Ondi Timoner’s Mapplethorpe starring Matt Smith had its world premiere at the 2018 Tribeca film festival, where James Kleinmann spoke to the writer and director for HeyUGuys about her decade long journey to bring the biopic about the controversial photographer to the big screen and the process of working with the “incredibly brilliant and tortured soul” Matt Smith.

James Kleinmann: My own introduction to Mapplethorpe was back in London at the Hayward Gallery. I was about eighteen and I went with a friend who was very into art and I had no idea what I was going into. The work kind of blew my mind really. I wondered what your introduction to Mapplethorpe was and how it eventually led to making the film?

Ondi Timoner: “I was introduced to Mapplethorpe when I was about ten because I have terrible parents!” Ondi’s mother, who has just celebrated her eightieth birthday, is in the room with us throughout the interview, so this is a pointed joke.

“No, actually, I had a calendar that was Mapplethorpe flowers, I just thought it was the coolest calendar. I picked it up a museum store. I loved those black and white flowers. I knew nothing else about him and I just thought Mapplethorpe took lots of pictures of flowers. So you can kind of see that in the movie, that I ride that angle a little bit, that split of his canon and how he really wanted it to all be together. He kind of struggled with that his whole life, to have that collection. So when I was writing it, I was very interested in where his drive was leading. Where was he actually trying to take his work? What he was trying to do was make it like a Michelangelo or a Rodin. He was trying to get it to the main floor of a museum. He was saying that the images he was taking were as beautiful as any sculpture or any formalist painting, and I think he was right. So he ended up printing on platinum, massive prints. His printer, Martin Axon, who plays himself in the movie, wrote me an email underling how much Mapplethorpe was jealous of the painters of the day and how much they commanded for their paintings.”

robert mapplethorpe

“I wanted to make it a coming of age story too and an anthem for artists. His eye and his drive and his exploration, which is how you make great art, you really have to dig into yourself and figure out where all these human instincts are coming from and make to it relatable as well. And in that process he realised he was attracted to men, he couldn’t turn away from men. So he kind of comes of age, comes into his sexuality and comes into his art simultaneously.

“We had some resistance from Patti Smith throughout the entire project. There was a temptation on the part of some members of the team to cut Patti from the story, but I could never do that because to me that part is so important. I wanted people to see this and feel free to be flawed and still go on and do great things, do whatever it is they do and feel important and great. Mapplethorpe was deeply flawed, as are most of my main characters, if you’ve ever seen my movies. I call them ‘impossible visionaries’, because they take on the impossible and they withstand the doubt and ridicule of everyone along the way to make it happen. They have to act impossibly to realise their vision.”

And what does Patti Smith think about the film now?

“I don’t know if she’s seen it.”

I loved the look of the film, right from the opening with the Mapplethorpe photographs that you chose to include and the archive footage. How influenced were you by Mapplethorpe’s work in creating the look for your film?

“Very much. I felt it was extremely important to shoot it on film, as he did. I also felt the contrast, the black and white, the hard light he would put on things, was something I needed to make happen in every frame. So I challenged Nancy Schreiber who’s a great cinematographer to consistently go with side lighting or back lighting and it was very challenging because we shot the film in nineteen, eleven hour days. We had 35 locations around New York. One key to working that way was finding multi-use locations, where we could shoot multiple scenes on the same property. We had to do that quite a bit because the script is ambitious. There were 155 scenes to shoot over those 19 days. Nancy was pulling her hair out at times, but she was incredible and it was an all woman camera team. Everyone just pulled it together. I shot all the Super-8. I would keep the camera on my chair and in between takes while she was lighting I would shoot on Super-8 and that’s how we got the stuff with them playing outside and really every set up of Matt in a different place.”

Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe
Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe

When they first arrive at the Chelsea Hotel there was some beautiful Super-8 establishing footage.

“Exactly. That was waiting for Nancy to light something. There’s also a shot that goes across the desk of photos and the montage of life at the Chelsea, where he sells his jewellery. All that stuff I just knew we couldn’t get it otherwise, so I picked that up. I feel like the combination is really nice, we don’t see that a lot in movies.”

It’s really immersive, it takes you back to the period and then you’re already there for the next shot on film.

“Thank you. I’m really hardcode when it comes to lighting. I showed Nancy City of God as a reference. I love that movie and how it’s photographed, how it really takes you into that world and you to move freely through it. Sort of like that champagne scene in this film, but to accomplish that you need to have shadow on this side and light on this side, to honour Mapplethorpe that’s what we did. It was challenging, but Nancy did it, she knocked it out of the park, she’s amazing. She’s a legend of the light!”

Tell us about Matt Smith. I forgot that I was watching him and I was just watching the character. It’s so different to anything I’ve seen him do previously.

“He is such an incredibly brilliant and tortured soul, Matt Smith. When I first met him I don’t think I realised that he was quite as deep waters as he is, but he is and he’s a lovely man.”

I think that polite Englishman thing can be deceptive sometimes, where you don’t necessarily reveal too much depth initially.

“Yes it’s part of it, but I could tell when he did his reading. My jaw hit the floor. I was just like ‘what?!’ This was six years ago, so there was no Prince Philip or anything. My son, who was eight at the time, said ‘you have to cast Matt Smith as Robert Mapplethorpe’ and I said ‘why would I do that, he’s Doctor Who, what are you talking about?’ He said ‘he’s the best actor in the world!’ Now he’s obviously a Doctor Who fan and I said ‘ok, sweetie that’s very nice’ and then did not pursue it, but then within ten days or something out of nowhere Matt’s agents asked if he could meet to discuss playing Robert Mapplethorpe. So I thought my son has pretty good instincts and he’s grown up around movies; he was born the week I finished my movie Dig, he’s been to Sundance fifteen times, he was at the Sundance Labs with me. So I thought ‘you know what, let me go and meet him’. And immediately I met someone very different from that Doctor Who character and really understood that there was a lot more to him, that really he was an artist above all things and really would understand an artist’s journey and I got that from him in that meeting. Then his reading really sealed the deal, but nothing could have prepared me for what he brought to the film.”

Matt Smith stars as Robert Mapplethorpe
Matt Smith stars as Robert Mapplethorpe

“The process of working with Matt was tough at times, but really great. We challenged each other all the time. Every single thing that I wrote in that script had to make sense to him, every nuance. It was very important to both of us that the role was not played with any sentimentality whatsoever and that it was an unflinching look at Mapplethorpe. So if there was anything he felt wasn’t true to his vision of what Robert was, we had to go through it and I had to win the argument. You know I made a movie about Russell Brand so I’m used to dealing with your countrymen and it’s fine! I took it on and I won most of the time, because I’m the director, but also what I respected is that he’s an intellectual, Matt, he’s very intelligent and a very authentic actor. Everything is coming from an extremely deep place with him. I mean he must have dropped twenty pounds for this role, I know he did, like one and half stone in weight, he was very tortured. When he showed up in New York he was gaunt and then continued to not eat. He had to die as Robert on day six. I wanted him to be far enough into the schedule that he could warm into it.

“We shot the Eighties set scenes first. So he was all tortured up front, right off the bat and it was a nightmare. We’d have around fifteen scenes to shoot in a day and he’s having to feel the discomfort of AIDS. To help him he was walking around with clips and almonds in his shoes. Lying on top of objects in the bed, anything we could do to help. We all researched what it felt like. You know that scene inside the limo with the hotdog was shot in like five or ten minutes on day one. Day one he was walking up the Met steps with John, he was on the bench with Patti, playing the first time he met her, because this all had to be location based to squeeze it in. Then he was walking down the street with Milton, and then he was thrown into AIDS makeup at that moment and then the limo scene. All in one day, on the first day! Pretty intense, but day six though was hardcode, the hospital scenes. How about that flower scene?”

I like that we get a moment to laugh too.

“It’s true. And that they laugh, yes, isn’t it wonderful.”

Yes, it’s such an authentic feeling film, so I thought that must’ve really happened.

“That’s why I don’t like calling it fiction. It’s not a ‘fiction film’. It’s a scripted film.”

What do you think we get from this film that we wouldn’t get if we watched a documentary, like the recent Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures?

“Well, you know that he made his brother Edward change his name, but you don’t know that he knowingly spread AIDS. That’s something that I didn’t know if the Foundation would let me keep, but they did. That’s really important, because I think it reveals a lot of internal conflict that he had with his religious upbringing. With a scripted film, I think that you get into the nuances of his relationships and I think that you get the stories behind his photos, stories that I made up, like the knife and the flower. His dad going to see that exhibition at the same time as Robert receiving those flowers from his parents and really wanting to stab one right through the middle. I think it is important. What else do you get? You get him alive. I’m a doc filmmaker, but I didn’t want to make a doc. When Fenton and Randy, who are dear friends of mine and bless them for making that film, made Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures, I was quite pleased to have it. They called me apologetic and I was like ‘are you kidding me? This is great!’ It was great research for me. I never wanted to make a documentary about Robert Mapplethorpe because I make films that unfold over time and that are suspense driven narratives.

“Bringing him alive, you get to live that life. You get to go back to that time. You’re not seeing it in photos or hearing about it with talking heads and you’ve never had that before. I mean, it’s so wonderful to spend 95 minutes in that world. To see someone become increasingly predatorial in that way and to see the artistic process both awaken in him and then also cause him to lose everyone that he needs to be honest with and true to. He can’t keep them around and keep his art the way it is. You get to experience all of that in a way that I don’t think hearing it from a museum curator or from a friend or the family can convey in the same way. That’s just the nature of a scripted film. That’s why I like making them, I hope I get to do more of them.”

So do I.

“Tell them! Tell them to green light my next movie.”

Yes, she needs to do more, green light it! What about working with the Mapplethorpe Foundation and deciding which photographs to include. It’s great to see them so large on a massive cinema screen.

“Yes, isn’t it! We could use anything we wanted, any photograph pretty much. The Foundation was fantastic to work with. They’ve been just incredibly helpful and we were out last night with them. They closed down the party basically! It’s just been a great relationship for a decade now. So I’m very grateful for their support and belief in me”.

'Mapplethorpe' starring Matt Smith in US cinemas from 1st March 2019.
‘Mapplethorpe’ starring Matt Smith in US cinemas from 1st March 2019.

Mapplethorpe is released in cinemas by Samuel Goldwyn Films in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago on 1st March 2019. An exhibition of Mapplethorpe’s work, Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now, runs at the Guggenheim in New York until 5th January 2020.

Official Synopsis: Robert Mapplethorpe is arguably one of the most important artists of the 20th century. Mapplethorpe discovered himself both sexually and artistically in New York City throughout the 70’s and 80’s. The film explores Mapplethorpe’s life from moments before he and Patti Smith moved into the famed Chelsea hotel, home to a world of bohemian chic. Here he begins photographing its inhabitants and his new found circle of friends including artists and musicians, socialites, film stars, and members of the S&M underground Mapplethorpe’s work displayed eroticism in a way that had never been examined nor displayed before to the public. The film explores the intersection of his art and his sexuality along with his struggle for mainstream recognition. Mapplethorpe offers a nuanced portrait of an artist at the height of his craft and of the self-destructive impulses that threaten to undermine it all.