Documentary filmmaker Kaye Harrison (pictured, left) speaks to Larry Heath about her new film, The Sunnyboy. Premiering at the Sydney Film Festival on the day of The Sunnyboys Opera House concert for VIVID, the documentary follows frontman Jeremy Oxley’s life, music and thirty-year battle with schizophrenia.
Last week, I interviewed Richard Burgman [The Sunnyboys] about the concert. It’s going to be an exciting day; something appropriate for the première of the film. I know when you started making the film, you didn’t know they were going to get back together. How do you feel about that coming full circle?
There was no understanding or feeling that was going to happen at all. That wasn’t what drew me to the topic in the first place, but the timing was fortuitous. I came in at a time when Jeremy was well enough to make a decision to participate in the film, but still had quite a way to go in terms of reclaiming certain parts of his life: his relationships, returning to a career in music, bringing the band back together. That happened over a fifteen-month period. It’s a story of hope, which I think is exciting, because normally mental illness isn’t associated with celebration or hope. I think Jeremy’s story is a really inspiring one. He’s risen above his condition in order to survive and return to his career in music.
What did you learn about him?
I learnt he’s a very, very simple person who wants love, companionship and understanding, like all of us. He also has a very complex side because of his illness, and because of his talent as a musician. I guess there’s a paradox between a very simple, down-to-earth, humble person who also has another side where he has great charisma, people are drawn to him and his music’s very complicated and interesting. He’s been described as a genius. The paradox between the two elements is how I’d describe him, which is interesting.
It’s been a really complex film to put together, but I think it’s really engaging. People who don’t even know who The Sunnyboys are – God forbid! – and people who don’t care for music are still going to be able to engage with him as a person. He really opens up the whole subject matter of mental illness; not because he thinks he’s an advocate for mental illness, he’s just being himself. I think that’s fantastic.
I was told you were there in the room when he made the phone call to get the band back together for Dig It Up, the Hoodoo Gurus invitational concert, last year. Was that something that pushed him forward?
It’s a pivotal moment in the film actually, and I think you’ll see it wasn’t just one phone call. It was something that evolved over time, and had a lot to do with him being reunited with his brother. He wanted to do it [Dig It Up] his way. He was well enough to make that decision and they all wanted to support that, because it showed how far he’d come and was a signal that he was recovering, reclaiming his life and stepping up. It was a big moment.
He wanted to be with the guys because they’re the ones he trusted; they’re the ones he knew. They were part of his childhood and people he could depend upon. It was a very uplifting moment, I think you’d have to say. It was not only him stepping forward but the others having faith in him, because they hadn’t played together in twenty-one years. They had three days of rehearsal and that was a big leap of faith for them, but they’re all professionals and it all came together. Amazingly! (Laughs)
Did it surprise you at all?
For Jeremy to go out on stage like that was pretty amazing. I suppose it surprised me in that it happened sooner than I thought it might. When I started making the film, I didn’t hold out any hope that it was going to happen, because of where he was at the time. I had no expectations.
Were you surprised by how well it went?
No, not really. Not once I saw them together on the first day of rehearsal, because I knew they were all pros and Jeremy just rose to the occasion. He was incredibly strong, incredibly calm. If you had asked me at the beginning of making the film, I would’ve been surprised, yeah. It evolved slowly. It was very much dependent upon his relationship with Pete [Oxley], so that’s really what the film is all about.
It started out as a film about illness and one man’s struggle with it.
It was his life story and however he saw his illness. He has his own view on schizophrenia and whether he has it or not, and that’s part of his condition.
Which is what makes it so complicated.
Yes. My role as a filmmaker, in making a documentary about something he doesn’t believe he has, is part of the film as well. I wanted to honour his story. I didn’t want to say, “This is a film about someone with mental illness”. I wanted to honour Jeremy Oxley’s story, and whatever was important to him. His art, his painting, his song writing, are all part of how he expresses himself.
With the National Disability Insurance Scheme coming in, there’s a debate that more should be done for mental illness. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s unfortunate that people don’t often get help until they’re at crisis point and it’s acute care. That’s what happened with Jeremy. He had a very painful time because of lack of access to mental health services over the years, but also because he didn’t want to access those services. It’s very complicated. A lot more money needs to go into mental health, that goes without saying.
The Sunnyboy will be screening at the Sydney Opera House on the 2nd of June, and Event Cinemas on the 8th of June. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.sff.org.au/