An Interview with Mapplethorpe Director Ondi Timoner
By Gregg Shapiro
In a year when documentaries such as Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, RBG, McQueen, and Whitney are all the rage, it’s refreshing to see a biopic such as Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe (Interloper). British actor Matt Smith, so well-loved for his portrayal of Dr. Who in the series of the same name, fully embodies and embraces the role of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Timoner’s film follows Mapplethorpe after he drops out of Pratt Institute and embarks on his creative life in Manhattan where he meets and begins relationships with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón) and Sam Wagstaff (John Benjamin Hickey), and ultimately leaves an indelible mark on the art world. I spoke with Timoner about Mapplethorpe in September 2018.
Gregg Shapiro: I’d like to begin by congratulating you on Mapplethorpe receiving the Audience Award for Narrative Film at The All Genders, Lifestyles, and Identities Film Festival (aGLIFF) in Sept. 2018. What does such an honor mean to you?
Ondi Timoner: We also won the Audience Award at QFilms (LGBTQ Film Festival) in Long Beach this past weekend. Also, the Audience Award at Sidewalk Film Festival (in Birmingham, AL) two weeks ago, and that was for the whole film festival, not just the LGBTQ portion. We won the second place Audience Award at TriBeCa when we premiered. We have four Audience Awards now. Audiences seem to be responding to the film, which is quite heartening. I also won Best Director at Long Beach.
GS: It must be very gratifying.
OT: We worked really hard on it. I wrote and developed it over 12 years. We had to shoot it in 19 11-hour days. It’s quite an ambitious project. To go 12 years and then have 19 days to render three decades on Super 16 and Super 8 film, and cover 135 locations in 55 scenes. I’m grateful to the whole crew, especially (cinematographer) Nancy Schreiber, my DP, and (production designer) Jonah Markowitz, and of course (actors) Matt Smith (as Robert Mapplethorpe), Marianne Rendón, John Benjamin Hickey, McKinley Belcher, Carolyn McCormick (as Joan Mapplethorpe), and Mark Moses (as Harry). An incredible group of talented people came together behind this film, and that’s what it takes.
GS: I’m glad you mentioned Matt Smith. It’s as if he was born to play Robert Mapplethorpe.
OT: I know! It’s so funny, too, because it was my son who thought of it. Matt was Dr. Who, and later Prince Philip in The Crown. My son was a Dr. Who fan and he said I should cast Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe. He just loved Matt and he thought he was the best Dr. Who. I couldn’t see that, because I’m not a Dr. Who fan. I couldn’t understand the connection. My son was nine at the time and I kind of poo-pooed it, as one would. And then, serendipitously, Matt’s agents called a week or two later. They asked me if I would lunch with him and consider him for the role. Just because my son said that, I took the lunch. I was met with a man who had such mystique and tension and kind of a quiet disquietude, if you will. A gravitas that I never experienced in any of the actors, and I’d met with so many over the years. I hadn’t seen that in anybody. James Franco was cast to play the role and was attached for a couple of years. Even James didn’t have that. He had something different. James didn’t have that kind of mercurial presence in the same way. There was something a little bit lighter about James. Matt had something else and it was a lot like the character that I’d envisioned, that I’d been writing in all those drafts. I asked him to read. He would probably never read today, now that he’s attached to the new Star Wars [laughs]. Back then, this was four or five years ago, he agreed to read and his reading made my mouth fall open. I knew right then, even though none of us producers thought we could necessarily get the film financed with him in the lead at that point in his career, we believed he was the right choice for the role. That there could be no one else; like you said, like he was born to play it. That’s what he brought every day. I think the tension of the schedule and how hardcore it was, forced us out of our comfort zones, to improvise and work together to pull off something very special and very authentic. Both of us are very much after the truth onscreen, whatever that is. As hard and as painful as it might be, as unflinching a look at Mapplethorpe as we could possibly pull. He was never scared.
GS: Mapplethorpe’s relationships with Patti Smith and Sam Wagstaff have been well-documented in Smith’s memoir Just Kids and in James Crump’s doc Black White + Gray, respectively. However, Robert’s relationship with his younger photographer brother Edward may be a new subject to some viewers. Please say something about the importance of making that a prominent element of your film.
OT: I think that Robert’s relationship to his mortality, his relationship to fame in regards to his mortality, is a real driving reason why his brother is so important. His brother becomes a photographer in his shadow; is inspired by Robert to become a photographer. Their father had been a hobbyist photographer who would have them all line up for a picture and smile. This kind of photographic other, edgy photography was not something that was accepted in the household and it got Edward thrown out of the house, too. Edward was just dying for his brother’s tutelage, mentorship, and love, which his brother very reluctantly provided for him, but never really let on that he needed him as much as he did. He (Robert) became dependent on Edward. When he becomes sick with AIDS and has a death sentence, he’s just becoming really famous. He finally accomplished everything he dreamed of, which was, “If they love my work and they worship my work, then they’re going to love me.” That’s why it’s so important that the coming of age story with Patti (Smith) is in there. As he discovers art, he discovers his sexuality and that he couldn’t turn away from men. He was fascinated with what was then considered the underbelly, that which was deemed obscene at that time. He couldn’t turn away from it, and, in fact, he found it beautiful. He was determined that we should all find it beautiful. He was going to show it in its sculptural form, clean it up, put it in a studio, and make it (something like) Rodin and Michelangelo, so that we would all worship it. He finally accomplishes this, and you’re not famous unless you’re photographed by Robert Mapplethorpe, and then bam! Mid-`80s, HIV positive, and guess who’s going to live on with the name Mapplethorpe? There’s another photographer, his brother. That scene (in the movie) of the joint show is true. He does ask him to change his name. In fact, he demands that he changes his name to Maxey (their mother’s maiden name). Imagine how painful (it would be) to be told that you have to change your name. The way Matt performs that scene, it’s chilling. Edward is important in that regard. Edward coming back and being with his brother at the Whitney Retrospective and being there for his brother’s death, even though he was made to change his name, I think is very important.
GS: Mapplethorpe, like the FX series Pose and Rebecca Makkai’s novel The Great Believers, as well as the new documentaries about Susanne Bartsch and Studio 54, takes us back to the 1980s and the devastation of the AIDS crisis. Why do you think the subject of AIDS in the 1980s has returned to the cultural zeitgeist?
OT: I think we’re facing a massive epidemic right now, with the opioid crisis. I think we’re at another point where shame and isolation and the spreading of a disease that’s out of control has gripped this nation. I’m certainly thinking about that a lot because I’m currently in production – and taking a break to speak to you – on a film about the opioid epidemic. It took us a long time to address (the AIDS crisis) as a nation and in that time, a lot of people needlessly died, and that’s what’s happening now with this. We are not showing compassion. We are putting short-term profit over long-term sustainability in the health of our brothers and sisters in the world and in this country. We are only coming around now and we need to throw a lot more resources at this. People can go from being a drain on the system to being a positive asset to our society. I’ve seen it again and again. I’m filming the positive side of the recovery more so than the darkest side of it because we’ve got plenty about that. The way that Reagan handled AIDS caused the deaths of so many people. That’s why he gets a little cameo in the movie (Mapplethorpe), a little shot in there as we go into the `80s. I couldn’t tell this story without telling the story of AIDS. I don’t know why it’s coming back like this. I don’t think it ever left. My freshman year at Yale, I took a class called The History of HIV and AIDS. That was the early `90s. I feel like it’s always been present. I feel like, right now, LGBTQ culture and rights are at the forefront. There’s more acceptance than ever before, but there’s a long way to go. I never had been part of any LGBTQ film festival circuit because I’d never made a film that had anything to do with it before. But now that I am, I realize there’s an incredibly strong and vibrant LGBTQ film festival circuit that’s been in existence for more than 30 years. These festivals have been the lifeblood of keeping these stories and the progress going. Keeping people from killing themselves and hurting themselves because they are being rejected by society. So many of these people that are addicts, that I’m filming right now, that are recovery, have had that kind of bullying, isolation and stigmatization put on them. We as humans need to feel connection, a sense of belonging. With the rise of technology, we’re more and more isolated. The fact that we didn’t know how AIDS was spread isolated those people and they were quarantined in a way, is emblematic of a lot of what’s going on on a societal level today culturally. We lost 72,000 people to opioid addiction last year.
GS: We are coming up on the 30th anniversary of Robert’s passing. What do you think he would have thought about the movie?
OT: When I was writing the film, I actually felt Robert sitting next to me. One time, on set, I felt him, as well. I always felt his blessing about not turning it away. When I finished my director’s cut, it happened to be his birthday. It was also Sam Wagstaff’s birthday. I feel like that was a good sign. It’s hard to conjecture. I’ve never made a film about someone who’s no longer here. That’s why I wanted to make a scripted film. I wanted to make a film that would bring him alive on screen. My documentaries tend to be very unfolding, suspense-driven stories that you can follow where the serendipity of life happens. I film things over time and take people on a journey. I wasn’t able to do that with Robert because I didn’t know him personally. But I really tapped into his life. I wanted to make something for artists. I wanted to make something they could watch and be inspired to take on the impossible like he did. I see him as an impossible visionary and I wanted to honor that. In many ways, in the face of fear, he became fearless. I relate to him on that, and the isolation that one feels when they’re dedicated to their work and they have to work so hard to make something that people don’t yet understand. I tried to bring a lot of that to the screen. I think he would like it.