Film Interview: Peabody Award-winning director Vanessa Gould on her documentary “Obit”
A subject as potentially grim and dry as writing an obituary is transformed into a compelling and moving look at writing, language, inquiry, and the art of story-telling.
By Glenn Rifkin
As a contributor to The New York Times for more than a quarter century, I’ve had an opportunity to write about a wide range of topics, mostly in business. When technology pioneer Ken Olsen, the founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation, died in 2011, I tried my hand at a new kind article: an obituary. Having co-authored a book about Olsen in the 1980s, it seemed appropriate for me to write his obituary. The Times’ obits editor, Bill McDonald, liked what I did and asked if I would like to contribute more obits for the paper. What he had in mind was an odd but compelling assignment: the advance obit. He would give me a name of a notable person, still living but elderly, and I would craft an obituary in advance that would be ready, save for a few details, for when that person died.
It turned out that this was a standard practice at The Times and many other newspapers as well. But for me, it was a new journalistic endeavor. I always enjoyed writing profiles of people and in essence, that’s what an obit really is. But there was a Grim Reaperish feel to it and I wondered how one would handle such an assignment. Am I supposed to interview the subject if they will talk to me? “Absolutely,” McDonald said. “And family, friends and colleagues too.”
And so it began. I’ve written a raft of these advance obits over the past five years, and in so doing joined, if from the outside looking in, a team of full-time obit writers on staff at The Times. When I tell people that I do these stories, I get a similar response every time. A wrinkled brow, a slight look of discomfort, as in “Isn’t it kind of creepy? Isn’t it depressing?” And while there is a minor level of uneasiness in writing about death, the truth is that writing obituaries is an amazing and challenging craft. As Margalit Fox, one of the top obit writers at The Times says, “In an 800-word story, there will be only a sentence or two about death; 90 percent or more is about life.” In fact, The Times has some of the best obit writers in the world and the obits page is among the most well-read sections of the newspaper.
Imagine my surprise when a couple of months ago, I learned that somebody had made a documentary film about The New York Times obit staff. Obit is from Peabody Award-winning director Vanessa Gould, a Brooklyn-based (but Concord, MA-raised) documentary filmmaker, who made this remarkable film about this rapidly disappearing art form, and it is a testament to her skills that a subject as potentially grim and dry as writing an obituary, is transformed into this compelling and moving look at writing, language, inquiry, and the art of story-telling.
In her film, we meet the extraordinary obit writers like Fox, Bruce Weber, William Grimes, and editor McDonald, among others, and watch them in action. Action in this case, generally takes place at their Times’ desks, on the phone asking questions and taking notes. It might sound less than telegenic, but in her talented hands, Gould makes it impossible to look away. The film comes alive with a rich trove of archival footage of obit subjects interspersed with the interviews with the writers and editors. Even having written so many of these pieces over the years, I learned an incredible amount about the process that I didn’t know.
Gould, 42, abandoned the corporate world for documentary filmmaking about a dozen years ago. Her 2010 film Between the Folds was a beautifully crafted look at ten fine artists, including French artist Eric Joisel, who made magical art via paper folding. It aired on PBS and won the 2010 Peabody Award
Obit will have a screening (presented by GlobeDocs) at The Brattle Theater in Harvard Square on October 1, at 2:30 p.m. and Gould will be on hand to lead a discussion after the showing. I talked to Gould about her film and her reasons for turning her lens onto this subject.
The Arts Fuse: What drove you to make Obit?
Vanessa Gould: About five years ago, Eric Joisel, one of the subjects of Between the Folds, passed away. He was a solitary artist working outside Paris and he died at the height of his creative output. He died of lung cancer at 54. Here was someone doing unique, visionary work and nobody had heard of him. I worried that whatever lingering memories and sensations of this person were going to evaporate. So I contacted most English language newspapers in the U.S., Britain, Australia, with an announcement of his death. Nobody responded except four days later, I got a call from Margalit Fox of the New York Times who wrote a gorgeous obituary about him. I was flabbergasted that The New York Times was interested in this relatively obscure non-American artist and I took a closer look at the obit pages. It was amazing and it struck me “what stays and what goes?” What we do remember, we retell in a new narrative. I felt a deep curiosity about the cultural, historical, and journalistic gravity of obituaries. All of this captivated me and I decided that there was a film here.
AF: What was the response at The Times?
Gould: It was a very slow process. They were very guarded. They’d been approached before about a documentary on the obits and didn’t want to do it. They are used to being the people on the giving end of questioning, not the receiving end. But slowly, after a series of conversations with the writers and others at the paper over probably 18 months, they got warm to the idea.
AF: Did you have specific expectations going into the project?
Gould: The kind of documentary work I like most is when you go in without a pre-conceived narrative and an open mind. I had a gut intuition about the richness of the material, not the specifics of what I would get. I usually find the film in the editing room. I had always said, if you like documentaries, you should read the obituaries. They are like mini-documentaries out there every day in a different medium.
AF: Was there a moment in the filming that you realized you had something?
Gould: The biggest triggering moment was filming Bruce Weber working on the obit for William B. Wilson. I had the least amount of control over that. We shot it in December, 2014 and went in with a very small crew, so as not to be obtrusive. We watched him get the assignment and started filming him. It was a make or break moment. I was looking up who Wilson was on my phone as we filmed.
AF: Who was he?
Gould: He was John F. Kennedy’s television consultant for the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. He advised Kennedy and was on the cutting edge of reporting and the media in those days. There was a nice meta feel because of how he impacted the media and the way we consume information.
AF: The film is captivating but at heart, it’s about people sitting at their desks on the phone or typing. How did you make that exciting?
Gould: That was one of my biggest anxieties going into the project. The reporters were anxious about that as well. They said, “We just sit at our desks all day long.” So we did a mix of archival footage along with shots of the reporters under the pressure of deadlines.
AF: The archival footage is quite amazing.
Gould: It was a huge amount of work and it was actually the hardest part of the film; harder than getting the primary footage. One of the primary goals was to dig up stuff that might never have been seen again, forgotten with history. These images were difficult to find. It was in the archival material that we found the ghosts.
AF: Margalit Fox makes the point that obituaries are really not about death but about a life. Was that your takeaway from this?
Gould: We tried not to tell people that. We let it become realized through the film, but yes, that is one of the takeaways.
AF: Is there a deal in the works to get the film into theaters or onto HBO or Netflix?
Gould: This fall we’ll be making a distribution announcement. It will be on streaming media and in theaters but that’s all I can say.
AF: How did the film impact you?
Gould: I feel a profound sense of privilege getting to know these people, the writers as well as the subjects of the obits. The threads of so many of these stories stay with me in unexpected ways. The strengths they brought, the determination, perseverance, the consistency of vision. I was surprised how much that moved me. It’s such a beautiful example to carry with you.
Glenn Rifkin is a veteran journalist and author who has covered business for many publications including The New York Times for more than 25 years. Among his books are Radical Marketing and The Ultimate Entrepreneur. His efforts as an arts critic and food writer represent a new and exciting direction.