand himself.
Sure enough, while her cameras rolled, Russell got married, divorced, and began his transformation from red carpet arriviste into rogeuish revolutionary, and swapped Hollywood for Hoxton. It’s quite a story, but one he’s no longer interested in telling, hence Ondi's frustration when we sit down today…
"I have compassion for his inability to show up for this film," says Ondi. "I have not taken it personally. He wrote and explained himself and his explanation seemed totally reasonable, but I am disappointed in general and I told him that too."
Why are you so disappointed in him?
He pursued me very ardently, seduced me into making this film, and agreed that I could make it this way, as opposed to the proposed film of him talking about happiness and interviewing a bunch of people. We decided to shoot this film together, I dedicated every day and night (to it) for two and a half years now, I edited the film even when there was no more money. He kept doing these new things, like moving to England, and I love an unfolding story.
He asked me to make this film, and then tried everything to avoid being filmed. He never really wanted to be documented.
It won't strike British readers as entirely unusual that Russell Brand ardently pursues a woman to do something, gets her to agree and then changes his mind...
That's funny, actually, because when he was first dodging me, after begging me to make the movie, I wrote to him, suggesting I just come and hang out with him, film around a bit, and he said, "No, because we’ll fuck" and I said, "What if I don’t?"
He said, "Of the women I’ve slept with, the majority by far are the women who said they won’t" and I said, "What if I defy the odds so we can have trust and respect? I’m your director… we’ll make this documentary and we can make the next one about our baby and you will become your father."
That was my response by text, and it was a way to leave the door open, not reject him, but make the point that that wasn’t going to happen.
Ondi Timoner's relationship with her documentary subject Russell Brand has been a curate's egg... good in parts
He eventually responded, with "Well that’s terrifyingly plausible. X'" and that’s how we left it. It wasn’t about that, he wasn’t really worried that we were going to sleep together, that was him just flirting, but I don’t think that that line of director and subject... I don’t think that he looks at traditional roles as ones he should traditionally respect. That "she’s the director, I can’t sleep with him," that wouldn’t come from him.
So I go over there for the first interview, and his manager found him hiding behind his car, avoiding me, he wouldn’t come out. Thank God, Simon Amstell came over to visit.
That was a great scene in the film, the pair of them working on Russell's 'Messiah Complex' show...
It turned into a great scene, but it was two hours after I’d arrived. We were meant to go travelling the next day, I was to join him on the road, and I got a call after I got home that day, which had gone wonderfully, as I was pulling in my driveway, that said "It’s fine for you to come, but Russell doesn’t want you to shoot or speak to him the entire way, or the entire way back" and I said, "All right, I’m not coming" and I didn’t show up at the airport. And that was really important, because it’s like dealing with a child, you have to establish boundaries. I’m not saying he’s a child, but he’s behaving like a child right now.
He’s dodging me right now, and he’s apparently talked people off the red carpet, people who did great interviews for the film, and who would appreciate this night. Most people walk out of this film with a really surprised sense of his depth.
Ondi agrees the scene with Russell and friend Simon Amstell is a good one, but reveals it took hours to get, after Russell hid from her and the crew
I thought he came out of the film very, very well. After I read all the blurb of him dodging the press circuit for the film in the States, I thought it would be all about his vanity and his personal life, but he comes out looking like a very good man.
This builds a platform for him, not built on the back of others, or on Hollywood fame which he detests, it’s built on his life story and his choices. If anything is going to give him a second coming, it’s this film. So for him to try and minimize it, try and make it disappear... he tried to distract audiences with the other film ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, he announced it week before our film at SXSW Festival, right before Cannes, hurting our foreign sales, confusing the market place, it’s a self-destructive gene that all these impossible visionaries that I’ve filmed over the years have. And this one’s showing his head now.
Why is that happening, do you think?
He can’t see himself clearly, or has controlled every bit of his image mostly until now, every missive has been presented to the world by him, and he doesn’t want to be seen as vulnerable and human, and yet he wears his heart on his sleeve most of the time. People think he’s such an authentic person, but this is an authentic film, and he’s not showing up for it.
It’s hard to look in the mirror, you don’t see what other people see, and I think he is still very much the insecure boy that we see in Grays, Essex growing up. There have got to be problems.
Did he have a particular beef with the way you made the film?
There were a lot of notes that I didn’t do. I did six extra interviews, I added extra stand up that he sent in after there was no budget, I did whatever I could to make him happy.
Some of the scenes I took out were absolutely wonderful, but I couldn’t scrape the film for him, of everything that made it real, that made him relatable as a character. I try not to make bad films, I wasn’t going to start now. After 4,000 hours of editing personally, and flying back and forth, it was far beyond the budget that we made, and everybody had put in this Herculean effort, to then destroy the film with list after list of changes [would have been unthinkable]. It started with one note, and then we waited for the other shoe to drop.
I felt like saying, "Come on, we would all be in the bathroom before going on a major talk show to talk about overthrowing the government, come on, there’s nothing about that scene that should come out of the film." (One scene shows Russell tucking himself away before going on air, footage he later wanted cut, according to Ondi.) That girl on the street that asked him about marrying Katy Perry...
(Another scene in the film follows Russell as he looks around his old hometown, and a schoolgirl spots him, and says, "You married Katy Perry?" What follows is hilarious, as Russell berates her, saying, basically, that anybody might do the same thing...)
Russell shouts at a young girl who asks him about marriage to Katy Perry, "Maybe one day you'll grow up and marry Katy Perry..."
He says to her, "Sometimes you marry people to unwind, maybe one day you’ll grow up and you’ll marry Katy Perry and then how will you feel?" As if she’s like sitting there on a conveyor belt going by and you can have the option of marrying Katy Perry like she’s a stop in life. That’s brilliant.
But I almost feel like he doesn’t see how funny he is when he’s not on stage, when it’s not written, and when it’s not being picked over and perfected, when he’s just off the cuff he’s funnier than when he’s on the stage.
And I thought he appeared very kind to the young girl, implying she would have the same opportunities as him...
It’s one of the best moments and there was no way I was going to cut it. As for Topsy the Dog...
(Topsy the Dog is a routine in Russell's standup, where he describes enticing his childhood dog upstairs, then telling him off, then comforting him. It's very funny, but Ondi claims Russell wanted this scene cut from the film.)
He performed it on stage, he performed it in public, he now wants to revise history. I made every ethical change, I cropped where his penis was showing on the police van, he walked into a space of Katy’s [Perry] that he felt she didn’t know he was in, I respected that he wanted that out, his private home footage of him and Katy before their marriage, I argued with him that it was the only chance I had to show that their love was authentic, he said "I know that I love her, I don’t need to show that I love her."
I thought it would show that it was real, and that would be a positive thing to show for him and for Katy, it was only 45 seconds of film for a woman he married, It was very lovely, but okay, we’ll take it out, and lots of things like that.
The film includes brief footage of Russell Brand with then wife Katy Perry, and their Hollywood life he eschewed
There were lots of things I wanted to keep in, that he told me in the light of day he just didn’t want the world to see. But there were things I just couldn’t cut out. Like him being upset after Peter Hitchens (who derided Russell’s presence on 'Newsnight' during a discussion about drug decriminalization), putting him in these boxes that comedians shouldn’t discuss drugs.
It wasn’t about not hurting his feelings, to me, I read that scene as him realising in that moment just how close-minded people are, and how far gone we are as a society, and what a steep hill there is to climb, and it’s poignant, and I’m just not going to take everything poignant out of the film.
Were you upset?
I cried rivers, I begged him, I ran off to South East Asia at one point just to get away, and there were flowers there from him. The card said 'Happy Valentines’ Day, well done with everything', and the weight and stress just lifted. I thought we’d be okay, there were two weeks to go. until [the film was premiering at the] SXSW Festival, and then ten more changes came in the next day.
No sign of Jemima Khan, I noticed...
She wanted to do it, he controlled it out, I never actually interviewed her. His manager worked on setting it up and then he pulled it.
What is the essential difference between the film you've made, and the film you think he would have liked you to make?
He wrote me an email after pulling out of SXSW, (quoted in the LA Times, with Russell mostly agreeing with the changes Ondi had insisted on, resisting a puff piece that he agreed would have been "a propaganda piece with no personal footage, no vulnerability and no point"). However, he said that we should have recognised when he agreed, that he wouldn’t be able to stand on the red carpet and and wave and say, come watch me fight with my dad as if it’s a piece of entertainment.'
The film follows Russell's transformation from aspiring Hollywood actor to London-based activist
He didn't want any vulnerability, anything that put him in a negative light at all. I warned him that if we weren’t careful, I’d end up making a puff piece and he said, ‘Well, that’s the second worst thing that could happen.’
What was the worst thing?
This film is going to succeed whether or not he shows up.
That's why I’m disappointed as his friend, for someone who admires him for his courage, he’s not being courageous. I wrote to him that he doesn’t even have to talk about the film, he could just show up and talk about any issue he cares about right now, finally there’s something there built on his depth. People walk out of there so impressed with him, who wrote him off before or didn’t care.
Maybe his seemliness filter has kicked in?
What is seemliness?
Do you not have that word in America?
We don't, but I like it. I’m going to import it. What is it?
Seemliness is a sense that not everything you think is worth in the world is worth being shared, for example that you had an omelette for breakfast.
His omelette is not there, and I’ve filmed many an omelette.
Perhaps he's thinking now the world has better things to talk about than him and his journey...
The world does have bigger things to talk about than him, but the world does need people to talk about these things, and he’s an incredibly articulate person to express them.
Ondi claims Russell was upset following his 'Newsnight' appearance with Peter Hitchens, realising "the hill he has to climb"
This film sees him dropping out of Hollywood – who does that? Who leaves Hollywood? Noone. People leave, like George Clooney and Brad Pitt, they do something great and then they come back and make another movie, make some more millions to support this wonderful work that they do. But he just upped and left. So that he could talk about these things. So that he could lead people. So that he could try and be an example of a second coming that we can all have in our lives. And walk the walk and be the change. And now he’s disappeared.
What I think is he’s probably trying to figure out what the film shows him struggling with – how do you have millions of dollars, have someone carry your bag and then preach to kids in a school that they shouldn’t want power, money, fame, it’s all bullshit, but if you give it all up, then you have no position from which to speak, so what good does that do? So it’s this conundrum whereby society puts you in boxes, and that’s what the film struggles with, and I think that’s probably what’s he’s struggling with. It’s a true film.
By not showing up, he remains as authentic as he claims to be in the film.
And I don’t mind him not showing up. I’m just sad because it’s a missed opportunity for him to be on every talk show. In America, every show would have had him on, and he could have said so much more about his revolution, about the revolution we should all have, about the oligarchy around us, abvout Bernie Sanders, he could have really… after millions of people see this movie and they all want him to come to their country and overthrow the government, he’s probably going to turn round and say, this was pretty good for me, actually’ but it’s going to be too late.
I’m a single mom like his mom is, we got along great, I know how much she would have loved to come along to the premiere, with a huge audience, clearly he’s directed her not to go. Why is he telling his friends and family not to go? It’s one thing if you don’t want to show up, but what about your mom?
Would you work with him again?
I spent 2500 hours and 7 years on 'Dig!' Life is too short for 'Dig 2'. Same with Russell… I think with him, if he did something like a third coming, something worthy of my time, and I don’t underestimate him. Would he ever have me back? He sent me some standup, and I was groaning and sad because we were premiering in a few weeks, but then he got on the phone and told me where to put it in the film, he knew exactly where to put it, and I forwarded that to his management and said ‘Control your client, I’m not a construction worker, I’m an artist.’ So I don’t know that he would ever have me back.
There is a long list of mostly women who feel that they once danced a great gavotte with Russell Brand, and then got left by the wayside - do you feel you've joined that list?
No, because I made the movie. I have a number of great projects coming up, and a wonderful life to live. I’m grateful for this opportunity, and grateful and honoured that he came and tapped on me to do it, and I feel that I’ve done him the best service that I could, so I’m all good.
'Russell Brand: A Second Coming' will be in UK cinemas from 23 October. Trailer above...