“Last Flight Home” : Exclusive Interview with Director Ondi Timoner 

“Last Flight Home” : Exclusive Interview with Director Ondi Timoner 
Synopsis : Behind a white picket fence, on an unremarkable suburban street, we discover Eli Timoner, who founded Air Florida, the fastest growing airline in the world in the 1970’s. During his final days, we discover his extraordinary life filled with incredible success and devastating setbacks, and most importantly, an innate goodness which won him the enduring love and support of his family. Through stunning verité footage recorded by his middle child, LAST FLIGHT HOME takes audiences on a heart-wrenching ride through Timoner’s life, illustrating a modern day success story built on the power of human connection.
Genre: Biography, Documentary
Original Language: English
Director: Ondi Timoner
Producer : Ondi Timoner, David Tuner
Writer: Ondi Timoner
Release Date (Theaters):  Limited
Distributor: MTV Documentary Films


Exclusive Interview with Director Ondi Timoner 

Q: This film is about your family at a most vulnerable time. When did you decide to let your sister Rachel, brother David and mother, to get involved in this project? How do you come to that decision?

OT: Upon hearing from my father in the hospital, I was immediately desperate not to forget him. Even when he went into the hospital with breathing issues before, he made the decision to die.

He had a stroke when I was 9 and a half. I actually can’t remember anything from before that time. So I was thinking I must start recording him, even just his voice. I was recording his voice from the hospital, but of course we couldn’t go into the hospital because of Covid.

So when he decided that he needed to die, it was shocking for all of us because he was the most tenacious person I ever knew. I was desperate to follow him up somehow. I asked him if I could set up cameras. He said, “I instinctively know you are on the right track.”

But my sister was less comfortable with cameras. She was like, “Well, I prefer not to. But if this is what you want, Dad, and what you want, Mom.”

Mom was also really comforted to know that there would be something left. She said she would get on board because of that and how they felt about it. Then she made a decision. She said that the cameras should not interfere, and she forgot about the cameras. She said she never noticed or ever cared.

For me as a filmmaker, I knew that by the time she came from New York to spend the last five days with Dad, the process of filming needed to be invisible. The cameras were still there; you can’t hide that. But there was no DP. The batteries and cards and everything were in another room.

We never intended to share it as a film during the time that we were with them. We thought maybe we would do a short film to support the end of life option — to support Medical Aided Dying, as it’s called. Because we saw the agency and the strength and relief it gave our father, that he could choose when he was going to die.

It gave us all the time to really let others say goodbye to him and have closure, and also for us to convince him of how much he’d given us in his life. He was nota failure, he was not a burden. He was the provider of everything that mattered, which is unconditional love and support. He was there — he was the best dad anyone could ever hope for. So that waiting period became really, really important. But it was actually after his death that we realized we should make a film.

Q: Your father initially didn’t want to go back home because he was aware that it might break your mother mentally and physically. But after going through this process, did you find that it became a blessing because you could spend more time with your father despite Covid?

OT: I think that the Covid situation really hurt the elderly and the disabled the most in many ways, because they were so isolated. My father’s health was declining in that he had COPD and congestive heart failure which he didn’t know, actually, until he got to the hospital. That that’s what he had and breathing issues as well.

Also, he was paralyzed on the left size of his body so he couldn’t walk very well. He was so independent and desperate not be a burden to my mom that he tried anyway. Sometimes it would take him 30 minutes to get back from the bathroom; he would fight and struggle to do it, and he would fall. Once he fell, only my brother or son could get him up. He was determined to be as little of a burden as possible. But when he went into the hospital with breathing issues at the end of January 2021, Covid was still fully happening and there was no way any of us could visit him. That isolation he felt, I think, drove him to make this decision.

That’s why the movie opens with his question to me, “Am I going home or going to a facility?” He didn’t want to become a person who was shelved away in a home or facility. He didn’t want to be separated from his family.

The way that Dad survived 40 years of being paralyzed and losing his business due to a lack of protections for the disabled, and all of it — the way that he got through, literally, was by paying attention to all of us and rooting us on, celebrating us and supporting us. His focus and attention was not on himself, it was on everybody else.

He knew he would never walk again. He was told he would never walk again. And if he was going to be in some facility, it wasn’t worth living at all. So that decision was very clear at that point.

I am acutely aware of how different this picture of death is — that so many hundreds of thousands of others had to die alone during the pandemic. To me, that’s the worst, most horrific part of this pandemic: the amount of people who had to leave this earth without anyone’s touch, without their loved ones, without any closure.  And the amount of people who lost their loved ones without ever really having a chance to say goodbye.

It was really a gift that he was able to come home and do hospice with us, surrounded by family. I think one of the reasons I was motivated to share the film is because death is something we so rarely talk about, think about — it’s very uncomfortable for us.

I don’t know if that’s true in Japan…

Q: We do as well, but in Japan suicide is a very difficult subject to talk about. I don’t think I’ve see a film that’s actually been made about that. 

OT: I saw a film called “How to Die in Oregon” [Peter Richardson, 2011] many years ago. It followed a few people making this choice. But I don’t think there’s ever been a film quite yet — so I’m told — about a person inside a family, [one where] you can start the entire journey from deciding to die to actually dying. I never set out to do that.

In fact, I have a script about Dad that I’d been working on for years because I didn’t have enough archival footage to actually make a documentary. I always wanted to tell Dad’s story, literally from the moment I became a filmmaker 30 years ago. My ultimate dream was to tell a scripted film about Dad’s airline and all of that. But a documentary would have been impossible because there was only 15 minutes or so of footage at that time.

Q: When you first received your phone call from your father saying, “I want to end my life today,” what went through your mind? 

OT: I honestly think that filming it was my way of surviving. We all knew we had to support Dad in his decision. He had been suffering for so long and once he made that decision, it was, “If you love me, you’ll help me die,” and there was no convincing him of anything else.

I think [it was] also his desire to help us. He thought he could help us more if he was free of his body and was able to watch over us. It was terrifying, absolutely terrifying, to hear that my father was going to be gone in a couple of months, or even in a month. Or even that day. There’s no way to process that. Yet it’s something we all have to go through. We’re all going to lose our parents.

Actually, I’m remembering this now, I never told anybody this — but he said to me, “I’m going to die either way. Would you rather it be on a day that you know, rather than getting a phone call in the middle of the night?” I was like, “That made sense.” I immediately cleared my calendar and was able to set up Zoom calls with people to say goodbye. We were able to surround him.

My sister Rachel, the rabbi, was able to perform the Viddui with him, which is the Jewish deathbed ritual where he was able to let go of the shame he was holding so he could be lighter as he went on as his spirit left his body.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It was the most sacred and beautiful space that I’ve ever been in, and everyone in that space felt that way. Nothing mattered outside of it.

Which is why I put effort into calling the bank — as human beings, we have to pay our bills and write our emails. But none of that matters as a person nears death. All that matters is how much love you’ve engendered in the people around you. That’s it. What kind of contribution have you made to their lives, how have you impacted them? It was clear that he had been wildly successful, actually — but he felt like a failure.

Q: I heard that you lived very close to your father and mother. Were you able to go to your parents’ house often?

OT: I was there all the time. I went home to sleep, but I could ride my bike there. It takes about 20 minutes on a bike, maybe 10 in a car. Bike riding is very comforting to me because I can look at the trees, the sky and the birds. I could take in nature and realize that we are part of a cycle. It helped me to calm myself before I would enter the room again. I spent as many waking hours as possible there. I was there morning, noon and night.

First thing in the morning, I’d get out of bed and think, “I have to get over there.” I wanted to soak up every last minute of time with him.

I really didn’t pay attention to the cameras very much. I just turned them on and made sure they were in focus and were trained in the right way. If someone came to visit him, I would operate the camera. But it wasn’t like I was “making a film.” I am a filmmaker, and have a bunch of cameras. In fact, my office is behind that house. So I was able to have batteries, cards, cameras and lenses out of their sight and not a part of it. That, in fact, is how I raised my son as my son. He’s now 19 — or will be on November 1st. He’s 18 for a little while.

So when my parents moved out West, they were in an apartment building on the second floor. I saw my dad struggling up the steps and thought, “He’s going to fall down those steps. So my partner and I moved 10 minutes up the road and over by the mountains, and gave that house to my mom and dad to live in. It’s in Pasadena.

Q: How much did you research about assisted suicide? I didn’t know that three doctors assess the condition of the patient…

OT: And a nurse. Candace Carsy, the nurse, was wonderful. And Dr. Holger Bracht is the second doctor. He [spoke to] my dad on how much my father’s life impacted [on others] so generously.

I had no idea about any of this. No one in my family had any idea that we would be facing this — even that there was a law in California. Until my father asked us to help him die, he didn’t even know. He just wanted us to help him die, to kill him somehow. He was just desperate to go.

So it was revelatory to find the End- of-Life Option Act in California. My brother found an organization called Compassion Choices, and they steered us toward a hospice that would do this. Not all hospices do, not all doctors will, and not all pharmacies do it.

Actually the period of time was longer than 15 days because we had to arrange for the medicine to be sent from San Diego. I learned so much in this process about life and death, and the right to die.

We’re talking a lot these days about the rights we have over our own bodies with the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and I think this goes right along with it. You should have the right to stop your own suffering at the time you deem appropriate. It’s your body.

Yet, it’s only a law in nine states and one province here in the United States. It’s up for consideration in the legislatures of 22 states right now. We hope that this film will help to get that law passed so that more terminally ill people don’t have to suffer. That can be part of my father’s legacy [which] would be absolutely what my whole family would want more than anything.

We’re making the film available to [Compassionate Choices]. They’re at a lot of our showings. We’re opening in New York this weekend and they will, hopefully, be there. It’s a great nationwide organization, as is the organization Death With Dignity.

It was so important for my father to have that agency at the end. I really hope that it becomes a right for people here in New York where I sit now, and it’s illegal. But the process of dying that way needs to become more humane and to evolve. That’s why I left in the troubles that he had with the drink at the end. It shouldn’t have to be like an obstacle course to die. As he did prove, he was of right mind. He proved that he signed multiple times that he wanted to die. Then at the end, he had to drink a drink in two minutes or he’d go into a coma, and that pressure on him combined with its flavor was really tough.

It was a very painful process for family to see him go like that after all we had done to make it as good a death as possible. It really was — he was at so much peace — but that drink just really messed him up. I don’t [just] use the words “messed him up.” The drink was the last sensation he had in his body and it was bitter. Drinking it was almost impossible.

I think the first step is, get the law passed in other states. Meanwhile, the states that do offer this option need to be approving all the time the way that it actually happens.

Q: When your father ran Air Florida, he believed that everyone should be able to afford travel by plane, so he testified many times before Congress pushing deregulation, lowering the price, and it passed. What element did you learn about his business approach that can be applied to making a documentary film? 

OT: In general, in my life, I learned so much from him. He was my hero in the way that he treated people, his positivity. As the head of flight says in the movie,”He would say. ‘You can do it. I know you can do it.’” He had this belief in people and it inspired them. Even when the company was 3000 people strong, they all felt like they knew Dad, and he wanted to know each of their names. He tried as hard as he could because he really valued the people that he was working with and the community that he had formed. He made them into a family.

That’s why the airline grew so fast. It was very innovative, and very democratizing of the skies. Also, a lot of families were formed out of that airline. They still threw testimonial dinners to him even a few years ago when he couldn’t even go because he was on oxygen. He was on Facetime, on an iPad, with all of the former employees 40 years after the airline. And they’re still coming together and meeting. My dad was passed around on an iPad to say hello to everybody and they all thanked him for showing them what “company” can be like — how supportive and how much like a family a company can be. They all have said to me they went on to United or American or all these other airlines but nothingcompared to Air Florida. Obviously that came from my father’s spirit.

We have been working on the grave stone. Because of the pandemic, they couldn’t get it printed and make it in time. We still don’t have a gravestone on his grave. But it says ” Husband Father Grandfather Leader.” We added the word “Leader” — my son’s idea — because he was that. He led people and in a way, he’s doing that now. He’s helping us now, through this film, to look at our lives and have more compassion for ourselves and for the people around us. As he said to his grandson Atom, “Respect those you don’t know and love the ones you do.” You know the quote.

I think he did that. He treated everyone in Air Florida and every passenger with the utmost respect. He’s my hero, also because he suffered all those years, 40 years, and lost everything financially. But he held the love of my mother and our family and everyone, and held the respect of everyone around him. He never complained. He looked at whatever he could actually root for in life and focused on that — whatever was beautiful and good.

Q: How significant was it that your sister Rachel became a rabbi and could send him off at the end? 

OT: Oh, it was absolutely crucial to our whole family. It was really unbelievable to have someone that is such an incredible spiritual leader, and to have her lead us through this terrifying chasm that we were all facing together. It was remarkable. My son, Juki, said that the other day. He said that her singing at the bedside on the morning of his death was so comforting to him.

But there was so much more, whether it was leading Dad through the Viddui or leading us throughout the memorial or what the service would look like. We’re not very religious people, except for Rachel, so we didn’t really know what these Jewish customs were.

But as Dad approached death, he seemed to go from an atheist to someone who actually believed that he would be going on to watch us, and that he would see his family. He even said he was starting to see them as the days got closer. I’ve heard that now from several people who have seen people die, that they start to see the people that they love and they join again. So I wonder if the veil is lifted as we approach death. My sister’s an amazing rabbi, and she did a great job balancing both roles.

Q: During the last 15 days with your father, were there any family things that you discovered that you didn’t know before? 

OT: When my brother says, “Oh the Timoners did nothing. My father had to support them all.” I didn’t know that he felt that way. But he was such a radically honest human being, and he was funny. So he probably thought that was an interesting way to put it.

But I didn’t know a lot of the stories that were told off-camera about when he was a child in Brooklyn and how he would hang out the window and try to pick pears off his mother’s tree. Things like that, that were just beautiful. Then they moved to Long Island and he had a neighbor in the back who had horses and he would make a living feeding the horses, caring for them and cleaning the stables. He talked about how he drove this very successful businessman back to the city one day, and the man spoke to him, and how the man impacted him. Things like that.

I urge anyone who’s got a parent alive to go and gather those stories. Because it is like proof of all the history, knowledge, and wisdom — that keeps them alive in a way. So it has made me question the difference between life and death. Like, how much more alive was he in his chair, and struggling to go to the bathroom, and how dead is he now that he lives in your heart, and is actually, actively, healing people?

Q: Congratulations on winning the award at Woodstock Film Festival. 

OT: Thank you so much. I appreciate that. We had only done Sundance and Telluride, where we could not compete. This is the first time we could be considered for an award. It was very meaningful. The people who gave the award are artists that I respect very much. It was really gratifying. But any award that this wins is really my father winning it because he’s the greatest leading man anyone could have. I’ve never had a more lovable and inspiring male character in all my life.

Q: What do you want the audience to take away from this film?

OT: Well, I’m very surprised because it’s so personal, and so particular, how the audience is responding. But what I’m finding and hearing — and we all are, in the family — is that the film inspires them to actually see their own family in our family. They feel like they’re invited in. Even though it’s so particular to my family and so intimate in the details, they’re able to go through what will I do with myfather or mother? They think about the family member that they’ve lost. People have said that it inspires them to be better parents themselves.

Rachel’s sermon also beautifully summarizes what I hope: that people will look at their lives and measure them with different metrics than what our society leads us to. And all of us — even me — we have this pressure on us to make money, win a war, make a successful business, or get a certain amount of hits on the internet, on social media.

But when it comes down to the final days, none of that really matters. What matters is the people that are surrounding you, and how you feel about the kind of person you’ve been. How loving have you been? How respectful and compassionate have you been? That’s what I hope people will come out of it with. Maybe it will balance the scales a little bit in their own lives.

I hope that it will be a guide for people. It has some thoughts and ideas in there of what they could do with their own parents, and even with themselves because none of us get out of here alive.

Check out more of Nobuhiro’s articles.

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