Director Ondi Timoner On Bringing Mapplethorpe’s “Impossible” Life To The Big Screen

Director Ondi Timoner on the long journey to get "Mapplethorpe" made.

Film director Ondi Timoner—two-time recipient of the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance (for documentaries Dig! in 2004 and We Live in Public in 2009)—arrived this week at the Tribeca Film Festival with her biopic Mapplethorpe.

Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

The film examines the life and art of iconic photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (a riveting Matt Smith), who was notorious for depicting S&M scenes and phalluses, with stark, elegant beauty. Mapplethorpe’s work challenged the art world in the ’70s and ’80s and scandalized political conservatives: “He was trying to make photos that could be deemed obscene into classical art,” Timoner notes.

The artist died of complications from AIDS at age 42 in 1989 but protests related to his work continued after his death. (Senator Jesse Helms was particularly vocal, calling his photographs “perverse, filthy and revolting garbage.”)

His work has outlived both the artist and the protests: Mapplethorpe’s photos are in the permanent collections of major museums around the world.

We caught up with Timoner during a post-screening audience Q&A at the Tribeca Film Festival, and in a one-on-one chat afterward.

What drew you to this subject?

I tend to make films about what I call ‘impossible visionaries’—people who do the impossible, act impossible, are impossible. I want you all to act impossibly!

How did you know when you found actors you wanted?

I think casting is about finding the essence of the person you’re showing. I could see that in these actors—and then they all surpassed what I thought we could have.

Andrew Toth/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Did you shoot the story in a linear way?

We didn’t. We shot for 19 days, and Matt ‘died’ on day 6. We shot the end first, mostly to get that pain out of the way.

Is there an aspect of the film that you haven’t gotten to discuss as much but want to?

The music. Music was critical to this project. The T-Rex song we use at the end was suggested by my brother. Our music editor, Jamieson Shaw, was fantastic in getting the choices right.

Mapplethorpe/Interloper Films

You considered a career in politics, early on—but you’ve said you were disillusioned by the system. Do you still believe in the importance of women running for office?

I definitely do. The system is problematic of course, in many ways, but we have to be heard and represented politically. Women’s lives are political. We have a lot to say about survival and love and empowerment—and strength without weapons.

The film was a long time coming. When did you start to think about it?

I did my first work on this project in 2006. So yeah, this took 12 years—12 years and then 19 days.

For tickets to Mapplethorpe visit the Tribeca Film Festival website.

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