Tribeca: 'Obit' Director Vanessa Gould on Taking Viewers Inside the N.Y. Times' Death Retrospectives
Her documentary, making its world premiere at the festival, takes an expansive look at how the paper puts together obituaries on the famous and infamous.
Documentary filmmaker Vanessa Gould got an up-close look at The New York Times' process of crafting obituaries when the paper wrote one for her friend and former film subject Eric Joisel. The experience was so inspiring that she made her next documentary, Obit, which has its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, all about the Times' obituaries and the people who write them.
"I was just sort of captivated by the basics of what they were doing on the obits desk, receiving these random names of people who'd died and assessing them and then deciding whether they fit enough into the context of the culture to even put an effort in to write an obit," Gould tells The Hollywood Reporter, reflecting on her experience working with the Times on Joisel's obit. "At the beginning I was just sort of studying that and I was helping the writer, Margalit Fox, mining my friend Eric Joisel's life and going back and reflecting on it and trying to find the salient element. It was just sort of fascinating that The New York Times would be studying the life of this French artist that they'd never heard of before. Reading more obituaries and seeing what they are, as a documentary filmmaker I was realizing that obituaries are in many ways like documentaries themselves in the print form, where you have a naive but interested observer coming in cold and sort of capturing and reducing and painting a reductionist but salient portrait of another person the way that I'm almost doing it on them. So as a filmmaker, I was just sort of, like, fascinated by the fact that every day in The New York Times, with sports scores and stock prices and information about what happened yesterday, there's this one page that's basically writing these life stories and doing it with painstaking detail. And that seemed worth capturing and inquiring about."
Gould says when she began working on the doc, which takes an expansive look at the obituary-writing process and the various parts of the Times that are involved with getting those articles in the paper, she was most concerned with "getting access."
"It was not easy. It took several meetings and several conversations, a fair amount of back-and-forth, to figure out even if this is something they would be interested in me doing," Gould explains. "There's sensitivities around the obits and a fair amount of embargoed stuff, so to sort of let an unknown outsider in was not an easy thing for them."
But once she got in, Gould says she was "open-minded and eager." The doc features interviews with the writers and editors on the obit desk, who recall memorable accounts of the lives of luminaries featured in the newspaper, and visits "the morgue," the Times' century-old archive, where archivist Jeff Roth shows off some of the advance obits the paper used and the updates those stories went through before the subjects died.
The film even takes viewers inside the process of crafting obituaries, as the Times writers are shown putting together retrospectives on two noteworthy people who died: William P. Wilson, who helped John F. Kennedy in the historic first nationally televised presidential debate, and Dick Rich, an influential ad exec.
"We ended up deciding with a lot of writers describing this process, we really wanted to show it as well," Gould says. "At the end of the day, showing it and not telling it made such a big difference and by letting the viewers see them working, it allowed us to use their on-camera interview time to be less descriptive and more adding personal interpretations and commentary on their experience as well.
"The process of anything, whether you're an artist or journalist, is so revealing of what makes something what it is," she adds.
Gould points out that her team didn't spend much time in the newsroom — only five or six days in total — and lucked out in that one of those days featured the writers constructing obits on Wilson and Rich.
"We had no idea what was going to happen that day. Really the only path we could take was just to turn the cameras on and film it. And so when I learned that it was going to be this guy William P. Wilson, we just sort of learned of him as a film crew, the way that Bruce Weber, the journalist, was learning about him as a reporter, and we just sort of captured that process. And the same thing with Paul Vitello's story on Dick Rich," Gould explains. "When we were filming the morning meeting we didn't even know which people they were going to choose to report on. We had very little intention going in, and we were just open to whatever happened."
But they almost witnessed the construction of an obituary for the shocking death of a much better-known public figure: Robin Williams.
"We were in the newsroom the day that Robin Williams died but had left like 20 minutes before," Gould says. "You never know. We could have sat there for weeks and nothing would have happened. … It would have been a different film but equally as nice a story."
Still, the documentary features writers talking about crafting obits for stars who die unexpectedly, like Michael Jackson, and a photo montage of more famous faces who died in the past few years: Williams, B.B. King, Philip Seymour Hoffman and David Bowie.
"David Bowie is a perfect example of how the public reacts when someone dies," Gould says of why they decided to include him in the film after he died in January. "It's interesting to see the rituals of sharing things on Facebook or wanting to read the obit and share the obit and remember the story. The obit is part of a centuries-old mourning ritual. We do it either privately or publicly and I think the New York Times obits are always being done publicly and someone like David Bowie is a consummate example of how people struggle to grapple with news like that. [When we were going through the footage] we were just crying. It was so fresh at that point — the end — and [he was] so alive in those pictures. It's a thing that takes us a culture so long to make sense of and we really wanted to make people feel that when they were watching the film."
Check out the poster for Obit, which The Hollywood Reporter is debuting exclusively, below. The film has its world premiere on Sunday, April 17, at 3 p.m. ET at Chelsea's Bow Tie Cinemas.