“Obituaries are documentaries in print”
An interview with director Vanessa Gould about Obit, her new doc chronicling the work of five New York Times obituary writers
To sum up the scope of any human life is impossible. Now, imagine having to do it on deadline in 800 to 1,200 words. Vanessa Gould’s new documentary Obit (playing now at TIFF Bell Lightbox) profiles the rock stars of the obituary-writing world. Through a series of funny, often existential interviews, five seasoned reporters working at The New York Times’ obit desk discuss the realities of their job (“obituary writer” is no one’s ideal party guest), the craft required to create memorable elegiac prose, and even emerging trends in the industry. Their varying subjects — including a 16-year-old aviatrix who lived until age 98, the small-town army man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and a burlesque dancer imprisoned for killing her husband — are seen in their most pivotal moments through the use of beautiful archival footage. Most remarkably, Gould documents people who are just really good at their jobs. Scenes with NYT writer Bruce Weber as he researches the life of William P. Wilson (a political aide responsible for making up John F. Kennedy moments before the first televised presidential debate) make Obit the best journalist procedural since Spotlight.
We spoke to Gould in person at TIFF Bell Lightbox about how the film came to be, her subjects’ wry, New York humour, and the power in (and great responsibility of) making the dead live again. She introduces the film on Friday, March 31, followed by a post-screening Q&A between Gould, producer Caitlin Mae Burke, and documentary subject Margalit Fox.
Your first film was a documentary about origami stylists. What inspired you to make a documentary about the obituary writers for The New York Times?
Well, I was never an obituary reader or fanatic in any way. The idea for the film happened through a personal experience. I guess it was six or seven years ago now that one of the main subjects, Éric Joisel, in my last documentary, Between the Folds, passed away. He was a French artist who was a really reclusive person, and he died just as he was on the cusp of being recognized internationally for his work. I knew he was going to die, he had lung cancer, and was a smoker. I had already mourned him privately, but had this panic that, like a puff of smoke, he was just about to disappear. I sent most of the newspapers two pictures of his work and an announcement of his death with the note: "Contact me if you're interested." The only paper that contacted me was The New York Times. Margalit Fox, an obituary writer who’s in the film, spent half a day on the phone with me talking about him.
I had only known him in his later adulthood. I didn't know that much about his childhood. It was hard to piece his life together because he was solitary. Some people had said he studied law, other people said he studied sculpture. Someone said he was married before. There was this feeling that we could've asked him so many questions, and a week later suddenly he was gone. I couldn't believe an international newspaper was interested in committing actual column space to writing about someone who likely none of their readers had ever heard of. So I was just riveted by the process, the detective work of having to piece this life together. There’s this sense of how quickly when somebody dies, the details and the minutia of their life die of with them. An obituary is what we do to try and rescue some of that from obscurity. Because obituaries are like documentaries in the print medium. There's so much sympatico between what they’re trying to do and the ways a documentary filmmaker works. I contacted The New York Times with the idea to make this film three weeks after that happened.
Your film touches on the current climate of death reporting with websites like Twitter and TMZ memorializing people in real time. Still, the art of the obituary, the long take of someone's life — do you feel like that’s something worth preserving?
I certainly do now that I'm intimately familiar with how wonderful they are. Our world is getting shallower, shorter, and sound bite-ier by the minute. All of those forces are pushing against the craft of any journalist who values substance over soundbite. An obituary is already a gross abbreviation of a huge thing. So they can't get much shorter before they actually lose being what they are: a very short summary of somebody's life in 800 to 1,200 words. The good thing is that even though newspapers struggle to employ staffed obituary desks because of economic pressures to remain solvent, readers still love obituaries. It's difficult weighing, "Should we have a national news desk or an obituary desk?" But it doesn't mean that people don't greatly rejoice in reading about the lives that they both know and don't know.
The writers you profile have all had such varied, extraordinary careers in journalism, finding obituaries late in their careers. What kind of person is drawn to this line of work?
They're good at it for the reasons that you've mentioned because they're seasoned generalists. The five writers who are featured in the film are all different from each other, so it's a venn diagram. They love and appreciate history, they're fantastic journalists. But I think their ability is to be professional in difficult situations, in talking to families, when having to suss out sources that they can either trust or not trust... to remain professional under pressure is not easy. I think they all have a real ability to be devoted to whoever they get that morning, which is a beautiful thing. There’s something really human about them, offset by the steeliness they have to harness in order to do what they do every day under deadline.
It seems so interesting, for instance, to come into work and spend a day chronicling the life of the inventor of the Slinky. Your film touches on the idea that with an obituary, a writer’s responsibility is really to make the dead live again.
That was a phenomenon to watch them not only do that once, but on a daily basis. The scope of that life is so huge. The responsibility of writing what people often call "the last word," or “the first draft of history,” to do right by them and give them one last chance... it’s a big burden. It's remarkable.
I read that you were filming for the day, left, and missed The New York Times writers discovering the death of Robin Williams by 20 minutes. Looking back, do you regret not capturing that moment on camera? Do you think it would've changed the scope of the film, making it more like a procedural on how to memorialize someone so well-loved?
I vacillated; it definitely felt like bum luck. But when I had that feeling, I also had a gut aversion. That wasn't the end of a long, successful life. It was tragic, deeply personal, and neither of those things are adjectives that describe what obituary writers do on a daily basis. It wouldn’t have been in keeping with the spirit of what we were trying to do, which was celebrate the everyman and the undiscovered life. When it ended up being William P. Wilson, who Bruce Weber covers, that felt perfect to me. Three quarters through that shooting day, [Weber] was assigned a person who created an incredible moment in history — the first televised presidential debates in US history. This one person had a hand in its outcome, which created history for presidential debates to come. It was like: this is what we're after.
Margalit Fox mentions how the people in the pages of the obituaries section have historically been white men, as they're the ones who have had the opportunity to make an impact on history. This is a bit callous, but as more people die, it’s interesting how women and minorities are slowly making their way into the pages of the obituaries section. How do the Times editors assess whose lives have significance?
The editors quickly dispel value judgements by saying, "We assess people's newsworthiness." Now, when we look back in time, there are gender and racial value judgements we wish our society hadn't made. This is something that, as a female filmmaker, I grappled with. I decided to take the approach of "let's show it for what it is,” not to necessarily bring an agenda to the table and challenge it. Because we're not gonna change history. As Margalit says: the ugly truth is that in decades past, white men were the ones who were running society and the ones who were being remembered. There were probably a lot of women behind the scenes running society who did not get obituaries. We don't condone that in the film by any stretch, but even shining a light on that fact is one way of peeling away these legacy decisions.
I can say now, knowing Bill McDonald, the obituary editor at The New York Times, that a great amount of thought is put into reconciling that fact. They're still up against the fact that the people [they’re writing about] who are dying now are of a culture that was predominantly patriarchal. There's that 20 to 30 year lag. A month ago, the top four obits on the website were all women. We took a screenshot of it and circulated it amongst our team. So, you know, it's changing.
Do obituary writers usually have a good sense of humour?
There's a lot of humour amongst them. It's a slightly wry, dark, New York humour. It's funny, there's been two festivals where the programmers told us that Obit was the funniest film they had that year. I think it gets to the deeper idea that whether it’s writing obituaries, making jokes, or finding humanity in the facts of death, that our approach has to be philosophical.
It's the weirdest truth that we're all gonna die. Because it seems impossible! Like Bruce Weber says in the last line of your film: "Just so you know, you're gonna die."
And you think, "Well somehow, I'll get out of that." It’s this realization that you have over, over, and over again. There’s a million ways to joke about that.
You have beautiful archival footage and historical documents of the obituary subjects they're writing on. How did you see this material playing into the construction of the film?
Obituaries function nearly flawlessly in the print medium. So, if you're gonna transfer that into the video medium, you have to justify that transition and make it additive. We can't just read the obituaries on camera. I thought, “what could we add through the video format that would make a multi-dimensional experience of the print medium of obituaries?” It was obvious that we should find lush, vivid archival material that people haven't seen before. Let's go and rescue tape and film from the dustbins of history, that for no other reason may never be seen again. The footage of Fairfax rowing across the ocean [and] Candy Barr shimmying across the stage has never been seen. Often when we would do our research, archivists ask, "What project are you working on? People do not request this stuff."
If you're gonna make a movie that could be about anything in the past, find the archival footage no one else is asking for and use it. Some of that old aviatrix footage featuring Elinor Smith from the 1920s in her cockpit, soaring across the street, was so gorgeous. I wouldn't say it felt like we were bringing people back to life — that's a little messianic. But it felt like we were reinvigorating them.
I know the film premiered at Tribeca. I’m curious if these obituary writers are experiencing newfound celebrity status. Do they like being recognized?
Well, their bylines are recognizable; some of them have really rabid fans. Each has a different style. Margalit Fox is a real stylist and uses language in ways that no one else on the desk does. She does a lot of these folksy, yarny ones. She did an obituary of the inventor of Mad Libs and had blanks in the piece. Bruce Weber writes these stately, deeply understanding pieces. Biff Grimes does the obits for existential philosophers, mathematicians; people who are into bizarre subcultures gravitate to him.
Still, people don't know what they look like, [though] the writers were all at Tribeca. Margalit Fox is coming to TIFF, Bruce has been on the festival circuit with me. I think they're bewildered, flattered, mystified, and excited all at once. It’s a new world we live in now. It's totally postmodern that we talk about the news as it's being written, and that's something none of them are entirely comfortable with. In the old days, the journalist was never part of the story — it was their job to stay out of it.
Certainly with an obituary, really stay out of it!
Exactly. The postmodern, self-aware world we live in now, where the behind-the-scenes [of anything becomes] the story, is odd for them. But on the whole, I think they're deeply appreciative that their work is being read and that viewers are interested in what they're doing.
Who would you want to write yours?
Oh god, people have asked me about that and probably in an “in denial” kind of way, I’ve never considered it. I'm at a loss for an answer for a question like that…. Any of them, if I'm lucky!
Lastly, after all that effort, how did it feel when you read your late friend’s obituary (Éric Joisel) in The New York Times?
Spine-tingling. It was validation — on virtually a global scale — that a newspaper of this scope had profiled the accomplishments of an artist that nobody had heard of. If we look at his work, we understand the human condition a little better. The obituary helped readers see a person who lived and saw the world in a way that nobody else had. To see him recognized was great. I won't forget it.