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

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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MM: Your cinematographer, Nancy Schreiber, shot in 16mm but the cinematography gets grainy and sapped of life as the action goes into the ‘80s and the AIDS crisis takes hold. Those grainy scenes are in super-8mm. How did that transition come about?

OT: I wouldn’t call myself a cinematographer, but I shoot a lot of my own movies. I shot all the super-8mm film, the grainy stuff, like the scene on the fire escape. Nancy Schreiber, who is a legend of the light, took the challenge and operated a lot of the 16mm. We also had a Steadicam, which I really love. She did all the 16mm, and then I shot the Super 8. I kept the Super 8 camera on my chair, and in between takes while she was lighting—just to make sure we had enough peanut butter for the bread—I would also shoot scenes.

MM: When did you shoot the film?

OT: July 11 of last summer over 19 days.

MM: How did you do it so quickly? And how did your background as a documentary filmmaker help you in turning this project around?

OT: It was crazy. I love this kind of filmmaking and hope I get to do it again with a little more time [laughs]. It was really challenging. We had a low budget and three different periods to capture. With documentary you don’t know what you’re getting into and you gotta ride that wave, and you’ve gotta make everybody comfortable, and you’ve got to explore fearlessly. So when I’d have to cut three scenes from the day because we just didn’t have time, as a writer I was able to do that pretty quickly.

MM: Patti Smith is such a central figure in this movie. In the early part of his career when they were lovers, they championed each other’s work. And of course he shot the famous Horses album cover. Did you ever meet her?

OT: Yeah, I interviewed her for a doc that Perry Farrell asked me to do about Lollapalooza in 2004. We got along great and we rode a golf cart around all day. She was wonderful. We really hit it off. But in 2006 when I tried to hand her the script that I optioned, The Perfect Moment, as it was called then, she backed away and said, “You can’t portray me. I’m not dead yet.” That was her first reaction. She’s very uncomfortable with the idea of anyone portraying Robert’s story, and I can understand that. She probably feels that it’s very much her life story, but we were really trying to tell Robert’s story. His dying wish was to have his story told.

MM: So you tried to contact her about this film?

OT: I made many an overture to work with her but it was not possible for her to work with me or she just really didn’t want to. I tried to portray her with as much respect as I could; I have a lot of respect for her. Whatever she went through on an emotional level with him, they were going to be together forever. I’m sure it hurts to have to relive that story, that he had to be with men and they couldn’t be together forever. That’s not an easy rift to have in your life, and they didn’t talk for ten years. That was a long period of silence.

MM: I read you don’t want to do any more documentaries. Is that true?

OT: No, I do. I’m starting one Wednesday. Never a dull moment. It’s about the opioid crisis and a sculptor who’s determined to uncover the reason we have this pain in America and to show that it doesn’t discriminate. It’s through the eyes of a female artist, Suzanne Firstenberg. She’s not an addict; she’s a sculptor touched by it. She’s doing some very interesting work with opioid addicts and caretakers. It’s time I did something about a woman. I did “Amanda Fucking Palmer on the Rocks,” about Amanda Palmer, a short film that premiered here in 2014. MM

Mapplethorpe premiered in April at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival.

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