Dig It! An Interview with Ondi Timoner

By Lee Cahill

Ondi Timoner is a decorated American filmmaker who has a knack for finding self-destructive artists who walk the line between creative genius and delusional mental patient. Naturally, her characters lead very intense and exciting lives. Such is the case with her film Dig!, one of her two documentaries that have been awarded the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and acquired by MoMA. (You can watch both films, Dig! and We Live In Public, on Hulu right now!) Dig! follows the love-hate relationship between the bands The Brian Jonestown Massacre, led by Anton Newcombe, and The Dandy Warhols, led by Courtney Taylor-Taylor. We caught up with Ondi recently to talk about the film.

If you haven’t seen Dig! yet (do it) watch the trailer below.

OneHundredDown: You filmed the bands in Dig! for 7 years, so at what point did you decide to say, “That’s a wrap”?

Ondi Timoner: Well, I decided to start editing in 1999 and quickly realized that I’d shot so much footage that it was going to take years. My whole idea was to film life as it’s happening because as life happens you don’t really know why things happen, but when we look back, we have 20/20 vision. So, I filmed everything and then realized: Oh my god, I’m gonna be editing for 4 years. But the story was still unfolding, so I kept filming as I was editing. But I didn’t film quite as much – I would just film several times a year.

In that last scene where Anton’s arrested, I hadn’t shot Anton for 5 months or so. He was headed to LA and his son had just been born. He’d been on tour, and I had heard he put his guitar player in a trashcan and left him for dead. And me knowing Anton, even though I’m 8 months pregnant and really at the end of my film, I thought I’ve gotta go down there. I went out and shot that whole scene because I knew he was gonna be in an intense state of mind.

I finished the cut of Dig! for Sundance the week I gave birth to my son—that was the deadline I couldn’t push. I didn’t want to bring the rock saga into motherhood.

You spent a lot of time with the people in Dig! but then Anton and Courtney eventually came out against the film.  So, I’m wondering if you have a relationship with them now and what that’s like?

OT: I do stay in touch with people from the bands. I definitely have this familiarity with them—I know them like brothers. These are people I’ve known my whole life.

Courtney totally changing his take on the film is just ego. There’s no reason for that. Everything I filmed was completely real; he did the voice-over; he loved the film and told everybody to see it. But, as he gets older, he’s selling out big theaters even though his records aren’t selling, and it always says, “From the movie Dig!”. He can’t handle the fact that he has financial stability in part thanks to this film, and so he’s mad about it.  And so is Anton.

So they’re mad that the film is maybe bigger than they are?

OT: Yeah, and yet so many people tell me all the time how much they love the bands and that they got turned on to them by the movie.

And, I think with Courtney, it’s another thing, it’s about his mystique. And the mystique is gone. He wanted to be super-cool and in the shadows, and this movie kind of just shows him for who he is. For Courtney, that’s a real problem.

Anton can’t face the fact that he didn’t make the movie himself. He said to me so many times, “I am the Brian Jonestown Massacre. I play every instrument. I produce every record.”

Ultimately, I love them both, but I’m still waiting for my Thank You note.

A lot of people in Dig!, including Anton, say that he’s a genius. Do you think he’s a genius, or is he delusional?

OT: I think the word genius is a difficult word to define, and it’s thrown around a lot. Anton may be a genius. Not for me to say. I think he’s very good at what he does, he’s prolific and I think he has a special talent. He makes great music.

There are mostly portions of songs in the movie rather than the whole shebang. Why did you choose to not include more full songs?

OT: There’s so much to go through and there’s such a catalog with them. I mean, there was a 12-hour cut of Dig!—there’s a 5 hour cut of Dig!. So, it was just a lot to condense and it was really about the story to me.

Will there ever be a Dig! 2?

OT: I would never! I’m so over it. I learned everything I set out to learn about art and commerce and the conflict between the two. I dedicated so much time and so much love to both bands. By the time you’ve finished making the film, you’re so tired of the subject matter. Whatever the central question was you were trying to discover, you’ve already figured out.

What are you working on nowadays?

OT: I’m casting a film about Robert Mapplethorpe, a gay photographer who died of AIDS in 1989. He was cultural lightning rod. Mapplethorpe is a film I wrote that I am going to direct, which will star James Franco. My first “pre-scripted acting film.”

I’m also currently shooting a documentary about a very interesting group of tech artists in a start-up called SendLove which they hope will revolutionize accountability and truth on the Internet.

So, what drives you to make documentaries and what has inspired you to now make a biopic or “pre-scripted acting film” as you called it?

OT: I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m a storyteller at heart and that’s why all my films have really intense stories. With a documentary you have to shoot time and things unfolding over time. But with a “pre-scripted acting film” you can actually write through time and jump around. I was able to write a script that actually tells his life story and I can shoot it in a schedule of 34 days! It’s a pretty remarkable and exciting thing to do!

What are 3 songs you’re “digging” right now?

Broken Bells – “October”

Led Zeppelin – “In The Evening” (Led Zeppelin taught me a lot about dynamics in art in general, the way they crescendo and then go silent and then build back up.)

Lucinda Williams – “Seeing Black”

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