DiG! Director Ondi Timoner Takes On eNarcissism in We Live in Public
Josh Harris saw all of this coming. The ubiquity of the Internet, the reality-TV craze, social networking, the surging access to (and increasingly desperate chase for) fame -- all of it. In 1999, Harris was at the bleeding edge of the vanguard chronicled in We Live in Public, filmmaker Ondi Timoner's Sundance-winning documentary charting Harris's time spent as an early Web mogul run aground on the shoals of self-obsession. On one hand, Timoner was lucky: That self-obsession yielded thousands of hours' worth of videotapes for her project. But it came at a cost.
In Harris, Timoner has as mercurial, brilliant and adversarial a subject as she did in volatile rocker Anton Newcombe, the star of her 2004 doc DiG!. Harris allowed access to his story, then withdrew it, stealing tapes he'd so compulsively compiled over the years -- first at his overpopulated underground bunker Quiet (busted as a millennial cult on New Year's Eve 1999), then in the doomed, camera-ready living relationship he shared with his girlfriend a year later. By the time he and Timoner reconnected in 2008, Harris was flat broke, watching MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and other user-generated phenomena make fortunes fulfill his prophecy of an Internet by, for and about an ever-narcissistic public.
We Live in Public screens June 21 and 24 at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Timoner talked to Movieline about Harris's mad genius, keeping up with the festival grind, and the totalitarian qualities of Facebook status updates.
You've been a tireless presence on the festival circuit for years, and the We Live in Public cycle has been especially busy between premiering at Sundance and now being at L.A. How do you withstand the strain?
I don't know that I do. I pretty much live in the present. I don't think you do get used to it. A couple of months ago I thought I had a new disorder called travelitis, where I didn't even realize where I was when I woke up in the morning. I felt like I couldn't even remember much; I'd have these really meaningful conversations and then I'd space on following up. I was becoming less efficient, and it was starting to become too much. But if I can manage to come back home for a few days at least, or a week between? I've even started to turn down domestic festivals in terms of attending. It starts to feel counterproductive. But after doing that with DiG! and a little bit with Join Us, I knew as soon as we got into Sundance what the rest of the year would bring. And I'm still a real fan of the film festival circuit.
Yet despite its festival success, Public hasn't been officially connected to a distribution deal yet. So--
Well, sort of. We are sort of moving down the line in terms of staying independent and doing something unique and sort of blazing a trail in distribution. The movie's coming out. We're just not doing it a traditional way with a traditional distributor.
All things considered, how much faith do you have in the traditional film-festival sales market model?
Not much at all. You mean going to a festival and selling it yourself?
Ha! I mean, Sundance is the greatest market, and how many docs sold at Sundance? One? It didn't even sell at Sundance; it was The September Issue, and it sold after Sundance and it was based on Anna Wintour. It was The Devil Wears Prada -- a no-brainer marketing thing. But to me, that shows you it's not a very good percentage. Distributors are more and more wary of just signing on to a film, and they're scared. There are so many shifting models, and I think these distributors are definitely buying less and less and spending less and less. It's also a result of our economy. But we're lucky that our film has had such a passionate response from artists and a lot of interesting tastemakers, so we're thinking about going in a different way. If it happens, I'm just beyond thrilled.
How much do you think the media glut Josh Harris (left, with Timoner) prophesied in We Live in Public has changed the way we watch, make, buy and sell movies today?
That's exactly what I was saying without saying it. I always say, "Never fear, the Internet is here," with regard to our film. But as a result, we can't go down the normal TV road because we don't want to tap out our Internet rights. We have to reject a lot of the ways that films traditionally recoup from the beginning. We want to show everyone -- with the actual release of the film -- where we're headed. Because the film is about where we're headed, and it's about all of us being part of the story; it's no longer about putting something out, and someone watches it. It's an interactive world we live in.
But I can't spend the rest of my life putting out We Live in Public. It's already gone on longer than I thought. I've got to say, though, I've learned a lot; it's been a crash course in distribution these last few months. Now that I've fashioned the strategy and we're putting the final team together, it's going to be time for someone else to take it on. I don't know if it's necessary to pay huge overhead anymore. Or huge P&A, you know? So yes, it's affected things massively. If you have some latitude to experiment, it's a very exciting time.
When you first saw and heard Harris's concepts 10 years ago, what was your impression?
I didn't know when I started this whether Josh was just a businessman trying to buy his way into the art world or whether he was really a visionary. I didn't know if he was a buffoon or not. It was really hard to tell. He was not one to really verbally articulate what he was trying to say with his work, and it really took time to prove out how insightful Josh was with the future. There were things about that bunker that were so crazy: Totalitarianism! A firing range! Uniforms! All these things that make it really hard for me to draw the metaphor to life online today.
But when I realized how the ways people reacted to the technology in the bunker was similar to the ways people reacted to the Internet -- how anxious they were to share their stories? I had the same weird feeling when Facebook status updates started. I felt like it was a really important film to put out right now at that tipping point when it's very hard to argue that the virtual world is not taking over.
You just mentioned Facebook as an extension of that metaphor. Was there a specific moment when you realized these ideas were worthy of a documentary?
Yeah, it was late 2006-early 2007, and it was the Facebook status update. It came to me like a lightning bolt. I went from eight years of having no idea how the movie would be relevant to instantly understanding and all the puzzle pieces falling into place -- and that my job was to structure that vision. It was a more clear vision than I've ever had on any film.
Was it an apprehensive vision? How publicly do you yourself want to live?
You know what? It's funny -- my publicist had the idea that I start tweeting when I went to Sundance. At first I said, "Me? Are you kidding?" And then I thought about it. I didn't know how to put this in the film, but for me, the Internet is the most powerful innovation that can be used for so much good -- and is used for so much good -- in our lifetime. I felt like by tweeting myself, I wasn't sitting up on some altar saying, "Look at the way you guys act online." I was a part of it. I've actually had a lot of fun with it. I just don't really tweet about my personal life. You don't see pictures of my son up there, for example. But people are finding a value in the discussion that the film provokes. And I think that's great. The release of this film is almost as important as the film itself. Why do you make art if you don't want to reach your audience? ♦