A Life in Pictures: Ondi Timoner on Transitioning from Docs to Narrative, Patti Smith, and Casting the Iconic Photographer in Mapplethorpe

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Acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Ondi Timoner (Dig!, Brand: A Second ComingJungletown), brings a punk rock sensibility to her work.

At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, Timoner made her feature film debut with Mapplethorpe, a biopic about revolutionary photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe gained notoriety for his graphic S&M scenes that sparked a censorship trial for his final exhibition entitled The Perfect Moment in 1990, a year after his death. The film was named runner-up for the Audience Award for Narrative film at the 23rd Street SVA Theater, just up the street from the Chelsea Hotel, where in the ’70s Mapplethorpe famously roomed with then-lover Patti Smith.

Matt Smith (Prince Philip in The Crown) stars as the adult version of Mapplethorpe, showcasing his rise to fame in the 1970s until his death from AIDS in 1989. The movie has a strong focus on the artist’s relationship with Smith (Marianne Rendón), central to his life and career and shows how much they championed each other’s work. (The cover album photograph of Smith’s 1975 album Horses was taken by Mapplethorpe.)

I interviewed an exhausted Ondi Timoner, running on four hours of sleep, after the premiere at the Roxy Hotel. Looking great in a cowboy hat, she gamely posed for a photograph.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was timeline like for Mapplethorpe?

Ondi Timoner (OT): I worked on it for 12 years, beginning with when I optioned the rights to produce and direct it in 2006 from Bruce Goodrich. I teamed up with siblings Eliza and Nate Dushku in 2009 when we took it to the Sundance Lab. They challenged me to write it. They liked the way I told stories as a filmmaker in documentaries and wanted to see how it would translate. The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation were really supportive and sent me a lot of books.

MM: What was the transition from documentary to narrative filmmaking like?

OT: It’s interesting to spend so much time on the script. I counted recently; I had done 58 rewrites. And then to have it happen in 19 days is very odd because in documentary I would shoot, then go into post, and then shoot more. It goes back and forth, and in this case you have to get it at once. My documentaries always follow things unfolding and they’re always suspense-driven narratives, so I didn’t want to do a retrospective. I really wanted to bring this incredibly charismatic character to life and make a bunch of impossible visionaries out of you and everybody else who sees it.

MM: The movie gets very dark as you go into the 1980s, the last decade of Mapplethorpe’s life, at the height of the AIDS crisis. What kind of conversations did you have around depicting that period?

OT: The AIDS crisis was massively important to all of this. It was so tragic, and that it swept through everybody he knew and when Sam [Wagstaff, Mapplethorpe’s lover and patron] tells Mapplethorpe his pictures are becoming a gallery of the dead, it really is true. We wanted to keep it very much in his world. We tried to show that that world was penetrated; it didn’t matter who you were. It just hit everybody. I was very proud of and grateful to the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation for allowing us to tell that aspect of the story. In some way Robert didn’t want to cheat his own life. He felt that somehow everybody knew what they were getting into and he continued to be sexually active after that. That was definitely something that I had not seen before in anything about him, so I put it in and prayed that they would allow it to stay in. Thankfully, they didn’t take it out. It’s a hard moment but a very humanizing moment.

MM: Matt Smith, who played Dr. Who and is most famous for his portrayal of Prince Philip in The Crown, doesn’t immediately come to mind to play Robert Mapplethorpe. What made you think he was right for the role?

OT: That was my son Juki’s idea. He was originally eight or nine at the time, was a massive Dr. Who fan, and he said, “You have to meet Matt Smith. You have to cast Matt Smith”. Then two weeks later, by a weird coincidence, his agent called and requested a lunch with Smith and I about the part of Robert Mapplethorpe. I said yes to them because of my son. I went down there and was blown away by the way he was in the room. He was drawing when I walked in. He was this tortured artist from the moment I met him. I could see Robert Mapplethorpe in him but I wondered if he could do it, so I asked him to read. He did and my jaw dropped off the desk. I couldn’t believe it. At that point we couldn’t get the movie financed, but he was the right person for the role so we just went for it. That was five years ago.

MM: He seemed to transform himself. Did he lose a lot of weight for the scenes where Mapplethorpe is dying?

OT: He lost 20 pounds. He talks in stones cause he’s British. I think it was a stone and a half. I believe he gained weight for Prince Philip, and then had to lose that weight for this. We shot right after The Crown, from the end first. I thought, he’s thinner, and I want him to be able to eat. I felt like it was really important to put that suffering into the schedule a little bit so you can warm up into it. Not day one. I also wanted to go with the darkest stuff first, to go with the ’80s first. It was just an instinct I had, and I think it worked.

MM: Now Matt’s got a huge fan base from The Crown, so it’s very lucky timing on your part to cast him.

OT: Timing works the way it works. It wasn’t like I orchestrated the whole thing.

Matt Smith at the Mapplethorpe Tribeca premiere. Photo by Andrew Toth for Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival.

MM: What was it about Mapplethorpe’s life in particular that made you want to bring it to the screen?

OT: He’s a cultural lightning rod and an artist who takes on the impossible. He took on turning gay life into something that is acceptable, something that is palatable, that is worshipped actually. He has worked as a photographer by turning this art into Greek and Roman sculpture by formalizing it, by insisting it was beautiful, and no one could see that but him. He went through rejection after rejection but withstood all of that to make this happen, and in so doing he’s actually the guy that turned photography into a collectible art form. He’s the man who revolutionized that, and he changed our relationship to gay culture forever.

MM: You make a lot of the dichotomy in his work and life, the Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sides of him. Why was that so important to you?

OT: The church really influenced his notion of his aesthetic, and his notion of the devil—the idea of the devil and Jesus. He infused that in his work. His S&M photography would almost turn into Cain and Abel. I see a dream and a goal in Robert’s life to make us all see the beauty that he saw in the lifestyle he chose, frankly. And so he felt that those S&M images should be shown in his shows along with the flowers, but they would never be able to show with the flowers. But to him the flowers were just as sexual as anything else he was shooting. To him that was all part of his body of work, and his body of work should be together, so there was a Jekyll and Hyde aspect with his work. At that point in history, people viewed the S&M images as very obscene. Mapplethorpe believed beauty and the devil were the same thing. What he was doing was incredibly revolutionary.

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