Matt Smith in "Mapplethorpe"

Tribeca ’18 Interview: Ondi Timoner on Capturing the Bigger Picture with “Mapplethorpe”

When Ondi Timoner was filming “Mapplethorpe,” a portrait of the notorious photographer, she wasn’t expecting Matt Smith, the actor playing him to start jumping on the window sill of his loft to kick off the 1980s, but after a career of profiling volatile yet often brilliant artists and thinkers in such documentaries as “We Live in Public,” she knew it was best to go with it since the edge — quite literally in this case — is often where genius lies.

“I wrote two lines – ‘1986’ — ‘86 got changed to ’81, but then I wrote ‘Robert calls Patti, she won’t pick up’ – two lines and it became half the day!” Timoner marvels, nearly a week removed from the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “We made such a meal out of that moment. It was such an important moment.”

Timoner is able to summon this excitement even as she’s at risk of losing her voice, following a week in which she’s been a juror for the festival’s narrative short competition and taken her fair share of meetings about other projects besides her “Mapplethorpe” duties.

“You know, I have a talk show here too,” she tells me coyly as we sit in the middle of the restaurant at the Roxy Hotel, referring to WeTalk, the program she’s been hosting just below in the basement. You wouldn’t know the show has ended, given the constant stream of well-wishers coming up to talk to her, and you sense this constant interaction is part of what allows her to see her subjects so clearly when they often lose sight of themselves.

Such focus was necessary in the case of “Mapplethorpe,” a decade-long labor of love for the filmmaker that remains an uphill climb — even after the film premiered, it’s still scraping together post-production funds on GoFundMe for finishing touches — but worthy of the effort. Being able to hang with the likes of The Brian Newtown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe in “Dig!” and more recently, Russell Brand to make “Brand: A Second Coming,” Timoner is able to get a handle on the capricious photographer whose sudden bursts of inspiration, bringing bold, sexually provocative imagery into the mainstream, depicting gay men in particular with a muscular eye that had never been seen before — were coupled with private fits of self-doubt.

Tracing his days as a poor kid fresh out of the army who couldn’t afford admission to the Whitney to having a full-scale exhibition of his work at the New York arts institution shortly before his life was cut short by AIDS, “Mapplethorpe” sees “The Crown” star Matt Smith slip into the photographer’s skin as snugly as the tight leather that was often featured in Mapplethorpe’s work, and to honor the man with an unflinching eye, Timoner shows similar resolve in keeping up with Mapplethorpe as he enters the fast life in New York, emerging from a creative cocoon with fellow artist Patti Smith to take the city by storm. With pictures that say more than words ever could, the filmmaker creates a stirring dialogue between the art and the artist using Mapplethorpe’s striking snapshots to bring out what he could only articulate with a camera while letting them linger in your head as you take in the circumstances around their creation, with Smith fearlessly throwing himself into the turbulent relationships Mapplethorpe had with his friends, family and lovers.

It shows quite of daring for Timoner as well, making her narrative feature debut after being one of the top documentarians in the game for the past two decades, and in the midst of a hectic festival, she graciously took the time to talk about dedicating nearly half of that to making a proper portrait of Mapplethorpe, the importance of shooting on film and how she brought life into the biopic.

Matt Smith in "Mapplethorpe"How did this come about?

It all started with a man by the name of Bruce Goodrich, a production designer [who] had written a script about Robert Mapplethorpe, but really from the perspective of the court case afterwards. He was looking for a director and through my manager at the time, he interviewed me. He really liked my spirit, and I believe he said, “I seemed to have this kind of spunkiness that he knew it was going to take to get this project made, this tenacity and spark.” And he really wanted a woman to direct it. But I told him, “Look, because I’m coming in on the ground floor and there’s no funding and no one involved, I produce as well, so how about I option it to produce and direct the film?” That’s how it started.

Then we took it to the Sundance Labs. That was a big move in 2010. When I went to Sundance for the second time for “We Live in Public,” they contacted me and asked me if I had a project that was scripted, and I sent them Bruce’s script at the time and we actually ended up making a bunch of revisions before the labs, but it really changed after the labs because I had these incredible advisers like Lesli Linka Glatter, Ed Harris, Michael Hoffman, Joan Darling and Joan Tewkesbury and Michelle Satter…Robert Redford himself was at all my rehearsals — all these great artists and they were saying, “We really want to see you rewrite this film. Like page one rewrite. You do it.” And I was like, “What makes you think I could do it?” They’re like, “Well, you’re ready to direct, and the way you’re directing these scenes and you’re handling this character, we’d love to see what you would write.” So it changed drastically. That was 58 rewrites ago.

It feels like it’s yours, particularly when one of my favorite scenes in the film connects to your entire body of work, which is when Mapplethorpe asks Patti Smith not to leave because it seems like he needs her to protect him from himself. Was that part of the attraction?

It’s so funny you say that because I felt that way with [Russell] Brand, that I had to protect the film from Brand himself at a certain point. I did as many changes as I could and then I was like, “This thing is going to get ruined if…” I needed to protect him from himself. I end up portraying these impossible visionaries, I call them, because they just plow on. They can’t help themselves. I love portraying people who can’t help but do what they do because it’s very inspiring. At the same time they’re deeply flawed individuals often, taking on things that we can’t even see at the time they’re taking them on, so of course they act impossibly because they have to keep going and withstand the doubt and ridicule of everyone else around them. That makes them very singular and can make them very tough people — and also sometimes not making good decisions. In Mapplethorpe’s case, I felt he became increasingly predatorial in his life. The film is very researched. Books and books and books — I was surrounded by books in a room. A lot of the lines come from right out of his mouth.

I included three decades because I wanted to show the coming-of-age and coming into his sexuality coming into his art – the way that all dovetailed. Then I wanted to make an anthem for artists, so I wanted to show him fighting to be accepted, to have what he loved, what he thought was beautiful that we all deemed to be obscene to be accepted. And then of course, you can’t tell the story without telling the story of AIDS in America and the fact that he finally accomplished everything he set out to and was taken out right at that moment.

Because you’re recreating his photo shoots, is that unique to see the way he was seeing in creating those scenes?

I chose photographs that I could tell the story behind, like “Knife in the Flower,” and “Man in the Polyester Suit” [where you could] really see Milton get picked up off the streets and see the pillowcase go over his head. It’s a very uncomfortable moment for an audience as it must’ve been for Milton, and I’m more interested in pulling those layers back to really look at what’s underneath a character’s choices than I am in protecting that character’s image. It’s not a likable moment for Robert Mapplethorpe, but that’s what happened.

What was it like to work with Matt Smith to create this character?

Matt has been attached to star for five years, so he had a lot of time there to figure out who Mapplethorpe was in his mind. Obviously, the script evolved a lot over that period of time as well, but really it was when we hit the ground in New York last summer that we came together and had a series of deeply intellectual conversations about who this guy is, and the role of an artist. Matt has to understand every single moment and decision and choice his character is performing or he won’t do it. Everything has to make sense, and somebody like that is really interesting to work with right after working with [Russell] Brand because Brand was like that too. If Brand didn’t agree with what I was asking him, he wouldn’t answer the question or he wouldn’t even do the interview. And Matt comes from a place of great integrity, so it was very important to him that the character be completely authentic, natural and that he could feel and understand everything he was doing.

It was hard because we jumped in on the end of his life. [Matt] lost 20 pounds, so we had to jump in [during] those last [days], also because of the availability of the location. But I always want to shoot the end first. We had three days to shoot the 23rd Street loft — basically, the [entire] ‘80s we shot first and I think he died on day six. The entire shoot was 19 days long.

Were you always intending to shoot on film?

I always shoot Super 8, and I always operate Super 8 too. I have a camera that I love particularly and it goes with me everywhere. It’s here in New York right now. And I love the texture that that brings. But shooting Super 16 was very important for the period and for Mapplethorpe. Steve Bellamy, the president of Kodak, actually said [to me], “If you don’t shoot film, you’re doing a disservice of the history of art.” He put it in grave terms and I said, “Fine, you’ve got to help me make it happen then,” and I feel like the film is almost another character in the film. It’s that important.

Matt Smith in "Mapplethorpe"What was it like making a scene come alive rather than having it unfold in front of you, as it might in a documentary?

With a doc, I go back and forth between production and post-production. It can be really intense on the day, it can be a 21-hour day. There’s no stopping. It’s a more intimate process with the subject, but it was really exciting shooting a scripted film because people bring so many different elements. Like Jonah Markowitz, the production designer, brought his aesthetic choices and I would say yes or no or this or that, and shape it. [Director of photography] Nancy Schreiber is great. I just asked her to light everything from the side, or from the back. I showed her “City of God,” and told her why I wanted to do it like that, and she said, “Okay, leave it to me.” While she would be lighting, I would be shooting Super 8 or talking with the actors or with Tom Broecker, our phenomenal costume designer. So it’s never a dull moment. When you have 19 days to get it or that’s it — you have no money otherwise, and they made them 11-hour days [when] I thought we’d have 12, they built the crew wrap in. So it was really hectic. I would shoot the rehearsals a lot of the time. But it’s amazing.

You’re just on it from beginning to end. If you want to skip 10 years [that you would spend on a doc], you do that. It takes ten seconds. Write it on the page and talk to the makeup person versus “We Live in Public” where you have to be there for 10 years. Time provides the greatest narrative. That’s why also my Mapplethorpe is almost like a life in fast-forward. I didn’t feel like doing one of those biopics where it’s a day in the life or one year in the life. That was never my Mapplethorpe. And I never wanted to make a doc about Mapplethorpe. Ever. I had no interest in a retrospective film because my films aren’t retrospectives. I wanted to bring Mapplethorpe alive and I think Matt Smith did that. His performance is beyond words. It’s certainly as great as his reading was when I cast him, but it could not have prepared me for what he gave me in those 19 days. I don’t think he knew. And we suffered. I think part of it was we were suffering through all those days. [laughs] Loving it, but suffering.

“Mapplethorpe” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will next play at Frameline in San Francisco on June 21st at 6:30 pm at the Castro Theater.

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