Interview: Kaye Harrison and The Sunnyboy Documentrary
Big Sky Wire
Interview by Andrew Kidman
Filmmaker, Kaye Harrison has spent the last 18 months documenting Jeremy Oxley’s battle with schizophrenia. For Kaye, the filmmaking journey began as a study of the widely misunderstood disease – her quest led her to Jeremy.
As a teenager Jeremy was one of the best young surfers in the country, winning an Australian Schoolboy Surfing Title in 1976. “He was so fast and loose, nobody could touch him,” fellow competitor, Bruce Lee told me last week in the water.
Of course, Jeremy would go on to front one of Australia’s great bands the Sunnyboys. In the 80s the Sunnyboys shone like no other: mixing pop and ruin with punk and the introspective, lyrical meanderings that flowed from Oxley’s troubled mind. It was a powerful and thought provoking combination, destined to implode. The Sunnyboys disbanded in 1984, four years after they formed.
Last weekend at the Coolangatta Hotel the original Sunnyboys line-up (Jeremy Oxley - Guitar/Lead Vocal, Peter Oxley - Bass/backing vocal, Bil Bilson -Drums & Richard Burgman – Guitar/Backing Vocals) played to a home crowd for the first time in 21 years. Love for this great band has not waned, the venue reporting record ticket sales for the two shows. The music was as good as ever, a force joined and realised once again through the performance of their great songs - Jeremy’s guitar playing was tight and on edge as he worked through his timeless melodies, his unmistakeable voice deeper through age and tonally sound. It was a beautiful return to witness. A return documented in Kaye Harrison’s film Sunnyboy.
Sunnyboy premiers this weekend at the Opera House in Sydney, followed by a live performance by the Sunnyboys.
Andrew: Were you a fan of The Sunnyboys? How did you come across Jeremy’s story? What made you want to make a documentary about his life?
Kaye: I was a fan of the Sunnyboys but I was a bit too young to go and see them. I just missed out unfortunately! But that wasn’t what led me to make the film.
Twelve months before contacting Jeremy I started developing my third film. I decided to focus on mental illness and thought the most stigmatised and least understood condition of all had to be schizophrenia. I tried various ways to approach the topic but it was quite difficult to find participants who wanted to be a part of a documentary and could engage a wide audience. Coincidentally a friend of mine contacted me around this time telling me of Jeremy’s story, thought it would make a great documentary, I had to agree! I contacted Peter Oxley, sent him copies of my work, had a chat and then he put me in touch with Jeremy and Mary (Jeremy’s partner). A few months of emailing backward and forward and finally we met.
Andrew: Watching The Sunnyboys perform the other night in Coolangatta was incredible, they were super tight and had a lot of energy, it could have been in their hey day. As I watched them I was thinking that Jeremy won an Australian Surfing Title just across the road from where they were performing at Duranbah. And now he’s a 50 year old man, back fronting one of Australia’s great bands. It struck me the different lives we live within our life. It must have been a really interesting journey, looking at Jeremy’s life, were you able to talk about this stuff with him?
Kaye: Jeremy’s life is so interesting, not only because of his battle with mental illness but also because of his incredible abilities as a musician and song writer, as a surfer in his early years, as a writer and an artist. Jeremy has so many ways to express himself that are great story telling elements for a documentary filmmaker.
Andrew: Were you able to talk to him about his memories of surfing and playing with the band?
Kaye: The surfing title as I understand it was the U19s Australian Schoolboys Surfing Championship in 1976. He was 14 at the time. Peter describes him as pre-pubescent, quite a little guy surfing against grown men.
We talked about many things. Mostly I just took him to different periods in his life and if he had something to share then he would. I was aware that there would be painful periods that he might not want to recall so we just took these periods carefully. I only asked him about these darker times if I thought it necessary for his story and explained my reasoning. He was very understanding of my process and tried to help out where he could. Sometimes it just didn’t feel appropriate to go to some areas. I felt a duty of care to Jeremy throughout, it was important that he not be harmed by the process of the filmmaking in any way.
Jeremy told me that when he was 14 he used to go surfing everyday, he used to just love it! He would sit on the shore and study the waves before entering the water, working out the best way to ride them. He seemed to have a sensitivity to the way the water moved and how he would interact with it.
Andrew: Tim Pittman told me you have some great surfing footage of Jeremy from when he was young, how did you find that?
Kaye: Jeremy’s parents remembered that an old family friend Dick Perry had taken some footage of Jeremy during this period. Over the years they had lost touch with the Perry family. I tracked down Dick’s son Jody Perry through Facebook. Eventually I met up with Jody who had sorted through rolls and rolls of 8mm film to narrow down the footage to about 6 rolls. We had the films transferred and much to my great delight, little Jeremy appeared. I made copies for Jody, Peter Oxley and Jeremy who all identified Jeremy in the footage.
Andrew: How did you go about making the film?
Kaye: I filmed with Jeremy over an 18 month period. I live on the Central Coast and he lives in Brisbane. I flew up every 3 or 4 weeks and filmed for a 3 day stretch at a time. I worked very closely with Mary to work out the best approach, ever step of the way. Mary understands Jeremy better than anyone and he depends upon her to keep him well and happy. It made perfect sense for me to be guided by Mary to ensure his well-being was protected. There were times when I thought it necessary to take Jeremy out of his comfort zone in order to tell certain parts of his story. I just needed to explain to him what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it and give him the time to process the information and the option to not go ahead. More often then not we could proceed and he was central to the decision-making.
Andrew: What was it like personally watching him reconnect with his brother and band?
Kaye: It was an amazing experience to watch Jeremy reconnect with his brother Peter and it happened over a long period of time. It forms a substantial part of the film so it’s probably better for you to see it rather than me talk about it. On a personal level though, I thought it was very moving.
As far as reconnecting with the band, it’s like the 21 years had never happened. They just came together musically so effortlessly. No doubt because they are all professionals but also I think because they have an incredible bond which was formed in the early 80s which time could not diminish. Jeremy knows he can trust these 3 guys and that was vital for him to be able to make the brave decision to return to the stage.
Andrew: Was Jeremy getting joy out of the experience?
Kaye: I would say Jeremy got joy out of the experience of making the film. The three of us had a lot of fun together and he did like hearing about what other people thought of his music. At the start of the filming he was sure no one remembered the Sunnyboys so it was good for him to hear that there was a lot of respect and love for him “out there”. I’d also have to say the filming was difficult for him and painful at times. I did try to minimise the pain but I also knew that unless the audience had some glimmer of understanding the pain he experienced they couldn’t empathise with him nor appreciate how far he had come.
Andrew: Could you give us any insight into what a person suffering from schizophrenia might encounter on a day-to-day basis?
Kaye: Everyone’s experience of schizophrenia is different, there are a multitude of schizophrenias. It is a very complex condition. I just tried to document one man’s experience but did it in a way where the condition is just one element of who he is. What I can say is schizophrenia is not a split personality disorder, which is a commonly held myth. The schism (or cut) refers to cut from reality. The condition is normally associated with confused thinking and mood disorder. Some common symptoms which most people know about schizophrenia include hallucinations, could be visual or auditory (hearing voices), delusional beliefs. Other symptoms which are less visible include lack of motivation, lack of empathy. Some people have insight into their condition (accept they have it) and others don’t.
Andrew: How does medication help schizophrenia?
Kaye: There are all types of different medication for the treatment of schizophrenia and the dosage varies according to a number of factors. Because everyone’s experience of the condition is very individual, so is the treatment and use of medication. It can take a while to get the “right” medication in the correct form and amount. The process takes a long time, can take many months for the condition to stabilise.
Of course everyone’s experience of anti-psychotic medication is different and I am wary of making any generalisations. Just to give a little insight, some medications help slow down the bombardment of thoughts, over supply of auditory and visual stimuli so the person has time to process information, understand what is actually happening around them and respond appropriately. It helps keep them in the world with other people.
Andrew: How has Mary’s relationship with Jeremy been pivotal to his recovery?
Kaye: Mary’s relationship was pivotal for Jeremy’s recovery. She saw the true Jeremy within. She could look beyond the outer shell, past the behaviour that most would find off putting. She approached him with respect, asked nothing of him, didn’t judge him, listened to him and slowly he began to trust her. Their relationship developed slowly over time and they gradually grew to love each other. Jeremy always wanted the love and security of a family life, Mary had twin 10 year old boys at the time. In order for him to be part of that family he chose to trial medication. It took a long time but very slowly the medication began to help him with his thought processes and the love and security offered by Mary and her sons Lachlan and Kieran helped heal his soul. The two elements were essential for his recovery.
When I say recovery I don’t mean he is cured. He will never be cured but he has recovered significant parts of his life.
Andrew: What are the plans for this weekend at the Opera House? It’s an amazing journey to find the film premiering there.
Kaye: Opera House – just screening the film. Hopefully I can sit down and enjoy it, enjoy experiencing an intensely personal experience with 1300 interested family, friends and devotees!
More can be found on the documentary screening this weekend at Sydney Opera House and The Sunnyboys gig at these links:
Big Sky is the property on which Andrew Kidman and Michele Lockwood live with their two children in Northern New South Wales. Once a week they speak to writers, photographers, surfers, artists and musicians for Coastalwatch's Big Sky Wire. To follow Andrew Kidman's film celebrating 40 years of Morning of The Earth, head to the Spirit of Akasha blog and to check out Michele Lockwood's blog click through here.
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