Obit: Vanessa Gould’s Docu of How the N.Y. Times Craft Obituaries

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, Eric Joisel.

The experience was so inspiring that she made her next documentary, Obit, which has its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Fest, 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 says about 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 trying to find the salient element. It was just sort of fascinating that the Times would be studying the life of this French artist they’d never heard of before. Reading more obituaries and seeing what they are, as a 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 painting a reductionist but salient portrait of another person.  I was just sort of like fascinated by the fact that every day in the 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.”

When she began working on the docu, 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, she was “open-minded and eager.” The docu features interviews with the writers and editors on the obit desk, who recall accounts of the lives of luminaries featured in the newspaper, and visits “the morgue,” the Times’ century-old archive, where 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 takes viewers inside the process of crafting obituaries, as the Times writers are putting together retrospectives on noteworthy people who died, like William P. Wilson, who helped John F. Kennedy in the historic first nationally TV presidential debate.

“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 on their experience as well.

Gould’s team didn’t spend much time in the newsroom — only five or six days— and lucked out in that one of those days featured the writers constructing obits on Wilson.

“We had no idea what was going to happen that day.  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 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 sort of captured that process. When we were filming the morning meeting we didn’t even know which people they were going to choose to report on.”

They almost witnessed the construction of an obit for the shocking death of movie star Robin Williams. “We were in the newsroom the day that Williams died but had left like 20 minutes before,” Gould says. “We could have sat there for weeks and nothing would have happened.  It would have been a different film.”

David Bowie

The docu features writers talking about crafting obits for stars who die unexpectedly, like Michael Jackson, B.B. King, Philip Seymour Hoffman. “David Bowie is a perfect example of how the public reacts when someone dies.  The rituals of sharing things on Facebook or wanting to read the obit and share it. The obit is part of a centuries old mourning ritual. We do it either privately or publicly and the Times obits are always being done publicly. When we were going through the footage we were just crying. It was so fresh at that point—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 wanted to make people feel that when watching the film.”