Following the Sunnyboys' enigmatic frontman Jeremy Oxley from the band's origins, breakthrough success and his subsequent 30-year battle with schizophrenia, The Sunnyboy is one man's inspired story of survival and hope.
Director Kaye Harrison answered some questions for MIFF:
What attracted you to this project?
I am a Sunnyboys fan but that’s not what initially drew me to make the documentary. I tend to be drawn to complex topics that are not very well understood in the community. The fear and stigma that surrounds schizophrenia drew me in. I wanted to document a powerful personal story, one that would connect with a broad audience and hopefully create understanding and empathy “out there”.
Jeremy is an amazing character. He has bucket loads of charisma, is very funny and clever and was keen to tell his own story. His music and art are powerful storytelling devices. The Sunnyboys were/are held in high esteem in the music industry and they take up a special place in the hearts of thousands of fans.
I approached Jeremy at a fortuitous time. He was well enough to decide whether he wanted to participate in the film however he still had a way to go in terms of recovering parts of his life that had been lost to his illness.
The film is a very intimate portrait of Jeremy. Were you ever concerned about filming moments that were too personal?
The process of making the film was a very gradual and consultative one. We spent a lot of time getting to know each other, which was important in building trust. I got a good sense of what Jeremy was comfortable with and what was more challenging for him. If I ever wanted to take him back to a difficult time in his life, because I thought it was important for thefilm, I would explain my intent and leave it with him. He would reflect on what I had said and when he was ready would share whatever he was prepared to share. I never worried about things being too personal because of our relationship and my process. I hope that comes through in the footage!
Jeremy's wife, Mary Oxley Griffiths, features as the rock behind the front man. How long did you follow the couple in the telling of this story?
I think it was about 15 months. I would fly to Brisbane every three weeks or so and film with them three to four days at a time. We would vary it according to what was going on and how Jeremy was travelling. It was pretty intense and demanding for all of us but at the same time we had a lot of fun together and became very close.
Without Mary the film could never have happened. She helped me understand certain things about Jeremy and we worked closely together to ensure he wasn’t harmed in any way by the process of making the film. Maintaining his wellbeing was always my top priority.
The documentary deals with the serious issues of schizophrenia. What kind of research did you conduct to prepare for the film?
I did do quite a bit of reading about schizophrenia and learnt early on that it is a very complex condition, and there are many different types of schizophrenias that affect people in myriad different ways. I wasn’t attempting to make a medical film but having some background knowledge of generalised symptoms was helpful.
I was most interested in Jeremy’s subjective experience of his own life, how he viewed his past and present through his own prism. I thought that would be eminently more interesting and enlightening and would be empowering for him too.
Sometimes Jeremy didn’t understand why I wanted to make a film about schizophrenia, given that he often doesn’t feel he has that condition, but he did respect me professionally and wanted me to make the film I felt I needed to make.
What are you hoping audiences will take away from watching this film?
Although the film is harrowing at times, it is ultimately an uplifting story of survival. More often than not, schizophrenia is associated with despair however Jeremy’s story offers hope. It reveals how effective treatment, love and support can lead to a fulfilling life. I think he is an inspiration!
The Sunnyboy screens:
Pictured above: Jeremy Oxley