Those guys totally sold out. I like their old stuff better. They've compromised their art.
How many times have you heard someone utter one (or all) of these statements about one of your favorite bands? We expect musicians to pour their hearts out and reveal to us their deepest secrets and darkest fears, but as soon as they start looking for more people to tell, we turn on them and assail their motivation. Nine times out of ten it's probably as innocuous as the desire to make rent or buy groceries, but that doesn't stop us from branding them "sellouts." But what about the artists? What happens when their personal expression becomes a mass commodity? Director Ondi Timoner set out to find an answer in Dig!, the documentary that took home the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. (See Prefix review here.) Pitting the highly combustible Brian Jonestown Massacre against the more business-minded Dandy Warhols, a portrait of their respective frontmen, Anton Newcombe and Courtney Taylor, eventually comes into focus. Good friends yet bitter rivals, the two attempt to traverse the minefield of the music industry, with varying -- and possibly subjective -- levels of success. We spoke to Timoner shortly after the April release of the two-disc DVD to discuss her impressions of the film's two "stars," as well as the evolution of the project, the choices that shaped it, and the factors that nearly brought it crashing down.
[more:]Prefix Magazine: Before you really got rolling with Dig!, it was a project titled The Cut. Can you explain the original idea?
Ondi Timoner : It was supposed to be the story of what happens when art meets industry, to see how artists negotiate between commercial success and their own integrity. I wanted to focus on ten bands. PM: And you came across Brian Jonestown Massacre at that point in the process, right?
Ondi Timoner : I heard them and I decided to film them because I loved the music. I originally thought they were some band form the '60s that I'd missed. I went up to meet them in San Francisco, and they were this incredible group of guys, this larger-than-life group of characters. So I decided to continue with them and put them in my film. Two weeks later, they came (to L.A.) to play the Viper Room and do this industry showcase. So the first show I ever shot of theirs, they're in a fistfight pile-up after the fifth song, with like eight labels there watching. The next day, Anton announced that he was going to take over my film, and (told me) to forget about all the other bands. I'm thinking, "Yeah, right." And he's like, "Go meet the Dandy Warhols; we're having a revolution together in the music business." When I went up to meet the Dandies, they were also this incredible group of musicians, but they had a very different sense of how they were going to play the business. They didn't have any idea of Anton's revolution. They considered Brian Jonestown Massacre the best band in America, but they weren't even planning to go on tour with them or anything. Meanwhile, Anton's packing up his car to move up there with them. I thought this dynamic, and the difference in approach between Courtney and Anton, is going to yield a deeper and better look, as well as a story that will unfold. I wanted to create a film like a dramatic feature (where) the story unfolded, and I shot it so thoroughly as it unfolded that I could bring people on the trip. That was my intention. So about six months into it, I dropped the other bands. PM: And The Cut became Dig!.
Ondi Timoner : Yeah. PM: One of the more interesting things about the film is that Courtney, who is basically one side of the story, provides the narration. Why make that choice?
Ondi Timoner : I tried my own narration. I tried omniscient narration. Nothing seemed to work. Everything took you out of the isolated bubble of that world. I was pregnant (during post-production), and one night, I sat up in bed in the middle of the night and was like, "That's it!" Courtney's narration is good because it's true to the story. PM: How so?
Ondi Timoner : First of all, the two bands only occupy the same frame for like the first twenty minutes of the film. It was important to thread the narrative together by having Courtney tell the story because they obsessively watched each other and affected each other's lives from afar. Each musician possessed what the other didn't have. It was also very true to how it was, which is, ultimately, Courtney watched Anton. (Whenever) I caught up with Courtney, he always knew what was going on with Anton. (The Dandies) were always listening to Brian Jonestown in their bus. It also seemed very appropriate to me to have the more commercially successful musician tell the story of the lesser-known musician, who really doesn't have a voice to the media. And if I'd asked Anton to do the voice-over, it would have been impossible. I wrote it, and Courtney changed words here and there to make it his own voice, but it was pretty much what I'd wrote, and Courtney played along really well with that. He said the film felt like how it felt to live it, which was the highest compliment I could ever get. PM: So even though he was narrating, it was still totally your version of how things went down?
Ondi Timoner : Yeah, it was my vision of the situation, but I mean, I grew up with the bands. My brother and I were 23, and they were just a little bit older. (Anton and Courtney) were each others' muses and greatest inspiration. I grew up with the bands, and you can see that in the footage. That's what built the trust and the intimacy that helped the access. PM: Throughout the film, Anton talks as if he didn't care about getting a deal with a label, but his band mates suggest that he did. Do you think he wanted a deal or not?
Ondi Timoner : I think he desperately wanted to be acknowledged. He wanted me to make this movie -- he practically recruited me to make this movie -- and he yelled at me for not finishing it several times. And at the same time he wanted to be known, he didn't want to be known for the human being that he is, necessarily. Then sometimes, it seems like he wants to be known for everything that he is and believes he's some kind of prophet who was sent here to make music and change the world. I think he has some of those grandiose notions driving him as well. But I think he's terrified of success. The second I called him to say I finished the film, he said, "You fucked up. You didn't clear the music rights. Say goodbye to your son's college education fund." I had just given birth two weeks before, and I thought he'd be overjoyed that I had finished the film and had gotten it to Sundance. He'd been telling me I fucked up because I didn't finish the film earlier, and then when I finished it, he says it again. That's a telltale sign that it was instantly a threat to him. PM: He reacted to most things like they were a threat to him, though. He's constantly talking about a revolution and making things change during the film. He seems to need something to rally against.
Ondi Timoner : I think that's absolutely accurate. What Sara Tucek says at the end of the film -- that he's a shark swimming against the current, and if he stops, he'll die -- it's true. You know, if he signs (a record deal), who knows if he's alive today? He cultivates his edge, and he writes form a place of discomfort, and he relies on no home, no car, and that lack of stability. Even if he gains stability once in a while, he seems to shirk it, like breaking up with the girl he's crashing with. I think that's a lot of where it comes from. He writes the record, then relaxes, gains weight, watches TV. Then he loses a bunch of weight, becomes uncomfortable again, and writes the record. Courtney just has a different artistic process. I'm by no means trying to say one was successful and one wasn't, or that one was the right way to go. They're just two different processes.