Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 1/9/21 –
Jimmy Steinfeldt: How did you come to make your film COMING CLEAN?
Ondi Timoner: I was approached by the Parker Foundation, which wanted to crack the case of the opioid epidemic in America. It’s a subject I’ve been dealing with since my film DIG! with Anton Newcombe and the band, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, and also with Russell Brand in my film BRAND: A Second Coming.
Now it’s touching everyone’s lives. But all the documentaries I’d seen to date made the stigma worse, showing people down and out, with needles coming out of their arms. Nothing presented solutions or hope for recovery, so I felt moved to make a film that would actually help us to understand the complexities of this – the deadliest drug epidemic in our history – while showing us ways out of it and the resilience of the human spirit. I wanted to address both the political and personal challenges of this problem.
I started with treatment centers. That led to recovering addict, Destiny Garcia, and her relationship with then-Mayor Ben McAdams in Salt Lake City. I also found State Representative Brittany Pettersen in Denver and her mother, Stacy Pettersen – who had been an addict for thirty years and realized that following the relationships between policy leaders and addicts who had touched their lives would be a great route towards exploring solutions.
I also experienced radical transparency in these treatment centers which I thought we all could learn from. We spend a lot of our lives protecting our image. When you are stripped down to nothing and have lost everything, like the people in the treatment clinics, you get real about who you are. This was refreshing to witness. Making this film changed my life.
JS: Is this a worldwide problem or more of a U.S. problem?
OT: Well, it’s a powerful drug and it’s everywhere, but the focus is America. We tell the history of the problem. We show how the Brits kept the Chinese sedated with opioids. Then we see how well Switzerland handled the opioid problem. They reduced their overdose deaths to practically zero. However, our health care system here is highly lacking and inequal. Mental health and trauma underlie addiction, and we are not treating these underlying problems.
JS: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?
OT: To make a film that was beautiful and elevates the people it’s about while also compelling the audience to stay involved with such a dark and troubling subject matter. Another challenge was to take this complicated subject and make it digestible. There was so much information to communicate about how the drug works on the body, to demonstrate that it is not a choice addicts are making at a certain point but also to explore solutions on a personal and on a policy level – while following how lead prosecutor, Mike Moore, was working to get remuneration from the pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors.
I addressed these challenges by using a combination of film (Super 8, and 16MM) and animation. I shot the Super 8 myself, had talented people shoot the 16MM, and had my regular collaborator Cullen Parr on animation. I have found that in telling an esoteric concept or something scientific, it’s great to go with animation, and we developed a uniquely haunting and enveloping style for this film that really becomes a character in and of itself.
JS: Can you comment on the music in your film? You made great choices, no surprise there.
OT: Morgan Doctor scored the film alongside Julian Scherle. We didn’t have a huge budget, but we did manage to bring in the right songs with the help of The Acid, Andrew Bird, the Lumineers, and a beautiful song by a friend called Alex Wand who had written a song for his friend who OD’d which sits in the middle of the film under a montage we made with projectors.
JS: What’s your biggest reward from making this film?
OT: The relationships with my subjects in the film, who are so inspiring. COMING CLEAN moved me to start another film in late 2019 which is about love and connection. I realized while making COMING CLEAN that we have an issue with love in this country – that on some basic biological level, our needs are not being met. We have an epidemic of loneliness and isolation, which breeds addiction. I want to find out why that is. Love and connection are what we seek more than anything, even on a basic biological level, then why is it so hard for us to find them and sustain them? I’ve been working on it a lot since the Covid-19 pandemic broke out following the emotional journeys of people from all different walks of life here, as we went from ever-increasingly isolated to 100% physically isolated and online our lives to meet our basic needs.
Some of my subjects from COMING CLEAN have moved right into this new film. That’s never happened before in my filmmaking career, having people go from one film right into my next film. It’s because we have such a tight relationship based on authenticity and compassion. Also, hearing people say that COMING CLEAN is going to help save their lives or the lives of their loved ones has been very rewarding.
JS: Do you think there has been a time in our history when there was a stronger state of love?
OT: Yes. I think now our society has become increasingly fragmented. You can see this in my friend Jeff Orlowski’s film The Social Dilemma. We can look at the effects of the Internet, or how our culture is geared to make us feel that we need to be in it for ourselves – that you’ve got to make it all happen on your own. It’s like the American dream in a funhouse mirror. We need community far more than we know or have it now.
JS: Have you seen your film on the big screen?
OT: Yes. It’s beautiful to watch on the big screen. COVID hit before the film could play a festival tour or open theatrically though, so we are lining things up with a streaming service because we want everyone to see it. We wanted to come out with it as soon as possible because of how horribly the pandemic has affected the lives of people dealing with addiction. So we’ve also played a lot of virtual festivals. We premiered at Bentonville Film Festival in August 2020, where Geena Davis said it was the film she was most excited to share with audiences. We were the Centerpiece Film of Milwaukee and the Closing Night Film of Bend. We won Best Documentary Feature at the Dallas DocuFest, Best Editing at Sidewalk Film Festival, and the Impact Award at Naples.
JS: Ondi, you’ve come a long way since High Street 06511.
OT: (laughter) Have you seen that? That’s a little series I made when I was a student at Yale and first picked up a camera
JS: No, but I do my research.
OT: You should see Eyelash, the Hitchcockian thriller my friends and I made for our Hitchcock/Selznick class!
JS: What’s next for Ondi Timoner?
OT: In addition to the film I mentioned, I’m developing a film about AI, a series at a transgender artist retreat, and also finishing a screenplay A Stroke of Genius about my father, Eli Timoner, who founded Air Florida – the fastest growing airline in the world before suffering a massive stroke when I was nine years old.
To learn more about Ondi Timoner go to https://www.interloperfilms.com/