“We’re all trapping ourselves”: Ondi Timoner, director of “We All Live In Public”


SEATTLE—Ondi Timoner is walking back and forth trying to find a good spot in the lobby of the Egyptian Theater to put “We Live in Public” t-shirts and DVDs of her film Join Us out on display to sell after the screening of her new movie We All Live In Public. She has been doing interviews since the start of the screening and I’m her last one before the film ends (in less then 15 minutes); then she has to get back on stage to conduct a Q&A.

I’m watching Timoner, who’s full of energy, talking with a guy who has taken the reins of selling the merchandise. Timoner begins walking over to me to start the interview, when she instead goes into the adjacent room, the concession stand area, to retrieve something. As she walks back into the lobby, Timoner walks over to the chair next to me, adjusts it, sits down, and she’s holding a plastic cup full of popcorn and looks ready to be drilled with questions all over again. Timoner is the only director to win the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival twice. The first was 2004’s Dig! (a music documentary chronicling the friendship and rivalry between rock groups the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre); the second was We Live in Public, which won the same prize this year.

We Live in Public was made over the past ten years with over 5,000 hours of footage, most of it starring Internet pioneer and founder of then up-and-coming website Pseudo.com, Josh Harris, who took the Internet to new heights, helping to pave the way for Napster, MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter alike. In 1993 Harris started the company, which offered live audio and video footage of interviews, at a time when most Internet connections went through a telephone line. At one point Harris was said to be worth in the area of $80 million dollars and Harris, like other dot-commers, was spending his money freely and frequently.

When Pseudo filed for bankruptcy in 2000, Harris got involved in other projects, including “Quiet: We Live in Public,” where 100 people volunteered to be placed in a bunker underneath a building that Harris rented where he brought in Webcams that were set up everywhere in the bunker. They were set up in the bunks, bathrooms, dining room, and the gun range. (That’s right—gun range.) Everything was free: the booze, rent, the shooting gallery, food, but Harris owned everything that was shot on the tapes. Among other things, people took showers together, had sex, and were interrogated by artists posing as psychologists. We Live in Public not only shows Harris’s rise, but also his untimely fall. Throughout the film, the question is raised: is Harris a genius, or a mad scientist who selfishly played God?

First off, how and when did you meet Josh?
I worked at Pseudo a little bit in 1998. I was shooting Dig! in New York and a friend told me you could pick up some extra cash at Pseudo, they paid really well, so I went down there. But Josh actually called me in 1999, knowing I was a filmmaker and asked if I was interested in documenting “cultural history” and I said, always. But what do you have in mind? “Well, I can’t really articulate that, so you’ll have to come down and see,” Josh said. So I went down there and they were moving the first metal in to build the capsules, right there on Broadway. And I saw someone else down there rigging surveillance cameras and I thought, this is incredible, I’m in!

Watching the film a second time after the Sundance screening, I noticed that singer/guitarist Courtney Taylor from the Dandy Warhols briefly showed up in the bunker.
He came to visit me at the bunker. I added that footage after Sundance. I cut it at some point and forgot to put it back in. It is just incredible, the amount of footage and the time. I didn’t know how to make the film “socially relevant” and didn’t feel that it was. And it wasn’t until early 2007 that I got the financing together to finish the film, which happened in April 2008. So we had to cut the movie very fast and I knew it had to come out now, it was important to raise consciousness about how we’re using the Internet and our Blackberries and our iPhones. We’re addicted to our technology. It is changing the ways that we interact, and it’s important to be aware of the agreement of terms and conditions and what you’re posting and how you’re using the media. As Josh would say, “we’ll all be trapped in virtual boxes.” Well, your Blackberry and phone are those virtual boxes. But we’re all trapping ourselves with these products.

Was there stuff that was documented that wasn’t in the film? There is a man who has bipolar disorder; he is interviewed and he kept a journal during his stay. Were a lot of people keeping journals? Did you ever know what he was writing?
There was stuff that is pretty out of control that’s not in the movie, that will be on the DVD. I was in the bunker every day all 30 days, so there is quite a bit that was left out. I don’t think many people were keeping journals. It makes me think I should contact him and ask for his journal. I thought it was amazing that he chose to go to the bunker to recover from depression. The bunker was a distributing place to be, period.

When it came time to start cutting material was Josh very open to giving you footage?
At first, it was work for hire because Josh asked me to do it. I cut some of the bunker and then I flew to Sundance in 2001 to raise money for Dig!, and when I got back he had stolen all the masters. Josh had taken them all out of my loft. And I said, why did you do that? He said, “Because I didn’t like the way that I looked.” But little did I know, he was losing all of his money in the Internet and at the same time he was doing weliveinpublic.com [another Web site Josh started after the bunker that featured his girlfriend and him being filmed 24/7 in his apartment; viewers could talk to them online and observe them and have them do things in front of one of the numerous cameras rigged in Harris’s apartment], which was his downfall. He was shutting everything down, and I should have seen it coming. I went to Africa to shoot a movie about a dam, and then went back to L.A. to finish Dig! When Dig! won Sundance in 2004, I was on the front page of the New York Times and I got an email from Josh saying, “Any interest in finishing the film?” And I wrote, no. And then a few months later, he contacted me again and asked me, if he gave me creative control and 50% partnership in the film and all the masters, would I do it? I did recover all the masters, and going through them, I still didn’t know how it would relate to society. Bush won the election in 2004, and then I started working on another film called Join Us, which is about mind control, about what people will give up to belong and the cult epidemic in America. But when I started seeing Facebook status updates in late 2006, early 2007, I realized I was getting this same feeling in my stomach similar to when I was shooting in the bunkers, and the same clamoring for attention in cameras, was now moving and happening online. And it was a physical metaphor for our lives today. I just knew I had to finish this film in time for Sundance 2009. I wanted it to come out this year.

What are the distribution plans for the film?
We Live in Public currently doesn’t have distribution, but we’ve in been talks for months. We have some plans for the film and its release. We’re structuring our own plan for the film. We want to the film to qualify for the Oscars, to play theatrical events, to go on the Internet before TV, things that are intrinsic to the DNA of the film, that go against a traditional distribution model but are the future. We feel like it is the mission of this film to show the future even in its distribution. We Live in Public will be the first film to premiere online after its theatrical run, but it’s still worth seeing in the theater.

The credits are now rolling in the theater. The sold-out crowd is applauding, and Timoner is running up on stage to find Seattle International Film Festival programmer Beth Barrett, who’ll conduct the Q & A session. The lights come on, the audio of the film is turned down, and Barrett brings Timoner to the stage. Before the Q&A begins, Timoner says that there is a special guest in attendance and asks Harris to come up on stage. The audience applauds as Harris makes his way to the stage and gives Ondi a warm embrace.

One woman asks Harris what he thought of the film. “I haven’t seen it,” he says.

“We’re going to watch it together on camera,” says Timoner, “and then we’ll record the DVD commentary right after that.” The audience erupts in laughter and Harris looks uncomfortable at the prospect of reliving his entire life on camera, yet again.

Jim Brunzell III (djguamwins@yahoo.com) writes on film for the Daily Planet and hosts KFAI’s Movie Talk.

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