How did you transition from politics to film?

I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up with a cinema paradiso dream. I was actually going to be the first woman president of the United States. I was a page in the Senate but the bureaucracy was overwhelming me, so I decided against it. Since that was out, I was like okay politics is no life for me. I was a writer, I was a musician. In fact, when I got into Yale I didn’t even want to go. I wanted to go to California with my guitar. When I was at Yale I asked my parents for a video camera, and I can’t for the life of me remember exactly why, but it wasn’t like “oh I am going be a filmmaker”.

Tell us about your first shoot.

I drove across the country with my brother and my roommate John Krokidas, who just made the film Kill your Darlings.  I just started filming people in toll booths and convenience stores asking them what makes them happy and what they fear the most and I was amazed at the reaction. You know, the fact that people would get into debates about gays in the military and really get talking. Suddenly buying a bag of chips and a soda was way more exciting and interesting with the camera in my hand. We called it Three Thousand Miles and a Woman with a Video Camera, because that’s what a truck driver said when I asked him what he fears the most. I felt the camera was a bridge into the hearts and minds of people, and that led to me to make my first feature film.

Is it true you directed your first feature film at the age of 20?

I shot my first film my junior year when I was 19. In my senior year I only took classes where the teacher would let me make a film instead of write a final paper. I made five hour-long films that year.  One of  them was about women in prison, and that’s what got me hooked on documentary film-making. I would spend the day interviewing them, and stereotypes faded away. As I drove outside the prison walls with their stories in my video camera I felt like I was freeing their voices from inside, and that became the title of the film – Voices From Inside Time. Many women in there told me about a woman named Bonnie Jean Foreshaw.  This all led to my first feature film called The Nature of the Beast, which was about Bonnie Jean Foreshaw. She was the first person in the State of Connecticut to shoot and kill a pregnant woman, which she did by accident while defending herself from this man. The man actually testified to pulling the pregnant woman in front of him and using her as a shield. She became a pro life test case to put feticide laws on the books. It was incredible.  My brother and a Yale professor moved in and we had the U.S. Constitution open every night.

It sounds like your first film was a hands-on course in dramatic storytelling.

I had a need to retell her [Bonnie Jean Foreshaw] story and I felt like people were looking at documentaries at that time in the mid 90’s like eating spinach or reading history books, like far too educational to be entertaining. And so I was determined to shoot something that was suspense driven and unfolds over time.

Is there a lesson you learned on your first shoot that you still carry with you today?

I discovered that I have to shoot my own movies, because I let a news cameraman shoot The Nature of the Beast, and that’s the only part that doesn’t feel like it’s mine. I have to approach interviews knowing what I hope to get out of them, but knowing that I won’t get there by just asking a list of questions. It’s about getting on the wavelength with the person, and allowing them to talk about what’s important to them. You get where you need to get going in a very organic way.

What makes a great documentary director?

You’ve got to be someone who is able to gain people’s trust and to keep it. You’re driving the story but you’re open to finding clues that lead you to the truth. I think that’s really important. It’s a combination of “I’m in control, but you’re in control too.” You need to inspire confidence in your subjects. You need to be sensitive and compassionate while earning the trust to gain access to the person you are interviewing. The other thing that’s really, really important is tenacity. You have to be someone who’s absolutely, purely dedicated to telling the story in the best way possible no matter what it takes.

Do you also edit your own films?

Editing is where most of the writing happens. So it’s very important to be the editor of your own films. I also shoot all my films, so I know where the story is heading, but the magic of connecting all the dots and making a seamless ride for the audience happens in the editing room.

Can you tell us about your latest project?

I’m in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign for a web based portal called A Total Disruption, which will probably lead to several feature films. The website is called ATotalDisruption.com. We’re 123% funded with one week left. We’re in the midst of a revolution driven by technology right now. This unique moment in time where open source combined with human ingenuity is providing a rate of progress we’ve never seen before in history. I want to bring the audience into the process and to share what I have been documenting.  It’s basically feeding the innovator in everybody, because in this day and age, not only do we have the opportunity, we have the absolute obligation to survive and to do what we love, and leverage our ideas into reality. We have to look at and be aware of the way people are designing this world with technology, how they’re doing it and why they’re doing it and the democratizing nature of it. We have more power in our pockets today with our smartphones than we had in all the world’s computers five years ago. A big part of my mission is to empower people to use that, not just be used by it.

Any advice for up-and-coming documentary filmmakers?

Realize that it’s going to be a journey. It’s going to take years if you’re going to make a great film. So don’t make it on a whim. Don’t make it about something you think is cool or trendy at the moment unless all you’re after is a cheap high. At the end of the day you’re going to emerge being a Phd in whatever topic you decide to make a film about, so you might as well make it about something that is not only personally relevant to you but something you think the world needs to know. Another piece of advice is to bring the audience in as soon as possible.

Did you have any mentors when you first started out?

Richard Linklater and his film “Slacker” was highly influential, because he just followed the action as it unfolded. D.A. Pennebaker was my favorite doc film-maker. But honestly I didn’t get my inspiration from other artists or their films. I get my inspiration from the subject I’m following. If that subject’s an artist, then I will get my inspiration from their art. I didn’t do research to figure out what style is cool or plan how I was going to make a film. I just went about making them. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t use techniques out of books or have professors telling me what to do. I just had a camera and a person on the other side of it that blew me away, and that’s it.

You’ve won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance twice, so what you’re doing seems to be working. What is your secret?

Documentaries and life unfold, and you have no idea where either will lead you, and that’s a beautiful thing. If you have the guts, follow it.  Follow your muse. Follow your questions and where they lead you. Follow and stick with great characters you know. The story will unfold. In life we have no idea what’s happening. As it’s happening we are like “Oh my God, why is this happening to me?” But when you look back you realize that one thing led to the next, and the serendipity of life can be extremely enlightening when captured in a film.

Name

Ondi Timoner

Place of Birth

Miami, Florida

Occupation

Director / Interloper Films