November 7, 2004|Petite, pretty, and irrepressible, Soleil Moon Frye (pronounced "So-Lay," like the Cirque) is probably still best known to folks of a certain age as Punky Brewster, though a memorable cameo on "Friends" as the girl who punches Joey a lot (ah, wish fulfillment) may have provided her a new pop-cultural brand for that generation. Soleil, though, is looking to make her mark as a filmmaker, and judging from a pair of documentaries she helmed, she might have the chops to do it. In person, Soleil Moon Frye is a bundle of energy whose emotions are ever close to the surface. And so when we sat down to talk about her documentary, Sonny Boy, which screened at the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival last month, her demeanor was serious--intense, even; as we spoke in detail about the tragedy of our health-care state and the reticence of our leadership to affect change long-in-coming, she would lift off the sofa to perch in the space between us. Sonny Boy captures a two-week trip that Ms. Frye took with her father, Virgil Frye--he, stricken with Alzheimer's Disease, looking to reconcile with a daughter from whom he'd spent much of her life estranged, as well as to revisit the places of his life before his memories of them are swallowed by the long night of his affliction.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: So, stem cell research.
SOLEIL MOON FRYE: Total support of it. There are millions of people affected by Alzheimer's, by other forms of dementia, Parkinson's, spinal cord injury... It's so needed. I just went to an event, a kid's diabetes society, little kids having to prick their fingers hundreds of times a year--and the idea, the reality that there's a solution possible to us if we only dedicate ourselves to research. It's so necessary--beautiful children, adults, my husband's grandmother, his father, sitting at dinner with them... The fact that there's access to this kind of research that we're not taking advantage of because of some sort of antiquated, insanely rigid moral dictate...
...They're not even aborted fetuses that we'd be harvesting.
That's exactly right, there are thousands upon thousands of zygotes that are in freezers at fertility clinics--and what's their fate? To be suspended in perpetual storage and subject to eventual disposal.
And you'll never hear a right-wing neo-conservative suggest that the practice of alternate forms of conception vis-à-vis these fertility clinics should be banned.
Exactly right. They would never say no to a young couple wanting to have a baby, but the Pro-life party is pretty cavalier about life after birth, aren't they? How can this be preferable to a medical breakthrough? Discoveries that can enrich and enhance the quality of life and longevity? It seems like life is inviolate until birth and then they want to enforce policies of executing minors--of executing anyone. They don't care about social programs and they're not too concerned, either, about age-related diseases that could be remedied by this kind of research.
There's a moment in your film when you talk to a neurologist...
Yeah, we're talking to the doctor and he asks, my dad asks, if there's anything that can be done to bring him back, and the doctor sort of hems and haws and says, "Well, we're doing research and this and that," and I could see my father realizing that even if we get there starting now, it's going to come too late for him. It tears families apart, Alzheimer's. When I set out on this project, I wanted to explore my relationship with my father, you know. We weren't close, estranged for a lot of my life, and I realized as he was suffering from this disease that I didn't know him at all even though he lived this really full, colourful life. I realized that if I ever wanted to know him, I had to do something like this--to try to reconcile my memories of him with his memories of me, and to, you know, kind of reintroduce myself to him and get to know him in turn. A last chance because I saw how quickly his condition was advancing.
By making a film of that process, there seems a sort of interesting resistance to temporariness.
I thought of that. Those memories have to live on through me and that burden was heavy for me to bear, but with a film, a documentary of not only that time that we had together, but of the progress of his disease and, eventually, of the wider impact that this disease, in this one man, would have on dozens of people in our scattered, dysfunctional circle--all of those things were important to me to preserve, to share.
I think it's evocative as a reflection of the emptiness, too, of America: this collective recoiling sense of loss and absorption.
I really hoped for that. I feel like I changed so much during this journey--and one of the things I learned most was that in those days with my dad, there wasn't the past he could look to anymore, and he wasn't looking forward either to any viable future. All that he had was his present. And there's something about the United States in that, at this moment, on the verge of this really scary election, that so many of us seem to have forgotten, or want to forget, the recent past--can't imagine what the future might hold for us. Everything is strange in our world now and that's definitely true in large part for my dad. But what he taught me--and this is switching gears just a little bit--is the importance of, I guess, seizing the day. (laughs) It's a beautiful thing if you can find it, to be in the moment. It's a nice refuge from our reality that I try take sometimes--to free myself to dance, to love, you know, and leave all the scary stuff for tomorrow.
Dangerous to fall in love with that kind of bliss.
That's really true, and that's the tragic aspect of my father's condition, really, is that he has moments of clarity and then long stretches of denial, and I wonder if, again, that doesn't say something about where we are in America and why we might be in the sort of pickle that we're in.
You leave yourself pretty vulnerable in the film.
It was the only way to do something like this. What's the point otherwise, right? But also there's the reality that if there's even a moment that's not authentic in the film, audiences will hone in on it and suddenly everything else that you have to say is suspect. Above all of it, though, is that if there was to be a document of these two weeks, that it had to be true. I told my DP to roll the camera and that if I said "cut," not to cut. The fight that I have with my father in the film, that moment where everything just sort of welled out of me from years and years of holding it in--a friend of mine was in the corner playing with the camera and my DP heard the yelling and came running. When I saw it in the editing room, I was terrified. I mean, really terrified. I didn't want to keep it in there, your first instinct when you're confronted with the bathroom mirror, you know, is to cut it out. But as scary as it is, you know, you have to keep it in there if you want to keep it true.
Is there a quieter, less obvious moment that you found as terrifying that you also kept in?
That's a hard question. It was all hard. (laughs) I will tell you that there was this thing that I asked my dad, I asked him what he dreamt about and he said, "I can't remember what I remember." That's haunted me. There's something so obvious about that even as it's so elusive. And there's this glaze that comes over him, you know, this thing that's elusive just like that about him now that comes over him sometimes and yet there's something so vital about him at the same time--I can still see him in there. There is the possibility to rediscover each other. It's really hard because after that confrontation in that film, that was really the turning point for me, even when after the journey was over he didn't remember it--it became this moment for me where I understood with this clarity that what I was doing with this film, with filmmaking in general, was providing another set of eyes for people to look through the same way that I was seeing this moment through my eyes and then my DP's eyes and then as a surrogate for my father, as well.
The film is shot in a way that suggests that you know what you're doing behind a camera and at the editing table: mixed stock, soundtrack, montage... What's your background?
You know, I just want to keep on making movies. This medium, this forum has been incredible for me. As a kid, especially a teenager, I took a camera with me everywhere I went and it was my diary. I shot my friends, holidays, dinners, breakfasts, any moment--hanging out in parking lots. I love, I love human beings, studying them. I have hundreds of hours of footage from that time in my life, friends that I still have, friends that have died. I have a love for film and what it can do, a real respect for it--I learned a lot from that, just playing around. It was really important for me for this project to use multi-stock to sort of demonstrate in a visceral way how fragmented his mind had become--how his mind seemed to be working and how his perception was shifting from the past to the present to the past again. There's so much beauty in mix-stock, too, I think. I shot a flag waving with a little super8 camera for a half-hour and was struck by this poignancy that you have when your hands are making something and you're processing an image through this filter.
Two little African-American girls you interview at one point, you play a word-association game with them and when you say "America," one of them says, "Some people. Some people don't have anything."
I know, that was amazing. I wanted to spend another movie with those little girls. She was a foster child, she didn't have anyone, and it was just devastating to me for her to say that and humbling as a filmmaker with a camera to be there to capture that unguarded, wise moment. That's why, you know. That's why I always want to make movies--these little moments are too important to just be lost to time.