Ondi Timoner

Ondi Timoner film still

Ondi Timoner seems at home in London. She’s sitting on a roof terrace overlooking the city, bitching about the traffic and worrying about the weather. But Timoner is New York through and through. In 1998, scratching around to make money for a documentary, Dig!, a friend suggested she head down to NYC’s ‘Silicon Alley’ to check out a company called Pseudo. Silicon Alley was home to the city’s nascent dot-com community, and Pseudo was the baby of one of its leading lights, Josh Harris.

Harris is one of the most inscrutable – and at the same time one of the most over-exposed – of the early internet pioneers. Routinely described as ‘the Warhol of the web’, he made then lost millions through a network of online TV shows, 15 years before YouTube had popularised the idea of internet video.

But Harris was so much more than a millionaire super geek. He was an authentic visionary who realised early on in the web’s development that this was a tool that could bring people together in previously unimaginable ways. And with that, he decided, would be an opportunity for a smart, wealthy and ruthless operator to expose people’s desperate desire for fame and connection through a series of elaborate stunts.

The most sophisticated of these stunts was the art project Quiet: We Live in Public, a proto-Big Brother bunker that hosted a hundred of Harris’ friends for a Millennium party in New York. There were pods to sleep in, a single open shower, toilets with no cubicles and cameras covering every inch of the underground space. There was also a shooting gallery with live ammunition and regular, physically intimidating interrogations.

As Timoner’s new film, We Live in Public, shows, the experiment ended with a police raid and Harris himself turning angrily on his patrons. The film is named for Harris’ next project, in which he and his girlfriend acted out their relationship – and painful separation – via live webcast. She talked us through this enthralling doc about 'the dark side of the internet'.

LWLies: So I saw the film last night.

Timoner: Did you like it.

LWLies: I did but it’s a headfuck. For the first 30 minutes we just kept talking over it because to hear Josh Harris and the things he says in the early ’90s is just amazing – to see how far ahead of his time he is. Fifteen years ahead of the game at that point. It evokes all these memories of when I’d first heard of the internet around ’98.

Timoner: I know. That’s when I was first told to go down to Pseudo. I was shooting Dig! and a friend of mine said, ‘Oh, you should go down to Pseudo and check it out. It’s an internet television network, they pay really well.’ And I said, ‘Internet television network… What the fuck is that?’ Yeah, it was pretty wild.

LWLies: What we were remembering is that we’d see these clips saying this is how it’s gonna be, there might be a guy sitting in America playing this game, and you’ll be able to play together. And I was like, ‘Do you know what? That might happen, but it’ll never happen for me, it’ll happen to some dude with a super computer.’ But the guys who are releasing this film in the UK, they’ve recently released stuff about Burma, the decline of the fishing industry – these socially aware films, these subjective, polemic documentaries.

Timoner: This is an issue film as well. This is a bigger issue film than anything.

LWLies: That’s how I felt.

Timoner: Good. You get it.

LWLies: It’s speaking to me, personally, and it’s challenging me, but I feel that some people might kick back against that because it’s saying very clearly that this is your life, but if you feel that that’s not your life then you’ll fight it.

Timoner: Then good for you. Hopefully it’s a consciousness of, you know, it’s the data I recorded of the dark side of the internet. It’s the dark side of the way we behave. The internet’s incredible, right? I mean, we can talk to each other on Skype, we can connect through Facebook so it’s more, like, consciousness of where everybody could be headed, more so than where we are. It’s just an awareness of, hey, your data is owned by… when you put it up there you can’t take it back again, and we all have this innate desire to connect and to be recognised in some way. And it’s uncomfortable to be told that but it’s true. It’s true for most people.

LWLies: But to look at Josh Harris as being…

Timoner: A prototype?

LWLies: Or a symbol of this.

Timoner: No, he’s a cautionary tale. He’s a hyperbole. I mean, did you ever see my movie Dig!? Anton is not like every musician but some of the things he expresses everybody feels, in his relationship to the industry. Like, ‘I’m the letter writer and they’re the postmen. Record companies are Mafia…’ Whatever. Most people aren’t kicking people in the head, so Josh is kind of like he took it too far. He was raised on technology and it’s sort of saying, ‘Hey, be aware.’ I’m more conscious of how I raise my child now and how much I’m looking down at my Blackberry or on my virtual box, as it were. We’re addicted to the internet in 10 short years. That’s what’s so amazing about the film – it’s only 10 years. And that’s a long time to make a film but it’s not a long time in history. It really begs the question, where are we headed from here?

LWLies: You talk about Anton, but you put a guy like that on film, up on screen, and even though you might think of him as being a cautionary tale, suddenly he becomes this symbol of the anti-corporate rock star, the independently minded maverick. Might the same thing happen with Josh? By putting him on film you lionise him.

Timoner: I don’t think he comes off as heroic as Anton, you know? I don’t think he is as heroic as Anton. He’s a visionary, he called a lot of things, he knew a lot, like, early on but he’s a disaster. So is Anton but in rock and roll it’s acceptable. Josh is the businessman who blew his entire fortune because he showed up as a clown to board meetings. That was actually my entry point to feeling compassion for Josh – how messed up he was in terms of Lovey. Trying to connect via this clown, you know? This scary vision of a techno clown or something.

LWLies: It comes out of leftfield in the film. Is that how it seemed at the time?

Timoner: Yeah he just suddenly showed up as a clown.

LWLies: Do you find people’s psychoanalysis of that convincing: that it’s a starved love thing?

Timoner: I’m not saying that Josh is us; I’m saying we’re the people in the bunker, and Josh is Facebook. Does that make sense? That’s the metaphor. He’s not us – you can hate him in the film, and you may, you know… People argued that I shouldn’t start the film with that video to the mother, but that’s really what the film’s about, the ultimate disconnection that can happen from engaging fully in technology and not… From being born and raised on the TV and seeking fame desperately. And he kind of knew that people would react this way and seek fame because he himself wanted it so badly. He’s not… I don’t want it that badly and you don’t want it that badly and most people don’t, but he’s sort of an extreme vision of what the system is. I mean, you can look at Josh at the end of the bunker and think, ‘What a cold bastard’, and all those people in the bunker clamouring for the attention of the camera, you say, ‘Those people are so messed up.’

And then you get to the end of the film and it’s, like, a little bit of a clunk because it’s, like, ‘Oh wait, we’re all kind of in this bunker and when we accept terms and conditions we’re doing the same thing that they did when they walked into the bunker.’ We don’t feel like that because we’re sitting in our house and it’s comfortable and whatever, but we don’t realise – we’re not reading the terms and conditions we’re just clicking because we don’t have time, we don’t care, we don’t think there’s any risk involved, it feels very innocuous. And so he looks like an asshole but really these companies that are providing an incredible platform for us to connect are also exploiting us.

LWLies: It seems to me that that’s two different arguments. One is that these companies are exploiting us – Facebook is a 15-billion-dollar company but all it is, is us, we give it value. And I agree with that argument. But the argument that we’re all looking for fame – Josh gets called the ‘Warhol of the web’ and he says that people want their 15 minutes of fame every single day – that sounds like a separate argument.

Timoner: Yeah, I don’t think that we’re all seeking fame; I think that we’re all seeking to connect and not feel alone. I think from the moment we’re born and our umbilical cord is cut we look for a way not to be alone. We engage in relationships, you know, we join groups, we join cults, we join churches and now the ultimate way to do that is the internet because there’s always somebody on the other side. There’s always iChat or, you know, something that you can always feel like you’re not alone. That’s what it is. It’s not necessarily fame; fame is only the ultimate of that because we see celebrity, at least in our society, it’s been upheld as… They’re always happy, they’re always surrounded, they’re never alone. That’s why we seek fame. Does that make sense?

LWLies: Yeah, it does. But the thing about the bunker specifically, it’s almost like you make one big decision, which is to go in, and once you’re in all your choices are taken away from you because you’re being played by Josh and he gets to decide.

Timoner: You have choices though, they just fall right in line. I mean, you could not be interrogated, right? You could not shoot the guns or you could not stay there. Nobody’s going to, like, arrest you for leaving you know? But people were so drawn there, to having their lives matter in some way at that crucial moment in history when it was the millennium. They didn’t want to leave.

LWLies: It’s a very specific crowd as well. It’s a New York art crowd. And what you show is that it meant something different to everybody who was there, and to me watching it, it kind of looks like the New York art crowd celebrating itself – how kooky and far out and how of its time it was. To call that an experiment seems like a misuse of the term.

Timoner: How do you explain somebody like Matthew Cobb from Chicago who came to the bunker to escape depression and had nothing to do with the art crowd? There were all sorts of people in there. There was a core art community because Josh hired or commissioned these people and gave them unlimited budgets to create those various aspects of the bunker, and then their friends would come or whatever. So there was a bigger volume of artistic people and the kind of people that are more into… not exposé but exposing themselves than, say, you’re average person. I don’t know if it’s… It may have been an experiment to him but to me it’s more of a metaphor and I do think… I thought about that too – wouldn’t it have been so cool if he’d just got a cross section of society, if he’d had a doctor and a lawyer. But he wanted to create a show moreso than an experiment.

LWLies: We see clips of you while you’re down there but we don’t get too much of your perspective on it. What are your actual memories? How was it for you?

Timoner: I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all.

LWLies: How long were you there for?

Timoner: The whole time. But I left too. I had a hotel room. I had a pod and I had a hotel room. He thought that was important – that I had a place to go to get perspective. But I was there most of the time and I didn’t like it. It was loud and I felt like it was this ‘pseudo’ community really where people were suddenly all living together and it didn’t feel organic to me.

LWLies: It’s performance not living.

Timoner: Everybody was performing for the camera, yeah. It wasn’t supposed to necessarily be like that, but he kind of was showing that no matter how extreme the circumstances people would subject themselves to the most extreme circumstances for their chance at fame. And I think that, yeah, the people there were probably more predisposed to desiring that fame than your average person but I do think that we all have this innate desire to connect. We’re social beings, you know, and the internet provides us with this wonderful way to do that.

And there’s some really great aspects to it – it’s an incredible time to be alive in terms of it is the best most amazing invention of our lifetime. It’s a lot of fun and it’s just that it’s undeniably changing our relationships to each other, and our sense of identity. To some extent it is disconnecting us a little bit. At the same time as it’s connecting us it’s disconnecting us from our physical lives and the idea of friendship. A Facebook friend versus a real friend, you know? It’s perverse. But that’s how the bunker felt.

I actually was inspired to finish this film when I saw the first Facebook status update: ‘I’m driving West on the freeway.’ And I thought, ‘Who cares?’ And all of a sudden all these people cared and more and more people were updating their status like that and it really kind of freaked me out. I had this weird feeling in my stomach sort of like I did when I was in the bunker where I didn’t really relate to it very much.

LWLies: Did you get a new perspective from going back to the footage and piecing it together for the film?

Timoner: Well I cut the bunker in 2000 – Josh asked me to cut the bunker for a film then I submitted him a rough cut. I was still work for hire at that point. I went off to Sundance in January 2001 to raise money for Dig! and I got back to my loft in Manhattan and he had taken all the tapes and the Avid. I remember walking into my loft and going, ‘Wow! This is really spacious. It’s prettier than I remember…’ Then I realised everything was gone.

LWLies: How did he get in?

Timoner: My assistant editor turn-coated. Josh said he was going to shut the project down but my assistant could have a job though: ‘If you let me in you can recategorise the tapes and I’ll pay you for another month.’ Later, like a year later, I got a call asking if she could meet me for coffee because she’d gone through AA and wanted to apologise and make amends. But basically I got back and everything was gone. I called him and he said, ‘Well, I didn’t like the way I looked.’ So he shut it down.

I was three weeks away from finishing the film about the bunker, which was sort of divine intervention actually that it didn’t happen then because it didn’t really apply to our lives the way it does now. I went on to Africa to make a movie about a dam called Dam Nation and then I went and finished Dig!. And when Dig! won Sundance in 2004 I got an e-mail from Josh saying, ‘Any interest in finishing the film?’ To which I replied, ‘No.’ Then a few months later he said, ‘Would you just get on the phone with me I have a proposal for you.’ So I got on the phone with him and he said, ‘I’ll give you 50 per cent of the film and full creative control and I’ll send you all the masters.’ I was living in LA at that point and that sounded pretty good to me.

There was no end date, but in 2004 the bunker felt less applicable to our lives than ever and less revelatory. It is still revelatory – there’s this bunker in Manhattan, who would think? Anyway, he ended up giving me the tapes and there was no end dates and I said, ‘One more thing: I get to shoot you on a tractor.’ Because he didn’t like the way it looked before so I wanted to have it contractual and he said, ‘I agree.’ So I went and shot him on a tractor and I went and shot interviews with everybody from the bunker and I went and followed up on Manhattan post-9/11 and all of that. And I still didn’t finish the film until Facebook because I think that society and technology needed to catch up to the film.

LWLies: It’s interesting that he stole the masters because he didn’t like the edit, which is Josh learning the first law of reality TV. The person with the power is the person doing the editing.

Timoner: He was the puppet master and here I was controlling his image and he didn’t like that. There was footage in that bunker cut that was him in this mirror that makes you fat and stuff like that, and him in the shower looking really bad. There’s this one guy from the shower scene at the end sitting outside doing a commentary on Josh’s cock and stuff. It was hilarious. But he couldn’t handle it because at the time he was doing and he was getting totally assaulted by the chatterers and made fun of, and he was just really hating himself and his girlfriend was leaving him and he was losing all his money so he had all this stuff going on in his life that I wasn’t really necessarily aware of. I should have seen the writing on the wall because he’d just closed Pseudo and he’d just closed everything else down and obviously the next thing to fall was the film.

So he took all the masters and I’m glad he did. I mean, it really worked out the way it was supposed to work out but in terms of the bunker I had already cut most of the bunker together, which is how we were able to finish the film as fast as we did because we really edited 5,000 hours in eight months. I mean, it was a miraculously fast edit. Unbelievable. I mean, we screeched into Sundance.

LWLies: So you picked up the phone to Josh in 2004. But it’s not sympathy towards him at that point; it’s more a business deal?

Timoner: I like to finish what I start, you know? I wasn’t tied to the film in anyway, I thought the bunker was somewhat of a joke, I didn’t care to do it but he was offering me creative control at that point and I thought, ‘Well, I can probably do something with this – I may as well finish what I started.’

LWLies: Was it hard for you to go back and shoot him? By that point you must have thought he was a dick.

Timoner: Yeah, I didn’t like him at all. I actually am not crazy about Josh at all. Really, there’s things about him that I think… He’s missing a very core human trait, like an ethical/moral core. He’ll screw anybody over. Everything’s a game to him. Even now. Even after being off the grid. Even since Sundance. I flew him in to Sundance from Ethiopia and he never left because we won Sundance and he’s, like, reading The New York Times call him a ‘visionary’, and he’s reading all the press and he’s loving it and he’s finally having his day. He’s like, ‘Oh, this is my opportunity to get my new project off the ground,’ so he’s living in Jason Calacanis’ pool house in Beverly Hills and he’s not leaving. He’s meddling with release of the film and it’s driving me insane. It’s to the point where I’m, like, gonna walk from the project if he continues because I can’t be working for this guy. He doesn’t make rational decisions and I don’t believe in his business sense, actually. But at the same time I have compassion for him.

So I reached this point in August of last summer where I cut together a pretty powerful basic, you know, the film as it basically is – all the bells and whistles and what makes it a really great roller coaster ride happened from September on with me and Josh Altman, we edited it together and it really went well. So August I was like, ‘Okay, I really have a problem. I have a really cool film on my hands but I can’t stand the subject.’ And I have this thing where I have to find love – I have to love my subject in some way. I have to have that compassion or I can’t bring that to anyone else.

It was really Lovey and that interview with Tania and going through creating Lovey that got me to that place where I felt like I could finish the film. I didn’t know how I was going to finish the film. And then ironically CNN Heroes – it’s like the Oscars of do-good; the 10 people in the world who do the best – and Anderson Cooper saw my movie Join Us, which is about mind control and cults in America, and he recommended me to be one of the five filmmakers to do CNN heroes, this is in the Fall, and I get a call saying, ‘Hey, would you do this show and we’ll send you the potential 50 nominees. You tell us who you think you’d like to film and of those 10 finalists we’ll try to give you your choices.’

So I saw one was from Ethiopia and I’d already gone in March to try and do an interview with Josh but he wasn’t home – he’d left two days before. So I thought that I was never going to have this last interview with Josh, I was never going to catch up with him in Africa. And now I’ve gone through the entire 5,000 hours and I’m like, ‘I know exactly what I need to ask Josh and I need all the stuff to fill in the gaps. And thanks to CNN Heroes I was sent to the exact village that Josh lives in at the end of October of last year. One of the executives said to me, ‘If you want to make Sundance you cannot leave right now, you’re already a month behind deadline.’ And I said, ‘If I want to make a great film I’m going to Africa.’ And I went. Then I went straight from the airport to the edit room for two days, never left, and turned in a cut to Sundance.

LWLies: In the film you say that you met Josh at one of his parties, so were you moving in that kind of crowd already?

Timoner: My friend had recommended that I go to Pseudo and check out… and that they pay really well. So I ended up working on Cherrybomb as a part time job in 1998 just to make some money to finance Dig! actually, and that’s how I knew Tania, became friends with Tania, which is how I got that interview with her because she wanted nothing to do with it at that time. Thank God for that interview but she did not want to do it. I had to just appeal to our friendship and how important it was to have her voice in the film. She hasn’t been in touch about the film at all, although I’m sure she knows we’ve opened in New York and stuff.

LWLies: For Dig!, did you know those guys socially already?

Timoner: No. I was making a film about 10 bands on the verge of getting signed to look at the collision of art and commerce and to really see what was going to happen to me in my early twenties because I had made a film about a woman in prison in Connecticut called The Nature of the Beast, and I thought I’d get her out of prison with this documentary and it went on PBS and it won awards and whatever, and of course nobody watched it because nobody watched documentaries in the early ’90s, and I realised that so I was like, ‘Okay, I need to go and make this into Movie of the Week or something and get her out of prison to get her to two million housewives who’ll write letters.’ And in that process I got involved with a major talent agency and everything started getting totally messed up, and I’m 21-years-old and they’re like, ‘Okay, you’re a producer now get out of the way,’ kind of thing. And I thought, ‘Oh my God, can I ever maintain my integrity and reach a mainstream audience? Is that ever going to happen for me?’

So I started filming bands to see what happens when they get signed and I heard the music of the Brian Jonestown Massacre and it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is the music of some band from the ’60s that I’ve missed!’ But they were alive and well and every label wants to sign them. So I met Anton and two weeks later they played the Viper Room and Anton said, ‘Forget about those other bands – I’m taking over your documentary. You’ve got to meet The Dandy Warhols, we’re going to have a revolution in the music business.’ And I thought, well, he’s not going to take over my documentary but I’m not going to argue with him because he just punched out his guitar player the night before. Then I realised quickly, within six months, he had taken over the documentary. These two bands had this star-crossed relationship where each singer wanted to be the other person.

View 2 comments

Harry Speakup

5 years ago
Josh Harris is appearing at Q&As at Odeon Panton St. after 18:30 screenings of We Live in Public on Friday 13th & Saturday 14th Nov.

Laura J. Smith

5 years ago
Saw the documentary earlier this week, it was great. A real thinker, very impressed! Some very startling and unsettling moments of human behaviour pushed to its limits through the frustrating process of alienation.
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