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Tim Burton & Johnny Depp Transform "Alice in Wonderland"

Visionary director Tim Burton and consummate actor Johnny Depp are almost the Tweedledee and Tweedledum of fantasy filmmaking: Depp brings to life the characters that emerge from Burton's magically twisted mind. But with this new film, based on the legendary novel by Lewis Carroll, Burton and his favorite cohort Depp fashion not quite an interpretation of the surreal tale so much as they're booting up a whole new fantasy franchise.

Depp, of course, is the movie star that won't get sucked into being a movie star, so he always refashions himself as much as he refashions characters to be an expression of his own convoluted psyche. And Burton is a master of rebooting a franchise — look at what he did to restart the Batman series in the 1990s. The former Disney animator has gone from being everybody's favorite eccentric to the ultimate mainstream player, transforming a literary classic into a high-concept, 3-D tent-pole success. And on the heels of what Avatar did in skewing audiences toward new digital technologies, Burton's Alice in Wonderland  helps confirm that 3-D is here to stay.

Q: Because it is such a massive project, what made you want to step into the world of Alice in Wonderland  in 3-D?

TB: It was [just] that — that Alice in Wonderland in 3-D seemed like the world that Lewis Carroll created, with the kind of trippiness, size and spatial elements. Then I started thinking about the world of Lewis Carroll, and not so much about the films and things, but I knew more about it from listening to music and bands and other illustrators and artists that would incorporate that imagery into their work. It made me realize how powerful the material was. If it were written today it would be mind blowing today, so the combination of the medium and the material just seemed really right.
Alice In Wonderland Press Conference
Q: This is not the Alice in Wonderland that we're used to; you've put your own stamp on this.

TB: There have been so many versions and for me, I’ve never seen a version that I’ve really liked. I didn’t feel like there was a definitely version that we were fighting against. Also, I liked what Linda [Woolverton] did with the script; she almost treated this story as how the Alice material has affected us, at least for me.

It's the story of someone using this kind of imagery and this kind of world to figure out problems in and things in their own life. What’s fantasy and [what's] reality, and how they’re not separate things, they’re one thing, and it’s how we use those things to deal with our issues in life. I don't even know what I’m talking about.

Q: What was your reasoning for shooting this in 2-D and converting it?

TB: Because all the techniques we were using, there's no point in shooting it in 3-D when there's nothing to shoot. We were using so many different techniques; we had live action, we had animation, we had virtual sets.

When we did the [3-D] conversion from [The] Nightmare [Before Christmas] (1993), [production designer] Ken Ralston and I looked at things that were shot in 3-D and things that were shot in 2-D conversion and it’s like anything. With all of these tools you can see good 3-D, bad 3-D, good conversions, bad conversions. So we always do it was 3-D so we did all the proper planning so that when we got to that stage, when we got the elements finally together, then it was just another piece of the technology. In fact, that was probably some of the easier technology than the other elements that we were dealing with.Johnny Depp

Q: Is this the seventh film you and Tim have done together?

JD: I think so, somewhere around there.

Q: When he came to you and said I want you to be the Mad Hatter, what was your reaction? Why did you want to play that character?

JD: To be honest, he could have said Alice and I would have said yes; I would have done whatever character Tim wanted. But certainly the fact that it was the Mad Hatter was a bonus, because it was a great challenge to try and find this guy and not just be a rubber ball that you heave into an empty room and watch it bounce all over the place. To find that part of the character but also a little bit more history or gravity to the guy.

Q: There’s a tragic nature to the Mad Hatter that you bring out in a way that's never seen before in Alice in Wonderland.

JD: There’s the whole Hatter’s dilemma really, which was where the term "mad as a hatter" came form. The amount of mercury that they used in the glue to make the hats and everything was damaging, so looking at it from that perspective of this guy, who is literally damaged goods, physically damaged, emotionally a little obtuse, and kind of taking that and deciding that he should be, as opposed to just this hyper, nutty guy, he should explore all sides of the personality at an extreme level. So he could go from one second being high falutin' and a lot of levity and then straight into some kind of dangerous rage. It was interesting trying to map it out.

TB: It being a Disney movie, we decided not to focus too much on the mercury poisoning aspect (laughs). It didn't translate well to 3D.

Q: In a way you could say your whole career of being Johnny Depp has been like being Johnny in Wonderland?

JD: My whole experience on the ride since day one has been pretty surreal in this business. I'm still completely shocked that I still get jobs and still am around. But I guess more than anything it has been a kind of Wonderland. I've been very lucky. Does that answer your question?

Q: Did you dream that it was going to be this way when you started?

JD: No, not at all. I had no idea where anything was going, but it’s almost impossible to predict anything like that. I had no idea. I felt like after I’d done Cry-Baby (1990) with John Waters and Edward Scissorhands (1990) with Tim that they were going to cut me off right then. I felt at that point that I was on solid ground and I knew where I was going and where I wanted to go, and I was sure that they would nix me out of the gig. But luckily I'm still here.

Q: You've collaborated before; how did you view how your your professional and personal relationship would be affected by sharing Alice in Wonderland?

TB: I don't know; I couldn't really look at him during the shooting because he looked like a scary clown. We didn’t make much eye contact during the shoot. I always love working with Johnny, from Scissorhands on, for many reasons. He likes to play characters and be different things, he doesn’t like watching himself, which I love because that makes it a lot easier for me. Each time we do something he’s always trying to do something different, and it’s great when you know somebody and they keep surprising you.

Q: Do you feel the same way?

JD: Yeah. Each time out of the gate with Tim the initial thing for me is to obviously come up with the character, but then you start thinking there's a certain amount of pressure where you go, "Jesus, will this be the one where I disappoint him?"

So I try really hard, especially early on, just to come up with something that's very different that he hasn’t experience before, that we haven't experienced together before, that would stimulate and inspire him to make choices based on that character. I try not to embarrass him, basically.

Q: You've created many wonderful characters; when you start developing something new, like the Mad Hatter, do you look back at your own work and make sure you don't repeat anything?

JD: Definitely at a certain point, especially because I've played English a number of times, I've used an English accent a number of times, so it becomes a little bit of an obstacle course to go, "Oh, that’s teetering into Captain Jackville."

So you've got to really pay attention to the places you've been. But that's the great challenge is that you may get it wrong, or there's a very good possibility that you could fall flat on your face. But I think that's a healthy thing for an actor.

Q: Was there anything in Alice that technologically you couldn't do yet?

TB: We were just using all different technologies, so they're all out there. People go purely motion-capture, purely animation. Everything's a new tool, you always have limitations, you can do more, it’s all great, and I never try to focus too much on the technology. The fun of it for us is the artistic thing of it and feeling like we're making a movie and not get too involved with technology.

Q: If the next project involves donning a suit with dots for the cameras like they did in Avatar would you do it?

JD: I don't know; what color is the suit? It's black? Well it matches my eyes. I don't care, I'll put anything on, it doesn't matter to me. Obviously. Look at me.

Q: Of all the characters and all the movies you have worked on which ones have been your children's favorites?

JD: My children's favorite, and it's funny because they've seen it but they have a difficult time watching it because it's their dad and they make that connection, but Edward Scissorhands is by far my kids' favorite. They connect with the character and also I think they see their dad feeling that isolation, feeling that loneliness. He's a tragic character so I think it's hard for them. They bawl.

TB: For me, my kids don't really like my movies. (reconsiders) I can't say that. [It's that] they're too young. My son's getting older but since I don't really know what I do I can't really describe to him what I do so he doesn't really know what I do and so, whatever.

Q: One of the great earmarks about a really great happy dance — which you did in the film is that it's completely unique to the person. So is this one part of your own personal repertoire.

JD: No. The happy dance was something that Tim had a very curious vision for.

TB: Listen, he's injured himself, he cannot do it today. It has to be the right circumstance, the right music and everything else.

Q:  What were your personal preparation for that a lot of mirrors?

JD: No.

TB: Smoke and mirrors, yeah.

JD: I tend to avoid mirrors at all costs. We had to treat that like a stunt.

TB: You wouldn't question Fred Astaire like this would you? (laughs)

Q: You seem to be going through the entire canon of 19th-century fantasy literature.

JD: I’m hoping to do [Fitz Hugh Ludlow's autobiographical 1857 book] The Hasheesh Eater next.

Q: What's the attraction to that era's literature to you as an artist?

JD: I just adore it. From certainly J.M. Barrie, and the wonderful characters he created, to Lewis Carroll, and even French literature, or Edgar Allan Poe. Like Tim said about Lewis Carroll, you open those books, you open [Charles Baudelaire's 1857 book of poetry Les Fleurs du mal, a.k.a.] The Flowers of Evil, and begin to read; if it were written today you’d be absolutely stupefied by the works. So it’s this incredible period where the work is ageless so I love all those guys. It’s my deep passion, those great 19th-century writers.

Q: When did this book enter your life and was the proper English an influence to your understanding of it? And how did this book influence you?

TB: I’m from Burbank so we never heard about Alice in Wonderland except through Disney cartoons, the Tom Petty video [for "Don't Come Around Here No More," 1985), and the Jefferson Airplane [who recorded the 1967 Carroll-inspired hit "White Rabbit"]. It's interesting because that's what made me realize the power of it.

I got my introduction much more through other illustrators and music and culture and writers, and the imagery would come up in other work. And then soon you start to delve into it and realize just how powerful it is and that's why it remains that way.

Q: Can you want to add to this?

JD: I have a thing about long necks too. It's funny, even though you can't quite place when the book or the story came into your life, I do remember vaguely at roughly five years old reading versions of Alice in Wonderland. But the thing is the characters; everyone knows the characters, and they’re very well defined.

Most people haven’t read the book but they definitely know the characters and reference them. Ironically, it was maybe only a year prior to Tim calling that I had reread Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and what I took away from it was all these very strange little cryptic nuggets that he’d thrown in there and I was really intrigued by them and fascinated by them because they were asking questions that couldn’t be answered almost, or making statements you couldn’t quite understand, like "I am investigating things that begin with the letter M."

That took me through a whole stratosphere of possibilities, and doing a little research and discovering that the M is mercury. And, "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" those things just became so, so important to the character. And if I read the book again today I’d find 100 other things that I missed last time, so it’s constantly changing.

Q: And what is happening with The Tourist? What have you enjoyed about working with Angelina Jolie?

JD: I haven’t done anything yet.

Q: When does that start shooting?

JD: I think Tuesday next week.

TB: But how do you think it's going to go?

JD: I think it'll be swell.

Q: What did you like about the part that made you want to sign on?

JD: I like the [original] French film a lot, and my friend played the part. I thought I might be interesting to explore this character. You never know what’s going to happen. I suspect there may be a few paparazzi in Venice.

Q: We heard there’s no Keira Knightly or Orlando Bloom in the next Pirates. Is it going to be more Jack Sparrow?

JD: Yeah, there's no Keira or Orlando in there. I don't know, I don't think we'd ever throw too much Jack Sparrow in there, I think there will be a little bit of everybody.

Q: You were wavering after Dick Cook left. What reassured you?

JD: One thing that I found very reassuring was a very good conversation with Dick Cook, who is someone I admire greatly. That helped a lot. And also knowing that we're coming at it from a different angle at this point; Rob Marshall totally knew to take a new story.

Q: What did Dick Cook say after he left?

JD: He was a perfect gentleman.

Q: Do you see Dark Shadows as going this year or is it still on the fence?

JD: No I see it going. I hope it does, I do. We worked like dogs to get that.


For more by Brad Balfour:

Actor David Rasche Stays "In the (Oscar-Nominated) Loop"

When actor David Rasche came into the room, I knew this was going to be a different kind of interview, just as In The Loop is a different kind of political comedy. The 65-year-old Rasche was supposed to be joined by director Armando Iannucci and fellow actor Zach Woods to conduct an intimate roundtable interview session. But because Rasche was early, our conversation was transformed — much like the shambolic, supposedly "secret" committee meeting organized by Rasche's character, the gung-ho American warmonger Linton Barwick (a cross between Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld) got transformed and provided a pivotal moment to the film. In a similarly chaotic fashion, Rasche spoke solo with a couple of us and provided some pivotal moments of his own before settling down with his fellow Loop-ers.

The British-produced film debuted at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival and at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Taking its cue from Iannucci's smart and snarky look at the inner workings of British politics, the TV series The Thick of It (kind of The Office for politicos), In The Loop follows Cabinet minister Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) through a series of slip-ups that gets him involved in an ever-twisting gyre of intrigue that leads to starting a war in the Middle East. Sounds familiar...

The film stars such series' regulars as Peter Capaldi (reprising his foul-mouthed communication chief, Malcolm Tucker) and American additions such as former The Sopranos star James Gandolfini as the war-reticent General Miller. Within this context, bumbling assistants and loose-tongued associates screw up and screw each other to a dry, droll, parodic effect. The film certainly doesn't view previous British and American administrations as the pinnacle of political achievement.

In light of the health care debate, with the Right stirring the pot, the film serves as a reminder that the politics of diversion, derision and destruction as expressed by the opposition party goes on. So when a film like In The Loop offers this refreshing and engaging alternative take on the inner workings of the political universe, it becomes a must-see to add perspective. Certainly, it hit some resonant note; the film garnered an Adapted Screenplay Academy Award nomination for writers Iannucci, Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell and Tony Roche.

Though Iannucci, who also produced the film, and Woods, who plays Chad, a very funny American adjunct, finally arrived, what was supposed to be a simple roundtable turned into a unusual and enlightening back-and-forth banter.

Q: Was that just the roll of the dice that you ended up playing the bad guy warmonger Barwick?

DR: Well, they made it a little bit harder in this movie [from the television show]. But that's for Armando [to explain].

Q: How did you see it?

DR: I had a few rejoinders that were excised.

Q: You did it so well. You have this way of doing it so that you don't come off as just mean.

DR: That sinister thing is there [though].

Q: Is that you or in the script? I can't believe all the things that Armando threw in there.

DR: It's terrific eh? Funny as hell. The timing was great; it's global politics. As a matter of fact, I had a friend, Mike Reiss, who was one of the producers of The Simpsons, who said that he thought there are arguably more funny lines in this movie than in any movie he can remember.

Q: But is it too complicated for Americans to get?

DR: I've been in tons of audiences like in Seattle [at the film festival]; there were 3,000 people, all Americans, and they just were howling with laughter.

Q: I saw it with critics and they didn't laugh as much as I imagine an audience would. I was angry at them in a way but I thought it was astounding.

DR: Really? I'm surprised because I have not seen that audience. The only audiences I've seen, big or small, have [been with the public].

Q: You don't even realize some of the lines are really funny until it hits you later; it's so deadpan, and you're so perfectly deadpan.

DR: It's really funny, I have to tell you, I've been involved in two international projects in the last little bit and it's absolutely remarkable what we bring to it. Like I did this Brazilian film and people are all saying "Oh, we don't like you because you did so and so and so and so," and I said, "What are you talking about?" And the same thing with this; with the British press, the Americans were almost completely ignored and all they could see is the Brits, and now here you're asking me [about my character]; we see the Americans. It's funny, what we bring.

Q: Who were you a blend of?

DR: I was going for was a combination of John Bolton and Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove and Condoleezza Rice. All those imperious, belittling, condescending, right? Remember all those press conferences? It was like, "Do you really have to act like that? Do you really have to be so belittling and condescending?"

Q: You added the imperiousness brilliantly.

DR: I mean all of them, like David Addington [then-vice president Dick Cheney's legal counsel and chief of staff] — do you remember him? — they were all so unpleasant.

Q: Evil, evil people.

DR: No, but as unpleasant as a person [can be]. In the hearings, talking over you, not listening, belittling your point of view, remember Condoleezza Rice? "Uh, Senator." Relax, Condi. Anyway.

Q: I was at a Times Square New Year's Eve event with a press pass and John Bolton came. No one else had a problem talking to me — Regis, Chris Rock...  But Bolton had a phalanx of security; you couldn't even get 20 feet near him, and it was like, "What the fuck?" And he did not crack a smile the whole time.

DR: They're so self-important. Same thing with Cheney; he's doing something that no American politician in the history of the union has ever done, which is breaking the silence [after a new administration has taken over] and starts screaming about, you know... And the reason is, "Oh, well, what's happening is so important, and I'm so important, I just have to." Well, you know, Dick, I don't know if you're that important.

Q: It's interesting seeing us filtered through a British cultural lens so that you see Americans in a whole different light.

DR: Oh, yes, you do. It's a British film, from a British point of view. Don't tell Armando I said that. But I think clearly it swung that way... I don't think he knows it, maybe he does or not.

Q: The most disappointing thing for you about it was that you didn't get to be in every scene with everybody else, because there are so many good people there.

DR: They had to cut a lot. I used to be but... You'll have to ask Armando, and I don't mean to misquote him, but I think he said that he got to the end of editing and knew stuff had to go, so he cut his four favorite scenes and then all of a sudden the movie worked. I'm afraid I was in a couple of those scenes. His first cut was four hours.

Q: Without all the locations, it would have been interesting to see it with everything else taken away, and on a stage. Because there's such smart, snappy dialogue, it reminds me of a lot of those British playwrights, you know, like Alan Ayckbourn or somebody like that. It does kind of have this beautifully fluid language...

DR: Well, the story goes, as Armando will tell you, there was a special guy. No, not Tony [Roche, one of the screenwriters]. I'm pretty sure the guy was Ian Martin, who provided, oh, additional dialogue. He specialized in swearing; you know all the crazy [British] swearing? I'm serious, they call this guy up; that was his specialty. When he would say "I'm going to rake your bone and I'm going to stab you in the heart" and all that stuff. "I will hound you to an assisted suicide," I mean I don't know which ones. "What are you in a Jane Austen novel?" and all that, a lot of that stuff, specifically, that was what he was good at.

Q: Do you see a difference between British and American humor? Is there something that doesn't translate well?

DR: Except for people like [play/film writer-director-producer] David Mamet, who I think is the exception that covers both bases, Armando is funny as hell but a lot of his humor is really verbal. It's in the words, really; it's not that it's a joke but it's the combination of words. They're a little more verbal than us, don't you think? We're more situations, sight gags, stuff like that. Well, the nice thing about this, too, is there really aren't any jokes. There are no, like, jokes.

It's behavior and situation. Although I don't want to misquote Armando, but I think he said that when he went through the film while was editing and any line, no matter how good it was, if it sounded written, he cut it, because he wanted it to sound like you really were overhearing [them talking].

Q: You can't lay it on the director, it's all your fault. There are so many places where you are silent, so it's all in your look, gesture, the walk forward, or walk over here, or look at this.

DR: Tell him about how wonderful that is.

Q: You got it down with just enough of the restraint, as everybody did in this film.

DR: I've been watching those [Bush administration] guys on television for eight years. I mean, just it's appalling, appalling, appalling behavior. And it's obvious that now that we've had six months where we've learned you don't have to do that. We have Joe Biden, we have Barack Obama, and I don't see it. We have all the cabinet officers, you know, like [CIA Director] Leon Panetta —  they're not insulting.

Q: The Republicans seem like whiny children now...

DR: Absolutely. I think it was the fact that we ended up with the opposite of what they claimed. It seems to me that what we're learning is that rather than strong men, they were very weak, and when 9/11 happened they all went [weird noise] and they started doing all this kind of extreme stuff because, unlike Roosevelt and those guys who said... "Hi."

They were really weak little boys and they did all kinds of bad things. It didn't help anything, right? We're finding out about all this eavesdropping, the effect of this was like, not much.

Q: To what degree do you think we're living in a democracy?

DR: It's pretty hard to say that we are anymore. It's not that, it's when we find out the influence of the banks and corporate America; we see now that when the banks can throw $25 billion in propaganda you can't fight it. I was reading there's a new organization that's trying to counteract it, but it's really hard. When they have everybody on TV, the only news stations, it's like how can you fight it?

It's the same thing with the government; how can government regulators, when Goldman Sachs and all these people hire hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of the finest MBAs from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to find out how to get around the laws, we don't have the money to hire people who are smarter than them to keep them from screwing us.

Q: Did you need to read a lot of stuff?

DR: I told you already: I've been watching these bastards for eight years on television, shaking my head, thinking, "Oh my god. Despicable."

Q: Whenever you see politicians they always seem so dry and boring.

DR: Well, they all aren't. Rumsfeld wasn't; he was a performer, the ultimate performer, who really enjoyed getting up there in front of people. Which was part of his problem that he got carried away and was under the mistaken impression that everything that came out of his mouth was a gold nugget and in fact, I think that was not the case.

Q: I've heard of the analogy of politics to wrestling. When you watch wrestling on TV there's so much tension and conflict but outside of that...

DR: That's why President Obama, when he frames the argument of abortion as to let us respect each other's opinions and then go from there, then the whole thing starts from a new spot. It doesn't start from I hate you and you hate me.

Q: You grew up in Chicago, right?

DR: Well, I never really grew up; I "enlarged" in Chicago.

Q: Where are you from originally?

DR: It was a joke; you didn't get it. I said I never really grew up but I enlarged. I was in Belleville, Illinois, which is downstate, but I spent a lot of time in Chicago.

Q: You've got roots on the Obama side, but there's also classic Chicago politics.

DR: Not only that but Rumsfeld is from Chicago. Oh, yeah. I know this personality type. My father was a little like that. Seriously. There's this kind of stubborn, like that last line where he says, "Well there were some pretty scary moments at some point, right?" and I said "No, there weren't." remember that? That could be my father: "No. No. No."

Q: How would you describe or define patriotism at its core?

DR: The last refuge of scoundrels. Who said that?J efferson or... I can't remember. Benjamin Franklin? [Samuel Johnson: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel"]


For more by Brad Balfour:



Director Anders Østergaard on His Oscar-Nominated "Burma VJ"

When Danish documentarian Anders Østergaard took on the challenge tBurmese Monk at the Protesto make Burma VJ, he had no idea how much he would advance the cause of citizen journalism. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a  collective of 30 anonymous and underground video journalists (VJs), recorded the 100,000+ demonstrators (including thousands of Buddhist monks) who took to the streets in 2007 to protest the repressive junta that for over 40 years has controlled Burma — a.k.a. Mynamar, as the regime renamed it. 

Since foreign news crews were barred, the Internet was shut down and domestic reporters were banned unless employed by the state, the VJs used Handycams and cellphones to document these historic and dramatic events; they then smuggled this samizdat footage out of the country for broadcast worldwide via satellite. These VJs risked torture and imprisonment to show the brutal clashes with undercover police and the military — even after they themselves became targets of the authorities.

Using this smuggled footage, offered for free usage to the international media, the 40-something filmmaker tells the dramatic story of those protests and briskly shows how the Burma VJs stopped at nothing to make their reports. This raw footage, sent through clandestine electronic channels, marked  a new step in freedom of expression, and Østergaard's film has stirred a media pot now percolating in other global trouble spots, such as Iran. The protesters there have also now captured unvarnished images, and send reports through digital channels of their actions and of their government's violent reaction.

Østergaard has previously helmed films about pop culture, covering such subjects as the Scandinavian rock band Gasolin' and the Belgian comic-strip classic Tin Tin. Ironically, with Burma VJ  he covered another aspect of popular culture — the use of digital technology to create user-generated content — to document a major political act of defiance. The results have paid off in various accolades, from a 2009 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury prize to an Academy Award nomination for Best Feature Documentary.

In fact, this exclusive interview itself was done through the cutting-edge technology of the videophone-like Skype — so once again, the digital domain advances journalistic expression.


Q: The human rights abuses in Burma don't seem to be on the radar like some other issues. Are you a little surprised that the film has garnered this support? What do you think made it click?

AO: I think [it's] the uniqueness of the material that these reporters gathered — this unique access and this very dramatic portrait of an uprising, which they’ve managed to pass on to the world. I also think some of our own decisions play a role: our deliberate decision to tell this story as a suspense story, using all the cinematic tools needed for that, which I think was a good choice for the film.

Q: How did you contact the Burmese people? Was there someone who was your liaison, or was it someone you knew from Denmark? What was the connection?

AO: It was pretty straightforward. Once we decided that we wanted to work with this we got in touch with the Democratic Voice of Burma in Oslo, [Norway], which is basically a satellite-TV and radio station, and explained our interest, and they were very forthcoming. They needed the attention — I guess they trusted us — so they sent us to Bangkok to meet 12 of those reporters who were coming out of training.

Q: Are they paranoid that someone might be an agent of the government?

AO: They're used to this. I think their biggest worry is that one of their recruits would be an agent. They deal with this all the time and I'm sure they made their investigations.

Q: When you made this film what was your hope or your original expectations for it? Do you think you can change society with it?

AO: Oh, absolutely not. I wasn't too focused on purpose as such. I tend to go so deep into the storytelling in itself — that that’s what really drives me and I don’t think too much about the function afterward.

Of course, I can see from the old pictures that I tried to say that I wanted to make the Burmese condition tangible, so that you could feel it and smell it, and I guess that was my ambition, to take it beyond the abstract interest in some other country and just be there. And that was what I was totally committed to when I put the film together; I didn't speculate too much on the aftermath of what might come out of this politically.

Q: You had so many different people involved; who did you consider your critical liaison? Who was the one gentleman that you had with you in the States that was working with you from Burma?

AO: That was very obvious to me when I met [the VJs' tactical leader, code-named] Joshua, because, first of all, he wasn’t scared. Understandably, most of these guys would be already very paranoid about what they were doing, so having a foreign film crew on top of that was just too much, obviously. Joshua had this kind of fearless attitude to everything, and he also had an intuitive understanding of how to explain Burma; he’s an excellent communicator.

And he has also a mix of qualities that intrigued me. He was on the one hand this cheeky young guy looking for challenges and really enjoying his cat-and-mouse game with the police sometimes. And, on the other hand, kind of a reflective, philosophical guy, who could also look back and explain the Burmese condition in a very deep way. So I was just intrigued by his qualities as a storyteller.

Some of Burma VJ production team including producer Lise Lense-MøllerQ: How did you and producer Lise Lense-Møller define your roles? You obviously have the directing experience, so how did she come in as producer?

AO: Very much in the European tradition, I would say, in pretty much keeping hands off the creative business but making sure to give solid financial support. For instance, we needed some extra time, and she had the guts to let that happen even though she was under considerable economic pressure. So her contribution is mainly securing the financial circumstances. Creatively, she would be less involved than some other people.

Q: Were there moments when you were worried that this wouldn't happen? It must have been touch-and-go as to whether you had enough stuff that would make a film, and whether it would look right. Was there a point where anybody was in danger?

AO: Security, of course, was a big issue all the time and made some restrictions to what we could do. We tried to work creatively with that; we tried to make a virtue out of necessity. How can we work with people when we can't see their faces? That led us to phone conversations as a leading tool for the film. Otherwise, just sorting out the chaos; the material came in a pretty confused way where we wouldn't know who'd shot what and when, so we had to piece all that together first before we could start telling the story.

Q: When did you know you had a movie that would work?

AO: I think I was struck quite early on by the uniqueness of the material, the very straightforward demonstration of the regime's brutality. But also the happy moments, the optimism of the early days of the uprising, when everybody was coming out in the streets. I think they managed to capture that beautifully, if you consider the circumstances. These were guys who could barely pay for the bus ticket.

Q: How much information did you decide to put in or not put in? How much do you reveal or not reveal about the regime and Burma's history? How much do you assume that people know, understand or are passionate about?

AO: Much of these decisions are made by instinct, by the kind of director you are, the kind of storyteller you are. And as I said before, the number one thing for me was to make people experience the Burmese condition, to feel it, to sense it, the whole visceral thing about it. So that led obviously to me being very, very restrictive about me spending time on history, on more than just the absolutely necessary information.

Q: Do you hope some day you’ll be able to go to Burma without having to be under scrutiny?

AO: That would be the greatest strength.

Q: Of the many people you’ve talked to, what are their expectations?

AO: Well interestingly, in my experience the most optimistic people are the Burmese, and that’s a curious thing. I don’t know if it’s because of their Buddhist education, but they seem to be the most patient and the most convinced that some day that this regime will fall. The uprising of 2007 was a tragedy, but it was also a reminder of what people are actually able to do and how they’re able to battle their own fears.

Q: Was there any one person in the film that you consider the key to getting the film?

AO: Joshua, meeting Joshua. That was a critical thing, to have somebody who was able to give his voice to this, and to bridge any cultural gaps and make it such a smooth and happy collaboration, to me that’s a crucial thing. And also, some of the other guys also had these qualities actually. So basically the VJs.

Q: Do you know of anybody that had a chance to speak to Aung San Suu Kyi?

AO: We’ll see; there are some complications to that.

Q: How did making this film affect you personally?

AO: Well it made me very busy. Putting a film together like this, first of all is hard work, and you’re so focused on doing it right that you really don’t spend much time feeling a lot of stuff. Just dealing with this huge responsibility really takes up most of your energy. But of course, I think what made the biggest impression on  me was to watch the uplifting footage, the hopeful early days, this moves me just as much as it seems to have moved the audience.

Q: In your one week in Burma what did you see there that you hope tourists will one day be able to see?

AO: It’s a gem; it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the East. Also actually, ironically, because of the regime things have been preserved in a way quite different from, for instance, Thailand. It also is in terrible decay, but the millions of pagodas, the lush green trees of Rangoon. First of all the people are very mild mannered and gentle and they’re wonderful people.

Q: Have you had an interest in other countries in South East Asia?

AO: Not too much. I’m not an expert on Burma or on Asia as such. I’ve done a little bit of traveling in Indonesia, but nothing that would really put me in a special position. I came to this as a filmmaker more than anything else.

Q: I’ve met a number of the Burma refugees here in the States. It’s a tough struggle. I don’t know who has it worse; the Tibetans or them.

AO: It’s pretty bleak for both of these peoples. It’s a good fortune that they’re both Buddhists because it helps them a lot, clearly.

BB: One other really fascinating aspect to the film is your exploitation of the contemporary technology. Your movie couldn’t have existed a few years ago. When you step back and think abut the implications of that, that must have interesting ramifications in your head.

AO: Sure.

Q: What are your thoughts on this.

AO: Of course a film is not just about Burma, it’s also a celebration of citizen journalism as such. And telling people that technology is not always a bad thing; there’s a tendency to think that cameras or something that’s going to watch you, that Big Brother is going to watch you. But it actually can also be Little Brother watching the tyrants, which I think is a positive note. Basically, I’m every optimistic about technology, I believe in that kind of thing, I believe in progress through technology, so I’m happy it’s a celebration of that too.

Q: You obviously have to be emotionally committed when you make a movie like this but at the same time where do you draw the line as to how you continue to be committed or not. Obviously, you’re going to go on to do other things after the Oscars, but then you say to yourself, “Well, do I need to come back to it, to continue to worry about what’s going on in Burma?” Where do you draw the line?

AO: Well I draw it just around the Oscar, actually. I hope this will be the end of my story with this at least. Of course personally I will always be attached to the issue on some level; you don’t just quit that. I made a lot of friends in Burmese circles and so on. But professionally, I expect this to be the finale of almost one and a half years of touring with this film.

Q: Of all the people you’ve met from Sundance on, who’s been most exciting to you?

AO: To be honest I think what made the greatest impression on me was going to places like 10 Downing Street and being welcomed. It felt very natural to be there and to present this film, and that people connected to it so easily, that was great.

Q: Did you meet President Obama?

AO: No, I never met Obama. But of course this leaves a huge impression. Otherwise, what touches me most about this, is when I get, for instance recently I got a picture from New Delhi, from a open-air screening on a street corner in New Delhi organized by some local Tibetans. So they were sitting there in the street watching “Burma VJ” and the street was packed. Traffic stopped; they were all just sitting there and totally engulfed with it. They tell me that this has helped to bring Tibetan and Burmese exiles more together in India and those are the stories that really touch you.

Q: And are you looking forward to the Oscar parties? Whether you win or lose you get to go to the Oscar parties.

AO: I guess so. I don’t know what to look forward to but it seems to be pretty intense.

Q: When you’ve gone to Oscar events like the nominees' lunch, there’s got to be somebody you’re really excited to meet. Give me a fan moment.

AO: It was a great moment to say hello to Danny Ellsberg[, the former military analyst whose 1971 release of the Pentagon Papers, a secret Pentagon study of US decision-making regarding the Vietnam War, produced major historical ramifications]. Even though it's not my country'/s history, that was nice. Otherwise, I wouldn't say meeting any specific person, but what I really enjoyed about that lunch was this kind of collegial atmosphere, like we were making this class photo. There was a sense that superstars would mingle with other members of the film industry without any sense of difference. Everybody knew that film is hard work and we share this hard work, we share this effort, and we share this commitment to the medium. So that was very pure and nice, the atmosphere.

Q: What's next?

AO: I've barely had a chance to build up a new film because I’ve been so busy with this for a long time. So that's actually what I'm hoping to get started thinking about once this is finished.

Q: It will be something stylistically different?

AO: Oh yeah it might be entirely different. I just follow whatever story fascinates me.


For more by Brad Balfour:


Award-Winning Director Ondi Timoner Lives in Public

Director, producer and entrepreneur Ondi Timoner takes her mission to self-distribute her provocative feature documentary We Live In Public — winner of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival's Grand Jury Prize (which she won the year before for her challenging rock-doc DIG!) — to multiple venues throughout the country. Star Adrian Grenier hosted a New York City screening in the club Arena, and with live streaming at (which is scheduled to run clips). We Live In Public was also the closing night film for Lincon Center's 2009's New Directors/New Films festival.

In addition to a screening, a coordinated event held in Chicago, Illinois featured a 24-hour recreation of Josh Harris' infamous and groundbreaking performance-art video Quiet , in which he curated and funded an underground bunker in New York City where over 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days at the turn of the millennium. The Chicago bunker featured live performance pods, including fire throwers, trapeze artists and celebrity DJs.

We Live In Public was released worldwide on March 2, cross-platform, via digital (iTunes), VOD and DVD.The documentary on several episodes in the life of Internet pioneer Harris, who created the first Web conferences; an online television network, Psuedo, before there was really broadband on which to transmit; and the envelope-pushing art event called Quiet ; and who video-documented himself and his girlfriend 24/7 as part of a cultural and psychological stress test. Harris has been praised and castigated: Some think he's genius, others, a loon.

The intense Timoner has made other provocative films such as DiG! — a strange expose of the rivalry between two rock bands and the psychological damage done along the way — but with this film she has grabbed whole cloth the idea of "indie" and is doing it herself, from production to distribution.

Q: We Live In Public is about so many things; it's this review of counterculture and subversive culture, art culture, high/low culture; but how did you first intersect with Josh Harris?

OT: I actually started working at Pseudo in 1998. I was here shooting with [photographer/director] David LaChapelle for something I haven't finished, which is called Artists and Prostitutes; before his book I was calling it that. I met him through The Dandy Warhols who was shooting the "Junky" video and I was shooting DiG!, and he and I hit it off a lot so I started filming him in his studio and also filming.

They were having sort of a downturn in their love relationship with Capitol Records, and a friend of mine, Jodi Wille — she has a company now called Process Media, where they put out some really excellent, interesting books — she recommended that I go down to this place called Pseudo that was on the corner of Houston and Broadway, and she said, "It's an Internet television network," and I said, "Internet television network? What is that?" and she said, "I don't really know but it's apparently pretty extraordinary; you should go down there and check it out."

Ondi TimonerSo I went down to pick up some extra cash and was really blown away by the state of the studio. Just state of the art studios, like CNN or some major network, but literally no one could watch. I mean 0.1% of the population maybe had anything but basic dialup and there was no broadband. So it was just incredible and we were paid very well to shoot programming that was extremely niche and the quality of which was quite questionable.

I worked on Tanya [Corrin]'s show [on Pseudo], Cherry Bomb, and that's how I was able to get that interview with her which was pretty much a linchpin interview in the documentary. But it was 2006 when I got that interview with her, when she's pregnant. She wanted nothing to do with Josh at that point but because I had had a relationship with her through Cherry Bomb I was able to get that. So I worked there for a little while; I met Josh but he doesn't really remember meeting me, and then the following year he was contemplating The Bunker and he called me, I was back in Los Angeles...

Q: So you've always been based in Los Angeles?

OT: Pretty much.

Q: You never really made a full move to New York.

OT: Well, you know, I was born in Miami, Florida, and I went to school at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut. So I would come down to the city all the time, and my first job in documentary was interning at WNET; it was PBS' American Masters, and it was Helen Whitney, and it was Richard Avedon. So I would come into the city.

Q: So you started out with a more traditional documentary background.

OT: No, I didn't fit in. 

Q: You are a bit gonzo.

OT: I'm a bit gonzo; correct. When I was at Yale, Yale had no production facilities so I found a public access station opening right at that time in New Haven called CTV: Citizens Television. And they had this deal where I went to the opening orientation and they said, "If you let us show whatever you make you can sign up for three hour chunks of time to edit on our systems."

And it was a shuttle editing system where if you change one thing you have to change everything after kind of thing. But basically I just went out with a consumer video camera, and my first film was called 3000 Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera, where I just drove across the country on spring break with my roommate and my brother David who was my collaborator for a very long time.

Actually, he and I started Interloper Films together, my little brother; he was a freshman when I was a junior at Yale, so we were in school together, so we would go to the public access station and cut footage together. So we just started doing things; we went across the country and I interviewed people in tollbooths and convenience stores about what they feared the most, what made them the most happy, and these debates would start.

I realized, oh my God, with a camera I can bridge into this other world and I can start talking to people and they'll answer me and they'll start talking. So I asked this one guy, "What do you fear the most?" and he went, "Women with video cameras." So it was called 3,000 Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera; that was my first movie.

Then I went ahead and did another one, which is kind of interesting. It just came up in a meeting downstairs, called Reflections on a Moment: The Sixties and the Nineties and it was about Hunter S. Thompson — who I also wrote my high school term paper about — his work; it wasn't really him in it. It was about the idea that those of us who were coming up in the '80s and '90s missed it; we missed the time when there was something to root for or something to fight against. There was nothing, there was nothing for us, and I was like, this is a problem with my generation.

So I went to [Grateful] Dead shows and I documented people about Hunter S. Thompson and everything from the '60s, that spirit that somehow we didn't have, and I felt like I had been born too late.

Now, I'm lucky enough to be breaking bread with D.A. Pennebaker and DiG! is ranked number two behind Don't Look Back and Pace Magazine is like, "the rock film of all time," and this man downstairs was just comparing my work to Frederick Wiseman, saying there's no documentary filmmaker today that's closer to Frederick Wiseman than I.

To me, Frederick Wiseman's Titicut Follies is one of the most amazing films that I've ever seen. So I just had this revelation this morning that maybe I wasn't born too late; maybe I was supposed to actually be carrying the vérité tradition into this time, and actually that would be the thing I'm proudest of. If that's true, if I'm carrying the torch of some of the fantastic work that was done back then in terms of documentary, that's a great accomplishment.

Q: Films like yours show that this continuity goes beyond the '70s. The film contributes to making that statement. When I participated in Quiet I felt like it was a direct link (even though I didn't stay in the bunker), and that's why I think it's important you get this out there.

OT: It's not conscious right? It is just me and it's what I'm here to do. Josh called me; let's be clear about that. It's not like I sought him out and said, "Oh my God, I have to document this bunker."

He invited me to film this and I said, "What do you have in mind?" and he said, "Do you want to document cultural history?" and I said, "Well always, but what do you have in mind?" and he said, "I don't know really what it's going to be, but it's going to be at the end of the year and all these artists are coming together doing their installations. And I'll tell you this; if you are interested, I'll give you whatever resources you need to make it happen."

Q: Had you met him when he was doing the Jupiter Conferences — the seminal Internet events? that's when I first met Josh.

OT: No, I had no idea who this guy was. A lot of people were saying he's a businessman trying to buy his way into the art world, he's a buffoon. I didn't know what he was, all I knew was that when I went down there, I was actually living in LA but I came to New York to make a pilot for a VH1 show that I had created for VH1 called Sound Effects; it was about music's effect on people's lives, quite an incredible show.

Q: How long did it run?

OT: It only ran one season and I actually resigned because it was being so mishandled by the executives. It was kind of the dark ages of VH1. Lauren Zalaznick was the head and she was based in New York so she really didn't have a handle on what was going on in LA. I interviewed 250 people around America about how a song would affect their lives, like if the lyrics stuck in their head.

It's usually a pivotal moment, like in my case I heard Bob Marley's "High Tide" when I found out I was pregnant. Like, if you had a divorce, or your first kiss, so these stories that people would tell about this death-defying car accident, and how this one guy survived thanks to Bruce Springsteen's record coming out. Incredible series.

Q: Did you retain the rights?

OT: Nope; it was a big learning experience for me at the age of 27. It helped to push me down the road of independence, which I seem to be charging down. I think that We Live in Public is holding a torch right now; we're kind of blazing a trail — if we succeed — and it is the Wild West still on the Internet.

I mean, it's all coming to, so we're a little early. But using very little marketing money and reaching our audience directly as we are trying to do, and having important and influential supporters like Ashton Kutcher, Demi Moore, Eliza Dushku, Jason Calacanis, or Fred Wilson putting our widget on their blog, or tweeting out.

Continued, next page >>

Q: I very much believe in this idea of this level of independence.

OT: Well, I thank you. I think everyone who has a voice out there that's contributing some of their airtime or "finger time" to spreading the word about this film, because it is actually an extremely important social-issue film.

Q: Then you work with Josh, and no insult to him but there's a sort of childish or child-like or infantile quality to him that he still hasn't figured out whether that's a good thing or a bad thing. But there's some sort of a weird genius to him; he can be very focused. When you met him had his Lovey [the clown] alter-ego already been created? Or did Lovey not yet exist?

OT: I never saw Lovey show up at a Pseudo thing, but the lowest moment of my filmmaking career was when Lovey decided to bring three couples to simultaneous orgasm at the Quiet bunker in Lovey's lounge. Gay couple, lesbian couple, heterosexual couple, he was going to use the universal vibration, the sound "boing" and make that sound into a microphone, and in so doing somehow bring these people to orgasm while 100 people watched on. They were having sex on beds, being seen live in the room, and I was filming it.

It's not in the movie because we'd like the movie to show at Sundance. That footage has got to see the light of day at some point but we're still trying to figure it out. There are people in the office who have grabbed that footage and made their own cuts of it.

But anyway, point being, I'm standing there thinking, "This is the lowest moment of my career. Hands down." Just then a man walks up to me and says, "Are you Ondi Timoner?" and I said "Yeah," sort of ashamed to admit that at the time, and he said, "I need you. I need you to get on a plane with me to Africa. The oldest living civilization is being threatened."

At the sex show is when I got recruited. It's a crazy life I lead. Josh's alter ego was my way in to having compassion for him, ironically enough.

So DiG! goes on and wins Sundance, I'm on the front page of The New York Times, and I get an email from Josh, "Any interest in finishing the movie?" To which I replied, "No." And I thought, this is less pertinent than ever; maybe the bunker was somewhat revelatory the year after but who cares right now. And I don't want to be back in business with this charlatan.

So then a few months later he writes me again and says, "Will you get on the phone with me? We have a proposal." So I get on the phone with him and he says, "I propose that you are a partner now. 50% partner, creative control, I send you the masters right away." I'm sitting there thinking, "Wow. Okay well this sounds not so bad and there's no deadline."

Because [George W.] Bush was just winning the election the second time and everybody I figured in America was voting against their best interest so I was off to shoot a movie about mind control. So he said, "Here's the masters," and I said, "Okay fine, one caveat; I get to shoot you on the apple farm on the tractor."

He said fine, because at that point he was on the tractor. So we made a deal and he sent me the masters and I didn't finish the film; I just had some of the footage and media organized. I went and made my movie Join Us, about four families that escaped a church they realized may be a cult. I followed them and the cult leader over a few years.

Q: That's very ironic.

OT: It's so ironic. Look at it: The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Join Us, and We Live in Public. I don't know what the heck's going on; I think I'm very interested in what people are willing to give up to belong or have their lives matter, is what it comes down to. Or the megalomaniacs. 

Q: Or the art of insanity.

OT: Yeah; all of that. But when I finished Join Us in 2007 I saw the first status update on Facebook. It said, "I'm driving west on the freeway," posted two hours ago. I thought, "Who cares?" Suddenly all these people cared. All of a sudden it hit me like this lightning flash and I had the clearest vision for a film I'd ever had, and that's how we were able to get through 5,000 hours in eight months of editing.

I started editing this in May of 2008. It's extremely complex filmmaking so it was really like an incredible team of dedicated people who saw themselves in this film, as most audience members see themselves, and really this lightening bolt of going from blindness to knowing exactly what the film is about.

It was about all of us, and it was about the fact that the bunker is a physical metaphor of the internet, and the dark side, and the risks involved, and we are in the bunker now, we are addicted to the internet in 10 short years, we are trapped in our virtual boxes, and Josh is Facebook. He says, "Everything's free except your image. That we own."

And even if you're sitting in your pajamas, logging onto Facebook, accepting the terms and conditions, and posting your photos online for that feeling of connection that you can have, you're not alone. It doesn't feel like it felt like to be in the bunker, but it's a very interesting study of what we will give up and what we will make public. And we are doing that right now in more and more ways and more and more of the time. And our relationships are becoming more superficial because of it. We're connecting out 10 times more with ten times less depth.

Q: So when you filmed Quiet, you had not only yourself but multiple camera people shooting?

OT: I had four camera crews and we had a multiplex. The first thing I did was get a multiplex system where I could feed the 110 surveillance cameras into one machine that would split them so I could see nine screens, four screens, one screen, as if I was a security camera person.

I would record those feeds, someone from my team would be there with nine VHS decks, we would choose which nine cameras were going to record, and one deck was hooked up to record the multiplex and we would record the boxes. I didn't like the bunker. I wouldn't have lived in the bunker; I had a pod and I tried it but I would never check into a society like that, that wouldn't be me.

I'm very resistant to groups. I didn't like the automatic firing range. And when the metaphor was complete about our lives, the one thing I couldn't figure out was what the neo-fascistic elements were all about; how does that apply to online? It applies in one way; this was the way I was able to work it out — how extreme do the circumstances have to be that people will just check in, answer 500 questions on a questionnaire, subject themselves to interrogations, put on uniforms, and enter a society that they're not supposed to leave for 30 days, with an automatic firing range, having no idea what's going to happen to them?

They will give that up to be where it matters when it matters, to feel like they are somehow important or that their lives are significant. They want to be part of history. They want to be not just part of it; they want to be the highlight. So they are now clamoring for the attention. It was their chance to be at the Factory. But that's only for some; some people were checking in there just to escape depression or be a part of the community.

Q: I liked it because I could eat there.

OT: The meals were fantastic; the performances during dinner were phenomenal.

Q: Instead of it being a warning, you can see on the flip side, it's a positive reflection, a document of the continuity that the internet, that Josh, that Pseudo, has with a larger bohemian counter culture where the long tail has become the culture now. That's why I'm writing about it and why I think it's important. 

OT: It's an important history lesson and it begs the question of where we're headed from here. It's part of a continuum. I'm not going to let it go unnoticed.

Q: You're at the beginning of this whole other thing, and now you're in this whole new animal and how does it fit into this larger phenomenon?

OT: Well, I've had to take on another film. It's called Cool It, it's about solving the world's problems and the climate change debate and some other things in the world that need to be paid attention to simultaneously, and ways to approach that, and the controversy involved. It's inspired by a book called Cool It by the economist Bjorn Lomborg. I've started that film because I didn't sell We Live in Public, so it's not going to get my son to the dentist, and also because it is another extremely prescient, timely film [which generated controversy this year's as being a possible counter to the global warmers].

And another interesting animal to crack; I'm developing The Perfect Moment, which is a script that I optioned, did rewrites on, and am producing with actress Eliza Dushku. It's about the life of [photographer] Robert Mapplethorpe, [and] Patti Smith and their work. It's my first scripted narrative that I'm directing. But Mapplethorpe again; a cultural lightening rod, troubled artist, another New York story for everyone.

In terms of We Live in Public, it is absolutely in the middle of this and at the forefront of this. This film is a big billboard for Josh. Josh Harris has sought fame his entire life; he finally has more of it than he's ever had before.

It's a bit of a monster making thing; we flew him in for Sundance [last year], he had a roundtrip ticket, we won Sundance, he never left. He is here to launch his next project and every bit that this film does, any attention, helps him possibly get back in game.

I would not have made the film if it was not about all of us, and this time in our lives, and I want to raise consciousness about our use of internet at this crucial tipping point and so I'm committed to it.


For more by Brad Balfour:


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