“To Recognize, Record, Recap a Life”: Obit

The obituaries desk in The New York Times newsroom. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.No one reads obits when they’re young. For Vanessa Gould, it took the death of Eric Joisel, an artist and subject of her Peabody Award-winning documentary Between the Folds, in 2010. Gould learned of his death and “got this real panic that his life and his work would just disappear like smoke.” Struck by this fear, she called newspapers across the country to pitch his life story. The New York Times—the longest shot of the bunch—called her back. She spoke with obit writer Margalit Fox, and the next day the paper ran a 700-word obit that Gould described in our recent interview as “one of the best accounts of his work.”

Weeks passed, and Gould found herself still thinking about obits. The process of their creation, their cultural purpose, the writers who wrote them—all of it fascinated her. She reached out to Fox, her editors, and the Times’ corporate offices to get everyone on board for Obit, her feature-length doc on the New York Times obituary desk. Obit debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and has since screened at more than a dozen festivals across the country. A joyous work despite the potentially morbid subject matter, her film plays as a 90-minute celebration of life and the craft of writing.

I spoke with Gould ahead of the film’s theatrical release about journalism, nostalgia, reading obits as you get older, grieving on social media, and why her film about obituaries is most certainly “not a film about death.” Obit opens in New York on April 26 and will spread to theaters nationwide on May 5.

Brooklyn Magazine: How long did you have access to the New York Times office for the shoot?

Vanessa Gould: We had to be virtually surgical in our planning and execution. We were probably there six to eight days. It was both super verite and fly-on-the-wall, because we had no idea what would happen, but at the same time we had to meticulously articulate to the Times what we were going to do, where we were going to be, how many people were going to be there. It was a really small crew.

For a film about death, it’s ultimately very lively. Was it always your intention to make a film this light on its feet?

Well, I would challenge your question and say it’s not a film about death. It never was. Through my experience of working with [obit writer] Margalit Fox, I came to learn pretty fast that we were just thinking about Joisel’s life the whole time. The stories that came up were joyous and lively and funny. That experience that I had, working with her, informed my perception of what the film would be like. That feeling of discovery, determination—the things that people do in their lives, from the monumental to the craziness of a Frenchman who lives in a barn and folds paper. Joisel’s creations end up showing us something about ourselves. That’s inspiring, and it has absolutely nothing to do about death. Death was the peg. I was transfixed by the idea of a film on the enormity and the joyousness of lives that have been lived.

Last remaining archivist Jeff Roth searches The New York Times morgue. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Perhaps my favorite touch in the film is the inclusion of Jeff Roth, who runs the archival clip room, or “the morgue.” In many ways he seems like the kind of guy who’d get a Times obit written about him. He’s an eccentric with an interesting job no one else has. Was this part of your thinking for including him in the film?

It’s true. I didn’t know about him when I proposed the film to the Times, so I can’t take credit for saying that it was part of my thinking. But obviously as soon as the writers started telling me about “the morgue,” and how frequently all the writers on the obituary desk use it, because it has historical details that aren’t on Google, I wanted to see it. Then when I met Jeff, it was no longer research. It was like, “OK, how is this going to fit in the film?”

He seemed very eager to talk.

He’s a person of great contradiction. He’s both shy and eager. He’s such a complex character, but the way he runs that archive and his vast knowledge of it was riveting. You could probably make a whole movie about him. He’s a completely singular man in a completely singular room. There’s no other room like that on the planet, really, with that kind of an archival collection. As soon as I met him, I didn’t think “Oh, he’s going to be a great character,” but I was drawn to him. I wanted to hear his stories. He was kind of hard to edit. It was difficult to accurately express his personality without it becoming cartoonish or not who he was. We didn’t want to neuter him or play him up.

He gives the film a certain richness, seeing someone outside of the clean NYT office, working in what looks like some kind of underground lair. Was the physical space of the morgue also what was interesting to you, just visually?

Absolutely. We could have shot in there forever. And when you’re there—the smells, every corner there’s another thing to look at. It’s almost like you’re walking into the past.

For a doc of this sort, I’m curious how much of your budget goes to acquiring rights.

It was a lot. I think probably one-quarter of our budget went to licensing and rights, and that doesn’t take into account all of the footage that we fair-used. The archival element of the project was colossal. And expensive. [laughs]

As I rewatched the film I wondered about the parallels between the work of an obit writer and the work of a documentary filmmaker. You both seem to be finding ways to creatively tell someone’s story while maintaining true to who they are.

Absolutely. That common bond, which was unspoken, was a sort of friend along the way while we were making the film. We were strangers to them, but they’re strangers to the people they call. And you come with a deep interest in reporting on something accurately but also as you point out expressing it creatively. There’s also this wonderful similarity with the structure. The Times reporters are trying to say as much as they can in about 1,000 words, and we’re trying to say as much as we can in about 90 minutes. They’re bound by words; we’re bound by minutes. They’re looking at the enormity of a life; we’re looking at the scope of New York Times obituaries, which is also pretty enormous. You go through and you find the salient elements, the little details that you feel speak volumes, then you try to organize them and express it in a way that can say the most in the limited space/time that you have.

It’s a very life-affirming film, but at the same time it made me feel just woefully uninteresting. I’m curious if you’ve heard this reaction before. The film made me excited for the act of living, but it also made me wonder, “Well, what the hell have I done?”

Well, you’re not the first person to say that [laughs]. We’ve had a lot of different reactions. I wouldn’t say that’s what we were hoping to make you feel. The stories are remarkable. We didn’t want to do the ones that are by-the-book overachievers. We were romantically involved with the unsung heroes, the accidental heroes.

Do you secretly hope that you’re going to get a New York Times obit out of this deal?

You know, people have asked me that. I struggle to find the words to say that, almost to the point of active denial, I have never given a serious thought to that idea. I’m incapable of it. I became so invested in “the other” that to think of myself being involved in the story is virtually impossible.

What has your relationship with obits been over the years? Have they held a particular fascination for you?

No, I never read them. I wasn’t opposed to reading them, but they were never a habit of mine before this experience that I had helping them report on Eric Joisel. I’ve now read thousands of obituaries as part of my research. I think people as they get older read them. When you’re young, life is all about the now. Life is now, and that’s the thing. That’s the object of your attention. As you get older, it becomes part of your understanding that life is an arc. It has bends and curves and beginnings and middles and second middles. You see it more as this continuum rather than this moment. So I think people that are drawn to obits are people who have started to get out of the now and have started to think about the timeline of a life.

I saw Obit at Tribeca 2016, and I noticed in the theatrical cut you’ve updated the film to include images of Prince, David Bowie, Carrie Fisher. Did you feel an obligation to make these updates, given the sheer number of celebrity deaths in 2016?

Yes, we did. Your question virtually answers itself. I don’t know why there was such a strong urge to do that, but given what happened in 2016 and how much attention was paid to the number of really remarkable people we lost, it was too close to the heart of the subject matter of the film to ignore. The weird thing was we kept pushing off the update until the very, very last minute.

In case there were more deaths.

In case somebody else died, yeah. And that did in fact happen. I think we scrambled to get Mary Tyler Moore into the edit just days before we locked picture for the final time.

A glimpse into an old folder in The New York Times morgue. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

I’d imagine if I were you, I’d worry about a viewer getting out of the film and thinking “What about Bowie?” And that’s not what I’d want them to be thinking about.

As a culture when people like David Bowie die, we really do lose a little bit of something. I don’t want to say ourselves, that sounds too Hallmark-y. These people sometimes are our voices. Their our way of understanding our own feelings and emotions. And when they die, it’s like you don’t have that voice anymore. I wanted the inclusion of some people to evoke that feeling while people were watching the film. Especially in the middle of the film when we show the images of Ornette Coleman, Robin Williams, Philip Seymour Hoffman—that’s a time when people can really reflect on the attachments that they have to these people. I wanted some of those images to be recent and visceral.

One of the writers talks about obits as a trigger for nostalgia. You see that an actor from a show you watched as a kid died, and that does something to you. Nostalgia seems to be a hallmark of my generation. Do you think obits will continue to be popular in our culture given of our obsession with nostalgia?

This is a really interesting question. I think obits serve a lot of purposes. There’s a really natural and human impulse to mark the end of a life when it occurs. I think it’s compounded by this cultural fascination with nostalgia. That’s why these cultural figures get some of the most widely read obituaries. I think I remember that the Mary Travers obituary was at the top of the most-read list for like more than a week. You know, Peter, Paul and Mary—that’s the baby boomers. So I think nostalgia is a huge factor in why obits are so popular or widely read, but I don’t think nostalgia is at the heart of the function and the power of the obit, which is in my mind more of a natural urge in humans to recognize, record, recap a life. I don’t think it’s a fad like nostalgia might be. Nostalgia mixes itself in in sneaky ways, so it’s sort of hard to separate the two. But I think part of it is the fad and part of it is the bedrock human instinct.

The social media obit is a thing I’ve noticed in recent years. Someone dies, and then everyone rushes to think of the most interesting thing to say in the wake of their death on Twitter or Facebook. It’s sort of an arms race to see who can publicly grieve the best. Is this a phenomenon you’ve noticed?

Yeah, and I haven’t studied it that closely to be honest. The social media or online angle never really captured my heart the way that the philosophical, historical, journalistic angles of obituaries did. But I do think it gets back to the desire to just share and commune. These days we commune over the internet rather than in person. The way in which it’s done is kind of sad, but the instinct that drives it is pretty natural. I don’t know if it needs to be as competitive as the way you characterized it, which I’ve certainly seen, but I think it gets back to the deeper urge to recall and celebrate and share. As soon as somebody dies, it’s instantaneous. It’s such a human reaction.

Obituary writer Bruce Weber at work. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

In addition to being a movie about writing, Obit is also a movie about working under pressure. Was the pressure of making a deadline, of getting just one day to tell a life story, part of the appeal to you?

Absolutely, from the get-go. I’m fascinated by process, as our many people, especially documentarians. To have a look into the process of people working at the top of their field, to watch them work when they have such a well-defined goal, it just seemed like such a delicious premise. The film is time-based, the medium itself is a time-based medium, and the pressures of a deadline are time-based.

It took the journalists a fair amount of time to believe that what they were doing was film-worthy. In the beginning they were skeptical because they see themselves sitting at their desks all day typing. They went along with me for a while before they really understood how we were going to present it visually, with the kind of energy and mounting pressure that the film has. In the earlier days of journalism, the journalist’s job was to get out of the way. The journalism itself was never the story. But in today’s postmodern world, we now look at how things happen and the way things work. I struggled with this a little because I admire the old-school way of journalists being invisible. To turn the cameras on them was awkward at first. Just philosophically, it felt maybe like the camera was pointed in the wrong direction.

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