A day in the life of a Sundance filmmaker

Ondi Timoner gives CNET News a chance to see what it's like from the inside of the festival, and her film just happens to be all about the Internet.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
8 min read

PARK CITY, Utah--The Sundance Film Festival is all about film buzz. Word spreads quickly about the biggest tearjerkers, the most overhyped films, the pleasant surprises, and the ones mostly likely to make their way to the cineplex.

Filmmaker Ondi Timoner starts her day Monday, the day of her film's world premiere, by getting her make-up done professionally. She knows she has many photo shoots ahead. Michelle Meyers/CNET News

What you don't hear, however, is what it's like for the makers of such films as they anticipate showing their work to the world for the very first time. What is their range of emotions as they prepare for what could be a standing ovation or a mass exodus before the credits even roll?

Ondi Timoner, who's here competing with her documentary, We Live in Public, gave CNET News some insight into the mania of festival life for a filmmaker by allowing us to shadow her Monday, the day of her film's world premiere. We'll tell you all about that jam-packed day, but first some background on the film and Timoner.

We Live in Public documents the tumultuous life of Josh Harris, who Timoner refers to as "the greatest Internet pioneer you've never heard of." It's a sort of cautionary tale about the effect the Web is having on society.

During the 1990s dot-com boom, Harris was considered a sort of "Warhol of the Web" by creating the first Internet television network, Pseudo.com, and then an underground bunker in Manhattan where 100 people lived together on camera for 30 days before getting shut down as a millennial cult by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the New York police on New Year's Day 2000.

Harris' next experiment, which led him to a mental breakdown, was a six-month stint living with his girlfriend under 24-hour live surveillance online, long before the days of Justin TV.

Timoner had been hired by Harris to film the underground bunker project, called Quiet, and continued to follow him over the years as she was drawn by his character, even if she didn't quite understand his message. But it wasn't until spring 2006, when she started noticing people walking around oblivious to the world typing into their BlackBerrys, or posting their every thought and move on social-networking status feeds, that she realized Harris was a true visionary.

Taking a quick break from the busy schedule, Timoner checks in with her son, Joaquim, who offers a taste of his ice cream. Michelle Meyers/CNET News

"He said we'd be trapped in virtual boxes" and he was right, Timoner said. "It was like being shot with a lightening bolt. I had never had a clearer vision...Society and technology had to catch up to Josh's vision.

So she set to work, along with a huge team of collaborators, culling 5,000 hours of video into the film, which prominently features Internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis and also offers a couple clips of MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe.

Timoner, 36, who's staying here in a huge mountainside house with her 5-year-old son and extended family, also competed at Sundance in 2004 with the rock 'n' roll documentary Dig!. Dig! won the Grand Jury Prize and immediately got picked up for U.S. distribution by Palm Pictures.

Now more seasoned about rights, distribution, and the potential for Web distribution, she's not even sure she'll sell her film, even though perspective buyers have already expressed interest. Of course, it depends upon the offer (no news yet as of Tuesday afternoon), but she'll do some serious weighing this time around, she said, still sorry to have given up rights with Dig! True to the theme of We Live in Public, the following are highlights from Timoner's day on the other side of the camera:

Getting ready
Some of the guests at the We Live in Public household were still in PJs at about 10 a.m. Monday, but they were mostly bright-eyed and some were already a little stressed. Timoner got showered and dressed for the many photo shoots that awaited her.

Dress for Sundance premieres runs the gamut. One of the opening night filmmakers wore a formal gown. Timoner opted for a more casual purple knit top with neckline detail, a black vest (to help hide the fact that she couldn't wear a bra with the shirt, she said), black skinny pants with a subtle brown print, and an Obama pin, which helped keep the neckline in place. All of the clothes, she said, were designed by a friend of hers.

press line
Timoner arrives before the screening of her film and poses on the press line as flashes flicker all around. Michelle Meyers/CNET News

As she got her make-up done, Timoner seemed excited and energetic. "We're going to blow people's minds today," she said, adding that she was likely living the best and most important 24 hours of her life.

And she was also reeling in the all the hype the movie had already received. Among other feedback, a writer for the The San Francisco Bay Guardian, for one, had just posted a great review: "I can't express enough how awesome this film is, or how horrifyingly revealing of where our own society has headed. You wanna talk about the film of Sundance '09? Look no further."

As a result, however, Timoner revealed, "Now I'm nervous about living up to (the hype)."

There wasn't much time to dwell, however, as the team, including Harris--donning a neutral-color shirt, khakis and his signature white Stan Smith sneakers--was already running behind schedule for a photo shoot and Sundance Channel interview downtown on Main Street. They grabbed coats and loaded into rented SUVs.

That's when it hit Timoner that she never said good-bye to her son, Joaquim, who had been hanging out with his two cousins. That was certainly worth running back in the house for.

Strike a pose
It was nonstop shoots, interviews, and meetings for Timoner, Harris and the film entourage and they kept to a tight schedule managed largely by production coordinator Cristin Mizelle. Timoner and Harris were received by everyone as true stars, striking their poses before the bright lights.

Unscripted, however, was the chit-chat en route from place to place. One particular disappointment for Timoner, was word that Twitter had gone down, and her posts, including photos, had not been updating for more than a day. Timoner is a Twitter rookie, apparently not yet wise to Twitter's bugginess. "My publicist said I had to Twitter. If the film is We Live in Public, I had to live in public."

"But I had some brilliant Twitters," she said. "Now there missing. There all stuck in Twitterland somewhere."

Another unexpected twist was running into MySpace CEO Chris DeWolfe on the street, whom Timoner had interviewed for film and whom had offered support for it. DeWolfe said he was sorry he had to miss the screening, and confirmed he had heard good things about the film. He also asked Timoner about how he looked in the film. She assured him he comes off fine.

On any other a day, Timoner would be fully engaged in this panel with two other Sundance filmmakers. However on Monday, hours before her premiere, she was a little distracted. Michelle Meyers/CNET News

But afterward, she admitted she's a little concerned as to how he'll respond to his quote that he had never heard of Josh Harris. That was poignant, she felt, because here you have one of the biggest Web executives never having heard him. "No one had heard of him," which is what made his story that much more amazing, she said.

Her concern, of course, was that DeWolfe would feel like he should have known who Harris was. But Timoner quickly moved on.

Timoner and Harris' interview with the Sundance Channel was fun to watch because it clearly showed their relational dynamic. Harris, who spent much of the day with a cigar in hand, doesn't always agree on Timoner's view of her story, which led to a little friction on the set. Yet Harris has given Timoner his full support and access to footage.

Harris refuses, however, to actually see the film, although he planned to attend the question-and-answer session following the opening night screening. "I can't do it," he said, after the Sundance Channel interview, likening watching a movie about his life and his mental breakdown to watching a video of someone giving birth.

Besides, the movie is about who he is through Timoner's eyes, and he doesn't want to define himself that way. "I like who I am right now," he said. Harris, who watched hours on end of TV while growing up as the youngest of many siblings, now lives in Ethiopia, where he's shown in the film living relatively simple life.

The final task for Timoner before the pre-premiere parties kicked into full gear, was participating in a panel about developing compelling stories in film. She admitted it was hard to engage in the panel, with the screening just hours away.

Timoner at the after party
With the film screening over, Timoner arrives at the after-premiere party we're she can relax, finally...at least until tomorrow. Michelle Meyers/CNET News

"On any other day I would have found that really interesting," she said. "This is one of the biggest days of my whole life," she said, walking with her sister Rachel Timoner, a rabbi, on their way to one last photo shoot at the Hollywood Life House.

Meanwhile, Timoner's crew was scrambling to come up with more tickets to give to industry insiders and others who had made last minute requests due to all the buzz.

The doors open
There's nothing more annoying or unexpected than traffic here in Park City. Just when it seemed like the weekend crowd had cleared out, the roads were completely backed up en route to We Live in Public's screening venue, which meant not only was Timoner and her crew late, so were audiences and press members.

Always the director, Timoner argued with Sundance staff to let them start the film a little late.

"You make a film for 10 years and you want some people to see it from the beginning," she said with a smile, but in a voice that showed an elevated stress level.

Appropriately, she introduced the film telling the packed room that she screeched to the finish with the film, which was only completed seven days prior, and rushed it because she feels "we're at a tipping point."

"The virtual world is starting to take over our lives," she told the audience.

The lights dimmed and Timoner settled in her seat next to mother, sister, and brother, David, who co-produced Dig!. She went along for the ride, smiling at moments and enjoying the film's music. As the movie finished, her mom's lips read, "I loved it."

Jason and Josh
Jason Calacanis and Josh Harris pose for a shot at the We Live in Public after-premiere party Monday night. Or was it Tuesday morning by then? Michelle Meyers/CNET News

The applause was loud and the audience was fully engaged in the question-and-answer panel, on which Calacanis also participated.

Calacanis is interviewed heavily in the film about what Harris was doing relative to the rest of the dot-co industry. He got a laugh talking about Psuedo.com and the accompanying rave-like behavior with supermodels wearing almost nothing "on the laps of nerds playing Doom."

Several audience questions were prefaced with complements, and the chatter outside the screening room seemed positive. Some audience members were impressed by the story of Harris' life, although others questioned whether he truly was a visionary or just another dot-comer who wasted away millions. Others recognized Timoner's feat in editing together 10 years worth of footage and for hitting on such a relevant message about technology in our lives.

Later that night, at the premiere party downtown, Timoner, at last with a cocktail in hand, said the feedback had been amazing and there had been lots of sales interest both from film and TV distributors.

But her smile really warmed with this line: "Someone told me it's the best documentary they've ever seen."

Just when you'd think Timoner could finally relax, she overwhelmed me with her crazed Tuesday schedule of sales meetings and press interviews, never mind the inauguration, an event she had been talking about all day.

This journalist called it a night at 1 a.m., but the We Live in Public party continued, reportedly.

Fitting given the film's name, the We Live in Public after-premiere party was streamed on the film's Web site. Here Natalie Lent, left, of ID Public Relations, Timoner, and Harris watch themselves being streamed. Michelle Meyers/CNET News

Click here for more information about the We Live in Public and Timoner.

Here's the trailer:

Below are two videos that I shot of Timoner at Sundance.