LLast year I made the most personal film of my career, about the death of my father Eli. In January 2021, at the age of 92, my father was bedridden in the hospital with no prospect of recovery. My mother struggled to cope. The only option seemed to be going to a facility for his remaining months.
I’ve been a filmmaker for 30 years and I’ve always dreamed of telling my father’s story. I tend to make films about characters that I describe as “impossible visionaries”: people with a unique vision who sometimes act impossible to try to make it come true – and to resist the doubts and ridicule they bring suffer.
Sometimes that’s just a nice way of describing a megalomaniac, but I’m drawn to telling the stories of people who push the envelope because I think, rightly or wrongly, they will inspire others to to live a more interesting life, guided by their gut feelings.
In my film Dig! We see Anton Newcombe leading the band The Brian Jonestown Massacre through countless brilliant records while sabotaging any chance of commercial success. For We Live in Public, I followed Josh Harris as he spent his dot.com millions to create a live-in-social experiment in a Manhattan cyber bunker to try and reduce the loss of intimacy and privacy that would come with broadband internet.
I watched Russell Brand in Brand: A Second Coming search for a higher goal, while in my biopic, Matt Smith took the lead over Robert Mapplethorpe, the controversial photographer best known for his S&M shots and salacious flowers is.
Dad was my original impossible visionary: the most tenacious and innovative person I’ve ever known. 50 years ago he founded an airline, Air Florida, which has become the fastest growing airline in the world. One day 10 years later, at age 53, he ran six miles and chaired a meeting of 1,000 employees before going for a massage, which included a rudimentary “neck tear” to relieve stress. The procedure damaged an artery, which immediately swelled, resulting in a debilitating stroke that left Dad paralyzed on one side of his body and blind in his left eye.
He was ousted from the airline and lost everything financially. Yet his humor, resilience, and grace allowed him to live a rich and prosperous life for the next 40 years.
However, the prospect of being separated from his family early last year was unthinkable for him. After living with paralysis for so many years and never complaining, Dad desperately asked for help. We had to comply with his wishes, but how?
A few years ago I was very moved by a film by Peter Richardson called How to Die in Oregon. It followed several people who legally took their own lives as this state became the first in the US to allow it. I will never forget the final shots from outside the curtained windows as the main character said his final goodbyes and took the drink that would kill her. That was in 2011.
Ten years later, when my father suddenly asked us to help him end his life, I had no idea it had become a right in California. My brother discovered a law that allowed terminally ill patients to end their lives after waiting 15 days. We took him home to start hospice care – and started the clock. We placed his hospital bed in the middle of the living room and informed friends and family that he was leaving us on March 3rd, the date of his choice.
I felt an irresistible urge to film Dad, but I was concerned. Was I trying to use the cameras to distance myself from the fact that my father was dying? Or would it disrupt my family’s experience? I saw a therapist who told me to follow my instincts – and most importantly, my father agreed.
Filmmaking was there for me like an old friend. It allowed me to be fully present as my father’s daughter and the quarterback of his care because I didn’t have to worry about forgetting the sound of his voice or the precious and often hilarious things he said.
Three weeks after his death, we held an online memorial service. My sister asked me to make a five minute video for it. I didn’t want to touch the footage so early in my grief, but when I did I was stunned. My father lived in my editing system, but he no longer suffered either. He had the right to die on his terms and I was able to mourn with him, laugh and cry for hours, and revisit that sacred space through the objective eyes of the camera. I had a new appreciation for the infinite and magical power of film.
A week later, I delivered a 32-minute video for the memorial service. From then on I couldn’t stop editing. Going from daughter to filmmaker, I noticed that everyone who walked into my parents’ living room left it changed. They seemed comforted and strengthened by my father’s fearlessness, love, and sharp mind. Watching this – noticing it now, even though I was in the room during it – was the most transformative experience of my life.
I think one of the wonders of cinema is that the more intimate the filmmaker goes, the more relatable and touching our work can be. I invite the audience into my parents’ house without mediation or narration, which gives them the freedom to have their own personal interaction with the world in front of them — and people tell me they see their own families on screen while get to know my own .
My mother watched a version of the film I edited every day for the first year after my father died. She wanted to spend time with him. Now she’s touring the world with the film to share her man with others.
I believe a major reason for my father’s determination to end his life was that he felt he could do more to help us once he was free of his body. Now he lives in the hearts and minds, not only of his family but of strangers as well, as a beautiful vision of humanity that teaches us as much about how we live as we might die.