I was able to sit down and talk with Ondi Timoner, the director of her very personal documentary “Last Flight Home” about her father accepting his own inevitable demise.
Richard: So, how did you start in the filmmaking industry?
Ondi: So I didn’t, really, consciously decide to become a filmmaker. I just sort of picked up a camera. I was a junior in college and I was curious to ask people questions and I started to realize that holding a camera, they gave me really interesting answers. And so my brother and my roommate and I were driving across the country, from, we went to college at the time at Yale and we were driving to the west coast and then back over a spring break and, I brought a little camera along and we went into, you know, convenience stores along the way to buy a soda or a bag of chips or so. And I would ask people, you know, what they feared the most or what made them happy or what they thought of gays in the military because that was actually a, an issue at the time in the, in 1992 when this was. And, and they, and, and I swear, people just gave such interesting answers and all these conversations started happening and I realized that the camera was sort of a bridge, you know, into people’s hearts and minds. And by my senior year at Yale, I would only take classes with the teacher or professor who would let me make a film instead of write a paper. because I learned so much more that way. And I took this one class called transgressive women in American culture and went into women’s prisons to ask them about their experience.
And when I would drive out with the tapes and, and the camera on the back of the car, I felt like I was freeing some part of them from inside the prison walls. Like I had so many of my own prejudices and preconceived notions sort of dissolved in those rooms. And I realized the power of filmmaking, not only to, you know, really upend anything you think, you know, and give you a much more nuanced, truthful and authentic experience, but also to communicate that, right?
Like these people were trapped inside prison. And we had one portrayal of them on late night television as like these crazy violent women. And I was meeting a whole different type of woman. usually someone who was driving the getaway car, usually involved in a nonviolent crime, you know, a mother, a daughter, someone’s sister. And, and so by driving out with the tapes, it was like alchemy, it was like freeing their souls and their stories, you know, to be outside of an otherwise invisible parallel universe that we fund with our tax paying dollars. So that was it. I mean, that was like 30 years ago and I haven’t looked back since, to be honest and back then there was no career, there was no industry in documentary filmmaking. I in fact applied to NYU and UCLA film schools coming out of Yale and I won the film prize at Yale.
I even won like the first ever prize for film that Yale had ever given out. They had no production facilities back then. All I could do was make my films at a public access station. And, but anyway, I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker and, and so I applied saying that to these film schools and I was rejected by the film schools. I couldn’t get in.
So now when I speak at those film schools, they often ask me, you know, what do you think of film school? And I think I don’t really know because I didn’t go to film school. But I do think that not being in film school allowed me to develop my own original style, you know, which I think you can kind of see in all my films a little bit.
Richard: What made you want to make a documentary like Last Flight Home? That was so obviously very personal to you.
Ondi: That one, you know, was more of an unconscious effort. I mean, sometimes I go and set out to make these films and sometimes these films almost set out for me to make them, you know, and it’s the other way around this one, like, like dig and we live in public, all of them, all three of those, they were just kind of bigger than I was. They were just kind of, they were, it’s almost like the film was meant to be made and I kind of came along and made it.
In this case, my father was dying and I didn’t expect it even though I should because he was 92. But we don’t talk about death and dying in our society very much, you know. And, and so I was just kind of in this denial about it. And when he said I really need to go, I panicked and I just didn’t want to forget another word. He said when we found out that there was medical aid dying in California and that he had the right to die.
I was happy to be able to help him, you know, move on to perhaps a better place, but at least to be free of his body, which he was, had been trapped in, you know, he’d been paralyzed for 40 years. So I was happy that there was a solution to him lying there for years or who knows how long with his terminal illness until it killed him. You know, as soon as he could make that choice, he had such power and agency.
It was like when returned to his sales and he was empowered again to be funny and present and happy because he knew that on this certain day, March 3rd, 2021 he could take his life and that we were gonna support him in that. And so that’s changed the course of my life. But at that moment, I was just a daughter sort of panicking, you know, it was like my favorite person in the world and I just didn’t want to forget anything that he said because I can’t really remember him from
before. I was 10 when he had that accidental stroke that paralyzed him. I, I just, my brain kind of blocks it out. I think. So, I think it was really a very deep urge. I had not to forget him. And I went to a therapist and I asked her, you know, if this was appropriate and I said, my dad’s terminally ill, he’s coming home from the hospital. He’s gonna start a 15 day waiting period in hospice.
And I feel like I need to set up cameras and I thought she’d say that it was terribly inappropriate. But instead she’s like, if you think you should film, you should film. So I called my father and he, to my surprise said, I instinctively know you’re on the right track and then he never let the cameras be turned off the whole time. And he was just, he knew what I was doing more than I knew what I was doing.
But at some point along those lines, you know, I came to realize that this was the most profound and important and greatest learning experience of my life and that it was incumbent upon me to share it. And that if I didn’t share it, I wasn’t honoring the work that I’ve been doing for 30 years, which is, you know, to go out with a camera and learn and then come back and share edit together what I’ve learned and then share it with an audience and that’s what I needed to do with this and getting my sister and her family on board for that was more challenging because nobody expected that we were making a documentary. They all kind of believed me that I was just filming him because that’s what I thought. But I did film it like a documentary because I’m a documentary filmmaker. So luckily I got good sound and, you know, I had four cameras going and when, when I, when I realized Oh my God, this is a film, by then, I had the material, I had 500 hours of footage to share. So I made up, I guess the movie is 100 and 100 and four minutes. So from 500 hours, which is not a crazy ratio. If you look at my other films, some of my films are like thousands of hours of footage down to a feature. So, wow. Yeah.
Richard: Who are some of your greatest inspirations when you’re doing documentary filmmaking?
Ondi: Well, all the great verite filmmakers of the sixties are probably my favorites just because great observational filmmaking, ver filmmaking is the, the most powerful I think form of filmmaking period if it can be done, right? Because what it does is it takes the audience and invites them into the room without any mediation or narration to really observe what’s going on there, you know.
And that’s a hard thing to do, especially these days with the amount of consciousness we have around cameras and social media and, you know, everybody is just constantly thinking, thinking about what they can post, you know, and so it’s not the same as even when I began, people were a lot more innocent about cameras, but now it’s a different story.
But I think to this day, you know, the D A Penny Bakers, the rapper Drew, you know, I won the Robert Andrew Award for excellence and observational filmmaking in November from DOC NYC. And I was literally, I was blown away. I was so honored because, you know, their films, these are the first films I ever saw documentaries I ever saw were, you know, primary, his film Primary.
That was amazing. Or Ricky Leacock films, D A Penny Baker’s films. you know, don’t look back on Bob Dylan. That was a great, great film. And so, you know, my, I think my most powerful films actually have a good deal of verite in them. I mean, Last Flight Home is almost all purely verri few, a few interviews, but basically you’re in the room, you know, and that’s what people say is that they can actually transpose their own families onto our family.
And it’s such a powerful experience to just be invited to be at my father’s bedside and to be part of the Timoner family, you know, and I think dig does that. It takes you into the lives of these two bands, you know, where we live in public, takes you into the bunker into, you know, to be in that place for 30 days with these people who have given up all of their rights just to be where it matters at the turn of the millennium and have subjected themselves to this social experiment and you’re kind of in there, you know, right in there and a lot of my films do that. So, yeah, I’d say those are the most, if I hadn’t seen it, I don’t know if I would have known to do it, you know, I don’t really look at other films to influence my work. I kind of look at the subject of the work. So if I’m making a film about someone, the style of the film will come from that or from that experience, it won’t come from other films that I’m studying.
You know, I have a much more pure relationship with my subject and that’s how I make my films. So, but these, these verite films early on without them, I don’t know where I’d be.
Richard: OK. So I, I know that you’re working on a project about the disruption of finance as according to your Wikipedia page.
Ondi: It should be updated because that film is premiered at South by Southwest in March. It’s called the New Americans. And it’s coming out, I believe in the fall or winter or, or right at New Year’s somewhere around then. And I’m not able to disclose who’s putting it out yet, but it’s playing the festival circuit, it played Mountain Film just recently, Dallas Milwaukee.
Next stop that I’m making with the film is Sidewalk Film Festival in Birmingham, Alabama. Fantastic Festival. I cannot not recommend it high, more, highly fantastic festival. If you can go Richard, you should. And it’s in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a great regional festival like I have three films. They are playing this year because of the 25th anniversary and they’re huge fans of Dig.
So they’re playing Dig, they’re playing Last Flight Home because that’s where I did the secret screening to test it. when it was a very, very rough cut years ago before the Sundance premiere before the Tell You eye premiere. I did a secret screening for 100 people there under no title with without my name, to see what, whether it was too personal or whether it was appropriate to, to share.
And, and so I’m bringing the final version back and then also the New Americans is playing there and also the Woodstock Film Festival in New York is playing. So those are the, those are the next places it’s playing. But, it’s a crazy film. I mean, it’s all about memes and the internet and if you’ve seen my movie, we live in public, it’s sort of the part two of that. It’s really looking at technology’s impact on our, on our minds, on our society, on our politics, on our finances.
And the way that we’re organizing and it’s, it’s both really positive and really negative. because the internet, like all of the most powerful things is a double edged sword. It’s equally the greatest invention of our lifetime and also what might bring us down. So, or I should say tech virtual technology, including A. I.?
Richard: What do you enjoy most about your work? And what do you enjoy least about it?
Ondi: That’s a good question. I like that. My favorite aspect is how much I learn, from the people and the subjects I delve into. It’s almost like my camera’s a diving bell and it just takes me so deep into whatever the topic is usually way far beneath the headlines to a much more three dimensional, four dimensional eight dimensional truth, you know, almost like a prism.
And I really like to take the audience on that journey and share what I’ve learned with them. But I think my favorite part is making the film. Last week I was in a hospice, the only hospice for the homeless in America. And I’m filming a, I’m making a film there. That’s what it should say on my page. If my wikipedia was updated, feel free to update it, Richard because I know you have special skills.
The movie is called the In Between All Caps. And it’s named after a place called the In between I and in between. And it’s a place where the homeless can go to either recover from surgery where they would normally be infected or unable to continue living on the streets. or they go there to die in, in a dignified manner with a loving face and not alone and in a bed and every major city in America should have one of these.
And I’ve just learned so much from the compassion, the, the care, the treatment, the people, the residents. I filmed a veteran dying last week, you know, in this place. And I was, you know, I was rocked for days by it, but I just learned a lot on a deep level, not the kind of stuff you can get from a book, you know. So, ok, so that’s what I love the most.
Oh, yeah. And what do I not like? What do I not like the most? It’s so hard, it is so hard being a documentary filmmaker. There’s an article right now as we speak about how there’s a, there’s a crisis in the documentary filmmaking world because the things that we film take such a psychological toll and we have to be really, really have the fortitude, mentally or the health, you know, the stability to really handle a lot of what it is that we’re documenting.
It’s very, very intense stuff. So there’s that aspect to it. And I think the articles in the Hollywood reporter, let’s see. Let me tell you the name of the article it is. give me one second it is. Yep. Take your time. The documentary film industry is in crisis, the unspoken traumas of the filmmaking community. I believe it’s in the holiday reporter, if you want to see it. But anyway, there’s that and then there’s just the hours the competition that the competition for, and I mean, I’m not competitive. I’m like off right now to go host a screening of colleagues of mine work that’s coming out on HBOMax’s 24 hour decade of popular music because I think the film is so great. And I host all the nonfiction films that the Directors Guild of America.
And I used to have a talk show that you can see on the internet if you’re interested in documentary film called Byod Bring Your Own doc. in which I interview a different colleague every week for hundreds of episodes from 2011 to 2016. I did this. So I’m, I’m really a person who loves to kind of spread the word about my, my film, my fellow filmmakers work and I love the community that we have.
But I it is really a competitive field now and you know, there’s a lot of fear and competition and competition for awards and it’s all built around awards and it’s, it’s all very exhausting, I guess is the word really what I wanna do is just make my movies if that makes sense. Right. Yeah, the industry is what I don’t like that much but I work my way.
I manage, you know, I’m, I, I’m not complaining. I really, I get to do pretty much whatever I want to do, but that’s just because I just go do it. Usually I just go make my movies. I find funding along the way. Sometimes I take a job but mostly I just go and make my own films. and then I sell them or I get funding along the way. So I’m not one of these people who’s always like looking for a job per se.
That’s just how I’ve always worked. I don’t mind. I mean, please call me and hire me for a job, but I, but I’m not gonna wait for the phone to ring to go make a movie if that makes sense. Right? Like I have a couple of movies going right now and then I have a script about my father and that whole experience that I’m trying to make into a scripted film, you know, because I do those as well. I would recommend Maplethorpe, the director’s cut, on Amazon if you want to see a scripted film of mine, Maplethorpe.
Richard: So where do you think your career is gonna go in the next 5 to 10 years?
Ondi: It’s a great question. I really never think like that. I never got into this thinking, oh, I’m gonna do this one day or I’m gonna win this or, you know, I just was filming and then I looked at this, I had like hundreds of tapes when I was making dig and my then boyfriend said to me, what do you, what do you do? You know, what do you want to do with your career?
And I was like, when you see all those tapes, I just wanna put them on one tape. So my thing is always just like, doing whatever the project is that I’m doing and then it leads to the next thing, just organically, you know, I don’t know. I hope I will make last flight home, the scripted version, which was called a stroke of genius. and I would really, really love to tell that story because the last flight home, you see a little bit of my dad’s career, you don’t really get to go into what it is to start an airline, you know, in the seventies and the great rise and fall that happened there with the stroke and the impact it had on our family and all of that. And, so I’ve written a script over the last eight years. In fact, those are the pages you see on his bed. And, that would be my dream is to make that film. But, in the meantime, I have a film about my sister, and this project she’s doing in Brooklyn and I have this film the in between that I’m gonna make. And, I also have a film about a I, that I’ve been making for a few years that I hope to finish called soulmate. So I have plenty of films to keep me very busy. But what do I expect? I expect more, more, you know, that I’ll make more films and probably hopefully balance it out with living a little bit more too. because I, I mean, doubling up on last flight home and the New Americans at the same time was exhausting. And so I’m due for a little bit of balancing right now, taking things a little bit more. one at a time if I can?
Richard: Ok. And last question, do you have any advice for young upcoming filmmakers like myself?
Ondi: Go do it, go make your film find something that you find interesting that you think others will find important or relevant even years from now and something that you find interesting enough that you want to spend a couple of years focusing on it and with documentary, you can go do it, make sure you have good sound, you can always replace the visuals, but you cannot capture the sound again if it’s live and happening in front of you.
So make sure you have a good microphone and and go, you know, go make a film like if you, if that’s what you wanna do, no one’s gonna just, you know, it’s like it wasn’t like I could show up in Hollywood with the sign and say I want to be a filmmaker and somebody would give me a job, you know, I just went and made movies and that’s how I got to be successful and to be where I’m, I’ve now made 10 features and hundreds of shorts, you know, I just went and made them. Sometimes I needed funding a lot of funding and then I would go and find that. But first before you find it, you’ve got to prove it, you know, so go shoot something and make a sizzle and then you could find funding, you know. But if you sit around and you write, you know, write it again, rewrite and rewrite a proposal on your computer in your bedroom, nobody’s gonna give you the funding. So get out there and do it. Well, that’s good advice and learn to edit and edit what you do so that you know what you need to shoot no better guide than being an editor to know what to do in the field. Because you’ll go, you’ll sit there and you’ll edit and you’ll be like, oh my God, I’m missing this, this, this, this and this and the next time you go out there you’ll actually capture those things.
So learn to edit. I edit a lot of my own films, usually co edit with someone else. just because it’s very, very hard long work, but I love it. The art is a documentary is a lot in the editing room. I usually joke editing is 70%. But shooting is also 70%. So if you want to be a documentary filmmaker, you need to be ready to give 100 and 40% beautiful.