Obit opened last week at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox to warm reception. The documentary features the obituary department at The New York Times, and deconstructs the writing craft of an obituarist.
Wylie Writes’ Jessica Goddard, who loved Obit, recently interviewed the film’s director Vanessa Gould and received exclusive insight into the production.
Jessica Goddard: I did some background reading and I found out that you had some familiarity with one of the obituary writers that stars in the film before you started work on it. You had corresponded with Margalit [Fox] before, but did you know that these writers were going to be such interesting documentary subjects?
Vanessa Gould: Well, no. But I had a strong gut intuition. My logic – which felt pretty infallible – was how could you do this for a living and not be interesting? It just seemed to me like the constellation of qualities that are required and the exposure that you’ve had to so many different historical subjects and life stories. It just seemed like you couldn’t do this and do it so well and be a boring person… was what I suspected. And I found out that was correct, but I didn’t give myself much credit. It just seemed impossible that they could be anything but interesting.
JG: Well they were saying how none of them specifically set out to write obituaries, and it’s something they all kind of fell into.
VG: Yeah, but it’s less about what their character drove them to do and more about just the fact that they had been doing this. The experience that they had under their belt. And, the nature of the conversations they had with people who are experts in all these fields. It just felt like the accumulated experience, regardless of whether you initially wanted to do it or not, felt to me like it would lead to somebody having a lot of good stories and interesting insights.
JG: Did they immediately open up about their really interesting experiences and stories? Did they know that they were so interesting? Did you really have to mine them for the best information or were they pretty much open books kind of dying to talk about it?
VG: Some were in the middle. Bruce Weber says, “I thank Vanessa all the time for showing me that I have an interesting job” so I think that they didn’t necessarily have this concept of themselves as being interesting or doing interesting work, and they weren’t necessarily used to being on the other side of the interview equation. So, they weren’t open books and they also are super busy, so one of the challenges was, in fact, to prove to them that I was committed and incredibly interested in hearing what they had to say and interested in them giving me 3-4 hours of their time and them letting me follow them after that. I told them how much research I did and so hopefully they understood that it was serious. In the first half hour of any interview, we were just sort of trying to get to know each other because I didn’t know any of them. And, when we sat down, it was cold. I visited a couple of them to spec out their houses in advance very briefly, so we got to know each other through the interview process and I would say probably most of the stuff that we ended up using in the film was stuff that happened in the second half of the interviews once we got to know each other a little better.
JG: That’s cool to know because it does look so comfortable and natural. I think we can hear you a couple times but it really is just the writers talking for the most part.
VG: Yeah, and the challenges were compounded by the fact that we used a device called an Interrotron which is a mirror contraption that you put on the end of a lens so that when you talk to them you look through these little tubes and they look right into the lens of the camera, and so you’ll notice – when you watch the film – that it literally looks like they’re making direct eye contact with the viewers. And, so that was another barrier to break through when we were getting to know each other and talking; that we weren’t even really looking at each other. Except through this bizarre tunnel.
JG: And they were completely comfortable with that right away?!
VG: Uh, probably not. I mean they were fantastic. I give them all so much credit for rising to the occasion and bringing so much to the interviews that they did with me.
JG: Were you surprised to hear the writers saying that they thought people thought their jobs were morbid and boring when you would film a whole documentary on this? And, do you think they’re more out of touch or spot-on when it comes to the public’s fascination with death?
VG: One of the best things about documentaries, in my opinion, and something that I strive to do as a documentary filmmaker is to take something that you would assume is one thing and peel back the layers and realize that it’s something else, maybe even the opposite. And so I was instantly drawn to something that on the surface looked like it would be about death, but 30 minutes into an experience with an obituary I realized it was so much about the life, and the details of the life, and understanding the life, the context of the life. The fact that they died is not part of it. It’s the trigger but then you just do the life stuff. As a documentary filmmaker, I loved the idea about having viewers come into something that they didn’t really know or maybe had some pre-conceived notions about and turning that upside down. So, I think that people do have a knee-jerk sense that obits are about death and maybe kind of morbid and some of that is correct but it’s incomplete.
I haven’t figured out yet how obituaries play a big role in whether the West is in denial of our mortality or not. I think the idea of the West becoming more open about death, and the fact of death, and the ways in which we die would be great but those never really combined themselves in this process for me. This was really more about journalism and history. The ideas about death and death culture really never presented themselves that much. These were character studies about writing and about the memory of culture and the death was peripheral. The same way it is almost for the writers themselves. People said “oh, you should go to a crematorium for this film and interview funeral directors for this film,” and that’s a fascinating issue, but it’s totally separate from the ways in which we write about people. It happens to be that we’re writing about them after they die, but that doesn’t impact the way in which they’re written about.
JG: Well the death is really kind of like a bookend, so you can formally close the life, and then write about the life while there’s not gonna be any more to that story.
VG: Exactly. And the editor [in the film] says death is the fact and it is the last fact but it is one fact after myriad – tens of thousands of facts – that characterize the life and it’s the least unique. Everyone has that last fact. And, that’s where everyone’s the same. But where everyone’s different and what you’re celebrating is everything that comes before it.
JG: There’s that spectrum introduced early on in the film, where you have the significance of the death of the inventor of the Slinky, measured against the significance of the death of somebody like Leonid Brezhnev. But then it’s stated that while more people’s lives were unquestionably impacted by Brezhnev, more people will probably want to read the obituary of the inventor of the Slinky. Where do artists fall or belong on that spectrum?
VG: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right? I think one of the wonderful things about the way that the obits page works is that there’s something for everybody. I think there’s a lot of people that will go straight to the artists but other people who are history buffs or interested in politics would go look at Brezhnev first. But artists are like our diaries. They express things that we can’t find the words to express and help us identify feelings within ourselves. And, I think we have these deep, personal, intimate connections with our perceptions of these artists like David Bowie or Prince, and it’s really hard when somebody like that dies because the bond that you’ve created doesn’t feel perishable, it feels immortal.
So, I think artists do have a special place in the obits page because so many people rely on their vision and their voices to understand our own experiences, maybe a little bit more than, like, a politician does.
JG: The film introduces the term “morgue” before we know what it means in its journalistic context. Is there a reason for that?
VG: We struggled with that; unfortunately it wasn’t by design. Because of all these other editorial necessities, some stuff with the morgue had to come before the morgue came in but we bunch it together so that it was mentioned a few times, and then once people might be curious about it, we cut to that.
JG: I think there’s an interesting analogy to be observed between archives of precious paper copies in the morgue, and the New York Times’ having one of the last remaining newspaper departments dedicated to writing obituaries. From what you observed at the New York Times, and based on the premise of the film, do you think print media is dying, and if so, do you think it’ll die in our lifetime?
VG: I’m always cautious about making predictions about print media, but it’s certainly true that people are writing its obituary or expecting its obituary or beginning to see its diminishment in the scope of media in general. So, we were very alive to those ideas while we were cutting the film, and while we didn’t want to make any predictions or draw any sort of painfully overwrought analogies, we were constantly thinking about life cycles and the birth and life and death of things, and the way there’s a sort of circular nature to things. As one generation is going, the next one is coming, sort of the same thing as what’s happening in media. We nurtured those ideas and we were aware and made some efforts to allow the viewers to make their own connections about their ideas about print media. And yes, seeing these yellow clippings that crumble is a clear symbolism for the fact that everything is fleeting. But without making any sort of grand pronouncements about it.
JG: In the film, Bruce Weber says “you only have this one chance to make the dead live again”. If this is true of obituaries in the New York Times, would film be the opposite of that – the chance to make the dead live forever?
VG: Film is a really powerful medium. I don’t know about forever, because who knows, really? But we did feel the desire to – almost in a hologram kind of way – bring back some of these people like we did with Candy Barr and John Fairfax. When William P. Wilson, the guy who Bruce Weber is talking and writing about throughout the course of the movie, when we see him at the very end and then hear him laugh, we choked up a lot in the edit room because we did feel like these people were being invigorated, revitalized, whatever you want to say. But, we were getting a chance to, like, have another visit with them.
Obituaries work really well in the print medium, so if you’re going to make a movie about them you have to bring something more to the table. You can’t just read them, so to justify its own existence, I said let’s use archival footage because it’s video-based and that’s the medium we’re working in. Let’s find stuff that for no other reason, might never see the light of day again. Who’s ever gonna want to see John Fairfax rowing across the Atlantic Ocean or Pacific Ocean again? Or, watch Candy Barr boogie across the screen? And when we found these rare clips, the archivists were like, “what project are you working on? What is this for?” and I was thinking, “fantastic! That’s a sign! Let’s revitalize these people!” I wasn’t thinking about the infinite time-scale, but we did have a sense that we were bringing these people back to life, at least in a time-scale that we could connect with. Which might be years, decades, our lifespans, whatever.
JG: But in theory, if film does continue to be uploaded and preserved on the internet, hypothetically, a hundred years from now someone can watch your film. And if the internet is still used like that forever and is really here to stay for the rest of time, then potentially John Fairfax could be preserved forever through your film.
VG: That’s an incredible thing to think about as a filmmaker. But, I think the obituary writers sort of do the same thing. So much of the grit and the texture of John Fairfax’s life is gone. Obviously his family members have memories and things from his life, but for the public we have his obituary now. Which is a grotesque reduction of who he was, but it’s still something that now exists that people for the next generations can easily say, well let’s look to that to at least first understand who this person was.
JG: What was something you would have wanted to include in the film that you couldn’t? Or the best information or story that you had to cut?
VG: There’s too many to say. I mean, for my research, I read thousands of New York Times obituaries, going back to the Civil War Era, like the 1800s and on. We focused on the obituaries that had been written by the people in the film, and so that immediately cut that by a huge fraction. There’s too many to count. And, what I would pose to your readers is, go to Wikipedia and on this day, look who died. Look who died today in 1946. Click on that person and read about their life, and it will blow you away. It’s the life story, but it’s also historical context. There’s a war they were fighting that maybe you and I had never heard of before. Or, it was before X, Y, or Z was invented and so the way they lived their lives was completely different. It’s infinite.
JG: Did you choose John Fairfax over somebody else in particular?
VG: Oh, sure. Sure. But it was also because we could find great archival, which was another determining principle. But more so, when I interviewed each of the writers, the weeks before I did those interviews, I read their entire body of work. So, the hundreds of obituaries they’d written, because I didn’t want them to bring up something that I hadn’t read about, obviously. As I was doing that, I would write, “oh my god, I’ve got to ask them about this person”, so I had these notes and it would end up being 3 pages of like, “oh, these are imperative questions to ask”. And then, we would sit down, and I started to realize I would ask them, “well, what are your favourite ones” and it would often not match mine. But, what I figured out was that because they write so many of these obituaries, they don’t remember them very well.
Sometimes, they’ll remember the details of the life, but they won’t remember the name, or vice versa. It’s very difficult because they have to sort of clean the slate every night before they go to sleep, so the next morning, they can have enough space in their brain to internalize a different life. What that showed me is that when they did remember somebody, it was something special. All the ones that are featured in the film are ones that the writers remembered writing. And, to me, that was a barometer of something great. Because how do you choose out of so many thousands of obituaries? Doug Martin speaks really beautifully about the life of Thomas Ferebee, the guy who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Who I was instantly like, “no, he did something terrible”. But, Doug teaches us in the film that the event and the man were not always the same thing. And, this was a man pushed into an event that was so much bigger than he ever devised or sought to be part of. That teaches us something about the way our own destinies happen. So, the ones that made it into the film had these special qualities that worked on many levels.
JG: The writers talk about falling in love with all of their subjects. Is this true for documentary filmmaking, or is it a different study completely?
VG: They’re not identical but they’re very similar, I think. There was a really beautiful reflection going on about what they are doing for their people and then what we are doing for them. In a nutshell, it’s sort of like you’re an outsider, someone who’s coming in from the outside with an abundance of curiosity, and a desire to somehow capture it and show it to other people. And, you’re doing it in a greatly abbreviated way too. Writers are bound by the words, or word count. And a filmmaker is bound by the number of minutes that they have. You have to pick through this enormous tapestry of possibilities to create the most salient, elemental picture that you can provide, whether it’s in the written word or in the film documentary medium to express the most by saying the least. And, even in the film, Paul Vitello says something like that, about how you want to use the least amount of words to say the most amount of stuff. We want to say the most we can in ninety minutes. So, yeah… you fall in love, you obsess, you study, and you scrutinize. The funny thing is that while they’re so similar in so many ways, the fact that they do what they do in like seven hours and it took us like five years is mind-boggling to me. It’s like that one way in which we’re different. We are so different in the time-scales in which we work.
JG: I read that your crew was mostly women. Was this deliberate and if so, why and what effect does this have on the film?
VG: The crew was the crew because they are the most talented, fantastic, capable people I knew. And, they had all the qualities that were necessary for a film like this: responsibility, strong communication skills, empathy, sympathy, human curiosity. Those are things that women are really great at. But, we were a great team, and I didn’t choose them based on their gender. Women are great at making documentaries and these are the best documentary people I could find.
I don’t know how it impacted the film… we were all so open-minded. We didn’t have agendas as to what we wanted to say with the film – we sort of let the film speak to us first. An abundance of curiosity and a lack of authoritative thinking, I think, made the film as expansive as it is.
JG: Were there any stories or people that were discussed that you searched really hard to find archival footage for but you couldn’t access? Anybody in particular that was very disappointing to not find?
VG: We had sort of a wishlist of obituary subjects that we talked about with the writers that we then sent to our archivist and a lot of them came back empty. But, we still had a beautiful core to work with. It’s just hard to remember who was on that list that didn’t make it through the first gate of archival. Even William P. Wilson, we didn’t think we were gonna find archival on because he was really behind-the-scenes and if you remember in the film, the Times couldn’t even find a proper headshot of him – they had to take a screengrab from C-SPAN. But then, our archivist found in some CBS basement affiliate in the middle of the country, a canister of film that not only shot the Nixon Kennedy debate, but also happened to have behind-the-scenes, so that William Wilson was in the footage. And that was a beautiful day, when we found that.
JG: You read a ton of obituaries in preparation for filming. Do you now have a favourite obituary, as a piece of literature?
VG: Many of them stand as strong literature. Bruce’s obituary of E.L. Doctorow is incredible. Margo’s obituary of Phyllis Schlafly – as sort of unsavory a character as she was – is incredible. The ability of these writers to not only get the gist of the life right but to describe it in vocabulary and contextualizing ways that give so many layers of nuance and hints to the attitudes of these people, the work they were doing, the things they were fighting for… when they write about writers and philosophers you understand the context of the work in a deep sense. I think a lot of them stand as terrific long-form journalism.
My favourites, not because of style or greatness but because of subject matter, are these sort of folksy heroes. I love Poppa Neutrino, who was dubbed the happiest man in the world. Doug Martin wrote the obituary for Steam Train Maury, who was the five-time Hobo King. He was crowned the Hobo King of the world because he was great at hopping trains! The other one that’s really great is this guy named Melvin Burkhart. There’s a picture of him nailing a nail into his nose in the film – he was part of a sideshow. Those are my kind of recreational favourites. I like those stories because it’s just like, how often do you get to read about somebody who does that kind of stuff?
Obit is now playing at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox. Due to the positive response from audiences, Obit will be screening for another week at the theatre.
Jessica Goddard: @TheJGod