Capturing an icon in filmmaker Ondi Timoner’s ‘Mapplethorpe’

Matt Smith in Mapplethorpe, Photo by Nancy Schreiber

Director Ondi Timoner has made a career telling stories of artists driven to the edge by their creative pursuits…often to the detriment of their personal lives. As a documentarian she made the cult favorite DIG! about the friendship/rivalry of rockers Courtney Taylor-Taylor and Anton Newcombe. She followed it up with We Live in Public, Amanda F***ng Palmer on the Rocks, and Brand: A Second Coming. Robert Mapplethorpe (already the subject of several biographies and documentaries) is the latest artist to be examined by Timoner, who’s made her narrative debut with Mapplethorpe; or as she specifies, her first scripted feature. Starring Matt Smith as Mapplethorpe opposite, Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey and Brandon Sklenar, Timoner’s portrait of the prolific and controversial artist received the Second Place Audience Award (To Dust won first place) at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.

Lesley Coffin: Had you been seeking out a scripted project for a while?

Ondi Timoner: This has actually been a film 12 years in the making. I optioned it in 2006, but it took this long to get it made.

Lesley Coffin: How did the script come you your attention? Were you a follower of his work?

Ondi Timoner: I was approached by Bruce Goodrich, the original writer. And that had been focused on the court case which followed his death for showing his exhibit “The Perfect Moment.” The screenplay was actually called The Perfect Moment at that time. And I didn’t know anything about him really. I had a calendar of his flowers, but I knew nothing about his other work or his personal life. And then I read the screenplay. It’s my understanding that he’d interviewed five male directors and me, but really wanted a female behind the camera. It was rather visionary that in 2006 he felt that a female perspective would help tell this story.

Lesley Coffin: What appealed to you about his work and his story?

Ondi Timoner: He’s probably the most controversial artist in modern history because he set out to make something considered unthinkable, unviewable by the masses and made it mainstream. He turned everything on its head. He sexualized flowers, he turned S&M into Greek and Roman sculpture. And that changed the art world forever and changed our understanding of gay culture forever. In all my films, I like to tell stories of impossible visionaries, and he fit right in. He took on the impossible, and acted impossible to meet that goal. I was very interested in where his motivations came from. His love, his need for love, his conflict with is parents, his connection to religion.

Lesley Coffin: The third act of the film really focuses on Robert’s relationship with his brother Edward (Brandon Sklenar) and their relationship reminded me a lot of the relationship between Courtney and Anton in DIG!. The fact that there is a rivalry, but the rivalry really only exists in the mind of one of the characters. Was that an aspect that stuck out to you early on?

Ondi Timoner: I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it that way. In a way Courtney is a barometer for Anton. He’s the sane artist who really doesn’t want to live on the edge. He’s some who would like to be comfortable and have a family. And he’s unsure it’s okay to do that and be an artist? Because being on the edge is vital to Anton’s work and artistic process. Every time he got comfortable in his personal life, he’d stop writing songs. And that is similar to the relationship Robert and Edward had. Edward was and is a more stable, grounded figure, and Robert lived on the edge. And Edward was this rock Robert needed in his life, but Robert took him for granted. Having him change his name was a cruel way for an older brother to act, but you have to remember Robert was facing an early death just as he’s getting everything he ever wanted. He’s mad and he sees this guy with his name, and he thinks he’s going to ride his coat tails long after he’s dead. Suddenly his own brother is a threat, and at this stage in his life, Robert was already predatory with people. He had this obsession about capturing and framing people. He lost every single intimate relationship, which is the reason I wanted to show him in three decades. To see how he changed as an artist and as a man over time.

Lesley Coffin: I think I even took the note after the screening that by the 80s he was a predator and abusive with people.

Ondi Timoner: I know that sex scene is hard to watch. It is very intense. But it’s even hard to watch him put the pillowcase over Milton’s (McKinley Belcher III) head. But he did that, he did all that.

Lesley Coffin: Did you speak with people who had intimate relationships with Robert during that period of time?

Ondi Timoner: We did speak with a lot of people. I’ve met Edward Mapplethorpe but I never had an opportunity to interview him. But I had to realize, this isn’t a documentary where I’m following people around for months. This is a film which required me to have creative license. I read the biography Mapplethorpe by Patricia Morrisroe. And the foundation sent me every art book when I was re-writing the film following time at the Sundance Lab. I’d worked on the script with Bruce, but it focused primarily on the court case and then went back in time with flashbacks. So once we decided to focus on Robert during those three periods, I was challenged with writing the screenplay. And I went through 58 drafts before landing on the version we ultimately shot.

Lesley Coffin: Did you find the visual choices were directly influenced by the decades?

Ondi Timoner: Yes. The period in the 80s is much colder and the colors are all muddled and have a gray tone. He’s alone and cocaine driven, but living this opulent lifestyle. The 60s have this golden hue and warmer. So you see his evolution visually.

Lesley Coffin: Edward, Patti Smith (Rendón), and Sam Wagstaff’s (Hickey) relationships with Robert really anchor the three acts. We talked a little about Edward, but what role do you feel Patti and Sam played in Robert’s development as an art?

Ondi Timoner: Patti’s role in his life was vital, and it’s almost incidental that it was with Patti Smith. Because he comes into his own, and has painful moments of self-discovery when he’s in this relationship with her. There were times when we considered removing her from the screenplay because we didn’t have her support. But I couldn’t imagine doing that. His struggle to realize that in order to be himself and live as a gay man he’d have to accept that he was going to lose her was a painful process for him. And she opened him as an artist, as he did for her. Patti wrote that in her memoir Just Kids, after I’d already written the script. So I liked framing the film around this idea of his having three big sacrifices. Patti was the first, Sam was the second. He was this father-figure/patron without whom, his career as we know it would not exist. And that relationship didn’t last into the 80s, but he certainly loved him.

Lesley Coffin: There’s a lot of attention focused on being raised in the Catholic Church and how that impacted the way he interpreted the world and his own art. How do you feel that personal history impacted his work?

Ondi Timoner: I know I quoted him directly, and there are direct quotes he had about religion that I included. The church was a vital influence on his work. When he’s talking to the priest and says “he’s not letting any of us off easy” he’s talking about God. And I think he thinks he’s made some sort of deal with the devil.

Lesley Coffin: How did his photography influence the visual approach you took?

Ondi Timoner: The fact that he wanted all his work to look sculpted and polished, I wanted to present a contrast between his work and his life. When you see the pictures on screen they are so sharp and polished, and his life is so messy. He was known for photographs which presented this incredible contrast between black and white, and gray comes from black and white in rapid succession. So I wanted to show the dark and light aspects of his life in rapid succession. He’s such a dark figure, but he was also so lovable and full of charisma.

Lesley Coffin: Were you intimidated to visually present an artist whose work is so prolific and has been so inspirational for photographers and cinematographers?

Ondi Timoner: It is intimidating, but all I can do is present something as authentic as possible. And I try to do that with all my films. Pull no punches and create an unflinching portrait of this person. I had no interest in creating a puff piece about Robert Mapplethorpe.

Lesley Coffin: How did Matt Smith get involved in the film?

Ondi Timoner: His representation reached out to me. But that happened right after my son finished watching his seasons of Doctor Who and told me I should cast him. My son was eight at the time so I thought he was just saying that because he liked him on that show. But because he said that I took that meeting and met him in a restaurant. And I was blown away by his performance. But nothing could have prepared me for the performance he gave in the film. He was just out of control.

Mapplethorpe Premiered at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival. It received the Second Place Audience Award.

(C) Lesley Coffin (4/30/18) FF2 Media

Photos: Eliza Dushku at an event for Mapplethorpe/Photo by Santiago Felipe – © 2018 Santiago Felipe – Image courtesy

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