“I wanted to create an anthem for artists,” Ondi Timoner explains to Art & Object as her motivation for making Mapplethorpe, a biographical drama about one of the most daring and controversial artists of our time. Signing Matt Smith (Doctor Who and The Crown) for the starring role of Robert Mapplethorpe was a coup for Timoner, previously known for her documentary work. She is the only two-time recipient of the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries, Dig! (2004), and We Live in Public (2009). Both films were acquired by MOMA for their permanent collection.
Timoner faces her life and work with fearless, full-frontal honesty, elements she shares with her most recent subject, Robert Mapplethorpe. She received her first camera in 1992 at the age of 19 as a gift and took off on a road trip with her brother across the U.S.A. interviewing people along the way. In the process she became “infected by the power” that a camera bestows on the person behind the lens. Though she was a student at Yale at the time, the university had no film production major, so Timoner convinced the faculty to accept a filmic exploration about transgressive women in American society for her senior seminar. That work, shot primarily in a Connecticut prison, culminated in her first film, Nature of the Beast, a documentary tracing the tragic trajectory through the criminal justice system of Bonnie Jean Foreshaw, an African American woman sentenced to 45 years without parole for first-degree murder. Though Foreshaw was released in 2013 after serving 27 years, its themes continue to resonate today. By 1994 Timoner’s commitment to filmmaking was total, and she, along with her brother David, founded Interloper Films, a production company based in Pasadena, California.
Timoner reiterates, “Giving voice to the voiceless is what married me to documentary … making sure that we hear the truth and question the truth.” But that marriage is contingent on good storytelling, and Timoner never loses sight of the story. In drawing comparisons between documentary making and feature films she elaborated, “I’ve always made narrative films, with a forward momentum.” In the case of Dig! Timoner had over 5,000 hours of footage shot over a period of seven years recording the careers and the love-hate relationship between the alternative rock bands The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre. Serving as producer, director, and editor gave Timoner complete control of carving out the story essentials, like a sculptor removing stone to reveal the creative core of the work.