Podcast #108 Last Flight Home: A Family’s Experience with the End of Life Option Act in California – Ondi Timoner, Filmmaker and Founder/CEO of Interloper Films

It is not often that a film captures some of the most tender moments of a family’s experience and shares the love and lessons from a beloved man at the end of his life. Ondi Timoner didn’t set out to make this film; what she intended was to capture the last days of her father’s life. But when she reviewed the hours of film from those last 15 days, and created a 30-minute compilation to share as a remembrance, people who saw it were so touched by the experience that Ondi realized a longer film was about to be born. Ondi and I discuss: What is the End of Life Option Act in CA? Why did Eli Timoner choose “death with dignity”? What was the trajectory of his life and how did he revise his understanding of “success”? How did this experience transform those around him? What can we all take away from Eli’s living and his dying?

For more info about the film: https://www.interloperfilms.com/lastflighthome

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Transcript:

Diane Hullet: I’m Diane Hullet, and you’re listening to the Best Life, Best Death Podcast. Today I’ve got a really interesting guest, film director, Ondi Timoner. Welcome Ondi. 

Ondi Timoner: Thank you. Thanks for having me on. I’m the director of Last Flight Home. I think that’s the film of mine you want to talk about today. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah, absolutely.

Ondi, you can read about Ondi online. She’s got an enormous number of films many of them very provocative and, and, you know, digging into issues in unique ways, these kinds of documentaries, but this particular film last flight home is incredibly personal and making a huge difference. in the world for a number of people.

So Ondi and I reached out to each other. I think I first heard about the film on Instagram, something like that. And so we’re going to have a showing of this film through best life, best death on October 11th. And Ondi’s going to tell us about the film today so we can learn more. So tell us anything you want to kind of give us any background in you or how [00:01:00] this particular film got started.

Ondi Timoner: So I always, since I’ve been a filmmaker for 30 years and So I was 19 when I started and I’d say very early on, I, my motivation was to tell the story of my father. And I just didn’t ever think it would be a documentary because there was very little archival footage of his incredible story, but he basically founded the fastest growing airline in the history of the world.

And then he was handicapped by a stroke that happened accidentally as a result of his neck being cracked in a massage when I was just nine and a half, he was only 53, and he had run like six miles that morning he was in great shape. And, and so it was really, really a big turn for the whole family or lives really turned upside down and.

We can’t. We really came together around him. Mom brilliantly. You know, she had an 11 year old daughter, a nine year old daughter and a seven year old son, and she called us the T team and said, We’re the tomorrow team. We got [00:02:00] a band around dad and support him. And so we became a very close family, I think, as a result of that.

And but I was always trying to make sense of how a man who had literally been the greatest father husband leader ever. son, brother, every category. He was over and above a normal human. And I was wondering like, what is this, what sense can I make of this accident? You know? And so my whole life. As a filmmaker, I was working on this and I had a script, you know, in development for 10 years now.

And those are the pages you’ll see in the documentary on his bed. I was set up cameras purely to never forget him again and not forget a single word he said in the last 15 days of his life. He chose medical aid in dying here in California. It was a decision that came as a very big surprise to all of us.

First he was pleading with us to die. We didn’t even know the law existed. You know, I don’t think in our [00:03:00] society we talk much about death. And certainly we didn’t. And even though he was just, had just turned 92 I believed him when he’s like, I’ll be here, you know, I’ll see, I’ll see your son. I’ll see where Juki goes to college.

You know, like I just joined in the suspense of disbelief on his And when things took a turn in January of 2021, he really, he was gonna have to go to a facility instead of come home. And that was when he said, you know what, I’ve had enough. And if you love me, you’ll help me die. And I think after 40 years of being paralyzed and being the most supportive, positive person any of us ever knew, it was time to support whatever he wanted and needed.

And luckily there is this law in California. It’s a very, very compassionate law. And I didn’t even know, my brother thought he heard something about it and that we could Help dad legally instead of illegally. So we were like, okay, great. There were parameters around it at that point. It’s now a two day waiting period at [00:04:00] that point was a 15 day waiting period.

And so I panicked. I just thought, Oh, my God, I’m going to lose my favorite person in the world, the center of my universe. And I don’t know what life is like with I thought maybe, you know, I don’t know what life like is like without him. And I thought maybe like the you. The earth would open and swallow me whole.

Like I just didn’t know what was going to happen. It felt very much like uncharted territory. And so when we realized that dad could do medical aid and dying, and that there was going to be a date upon which dad was going to be able to take a medicine and leave this planet. And it was coming soon. It was probably coming within the next 21 days or something.

I cleared my calendar as a. daughter, I’m an independent filmmaker. And so I was the one person who during COVID would not be out shooting, was not away. And I was able to be there and really be the quarterback of dad’s care. But I also felt this incredibly deep urge to film and [00:05:00] I thought it might be inappropriate.

So I went to a therapist and I said, am I trying to mediate this? I, I don’t know if I’m trying to protect myself. Am I going to hurt my family? And she said, if you think you should film, you should film. So I called dad in the hospital and I said, dad, when you come home to start this process, I’m wondering if I could set up cameras.

I just don’t want to forget a word that you say from here on. And he said, I instinctively know you’re on the right track. I never knew what track I was on. I set up the cameras. to document him for personal use. I, I had four cameras and I had one in another room sort of trained on him and I put a microphone on him and on whoever was sitting next to him.

And the one camera that you see a lot of is actually in another room shooting through a door. So it was very private for anybody who was with him. The cameras were as unobtrusive as possible. I really didn’t want to [00:06:00] hurt anyone’s experience. And what was happening there was so massive and it was such a profound and sacred space that it was not distracting to really anybody it turned out.

So that’s why the film feels very much like you’re just kind of there. in the room with us and invited in to be with us. And it’s incredibly intimate and real is because people just forgot the cameras were there. Nobody really knew. And I, I’ve been, because I’ve been a filmmaker for 30 years, it was just my way to document the different angles and to have it be unobtrusive as a product of.

practicing all those years. And it was just sort of how I survived this. As soon as I set up the cameras, it felt like a safety blanket. I honestly was like not worried about forgetting anything again. And I was reading the script to him, thinking fully that that’s the film I was going to make. And I was glad to have the cameras up to record his reaction to the script as well.

You know, just kind of one last time, just getting his feedback still having no intention of making a doc [00:07:00] until. He died. And then my sister, the rabbi said, Hey, you have some footage. Would you put together like a memorial video or something? You know, maybe a five to 10 minute piece. And I sat down with the footage two weeks after dad died.

I don’t think I would have opened it that fast. And for a grieving daughter, it was the greatest gift. I was able to be with him. I didn’t, he was alive. He was laughing. He was so sweet. He was everything. I, his voice was there. His face was there. My mom in Q& A says her one advice to everybody is document.

You know, they’re like, the whole family is just so happy. To have this recording. I have 500 hours of footage. I thought I’d find a few moments for a memorial video. Instead, I stood up a week later with a 32 minute memorial video. That was not like the film that you have seen, Diane. It was a different piece.

It was more like a memorial video. But my sister was not happy about that, because she had a memorial planned, not a film screening. But she [00:08:00] showed it, and the reaction to it… Like in the zoom reception across the world, you know, everybody was tuning in people’s feelings about death had changed from seeing the film.

And it was very, very clear that it was needed that people needed and need more work like this. And I was enjoying being with that. So I just kept going and the film emerged, you know, by six months after dad had died. There was a film 

Diane Hullet: so fast. And I love Ondi that it’s like you set out to make a different movie that was more like about his success and then the change in his life through this stroke.

And instead you found yourself really making this incredibly intimate film about a family and him at the center and medical aid in dying and what that was like for your family to experience it. And I, I found it almost like. It’s so intimate to watch as an audience member. You know, you almost are like, gosh, should I [00:09:00] be here like this?

This is unfolding right in front of me. And he is so likable and so clearly loved. You know, I loved all the people. He made a list and he was like, I’m going to call all these. people and say goodbye. And you all facilitated that. And the number of people who spoke so lovingly about him, he, he just clearly had this huge sphere of influence.

And now how incredible that through this film, it’s like a whole other level of influence in terms of how people see his experience and the family’s experience. 

Ondi Timoner: It’s absolutely true. I mean, the thing is that he didn’t even want to say goodbye to those people. I mean, he just was playing along with us, giving us whatever he could.

Giving everyone whose lives he touched. whatever they wanted before he could find his own peace. And the medical aid in dying piece of this allowed him to have agency over his body for the first time since the stroke. And certainly for terminally ill people everywhere, it gives them [00:10:00] agency when they don’t have it, you know, when the body’s falling apart and they have the ability to choose the day that is crucial to their state of mind.

It gave him hope. It gave him joy. It was wind in his sails and his humor returned. He would have liked to have died immediately when he was begging us to die in late January. But as you see the night before he dies, I say to him, wasn’t it important to say goodbye to all these people? And he said, very, but look forward, don’t look back.

And the irony of all that is that. You know, he sat behind a door in a suburban neighborhood, ousted from the airline he created, you know, not influencing really anybody except his immediate family, of which he had a massive influence, which, by the way, he came to learn in those weeks. The gift of this also was that all of us got to reflect back on him, the love and the, the, the stewardship that he had taught us [00:11:00] on how to be good people.

And, and he didn’t realize that he was a success. He thought he was a total failure and that. If he had left the planet thinking that, I don’t know if I’d be sitting here right now, like I, the concept, how low he was in spirit, how little he felt his life mattered to really anybody but the few of us was unconscionable.

Like it was like not. possible for him to leave the planet. I was determined. So I set up that zoom list and those visits. And then Rachel, like, you know, my sister, we’re, we kind of make a pretty formidable team, you know, like I set up all that stuff. Then she shows up as this sort of spiritual guide and does this for Dewey with him where he’s able to release his shame.

And the shame was over losing his money and starting to realize, Oh my God, I measured my life wrong. If I measured it by love, I have wildly succeeded. And it’s like, [00:12:00] it’s sort of like, it’s a wonderful life. Like it’s, it’s, it’s a, the moral of the story, you know, is really that we measure our lives wrong all along.

And that this great man actually was was. was not a failure. He was a great success. And he started to see that with his first flight attendant, his first pilot and all of these people. And then it’s just crazy, Diane, because through the film, he has impacted so many people and continues to, you know, we’re about to embark upon a tour of the Ivy, Ivy leagues, like medical schools, divinity schools.

Law schools, you know, there’s a law called Eli’s law that’s being introduced in Congress to make sure that people have equal access to medical aid and dying in states where it is a right because right now you saw I had to put my credit card across the fence to pay for it. There’s, you know, people in Congress who have seen it that are like, this has to change because dad is such a kindly [00:13:00] tender.

funny and highly intelligent man that by the end of the film, I think you just fall in love with him. I think people just fall in love with him and they get to really look up to him. And so it’s like really hard to not understand his decision about medical aid in dying and to not like want to. want to embrace whatever it is that he wants.

And so it changes people’s perspectives on this very controversial, like ridiculously controversial, given that it’s your own relationship with your body and it’s bodily autonomy at the end of life, you know, it’s changing people’s minds about that. And that’s huge. And, and even like pulling up to his grave site you know, we’re in the cemetery for the unveiling of the gravestone.

This is like, A good year after he died because the pandemic there was supply chain issues with his gravestone. And so in Judaism, there’s an unveiling that happens and we pull up as we’re driving to the cemetery. [00:14:00] He comes on the radio. It’s on KCRW NPR. Suddenly he’s giving advice to the grandchildren and we’re pulling into the cemetery.

My brother’s car is pointed this way and my car pulls in with my mom in it. And my wife and we’re all sitting there and we’re like, wave at each other. And dad’s like a hundred feet away in a grave. Yet his voice is literally dispensing advice to across the city of LA. And I just thought, what is, what is.

Death, really, like, is it really, is he really gone? Because it doesn’t feel like that. Not when I see him all the time in movie theaters, all the time. And then people are like, I love your father. You know, I’m like, I’m so glad you got to meet him. You know, that’s the magic of film. 

Diane Hullet: That’s the magic of film.

And that’s the magic of the intimacy of this piece. And there’s also something so powerful as a, as an audience member about seeing his physicality, right? We see his [00:15:00] limitations, like right from the beginning, we see how physically what’s the word, you know, he’s, he’s. He’s no longer his physical capable self.

It was taken from him in part by the stroke. And then it’s really taken from him at the end of his life with whatever complications are happening. It’s 

Ondi Timoner: like COPD and stuff. 

Diane Hullet: Yeah. And you witness that right from the minute you first meet him in the film. And then you watch him slowly decline over those 15 days.

And it’s palpable, the sense that he’s weaker and weaker. And, you know, his spirit is still with us, but his, his body is going. And there’s this incredible scene where you kind of realize, I think you spoke with a cousin who had experience with medical aid and dying out on the steps. Is that right? A cousin.

And you say, Oh. Wait, we’ve got to make sure this is all going to go smoothly. And you start trying glasses in your dad’s hand. Sure. He can hold it. And you start experimenting with the length of the straw. And that [00:16:00] was a really, I don’t know, somehow that was very moving to me. It was, you know, it’s like taking it from the theoretical, like he’s going to need to be able to ingest this medication to the super concrete, like, well, what glass can he hold?

That’s light enough that he can get to his mouth. And it just. The way that the film kind of takes us so in such detail into what this entails and what your family goes through is just really, really profound. 

Ondi Timoner: It was just interesting because I didn’t, it’s not like I was like, okay, now I’m going to film us practicing drinking the medicine, you know, but that was something that they recommended that we do at faith and hope hospice, which is a great hospice.

You know, it just because medical aid in dying is legal in California or Colorado doesn’t mean that. You know, it’s only legal in 10 states, but it doesn’t mean that every hospice will do it or that every pharmacy will prescribe it. So it’s very, we have like a Husky, Husky interference on this podcast, [00:17:00] but she, as you can see in the film, she just comes on in whenever she likes.

She’s right there where he’s talking, doing a second doctor visit. I don’t know if you noticed, but. Here comes the dog comes rolling in all the animals, all the animals are, are, by the way, the best cutaway is just cutting to, you know, a cat. It’s a good tip. But yeah, I mean, it was like, we were just, I was just filming everything.

And that’s what happened. And, you know, I left in the end where it is a struggle for him to drink and it’s a really like, you know, somebody said to me, once your film turns into a thriller by the end and it’s like, yeah, it’s like an obstacle course and it shouldn’t be that way. It’s not fair, you know that it’s that way.

It’s really, really not fair to people who are weak and dying and first medicine slows down your heart and the second one slows down your breathing. And so now you’re, you really can’t hold the cup, you know, so it’s just a silly process that in Canada, they have a lethal injection, you know, the whole thing needs to I told [00:18:00] Congressman Scott Peterson Peters that that in Canada, it’s a lethal injection.

He’s like, well, we should be. We should be moving to that. I’m like, okay, look, there’s a lot to be done in this arena before we get to that, but I left it in. So the discussion could happen. And in California, there’s now a flavor drink so that it’s not as bitter and it’s one drink, not three. And the family member can help now.

So there’s certain things that have advanced already from the film here. So I’m glad I kept all that in. My mom was like, can you minimize that? Cause she was watching it every day for men. I mean, she was watching it last night when I called her to say hi. She was mom was watching the film. She spends time with dad that way.

So she’s watched it over 500 times, you know, and she’s like, could you maybe edit that part down so that we don’t I don’t have to see him suffering like that. It was so such hell to go through that and see him suffering. And I said, you know, mom, we got to talk about this. 

Diane Hullet: It’s so important for film goers to see that part, I think it’s really yeah, it’s, it’s just a beautiful portrait of your [00:19:00] family and, and their love for him and his courage and his bravery.

And I think, you know, there’s a wonderful book by a hospice nurse named Gabby Jimenez up in the Bay area. She’s got a book called dignity day, and she really talks about. The courage and the bravery and the struggles that a person who chooses made has, has, what has gotten him to the point of choosing this?

It’s, it’s not simple. People don’t wake up and say, Oh, I think I’m done. You 

Ondi Timoner: know, and you know, over 30 percent of people who choose it, don’t use it. They get the medicine and that gives them a feeling of power, you know, that they are lacking otherwise, a feeling that if they need to escape the fear of, of the pain.

Yeah they that that can be alleviated if need be. And, that is all that they need. They don’t need to take the medicine, but I’ll tell you as of our whole family is so grateful for medical aid and dying and I was not making this film to be an activist. I’ve become an activist after sharing the film with literally [00:20:00] hundreds of audiences and in states where there’s medical aid and dying.

There’s shared stories like ours where everyone in the family had healing closure where the person who’s dying died in a, in a, in a happier, better place than they would have without it. And in states where there’s not, or, you know, people walk up, even in states where there is but then their mother died in Florida or something, you know, and died in pain begging for mercy, and they’re still traumatized by that, you know.

It made me into an activist to make sure that we pay this forward to other families, you know, and so that’s a lot of the work that I’m continuing to do even though I’m making new films now, including one about a hospice, the only hospice for the homeless in the country. Thanks to my journey with this and looking at that, really that incredible space where life is almost like a sunset, so bright and so in focus and so just stunning.

As [00:21:00] one is facing the end. Everything that seems to matter most comes to the surface. And so it’s, it led me into this hospice for the homeless called the In Between, I N N, Between. And we’ve been filming there in Salt Lake City, Utah. And so I’m finishing that film, but simultaneously touring with Last Flight Home.

Still, we’ll be in Harvard next week, October 2nd and 3rd in Harvard. And then Yale is November 6th and then Stanford’s December 12th. So we’re adding more all the time. So 

Diane Hullet: well, I love it. I think that this film is so important and I think about the lesson, like what you’re really talking about here is how, you know, how we die is how we live and how a parent dies is, is really like the, their last legacy, their last gift to their kids.

And it’s a gift to the family. And, you know, sometimes death tears families apart. Sometimes it brings families together. It’s so complex, but how your dad went [00:22:00] towards his death and how he included all of you and how you all included each other and your mom, and just the gentleness between all of you.

Not that there aren’t a few sharp moments, but the overall kind of gentleness of acceptance, just. Really made this, you know, a quote unquote, good death, even though it’s sad, 

Ondi Timoner: even though it was, and it was hard at the end and it was not, it is a process that needs to be streamlined and made and more compassionate and can be, it’s silly, you know, we’re a couple of different veterinarians have walked up and said, we’re kinder to our pets, you know but overall, the moral of the story is, This is a right that every single human being should have.

This is a relationship between you and your body and it’s something that is only for terminally ill people. And it just, yeah, I, I agree with that with Jimenez up in San Francisco, that writer, it takes a lot to get to that point. You know, this is a man who is so tenacious and such a lover of life [00:23:00] and love being with his family.

And , you know, despite being so you know, struggling so much to walk and all of that he was, he was going to hang in there, you know, it just became untenable for him and it became very painful to be alive. And he had every right to, to go. And thanks to him being able to choose the day we all got together around him and send them off, you know, and so we’re not traumatized still we’re not, you know, and we’re able to face our lives.

And make our lives all the richer for knowing that they are finite, you know, it’s been turning away from death is turning away from life. Unfortunately, you know, we have to be able to allow our loved ones who are dying the ability to talk about it with us. And also like, let’s not, like, I think the film is as much about how to live as how to die.

And I learned all this stuff while making it. It’s not like the reason I had to make the film is because It was the most profound learning experience of my life on so many levels [00:24:00] about how to live also and , and how to support your loved ones as a family through anything, you know, like our improvisation.

Or Rachel spiritual lessons. You know, whatever happened there was so important and such a discovery for me as well that it felt almost wrong not to share it. You know, it was like I spent my career going out with the camera, learning whatever I can learn and then sharing what I learn with people. And here was this, the biggest one of all the biggest most universal every single person dies, every single person was their loved ones.

And I’m going to sit on this. You know, it didn’t feel right. And my sister was at first really, really not a fan of us sharing it. And she came around. She is, she is so happy that this film is out there. She has heard from literally thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of people. People have joined her congregation.

You know, like she had a screening there for [00:25:00] 550 people with a popcorn truck and it was against reformed Jewish law when the film came out, you know, to help a person die and they’ve changed their opinion. So it’s just, it’s, it’s been a really transformative experience, not just the losing of dad and the making of this film, but the sharing of it, you know and it just keeps continuing.

Somebody said to me, this is never going to end. 

Diane Hullet: I just love hearing this. What a blessing, right? Yeah. What a blessing. And what, what an important what an important lesson, you know, that you were able to take the super personal and make it a super universal, not really. really is awesome. I 

Ondi Timoner: think it just is super universal.

You know everyone gets to meet our family and some people say they feel like voyeurs. And I just want to say, don’t feel that way. We knowingly shared this film, you know we, We love the film and we welcome you to be in our family and see the film, but the other thing that happens is people transpose their own family on top of ours, and they get to [00:26:00] play out the end for themselves and for others.

And that is a sort of imagination therapy that allow and sometimes it’s the death that happened already, and it didn’t go well. And so many people have come up to me and been like, I have carried such pain about the death of my father or mother or husband, or my dad turned really mean at the end, you know, it was not like your dad at all, but somehow that film healed me.

Somehow it made me feel better. It’s, I asked another woman I was talking to on a podcast as a therapist. I said, why are people saying that it helps them even when they had such a different experience? And she said. It’s called imagination therapy. Like when somebody goes through a traumatic event, we often have them re imagine it going differently.

And in this case, they get to be in your family and re imagine a terrible open wound and, and heal it somehow. So that’s just, I mean, it just is like my dad’s gift to the world and it just keeps giving. And I just really hope he’s [00:27:00] right and that he’s watching, you know, I really do. Yeah, 

Diane Hullet: yeah, yeah. He said he would be looking down.

Well, your dad’s gift is your gift. So, you know, thank you for taking those 500 hours of raw film from camera angles in your parents living room and, you know, the kitchen and turning it into this beautiful film. I thank you so much for your time, Andi. And I really look forward to this showing I’m going to have on October 11th.

And invite 

Ondi Timoner: you. And say hi. 

Diane Hullet: Open to the public. So invite open to the public. 

Ondi Timoner: Great. I will. I’ll definitely come on and come on zoom and say hi. Yeah, we’ll have a 

Diane Hullet: Q and 

Ondi Timoner: a doorbells and whoever’s over here, but I’ll, I’ll be back. I’ll come join. 

Diane Hullet: Terrific. Thank you for your time and thank you for this beautiful film called Last Flight Home.

Where can viewers see this film? They can watch it with me on October 11th and listen to you add some tidbits to it, but it is widely available. 

Ondi Timoner: Yes, it’s on Amazon. If you’re an Amazon Prime, or you can just buy on Amazon, but I think [00:28:00] for Prime, it’s free and it’s on Paramount Plus. And I hope it’ll go on airplanes soon.

That was supposed to happen. So I’m going to, I’ve got to check up on that. Wow. And then on our website, we, you know, have this ongoing impact campaign and We do try to keep it current in terms of dates that are coming. So yours should be up there if it’s not. But you know, for the Harvard screening at the Divinity School that’s open to the public in Massachusetts where the law is close to turning there.

And it’s you know, at Yale, I believe it’ll be open to the public in New Haven. So keep an eye out at Stanford. It’s going to be up in the Bay Area. It’ll be open to the public. So, and it just continues to play. It plays, you know, regularly so many different synagogues and, and different community centers.

So you can kind of keep up on it on my link tree on Instagram or on the website. We do try to keep it up. And the website is actually interloper films. Is the name of the company interloper films. If you look up my name, my first name is usually enough to find a lot of stuff. [00:29:00] And then you can kind of go down the internet rabbit hole and find it there.

But yeah, a lot of people who see it want to share it with people immediately. So I think Amazon and Paramount are probably the best bets. 

Diane Hullet: So listeners can find that there or watch it with us on October 11th. And thanks again to Ondi. You can find out more about the work I do at Best Life. Best death.com.

Have a good day. 

Picture of Diane Hullet

Diane Hullet

End of Life Doula, Podcaster, and founder of Best Life Best Death.