Filmmaker Ondi Timoner felt the best way to tell the story of Robert Mapplethorpe was in a narrative-versus-documentary format. Mapplethorpe, the vaunted New York photograper who died of AIDS in 1989, was well-known for his photographs of controversial material, including of New York’s gay scene, and for his early marriage to rocker Patti Smith.
“I don’t tend to make documentaries about people who aren’t alive,” Timoner said of her film, which goes into theatrical release this week. “That’s why I call scripted films ‘scripted’ and not narrative, because they are about people who are alive and unpredictable.”
Timoner’s previous “unpredictable” protagonists include Anton Newcombe, the volatile rock star at the heart of her 2005 documentary “Dig!” “Mapplethorpe” is Timoner’s first narrative film.
“With Mapplethorpe, I wanted to bring this quiet person to life,” she said of eschewing a documentary paradigm, adding that she had rebuffed earlier overtures to do precisely that.
Timoner believes that her subject, portrayed in the film by Matt Smith (Netflix’s “The Crown”) fits in well with the other personalities she has sought to show in her work. Mapplethorpe, she believes, “fits in very well with the kind of character that I tend to look at.”
“For him to decide to say images of [gay people] are beautiful—people weren’t ready for that at that point in history,” Timoner said, calling her subject a true visionary. “[He] took on an impossible [subject], in this case gay life, which was then deemed obscene.
“He had to really be relentless. I could just show how much grit it takes to stick to your vision against all odds.”
Smith, the British actor best known for playing Prince Philip to Claire Foy’s Queen Elizabeth in “The Crown,” was also the one-time Doctor Who in that long-running sci-fi series. When asked what Timoner saw in Smith that made her believe he could tackle both the mid-century New York accent as well as the demons that haunted Mapplethorpe, she insists there was no other choice.
“I saw this whole mercurial aspect to him, this tenacity,” she said of Smith. “This quiet dissatisfaction with himself, always [pushing] for more and a quiet charisma. A really quiet, gentle charisma.
“I think he was the most nervous about the accent. He really nailed it,” Timoner said. “But we never broke it down in between takes. We stayed with the action.”
“Mapplethorpe” understandably spends great amounts of its running time showcasing the photographer’s incredible images that he captured in black-and-white. The film also doesn’t shy away from his turbulent relationship with Patti Smith (Marianne Rendón), during which he frequently stayed out well into the evening visiting his various male lovers. Nor is short shrift given to his copious drinking and drug use, as well as the torture he suffered being both gay and from a devout Catholic family.
“He was deeply flawed but deeply lovable, and wonderful in so many ways,” Timoner said, adding the artist didn’t always do the best job of balancing his work and personal lives, and that, in his later years, his sexual appetites sometimes verged on the “predatorial.”
“Even if you have fatal flaws, there’s a way to make something beautiful and to change history,” said said of Mapplethorpe’s artwork. “So I like that he’s not 100 percent likable. And I love that he came to his seuxality thorugh his art, because I feel like being an artist is like peeling an onion.”
Timoner opted to use more traditional Super 8 and Super 16 film stock instead of digital film in keeping with Robert Mapplethorpe’s own artistic sensibilities.
“Steve Bellamy, the president of Kodak, said, ‘If you don’t shoot this on film, you’re committing a crime against humanity and art,” Timoner said.
Further complicating matters was that the schedule to shoot “Mapplethorpe” was a brisk 19 days.
“It’s not good for your health, not with 155 scenes [set] over three decades,” Timoner said of the tight turnaround. “I do not recommend it.”
The filmmaker believes that Mapplethorpe, who may not be much known outside of photography and gay circles, was important for “revolutionizing” how the greater public saw the LGBTQ community.
“He brought this above ground and even made worshipful imagery,” she said. “I hope a lot of artists are born out of watching this movie. [They] might not understand what they’re trying to do at the time but should stick to their guns” when it comes to following their own creative dreams, she said.
Despite Mapplethorpe’s numerous flaws and some poor decisions, Timoner believes the shutterbug’s ultimate aim was to find and showcase love in its many forms.
“I’ve worked with a lot of gay men who were alive at that time who feel that we just nailed it,” the director, who also co-wrote the screenplay, said. “He very strategically made the male form into sculpture with photographs, and he turned photography into a collective artform.”
When asked if she fears at all that the cultural of acceptance of LGBTQ persons and their lifestyle might at all slide backward in the current political climate, Timoner demurs.
“I think the genie’s out of the bottle,” she said.
“Mapplethorpe” (Samuel Goldwyn) comes out in wide release today.