“I Was Just Desperate to Bottle up My Wonderful Dad Somehow”: DP Ondi Timoner on Last Flight Home
After a patient in California makes a Death With Dignity request, there is a 15-day wait until that request can be filled. Ondi Timoner’s Last Flight Home was filmed during that period, when Timoner’s father said his final goodbyes to his family. As Timoner, who also served as the director of photography, describes, she attempted to be as unobtrusive as possible while filming, but her footage captures the pain of losing a loved one, as well as the solace a family finds in itself in such moments.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Timoner: I wasn’t hired; I had to step into the role because it was extremely private and all of this happened very fast. Last Flight Home is about my extraordinary father, Eli Timoner, and our family as we gather around him during the last weeks of this life to celebrate his life and help him die.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Timoner: There is inherently a new level of intimacy and authenticity in the footage because we are filming sacred and extremely vulnerable moments which have never, really ever, been shared with an audience before. My father and family trusted me to record everything, and because we were truly so stunned as the days unfolded, we could do nothing more than move through them with as much love and awareness as possible. It’s almost like we captured all of us walking on the moon in my parents’ living room. We are quite literally in the room as a family comes together and works as a team to face the vast unknown together and prepare our most precious family member, the trunk of our tree, for this final, mysterious transition.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Timoner: I have shot most of my documentaries for the last thirty years, but I actually never expected to turn the camera onto my family until my father decided to end his own life in late January 2021, setting in motion a mandatory waiting period under California law. I was just desperate to bottle up my wonderful dad somehow, and this was the only way I knew how. He was my best friend, my greatest pal and champion and the most inspiring person my family and I—and most of our community—had ever known.
I looked at no references. I set up cameras in the hopes that they would disappear, and I tried to remain present for my father and family with every cell of my being. When it came to the final day of my father’s life, I asked a DP I worked with on Coming Clean who has a calm and sweet presence, Turner Jumonville, to help me capture the end because I knew I wouldn’t be able to. He came to meet my parents several days before, and we went over what we thought would happen, and he did a beautiful job on March 3rd. I am very grateful.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Timoner: There was no pre-production, no set up time, no roadmap, schedule or even camera team. When my father decided to end his life, I was quite suddenly catapulted into documenting this experience as unobtrusively as possible—setting it all up in a way that would cause the least disruption of anyone’s experience, including mine. I put a lavalier mic on dad and anyone who came to visit him. Still, I didn’t know that I was making a documentary while I was shooting this film. I was fully immersed in caring for my father while also soaking up every last minute I could have with him. As the days progressed, me and my small team—which consisted of a couple of young people who work in my office, a couple of dear friends and my partner, Morgan—fell into a rhythm of changing batteries, lenses, checking cards and adjusting angles, ISO and focal length to capture incredible, unprecedented moments as they occurred.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Timoner: We shot with Canon C300, C100, 5D, 80D, and iPhones. I love and always use the 70-200mm lens, the 18-135mm lens, the 24-105mm and then an assortment of primes. I normally shoot Super 8mm and Super 16mm film whenever possible, but there was no time or really consciousness about this experience as a production. However, there is a little Super 8mm film in Last Flight Home, which I recorded previously with my sister, Rabbi Rachel Timoner, for another project we had been making together before this.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Timoner: I couldn’t light the film as I would normally. I didn’t want anything to affect my father or any family member negatively. The most I could do was bounce a couple of Dedo lights off the walls and ceilings to add light to the room.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Timoner: It was of course extremely difficult and painful to film my father’s death, but over the course of his final 15 days, I observed the comfort and peace it brought both him and my family to be able to know the date he would be departing this earth. I felt it was vital to document this experience for my family but was wary about publicizing something so extremely private. I simply decided to film it as unobtrusively as possible with minimal production equipment, setting cameras on sticks—multiple at once—and placing them in the best spots from which to capture the experience we were collectively having.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Timoner: After my father’s death, I went outside and filmed some of the goings on in the neighborhood and the beautiful nature surrounding their home in Pasadena, California. These shots are really important to relaying the transcendent subject matter of life and death and the mysteries that lie between the two. I pushed the color—especially the green—in these shots and otherwise aimed to go with a cold blue look when my father is in the hospital at first and much warmer tones when he returns home and begins hospice.