DIG! THIS : Ondi Timoner speaks

Ondi Timoner is the director of Dig!, an award-winning documentary which chronicles two bands from Portland, Oregon: The Dandy Warhols and The Brian Jonestown Massacre (BJM). The focus of the film is the rollercoaster relationship between the bands' front-men and songwriters: Courtney Taylor of the Dandys and his one-time best friend, dysfunctional virtuoso Anton Newcombe of BJM.

From a Manchester perspective, it's interesting to hear so much about Oasis – and their relationship with Blur – in the film. Why do you think they make that comparison?
In terms of a rivalry between bands, there's always that 'Beatles v Stones' element. But at the time Oasis v Blur was going on. It's to do with looking for something to dight against – something to drive each other on. Anton and Courtney always seemed to possess what the other didn't have – the grass is always greener, as they say.

Were/are either of the bands particular fans of Oasis?
Brian Jonestown Massacre, they liked Oasis.

There was reportedly 1,500 hours of footage shot.
A bit more than that, actually.

In the unused footage, did either band meet up with Oasis, or Blur, or any other UK groups?
Not UK groups, as far as I can recall. There was footage where the Dandys played with The Polyphonic Spree, another part where they meet Jack White of the White Stripes. And The Breeders.

Do you have any plans to use the remaining footage – for a TV show, perhaps?
Well I think it should be made into a TV series. For every incident you see in the film, there's a good half-hour of material that isn't used. My initial "cut" as 12 hours, then I got it down to five hours, then finally down to the finished version which is a little less than two hours. The idea of having a future DVD release helped a lot. In the two-hour version I'm really trying to lay down the story the way it should be told. Then if you want to investigate further, it kind of opens out like an accordion.

And would any TV version be shown on MTV? You had some difficulties with them…
I don't hold any of these companies responsible for the fact that they're companies. You get good ideas and bad ideas, and I've had a couple ideas ripped off by MTV, and by Viacom. It's the nature of the beast. The way I like to think of it is, if I've got an idea that's good enough to get ripped off, there's probably more of them where they came from. You do have to take it as a compliment, something to put wind in your sails. There was a time I might have sued MTV – they did a show called Band on the Run where they cast two bands with the intention of fighting each other. This was after they saw a rough early cut of Dig!. I waited to see how it did – it was a miserable failure, so I didn't bother suing.

Why did that show flop?
They didn't have the bands that I had – they didn't have the larger-than-life personalities, didn't have this story, which was stranger than anything you could make up or fabricate. But I'd actually be open to working with MTV on a TV series version of Dig!. Oftentimes it's just a shame, that a lot of the best ideas just end up not happening – just as a lot of the best films end up hardly being shown or seen. It's all to do with the intersection of art and commerce – which was the original focus of the Dig! idea in the first place.

The project started in 1995, when "reality TV" wasn't well known.
The reality TV shows always seem to have to have this "carrot" at the end, an elimination cycle where somebody gets dropped each week, so viewers stick with it. But you don't need those elements to make an entertaining piece of work – Dig! is a documentary instead of "reality", and reality TV is really just a constructed, cheapened form of documentary. But it has, oddly enough, ended up opening some doors for documentaries to be shown and seen.

The technology has moved on in the decade since filming began.
When we started in the mid-90s, we had to use black-and-white surveillance cameras for some of the shots – we had to buy them for thousands of dollars from specialist spy stores. You can get better cameras now for $50 on the internet, it's all part of the trend of reality TV and suchlike.

You filmed for a decade – it must have been difficult to know when to stop the story. It could have stretched on indefinitely. Did you come to a particular event and say "that's it"?
We set out to make a film that was going to unfold over the years. It wasn't a question of when we were going to stop filming, it was more an issue of when we were going to start editing. We edited as we went along – after three years, we knew we had enough footage to start editing properly. So really what happened was that we shot for seven years, then edited for four.

In the UK the Brian Jonestown Massacre aren't well-known, and the Dandy Warhols are best known for 'Bohemian Like You' –
– thanks to the Vodafone ad, ironically enough, given what I was saying earlier about the intersection of art and commerce…

You don't play that track, which is the one everyone will know, until about eighty minutes into the film. Did you ever consider putting it earlier, so people would recognise which band it was by?
I wanted the thing to unfold over time – to see how it was, as it was lived at the time. The idea was to take everybody with me on this journey. It isn't really so important to know who these guys are, as to be compelled by two visions of an artist's life. I wanted it to be more compelling on a transcendent level, rather than just about 'Bohemian Like You.' So when you hear that song in the film, it's the perfect time to have that revelation.

At the start, did you think one or other of the bands would be more likely to make it big? Or both? Or neither?
When we started I thought the Dandys were more likely to succeed on a commercial level. Courtney Taylor was always going to be better at making the industry work for him, and get success that way. But I saw both Courtney and Anton as amazing characters, coming out of Portland, both of them so sure of who they were, so sure of their aesthetic. They were rock stars before anybody called them rock stars. With Anton, the Brian Jonestown Massacre were living their lives in a certain way, just as they played music a certain way – an amalgamation of their influences, people that had gone before them. They really were truly living this fantasy of the rock-star-genius lifestyle. Anton didn't care about hacing a car, a house, a place to live in – he certainly wasn't going to kowtow to the music industry in any way. So between them there were these two very different approaches to the industry. At the start we did dream that one day the Brian Jonestown Massacre were going to become the biggest band in America, but we always knew it was unlikely to actually happen.

Are you fans of the band?
We didn't start out as fans, but we certainly ended up as fans.

Which of the two do you prefer to listen to now – say, when driving?
Dandy Warhols for driving, definitely. But if I'm in my room, and it's dark, then definitely Brian Jonestown Massacre. On the whole I enjoy the Dandys more – it's hard to distance the Jonestown music from Anton himself. He's a much better musician than he is a human being. Making the film it was really difficult to keep those kinds of judgements out of it – because the audience has to stay with him. In the original cut he's so unlikeable. I had to reach down into the material and get as much positive stuff as I could. And of course now he lashes out at me all the time. I prefer not to listen to that fake British accent any more.

He's been very vocal about his discontent with the finished version.
I'm his "Courtney" now! Well, both bands have had people turned onto their music as a result of the film. They're both getting a lift from it. When we got into Sundance (Film Festival), Courtney said "Wow – we were just another band, and now we're gonna be legends forever." I'm not sure that's going to be the effect of the movie, but if nothing else it's been selected as part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art. I'm getting phone calls from people who'd never heard of the bands, trying to get in touch with them and do interviews.

Are you surprised about Anton's negative comments on Dig!?
He'd always be dead against anything that's good for him. But he actually promotes it – he puts the release dates out with his publicity.

In making the film did you adopt a 'Courtney' approach or an 'Anton' approach?
A mixture of the two. At one point I almost threw myself off a balcony, Anton style. You learn a lot about what to do and what not to do – they provided models for my own behaviour, in different ways. They also taught me a lot about staying true to the art, and about playing the game on my own terms: dealing with financing, and also staying focussed on ensuring the film kept its integrity as it went into the marketplace. Observing Anton also taught me a lot about how to treat people who work with me, and how not to treat them…

Again, from a Manchester perspective, Anton is a little like The Fall's Mark E Smith. Genius who never made much money from his talent. Loads of people going through the band. Impossible to deal with…
A few people have mentioned that guy. Can you send me some of his best tracks? Those characters, they're so OTT. But there are aspects of them in all of us – what they're facing is really no different to what we're all facing. I see people emerging from the film and taking that out of it – taking stock of their own lives. Hopefully it might inspire them to be creative themselves.

Did either Courtney or Anton offer you any advice on how to make the film?
Never. And I've worked with Courtney on other projects, and he's always full of comments – both of them are control freaks in their way. But neither of them tried to shape or censor Dig!

The idea of using Courtney for the voice-over is an interesting one.
I wrote it, and got him to read it as a way of threading the stories together. It seemed right, because he was always talking about Anton, and psychoanalysing Anton, so it was very natural to the process. It was his way of telling his own story, and also that of his friend – who should be well-known. Even though Anton was often lashing out at him, Courtney was so complimentary – saying that Anton was the more talented musician, and so on. I found that stuff so remarkable and honest, and it kind of sums up how unique their friendship is.

Do you think we'll ever see them collaborating, either on stage or on record?
They're both on the Dig! soundtrack of course. Capitol blocked its release in the US, but EMI are hopefully bringing it out in the UK. That will fulfil an old dream of Anton's, to appear on record alongside the Dandys. He was always driving up to their place in Portland with the idea of doing a split 7", but they never knew anything about it, of course, until he showed up.

Why did Capitol block the US release?
They reckoned it didn't make them look good. Yet another sketchy industry decision. I'm surprised they'd turn off such a revenue stream, to be honest.

Are the film and music industries comparable in terms of their "sketchy" practices?
It depends on who you encounter along the way, in both cases. There isn't a single artist out there who hasn't had their share of "experiences" – nobody comes out unscathed. Art needs industry to get out there, and industry needs art – there they intersect is a point of real tension. Sometimes it works – 90 per cent of the time it doesn't. The same ratio applies in both music and film, and to me that's a weird kind of business plan: nine failures, then one huge success to pay for it all. And in the movie business the budgets are bigger, the stakes are even higher. For an artist, of course, it's hard – because you pour every bit of yourself into it.

Interview and transcript by Neil Young : 31st March, 2005 : for an article to be published in an upcoming issue of City Life magazine (Manchester)