Ondi Timoner seems less interested in making documentaries than immersive experiences, something both at odds and in harmony with Josh Harris, the internet pioneer and the subject of her latest documentary, “We Live in Public.” A man who claims his best friend growing up was his television, Harris made his millions by creating a web-based startup (Jupiter Communications) and selling it to Prodigy in the ’90s before spending money “like it’s sand through the fingers of time” on a Big Brother-esque bunker in New York where people volunteered to have their every movement captured on video.
Timoner was invited to bring in her own camera, and even after Harris’ bunker descended into chaos, she tagged along for his subsequent venture, a 24/7 webcam of his life with his then-girlfriend Tanya at WeLiveinPublic.com, and his unexpected life after the dot-com bubble burst. As Alison Willmore noted in her review on Indie Eye, Harris “might just be too good a subject for a film,” but Timoner’s aim is far larger than his. Just as her last film, “Dig!,” latched onto something far larger than the rock ‘n’ roll rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, “We Live in Public” deals with larger issues of human connectivity and isolation. Following a triumphant run at Sundance where the film picked up the nonfiction Grand Jury Prize, “We Live in Public” comes to the city in which it’s set to close out the New Directors/New Films Festival this weekend. With it comes Timoner, who talked to me about Twittering, being almost misquoted in her own movie and how her latest film is “really about you, so at the end of the movie, it’s kind of like ca-clunk. Think about it when you look down at your BlackBerry.”
When Josh first asked you to bring a camera to this thing, what kind of expectations did you have going in?
I had no idea what he was going to do. He said “Come document cultural history!” and I thought “Oh, Josh… what’s it going to be?” He said, “If you want to [do] something really special at the millennium, I’ll tell you that once you show up, I’ll make sure you get what you need.” That was his promise. I was shooting a pilot for a show that I was developing in Manhattan anyway, so it was like, let me just see what he’s doing. I went down there and it was this empty bunker. I couldn’t tell what exactly was going on, but he explained it and I just thought, I’ve got to capture this. I’ve got to be a part of this.
At what point did you know this was going to be your next feature, since you finished “Dig!” in the interim?
We thought it was a feature doc from the get go. I cut a version of the bunker alone in 2001, then the dot-com crash [happened], [and] we just stopped that project. I’m glad we did, because it took me until 2006, when I saw my first Facebook status update from someone driving down the freeway and I thought, What is that? Who cares if you’re driving down the freeway? Is this what we’re coming to? And hey, I Twitter now, too. It is fun, it is compelling to share and to be shared with. I started realizing that the bunker was actually a physical metaphor for how we react to surveillance and the Internet and this democratization of fame. We would submit to anything and everything to get attention.
I thought it was sort of sly on your part, the way you showed your own involvement in the film, in how it was shown and how it was mentioned. Was there was an internal debate about how much to include of yourself?
Not much. I didn’t want to do the voiceover. It’s not really my style. I’m not Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore, but I do believe that the work comes first and that the form of the film should follow the content. And every film is its own organism. My films, at a certain point, trump me. The film itself has a way that it wants to become. I tried Josh Harris doing the voiceover, I tried Jason Calacanis doing the voiceover. I was sure we had it with Jason and we totally didn’t. It did not work for this film. And it came down to, like, what about you? And I don’t like omniscient narration. I like it to come from within a story if it has to be there at all. In my film “Join Us,” one of the cult members does the V.O. In “Dig!,” Courtney’s the V.O., I’m in the story, so then it became okay, well, now I need to be physically in the story so that people can anchor with knowing that I was there and it’ll make it feel more like the film has integrity.
There was a debate over when I say “I’ve been reborn by the cereal bar [where people eat at the bunker].” They wanted me to cut it off at “I’ve been reborn,” and I was like no, I was not reborn by the bunker. At all. At times, I enjoyed [being there], but at times, I thought it was so disturbing because of the way people reacted to their chance at fame. People [were] just clamoring for attention there, being grosser and more overt and more sexual, and as much as I appreciated the whole spectacle of it, it really made me uncomfortable. I felt like I was seeing the dark side of humanity. When the movie fell into place for me in 2006 and 2007, I realized that that was part of what I was suppose to feel there, that I needed to make this film now because it’s so important for people to be conscious as they use the Internet, not unconscious.