This Friday night at 9 p.m., anyone with a Showtime subscription will finally get a chance to watch the documentary Russell Brand doesn’t want you to see.
Brand: A Second Coming is the latest propulsive, eye-opening documentary from director Ondi Timoner, who has twice won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize—for 2004’s DiG! and 2009’s We Live in Public. The new film opened the 2015 SXSW film festival, but never received a wide release in theaters, partly thanks to Brand’s flat-out refusal to promote it in any way.
The comedian-turned-revolutionary was supposed to show up on the red carpet at SXSW, but at the last minute canceled his appearance. In a statement posted on his website, Brand wrote, “My life was hard enough the first time ‘round and going through it again was painful and sad. I know Ondi is an artist and I’m told the film is good but for me watching it was very uncomfortable.”
“That was great,” Timoner says sarcastically more than a year later. They haven’t spoken since, but she says they have exchanged emails. While Brand “apologized in advance” for any pain he might cause her, Timoner says she didn’t realize at the time how painful the entire ordeal would be.
“There is something very frustrating to me about a person who thinks they know best to the level that he does,” she says. “Because that’s his Achilles’ heel. I always have to love my subjects, because if I don’t love them then you won’t love them.” But at the same time, she adds, “I’m going to show you every side of them. This is not a puff piece.”
Yet if Brand had gotten his way, it would have been.
“He drove me nuts those last couple of months before South by [Southwest], asking me to change things,” Timoner says. “And I changed the film from what I would have wanted to make to something he was more comfortable with. There were a few things where I just had to draw the line and say, ‘Russell, if I make these changes, it’s going to be a puff piece and it’s really not going to be taken seriously.’”
After she spent thousands of hours editing footage, Brand left her high and dry, standing alone on that SXSW red carpet. “That was just the beginning of the disappointment of our celebrity-based culture,” she says, noting that once Brand had removed himself from the promotion of the film, major distribution offers disappeared. “I thought it was a perfect marketing angle to say, ‘Hey, this is the film Russell Brand doesn’t want you to see.’”
“What if I made a movie about Down Syndrome?” she asks. “Then you wouldn’t care if there was a celebrity on the red carpet. This is a serious movie that stands on its own as a really interesting, provocative piece of entertainment.”
“I’m very proud of it,” Timoner adds. “I think it’s a wonderful film and I just can’t believe the pain that I had to go through in him abandoning it.”
Unlike DiG!, which chronicled the feuding frontmen of The Dandy Warhols and Brian Jonestown Massacre, and We Live in Public, which tracked the origins of social media through the eyes of internet pioneer Josh Harris, Brand did not start its life as an Ondi Timoner project.
“I wasn’t a fan of Russell’s at all. I actually didn’t even really know who he was,” Timoner says, describing the time before she was hired to direct the film. Previously, she had been in the running to direct a separate documentary about Katy Perry. “When they called me about this and asked to save this edit of the film he’d been making for a while, I said, ‘Wait, is that Katy Perry’s boyfriend?’” she remembers asking. At that point, the famous pair had already been married and divorced.
“I hadn’t seen Get Him to the Greek, I hadn’t seen his stand-up. He just wasn’t on my radar at all,” Timoner adds. “To me he was just another celebrity name that didn’t mean anything.” And when she looked at the footage the team had shot so far, she “still wasn’t impressed.” The project, originally titled Happiness, mostly consisted of Brand interviewing people like Jay Leno and Cameron Diaz about the meaning of life. “Nobody’s going to care about this film,” she remembers thinking.
But when Timoner finally met with Brand, she was “so blown away by his intelligence and his charisma” that she thought to herself, “How is it possible that none of this energy and incredible brilliance that I’m witnessing—that’s hard to miss—how is it that it’s not in that footage?”
By the time Timoner got to her car, she already had an email from Brand. “I’m enchanted,” he wrote. “Everything you said is right. And what’s more, you said it in those boots.”
“And so began the seduction,” she says. Brand essentially begged her to take over the direction of the documentary, but she had some stipulations. Most importantly, she wanted to retain creative control over the finished product.
At the time, Brand was just beginning to write his Messiah Complex comedy special, in which he compares himself to “immortal heroes” like Gandhi, Malcolm X, and Mother Teresa. In his 2010 memoir, he talks about growing up in the “penitentiary of anonymity.” Now that he had achieved a significant level of fame, he wanted to use his platform to “bring about a global revolution of consciousness.”
Looking at Brand, Timoner saw a man whose fame brought him “drugs and sex and sex addiction—everything that he went after and pursued, that everyone is taught to pursue for happiness, that our consumer culture sells us as a way to be happy.”
“He did that and he got all that. He became a heroin addict, he fucked thousands of women, he became famous in America, he married Katy Perry, who became the biggest pop star in the world,” Timoner continues. “He had it all, everything we think is supposed to make us happy. And he came up empty.” When she met him, Brand was “seeking another way.”
“I didn’t want to hear what Cameron Diaz thought would make her happy,” she explains. “He was asking all these people instead of telling his story. His story has it all.” Timoner says she aims to make movies that “cause people to really question their reality.” And she saw that possibility in Brand.
But it meant that basically, she had to shoot an entirely new film. “And it’s going to be about you,” she told Brand.
“That’s why he wasn’t out in front supporting it,” she says now. After viewing the finished film for the first time, Brand wrote in a private note to Timoner that he finally understood the “price of authenticity.” Once she convinced him that he should be the primary focus, he said he should have realized that he could never promote a film that shows him fighting with his father, among other uncomfortable moments. There was no way he could walk the red carpet, wave, and smile at the press and invite people to view his struggles as “entertainment.”
“He has no problem talking about his perversions,” she says, referring to Brand’s stage act and books. “But he controls that story. He tells you what he’s going to tell you. He’s not interested in somebody coming along and telling his story. And that is something that became literally like pulling teeth at times to make this movie. As soon as he agreed to give me creative control to make this movie, he started running from it.”
Brand actually apologized to Timoner for disliking the movie so much. He said, “Don’t take it personally, but I hate this documentary.” (Timoner later clarified that Brand told her he doesn’t “hate” the film itself but rather the process of making it. "Incredible fucking film,” he said. “Unfortunately it’s about me.”)
The version that will air Friday night on Showtime includes all of the changes Brand insisted Timoner make, but there is a more honest director’s cut that she still wishes the world could see. Among the footage she regrets having to take out were moments in which Brand “transgressed” or did something “ethically questionable,” as well as one quote from the comedian about his legendary Morning Joe appearance from 2013 that became a centerpiece of the film.
“He said something very honest to me, but I’m not going to say what it is because that would be the same thing as putting it in the movie,” Timoner says. “I wish that I hadn’t taken it out. But he insisted.”
In other instances, she tried to compromise. Brand wanted the footage of him standing naked on a police van during a London protest excised completely, but she got him to agree to have his genitals cropped out instead. Then there was some “beautiful” footage of Brand with Katy Perry, showing that their relationship was “deeper and more authentic than one might think, that they really loved each other.” But since it was Brand’s private home video footage, Timoner says there was “no way” she could have included it after he told her not to.
All that being said, Timoner does believe that the finished film is an “authentic” portrayal of a man who “really does want to change the world.” But it could have shown an even more complete picture of the man.
“I think he’s a wonderful artist and an incredible spirit and intellect. I think my respect for him shines through in the film,” she says. “People leave the theater with so much more respect for him than they had in the first place.”
Had Brand chosen to support the film, it’s quite possible many more people would have gotten that chance.