Let’s face it: when you pick up a newspaper, quite often the obituaries are skipped over. Unless you knew someone who passed, chances are you would just skim the section to find out that so-and-so died from such-and-such and they were survived by x, y, and z (and maybe some grandkids) and they lived in a place until a time before moving to another place. It’s not the most scintillating section of most newspapers.
But The New York Times isn’t most newspapers, obviously. Home to one of the last remaining dedicated obit sections in the country, The Times prides itself on exemplary writing and the ability to tell stories that other publications might overlook. Be it a campaign manager for John F. Kennedy, a stunt pilot who lived into their nineties (despite many people thinking they wouldn’t survive past the age of 19, The Times included), or any number of celebrities, politicians, or figureheads who died suddenly, the staff of the obit department crafts stories to celebrate a life lost rather than passively mourn them.
For her latest film Obit (making its international premiere at Hot Docs 2016), filmmaker Vanessa Gould visited the world’s most influential newspaper to look specifically at the often maligned department, looking at the personalities behind some of the best written memorials in the history of journalism.
Shortly before the film’s first screening, Gould joined us alongside obit writer, journalist, and one of the film’s subjects Bruce Weber and her producer Caitlin Mae Burke to talk about what makes The Times’ section so special, vital, and eminently readable.
The obituary department is a bit of a dying breed…
Bruce Weber: Pun intended.
Absolutely. But as the film states, this wasn’t a place for writers to really thrive, but a place to shift staff members at a newspaper who were either on their way towards retirement or a destination for people being punished.
Bruce Weber: That’s still true in a certain way, but at The Times, the obits department is the oldest skewing department there. Our youngest writer just turned 56. Partly, that’s because other departments always bring up and attract hotter, newer talent. That’s also partly a good thing. All of us in the department have all lived through the history that we’re writing about. If you ask a 26-year-old to write an obituary about Daniel Berrigan, what are they gonna know from Daniel Berrigan? They weren’t born in many cases until the 1980s, so to have lived through the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and Nixon’s resignation, and the Reagan ’80s, you have a sense of the march of history and how certain achievements sit within the context of their time.
There’s also a great focus here on the storytelling craft that goes into an obituary for The Times that runs counter to what most people know these stories to be. Was that part of what drew you guys to focus on such a department?
Vanessa Gould: I knew that it had to be interesting what goes into these pieces.
Bruce Weber: Personally, I’m mystified that anyone would want to see me do my work. (laughs)
Vanessa Gould: (laughs) I knew that these writers had to be interesting people. It’s like Bruce just said. It’s in how seasoned they are, how many stories they’ve told, and how many lives they’ve seen pass by their desks. I knew the stories they were writing were interesting, and for me that was a safe enough clue and instinct to follow that for a story. Making that visually interesting, however, that was a different kind of challenge. Obits work really well in a print medium, and to sort of shift that to something visual and time based, and that was something I had to give a lot of consideration to early on. But the easiest answer to that question was to focus on the archival aspects of these stories. When I was brainstorming this idea early on with our archivist, I said, “Let’s use this as an excuse to dig up stuff that nobody else is looking at;” things that would otherwise never see the light of day again, which a lot of the time is what The Times works really hard at doing with the obits section every day. We wanted to resuscitate that, and it became such an exciting prospect.
Caitlin Mae Burke: The inciting incident of this film wasn’t just a kernel of an idea. Vanessa’s first film, Between the Folds, followed ten different paper folders across a spectrum of all these people who did that. One of her subjects, Eric Joisel, died at a fairly young age from lung cancer. When he died, there were a lot of works that were left unfinished in his studio that couldn’t be replicated because he passed at the height of his craft. So following the loss of this amazing talent who was also Vanessa’s subject and friend, Vanessa called a lot of English language newspapers to try and see how one could memorialize Eric’s life beyond this small community. The only people who got back to her were The New York Times, and she worked with a writer named Margalit Fox on this obituary. It was a beautiful obituary with a slideshow of his work, and when that ran, it was kind of the start of the work on the film.
I knew that these writers had to be interesting people. It’s in how seasoned they are, how many stories they’ve told, and how many lives they’ve seen pass by their desks. I knew the stories they were writing were interesting, and for me that was a safe enough clue and instinct to follow that for a story.
It’s great to see that you have the ability to pitch the idea of stories based on people who might not otherwise get memorialised properly in a standard obituary; the people who were kind of on the margins of history, but who made great contributions. Would you say that’s a major aspect of the job?
Bruce Weber: Well, yes and no. I think that one of the underappreciated elements of journalism in general, and of newspaper journalism in particular, is that the newspaper wants to be entertaining. It’s not just spinach. It’s dessert. I think that’s more the case now than it might have been in the past, but from the front page to the editorial page, everybody wants to give readers something they enjoy reading, and not something they feel they have to read. I think that operates certainly like that on the obituary page where we sometimes look for stories like that, but it also operates on the front page and everywhere else.
Was one of the reasons why you looked to The Times because of their ability to celebrate a life in the obit section rather than blandly memorialising someone in a boilerplate fashion?
Vanessa Gould: No, not really, actually. After I got the idea to look at obituaries in general, I considered the idea of going down the regional spectrum and looking at how other newspapers handle these kinds of stories. I actually went to an obituary writers’ convention to see who does this stuff. But, it ended up this way, and part of that is because I hate survey films that try to teach you stuff by focusing on too much at once. I wanted to have a clear, succinct approach from the start, and for that, The Times was the obvious choice, so that was more of a functional decision that reinforcing how they have this power to do what they do. I guess that’s also what made them a logical choice, though.
I know that The Times has been profiled in other television shows and films in the past, and I’m sure it’s not easy to get access to filming in and around their offices. So what challenges did you face in that respect, and was it easier to get them agree to go along with the project considering you were focusing almost exclusively on that one department?
Vanessa Gould: I just asked if I could do it. (laughs) But it was not easy to get this going. The Times was appropriately cautious with going ahead on this. They didn’t know me from a hole in the wall. My persistence was surely what finally did it. It took two whole years from me having this grain of an idea to us starting filming, which was a long time. They requested that we stay pretty tightly around the obits desk.
Bruce Weber: Vanessa is nothing if not a very gifted nag. (everyone laughs) She actually got a lot more access than I think she would have gotten without that persistence.
Vanessa Gould: I would have honestly been surprised if this was an easier project than it was. I’m sure they have way better things to do with their time than entertain the fanciful dreams of independent documentary filmmakers. (laughs)