more about Rhys
Like most of my best friends, I don't remember when we met. Obviously it was at film school, and most likely on the first day or two. We were of a similar age (he's 30 days older than I), similar mindset, similar tastes. But the specifics are lost. I am not broken up about this; in a way, there's a comforting feeling when you meet someone that you feel like you've always known, albeit something slightly odd about the fact that you grew up in the midwestern United States and he grew up in the South Island of New Zealand.
One of my first goals at South Seas, upon realizing that watching historic and important films wasn't really part of the curriculum, was to establish a film club, which would meet once a week to watch great foreign or classic movies. Roughly around the same time I approached Rob (the editing tutor) about this idea, I discovered that Rhys had as well. While the film club was often pretty scant in its membership, I'm pretty sure it was never without Rhys, and one time in particular he brought his own film projector (despite the name, we normally screened off of DVD). I specifically remember him bringing BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN and screening it for an all too small group of people; when I expressed my disappointment with the marginal turnout, he replied something to the effect that it didn't matter how many people were there, but that the people there valued the experience, which of course they did.
Such a gentle, giving and forgiving response, one that saw the positive side of a situation I reflexively saw the negative side of, was something that came to Rhys as easy as breathing. If he possessed no other qualities, he would still be remarkable for that alone. Of course, that barely scratched his surface.
(As an aside, our classmate Annette reminded me tonight that Rhys also used the opportunity to screen the 8mm films he shot when he was in Japan. Many of them featured the same woman over and over, shot lovingly, and at some point Rhys explained "That's my girlfriend", with a tender smile. I will not recount the story of how Rhys wound up in Japan with Heather here, for fear of mangling pivotal details, but when I heard it in detail I was stunned with the leap of faith that Rhys took in the name of love, and how richly it was repaid.)
(As a second aside, I'm pretty sure Rhys told me got the print of BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN from the Communist Society in Dunedin. Anyone who remembers more of the mechanics of this process, please fill them in.)
To mention other qualities: enthusiasm. Rhys shared the same enthusiasm I did for projects, ideas, and just generally doing cool things. He was one of the people that participated in a round-robin CD exchange I instigated, and his CD was easily the most eclectic mix of things, from household names (Beatles, Styx, Who) to indie and punk rock legends (Guided By Voices, Husker Du, Magnetic Fields) to saccharine pop obscurities (The Free Design? The 1910 Fruit Company? Tommy Roe?) and on and on ....
He also was one of the first to join in on our 48 HOURS team that year, in which he and I holed up in the edit suite for 27 hours, Rhys designing graphics and credits and helping out while I mostly drove the Avid. We didn't really know what we were doing - all the transitions, for instance, were 1 second because that was the default and I didn't know how to change it - but through some element of magic, the resulting film, BURNS & MCCLOUD: STREET SENSE, came in 2nd in the competition that year, a result none of the teams I have been on since have ever approached. Rhys is visible briefly in the beginning (he's at the back table in the first shot, flipping pages in a binder; his wit is visible more prominently later on, in the magazine covers that he invented from whole cloth (such as TRUNCHEON, featuring our hero cop Max Burns in a story on "The New Appliance of Justice").
When we won, we faced the issue of what to do with the prize money. We discussed making something else, a proposal that Rhys most firmly advocated; for various reasons, this never fully eventualized, though we did make some fake commercials that he participated in, acting in one and IIRC directing another. If I find them, I will put them online. In the meantime, Rhys found many other projects to involve himself with; music videos, stop motion, and a documentary on my first (and thus far only) tattoo. All the pictures on my Flickr page of my tattoo are, I'm pretty sure, taken by Rhys. (To be fair, I did have a tattoo gun in my calf for 2 hours, so I may have missed some details.)
As the school year started getting to its close, I was, along with a few other students, offered the chance to direct an "ET4". (Basically, directing students directed their final film in term 4; for a few students who had some interest in directing but didn't major in it, we got to direct a smaller scale film before the directing students, or "an early term 4".) I didn't hesitate to pick Rhys as my editor, and the result was (at the risk of sounding immodest) pretty stunning, finished to a fine edge by Rhys despite my near-complete physical breakdown near the end of the process. The ending was entirely of his invention, created after my scripted ending failed abysmally in practice, and over time FREEDOM FROM SPEECH has been fondly remembered by many and even screened in Chicago to appreciative audiences.
(I'm pretty sure I never told him that last fact. I wish I had.)
After that, I was inspired to get a feature off the ground. My problem, one which will surprise absolutely nobody who knows me: too many ideas and not enough focus. Rhys graciously took a huge chunk of his time to sit down with me and talk through the numerous ideas that I had, gently nurturing what he thought were the better ideas while allowing that others could have potential beyond what he saw. It was on his urging that ultimately I wrote FALL BACK; while the resulting script has not as of yet been shot, it is only on my shoulders that that failure falls. Conversely, without his support, I strongly doubt that script would exist.
At the end of the school year, Rhys moved down to Wellington, while I remained in Auckland. Even there, he assisted me above and beyond the call of duty. As I desperately searched for work, I sent him my CV; he sent it back brilliantly reformatted, in a style I still use today. The first person to hire me from it said something in passing about how my CV showed that I obviously had a strong visual sense. I chose not to correct his misconceptions and inwardly thanked Rhys.
I visited Rhys a few times in Wellington. I wish it had been twenty times as often, now, but all of them were special times, and perhaps they would have been less special if I had been more often. One of my fondest memories is one of the most random: us attending the Newtown Street Festival, watching a square dancing club that wore American flag shirts. There was something wonderful about the quiet absurdity of the whole situation, something both he and I instantly appreciated.
The last time I visited him was this January. In retrospect, I can't even remember what triggered the visit; I for some reason decided it was a good idea to follow up a month visit to the States with an almost immediate trip to Wellington and Nelson. My plan had been to catch up with everybody I knew in Wellington, but from the time Rhys picked me up from the airport that went out the window. Heather, Lewis, and Olive were in Dunedin with family, so he and I had a long weekend which, bar a couple hours where he had to work, we spent gloriously as two overgrown geeky boys having a grand time: playing Wii, listening to records from his glorious stash of vinyl, travelling to museums, going to bars, bookstores, comic book stores, seeing tons of movies (everything from LUST CAUTION to CLOVERFIELD to TRON to SAMURAI COP), cooking Mexican food, and talking a lot. We talked about all the big things: love, family, career, artistic aspirations, our parallel experiences in youth buying records, everything. Rhys was full of ideas and projects; his circumstances (a busy job and a family) kept him from actuating those things as quickly as possible, but it was clear that for him the trade off was well worth it, and that at some point, slowly, eventually, he would actuate those projects.
Except, of course, here we are. He mentioned when I was down there that he'd had some stomach problems, but either it didn't register or I had no notion of the severity. I didn't hear from him for several months; this was not at all unusual, as, at the risk of speaking ill of the dead, he was pretty crap at keeping up with correspondence. It was only when I sent him birthday wishes that I heard from Heather that Rhys had been diagnosed with advanced stomach cancer; despite a lousy prognosis, however, they were fighting hard, Rhys was going through chemo, and his job was being kept open for him when he got better.
I told Heather to tell Rhys that as soon as he felt up for a visitor, I'd be there immediately with a fistful of bad movies for us to watch. (I had promised him on my last visit that I'd show him LADY TERMINATOR, an 80's Asian ripoff of the Terminator series that is completely jawdropping.) Heather told me he was looking forward to it. I daily sent positive thoughts to Wellington, thinking of the weekend that we'd spend together, even noting that in December a favorite band of ours was playing Wellington, and hoping beyond hope that he'd be up for going out to a show, that I could tear him away for a night, that cancer would be something slowly disappearing in the rear view mirror and a lengthy stream of tomorrows were on the road ahead.
And then, two nights ago, I got a phone call.
Since then, I have tried to contact as many people as possible from our year together at South Seas. It is of course a shock that only the most callous would be immune to: that any 35 year old man would leave us so rapidly, that he would leave a wife and young children behind, is by definition a tragedy. But the raw well of feeling that we have all shared in the past two days goes much, much deeper. Everyone who knew him knew his prodigious talent, his copious knowledge, his gentle and open nature, his love of life. It was virtually impossible to interact with him and not come away feeling better, no matter how much of a cynical bastard you were.
I am trying to be positive. It is only through the most absurd and gossamer of circumstances that we ever met, that we were at that specific school at the same time, that somehow he wound up there that specific year and not sooner or later, that I stumbled across a school in New Zealand and plopped myself halfway across the world. And it is all too easy to imagine an alternate world where we never met, where I am blissfully unaware of this tragedy that has unfolded. It is a world I do not wish to imagine, for I am so, so incredibly grateful that I had the chance to know Rhys while he was with us.
But, goddammit, I miss him.
Additional links (updated as I get them):
News posting from Park Road Post
Rhys's Tribute Page
Photos of Rhys on Flickr (note: If you have photos of Rhys on Flickr, add the tag "Rhys Bonney" - important to use the quotation marks - and it will show up on this page.)
Iain's (Rhys's brother's) remembrance with slideshow