Before I saw Peter Richardson's HOW TO DIE IN OREGON, I'd heard over and over that it was a incredibly difficult film to get through. In our now-annual interview in December, Sundance programmers David Courier and Caroline Libresco described the film to me as "devastating". There were reports of walkouts at Sundance (where the film won the Grand Jury Prize) and HBO's Sheila Nevins, the film's Executive Producer, even told the New York Times that the film was so wrenching, that "half her staff...refused to watch the whole film".
“Nobody wants to stare death in the face, and that’s the reason nobody wants to see this film,” Ms. Nevins said over breakfast at the nearby Canyons Ski Resort. “Don’t get me wrong — it’s very harsh, a very hard watch. But ultimately it’s an important film about courage, about dignity, about compassion.”
So you might imagine my trepidation in watching the film, which I did for the jury at this year's Ashland Film Festival (we, too, awarded HOW TO DIE our Grand Jury Prize, and not because of the regional topicality). I mean, watching people die? Who wants to do that?
I won't lie to you and say that I wasn't affected by the film for hours afterward or that, more than two months later, images from the film don't continue to haunt me.
But this film is not an impossible watch and you shouldn't shy away from it when it premieres on HBO tomorrow night. For such a loud subject, HOW TO DIE IN OREGON is a quiet, sensitive, beautifully made film that reveals Richardson to be a tremendously gifted artist. I'd go further than that: the relationship that Richardson formed with his key subject, Cody Curtis (and her family) is what making documentaries is all about.
The moments, late in the film, that Richardson and Curtis and the camera share are some of the most complex, moving shots I've seen this year. Without words, they convey a range of emotion. That we get to see them is due to one thing: Richardson knew to keep the camera on.
I had the chance to query Richardson as part of a panel discussion in Ashland and also through a few questions at him during The Soapbox open forum I hosted at Hot Docs. I asked him last week if I could re-visit some of those questions via email.
All these wonderful things: Can you talk a bit about the genesis of this project and any trepidation you might have felt at the onset? Obviously you must have known that one of the keys to getting the film you wanted would be to find someone or multiple someones who agree to let you follow their death process.
Peter Richardson: The actual inspiration for the film came in a rather serendipitous moment. It was 2006, the morning I was leaving for Sundance with my first film, CLEAR CUT: THE STORY OF PHILOMATH, OREGON. I was leaving the airport hotel in Portland early that morning and as I opened my door and looked down I saw the USA Today that had been delivered. The above-the-fold headline on the right-hand column (as I remember it) announced the US Supreme Court ruling upholding Oregon's Death with Dignity Law. The law had been challenged by the Bush Administration, went all the way to the Supreme Court, and was ultimately upheld in a split decision. And this happened to be the morning that decision was announced. So I saw that headline and it was very clear to me in that moment that I should make this film.
It was about a year later that I actually started production. During that time I was on the festival circuit with CLEAR CUT, so I had a lot of time to think about this film, read a lot and research. And also really question whether I was up to the task of making it, knowing what a difficult journey it would be personally and emotionally, and also question in a way whether the film “should” be made – what would the people who appeared in the film ultimately gain from their participation, and how could the film be made in a compassionate and respectful manner when dealing with such an incredibly intimate, private and emotional subject.