Director Ondi Timoner describes the life of Josh Harris, the subject of her documentary We Live in Public, as a cautionary tale. “This is the story of the greatest Internet pioneer you’ve never heard of,” explains Timoner, “who experimented with the effects of technology on human behavior and sort of ruled Manhattan until he took it too far.
“How he took it too far was when he decided to rig his loft with 32 surveillance cameras and 60 microphones and announce to the world that he and his girlfriend were going to be the first couple to live in public and conceive a baby and all that in public. He essentially brought about his own nervous breakdown and sort destroyed himself by making himself the guinea pig.”
Having seen success at Sundance once before (her 2004 documentary DiG! won a Grand Jury Prize back in 2004), Timoner hopes to find similar success with We Live in Public as it contends in the U.S. documentary competition. A few days before her Park City premiere Timoner spoke with MovieMaker about why she sat on this movie for so long and how doing so gave her a chance to make two more documentaries in the meantime (DiG! and 2007’s cult expose Join Us).
Andrew Gnerre (MM): How long ago did you start production on We Live in Public?
Ondi Timoner (OT): In 1999 I started officially making this film. Ten years ago.
MM: So how did it start?
OT: I met Josh by walking in to Pseudo on recommendation of my friend Jodi Wille, who is actually quite an incredible book publisher and just knows all the nooks and crannies of American society. She was just turned on from cult to outsider art to whatever—she’s a freak magnet, you know?
She knew about Pseudo and she said, “Hey, if you’re in New York and need to pick up some extra cash, you should just go to Pseudo, it’s this Internet television network.” What? (laughs)
Nobody had broadband so it was kind of this wild, eccentric thing. I went in—it’s the corner of Broadway and Houston—and it was just these state-of-the-art offices and studios and edit bays, just flush with dough.
I started shooting with Tanya [Corrin], his girlfriend at the time, on the “Cherrybomb” show, just for a few months while I was in New York. Then I went back to L.A., I was making a pilot for VH1 for a show I created for them called “Sound Affects.” I was off on that trip and Josh called me and said, “Are you interested, in documenting cultural history?” And I said, ‘What does that mean? What are you planning?’ He said, “Well, it’s over the millennium, it’s gonna last a month and I can’t tell you more than that, you’re just gonna have to come.” He said I could assess the situation and hire whoever I needed to document this event that he was going to throw. And what that was was the bunker: “Quiet: We Live in Public.” I showed up and I filmed that and it’s a segment of the movie, obviously. It was his physical metaphor of how the Internet would be in the future.
MM: And the movie covers events up until the present?
OT: Yeah. The thing about my movies is that I like to make real-life documentaries that actually unfold over time so you can watch them like a narrative and not know what’s going to happen next.
MM: No, definitely. DiG! seemed the same way; an actual documentation as opposed to a Michael Moore documentary, for instance.
OT: I love when they can unfold. They’re extremely taxing to do that way, though. It’s out of control. In this case it’s 5,000 hours of footage down to this feature-length film. It’s an absurd amount of work to try to carve a story out of documenting life. And in this case, instead of DiG! which was 2,000 hours, it’s 5,000 hours because my subject himself is as obsessed with documentation as I am. So what I didn’t film, he did. We’re talking about long play, extended play surveillance videos of every aspect of his life.
When he loses all his money and gets the call that he has a negative checking balance, he’s sitting on the toilet on camera in the movie. I didn’t film that, the surveillance camera did. So finding those gems and piecing them together into one, flowing film is definitely hardcore.
I shot DiG! and Join Us during We Live in Public and the reason I waited this long for We Live in Public is because technology and the Internet had to catch up to Josh Harris’ vision for it even to make any sense. Society was not there. I didn’t even know what the film was about in a lot of ways.
So what he did [with the bunker] was set up a sort of neo-fascistic environment where everything was free and it was a party. You could have free food and drinks for 30 days and a place to sleep and be at the center of it all and be on camera and be famous! But, you had to be interrogated and there was a neo-fascistic temple. You had to cede your privacy and sign away the rights to your image to be there. And you had to wear uniforms! You had to shower in public and go to the bathroom in public. And he was like, “You know what? No worries. Everybody is going to come because it’s free and you can be on camera. That’s how people are going to react to the Internet. At first they’re going to like it. They’re going to say it’s free and this is my chance to have 15 minutes of fame every day and before they know it, they will be exploited. Their data will be mined and they will be living in public. It will affect their lives and they will be trapped in virtual boxes.”
We’re halfway there, maybe more, in a short period of time. That’s what’s crazy about the movie is that it’s been nine, 10 years and look at this! Look at yourself in 1999 versus now and your dependence on the Internet. Which is an amazing tool, but if it cut out for a month, how would you feel? What would happen to your life?
MM: I wouldn’t be able to do my job.
OT: Correct. That’s the irony of this film. It’s like looking at ancient history 10 years ago.
MM: And that’s why it’s premiering now, because that’s where we are?
OT: It’s premiering now because I busted my booty! (laughs) No. It’s premiering now because I realized like eight months ago that absolutely right now is the time that we can all see the smoke on the horizon. If you don’t have a Blackberry you’re going out to buy one. If you’re not on Facebook you’re getting invitations to join every day. You’re virtual life is as important as your physical life—if not more so. It’s every day increasing. Every day it’s becoming more and more and more.
What’s amazing about Josh is that he’s a cautionary tale. That’s what makes him, like Anton from DiG!, an amazing subject to me, even though it’s hard to like him at times. The movie opens with him saying goodbye to his mother on her deathbed, over a videotape. He could not go see her. The only child of seven that would not go see his mother. He said goodbye to her virtually. Then it pulls out and it’s a YouTube video. He was so disconnected from real things, like love. What are happening to our social relationships now that we’re finding love online? It’s just food for thought.
MM: Now that you’ve been to Sundance a few times, do you come in with a different plan?
OT: Yes. I had no idea what was going on when I came here with DiG! in terms of the marketplace. DiG! came out at a time when the market was great. Now the market is terrible. I’ve already talked to my financial partners. This film cost a lot more money than DiG!, it’s not just me financing it anymore and I’ve got people that I really have a debt to to try and get their money back. If we can’t because of the prevailing situation, we’re just going to sell it right now. It’s like, never fear, the Internet’s here; we can self-distribute, we can hang onto it, we can push it around town. It’s not going to lose value. It’s a one-of-a-kind art piece and a highly entertaining film, I think.
I’m just excited to enjoy myself and share this movie with these people and hopefully the world, eventually.