Ondi Timoner on Charting a Safe Passage in “Last Flight Home”

As Ondi Timoner built a reputation for gaining unbelievable access to her subjects, disarming members of the feuding Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols for one of the great music docs ever in her debut “Dig!” and then finding her way into a prophetic portrait of the Internet through one of its earlier pioneers Josh Harris, it had to be frustrating to know that one of the best stories she knew of was all but impossible to tell. She had dreams of making a film about her father Eli, a swashbuckling entrepreneur who dared to take on the monopoly that kept airline fares prohibitively expensive in his native Miami by starting one of his own in Air Florida, but there was less than a half-hour of archival footage to be culled from news reports from the time and part of what made the story so remarkable was also what would complicate things when Eli suffered a stroke at the age of 53, leaving him partially paralyzed and unable to carry on as the company’s CEO.

“When people would say, ‘Well, you should make a documentary about your dad, I’d say I just don’t have the footage,’” says Timoner. “So I wanted to make a scripted film where I could bring him alive and take everybody through the adventure of having an airline and I’ve been developing that film for years.”

Timoner still would like to make that film, but she would end up documenting what a special person Eli in an entirely different way in “Last Flight Home,” chronicling his final days in the spring of 2021 when chronic pain that made even speaking difficult led to the decision to end his own life. If the measure of a man is those who surround him as he passes, Eli couldn’t have any greater stature as former employees and caregivers stop by to pay their respects and along with his wife Lisa, his children are all uniquely suited to ensure his legacy and ease his transition when Ondi is there to capture how loved he is, his other daughter Rachel tends to any religious matters as a rabbi and his son David handles any business affairs. However, as Eli receives visitors, one is treated to the thoughtful and feisty person that remains inside a failing body, eager to share plans of how reparations for Native Americans could work with the Biden Administration and sneaking in dirty jokes.

None of this might’ve been filmed if Timoner hadn’t wanted to run some things in the script she had written for a potential dramatization of his life — as she explains, “one of the other reasons why I wanted to set up cameras was to get his response to the material without having to write anything down” — but the director finds in “Last Flight Home” that the generosity Eli showed throughout his life extends to participating in a moving chronicle of how his family comes to peace with a choice that will allow him to die with dignity. Ironically, if it carries the same unflinching quality of Timoner’s other work, it may be because the director wasn’t conscious of the fact that she was actually making a film until after her father had passed and as she recalled recently as the film begins to open theatrically across the country after its premiere at Sundance earlier this year, the process of healing and putting together a feature that could ease the grief of others were one in the same.

Even though you set up cameras, this never seems intended for public consumption. At what point did it become a film for you?

I didn’t set out to make a film — even in editing, I still wasn’t making a film. I was editing a memorial video with the footage I recorded and my sister thought it would be five to ten minutes long. She got really upset that I made a 32-minute film in a week, but there was just so much beauty in that footage. My father was alive in the footage and he had died two weeks earlier, so [through] the magic of film, there he was. And I just was cutting and cutting and when the memorial video showed on March 21st, the reaction to it was profound. It was nothing like the movie. It was some visits, some Zoom visits and there was an obituary my brother had written and voiced and I put some footage to it, so it was more like a memorial video, but the footage of [Eli], people were not only moved by seeing Dad, but they also were experiencing their own families and their own parents and their own grandparents and their own death. It seemed to make them look at their own lives, so I was like, “Gosh, I kept thinking maybe I should just keep going.”

[The feature film then] came through me. It was the fastest edit I’ve ever had on a movie —  within a couple months, there was a feature — and it was many, many late nights of crying and laughing with my father, seeing the process [of dying] because I was right by his side. There was no [cinematographer]. I just set up cameras and made filming as seamless as possible because I didn’t want to interfere with my family’s or my father’s experience. I was just trying to bottle him up. But looking at the footage after — I was in shock at the time and I was committed to try to convince him of what a life he had led and what a gem of a human he was — that looking at it from the perspective of a camera was a new dimension to look at this and grieve. I saw aspects of my father, but also people grappling with death, coming to see him and say goodbye. It was fascinating to me.

One of the things that was deeply moving to me was seeing how you were able to bring everyone into the film — you feel as if everyone is making a contribution to having this experience of passing on to go on as well as it possibly could. Did that come organically?

I’m very proud and I feel extremely grateful for the family I was born into. My immediate family has always been so, so close because we were bonded by fire. When my father had a stroke, it was July 10th 1982, I was nine-and-a-half, my sister was 11, my brother was 7 and my mother, an awesome human being in so many ways, established the T-team at that moment and said, “it’s going to be okay and we’re going to fight together.” Because I think people [outside our family] were really uncomfortable. My father had been a big, big leader in the community in Miami, he had founded the fastest growing airline in the history of the world and he was a patron of the arts. He was on the board of everything down there and suddenly he was 53 and incapacitated. People didn’t really know what to make of it. Some people stayed close, but a lot of people turned their backs – the black tie invitations stopped rolling in and I started learning that security is an illusion.

So when everybody started coming through the door 40 years later and bringing their A-game, it was like the T-team was back. Being around and loving Dad is the most important thing, sticking together, and I honestly don’t know that I’d be making documentaries right now [without him]. I don’t know if my sister would be a rabbi. [His stroke] was such a formative moment in our lives where the world looked upside down and [now I] felt like I was watching a reunion episode of some private superhero family where we were just kind of like okay, we’ve got this. Having a Rabbi in the family was just like wow. Rachel led us so beautifully and she brought so many incredible rituals and my son has told me since that Rachel’s singing on the day of our father’s death was everything to him. That kept him so centered. My brother is like my father. He’s just the rock, [and now he’s] caring for my mom and he just takes care [generally] and he loves doing that and my dad loved that, so it was really touching to me to see. I think a lot of families break apart and splinter at times like this and [there were things] I knew that I filmed [Eli] making the turkey [for Thanksgiving] and of course, I went and then found Juki as my son with the turkey because I had this dream if I could do a match cut from their hands to the hands on the turkey, how precious that would be and what a simple and concise way to show the depth of their connection, so [it was] digging around for stuff like that.

Does having a camera with you give you license to ask questions of the family or people around Eli you might not have otherwise had?

For me, it was my way to survive this and I wasn’t thinking about questions per se. Of course, I interviewed my mom and my brother and I’m always curious about that stuff, but what I love about a camera and why I’ve been married to a camera my whole adult life is because it does lead me into worlds that I would never otherwise enter. It allows me to be very, very present and when I train a camera on somebody or something, I’m paying attention to every particular detail. I love that about being a filmmaker, but never before in my life has filmmaking been there for me like this, [where] it allowed me to survive the loss of my favorite person in the world. And I think part of it is I forget my dad before I was nine-and-a-half, so I always want to remember. If I really appreciate something, I always take a picture of it or I film it so I can remember it, so that’s why I set up cameras in this case.

But in the editing process, I really got an extraordinary gift in the ability to grieve. It was honestly the best use of my doc skills yet, just filming my father at the end, and now it’s something I can share with you that might help you in your journey because it’s a universal chasm we all have to cross, right? We all have to lose our parents and we all have to eventually die ourselves, and [there was] also what he struggled with personally with judging his life on these metrics that are superficial ultimately. There was nothing he could do about losing the airline and the fact he couldn’t provide for us financially made him [after his stroke] feel like a failure, but my dad put deregulation through the Congress so he could charge $59 to fly from Miami to New York or $120 to fly to London, and his employees loved him. They still had testimonial dinners up until a couple of years ago and everyone was rooting for what they called the Battle for Britain and all the employees would get [petitions] signed and get flights to Hawaii – there were so many families started out of Air Florida and people falling in love in the crew.  So it’s important to see a version of a life so well-lived, so successful for all the things that really matter – the love he engendered in his family and everyone he touched – and [recognize] we can all try for that. We should all aspire to being that kind of person to the people around us.

“Last Flight Home” is now open in New York at the IFC Center and opens on October 14th in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and the Laemmle Glendale.

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