Pull Focus: Peter Richardson
by Erin Finicane & Fatemeh Shahkolahi
A rising star in documentary filmmaking, Peter Richardson has made a name for himself with two feature documentaries that both premiered at Sundance and have won him multiple awards, including Sundance’s esteemed Grand Jury Prize. An Oregon-native himself, Richardson is know for his penetrating and introspective treatment of Oregon-based social issues. His latest film, “How to Die in Oregon,” explores the emotionally charged issue of physician-assisted-suicide which was legalized in Oregon in 1994 and remains one of the most controversial laws in that state today. Through the incredibly intimate stories of the terminally ill in Oregon, Richardson captures the spectrum of emotions behind that decision to end one’s own life, while simultaneously showcasing the elegance and dignity of his subjects. A producer, director, cinematographer and editor, Richardson has done it all, and during an interview for the 2011 Human Rights Film Series, he shares with us some of his experiences and insights.
What attracted you to filmmaking?
Richardson: I got into filmmaking in general when I got into high school, and before that I wanted to be a doctor. But I started, my freshman year in high school, I started getting into writing, photography and music — and film was the natural way to combine all these different interests. I was also very fortunate in that I had a couple of family members who were in film — and they were both cinematographers, and they had both had really long and successful careers in film and growing up in Oregon in this very rural area, a career in film didn’t seem very realistic. It seemed like more of an abstraction, a hobby. But having those people in my life, I could see that, “Wow, this could actually happen.” And they were very encouraging of me to pursue this interest, and I think that was kind of essential. They mentored me a little bit.
So then in terms of documentary, I went into undergraduate and majoring in film and really thought I was going to go into narrative filmmaking, and then while I was still an undergraduate, I got into still photography and specifically photojournalism with the student newspaper. And I just really, really loved photojournalism. I loved meeting different people around campus, learning what they are doing, especially in a university environment — there are so many fascinating things going on that you wouldn’t otherwise know about unless you are kind of in this role, and I was thinking, “Wow, wow, maybe I should go into photojournalism. Still photography,” which I’m really glad that I didn’t do because all of the journalists I know — even the really good ones — are now trying to come into documentary because the newspaper world is changing so much.
I really got into photojournalism, and at the same time pursuing studies in narrative filmmaking. And then my senior year in college, in our advanced film and video production class, our assignment was to, instead of making a narrative film — which had been our assignment for every year prior — our assignment was to make a short documentary. And so a friend of mine in the class — who is also from Oregon — had been following this story and this person in Illinois, in Peoria, Illinois — the guy’s name was Matthew Hale, and he was essentially this kind of white supremacist in Illinois. He, in fact, was the leader of a group called the World Church of the Creator. He was the Pontifica Maximus, and he was trying to create a sort of Neo-Nazi movement within Peoria, sort of move all of these people there so that they could then vote themselves into office. So he had been kind of researching this person, and said, “What if we made a short documentary about him,” and not make it really fantastical or anything — but a straight and short, like, 12-minute profile piece about this person. So we drove out to Peoria, and filmed with this guy. I think it was in that process that I really saw that I could meld these two interests of narrative filmmaking and photojournalism into a career in documentary. I remember that when we left for the shoot, I had this old Saab 800 hatchback, and this whole time in film school I had worked on narrative productions. You know, it can get pretty big. There’s a lot of people involved. There’s a lot of gear. And it takes a lot of resources to make a film. Even as an undergraduate. And here my friends and I were packing up the back end of my car, and we were driving out together to make this film.
You can do documentaries. You can make films out of the back of your car. It was just this kind of moment of realization there. And on top of that, there were all these exciting things about documentary. The form itself and also, exciting thing when you are looking to make your first film in the sense — you don’t have to worry about actors because every performance is perfect because you’re dealing with real people. That’s kind of what initially sparked the idea of documentary, and then it was about a year after graduation that I started making my first future documentary, which was about my hometown.
How do you determine what you are going to do a documentary about?
Richardson: I don’t think there’s any one way that a documentary can come about. Like right now, I’m in a situation where I’m actively looking for my next documentary, but really in my prior two films I’ve been very fortunate in the sense that both films have in a way fallen into my lap. Yes, they fell there, but I also had to recognize that I should make a film about this. And sometimes that’s not terribly obvious and sometimes it’s more obvious to an outsider than it is to you. So in both of those cases, these were films that were about the place I was living, about the place I was from. I think stories that I felt, especially with the second film where I had already made a film and I felt some confidence in the fact that I could make a documentary. They were really stories that I felt needed to be told.
I think a film can come from anywhere. I think a lot, sometimes for me, I read a lot and I read a lot of interesting stories just because I’m interested in them and because I’m looking for the next film. I feel a lot of documentary ideas for me come out of the experiences that I have. I think that’s probably just part of the medium — that film is just a visual medium. Reading an article may give you an idea for a story, but it’s not as experiential, of course, as actually being there. I think documentaries can come from a lot of different places. I do feel that especially when you are starting out — especially in my experience there are obvious practical advantages about making a film about something that you’re already familiar with or that’s close to you — in the sense that you can actually go do it — you don’t need a lot of outside financing to travel to a another country, for instance. Also, there’s a degree of intimacy and familiarity that you bring to the subject matter that another outside filmmaker would not be able to bring. And that, of course, influences the final film, and makes it better.
So walk us through the process… How do you find your subjects?
Richardson: With my first film, I knew there were a couple of essential characters, if you will, although I don’t like use the word ‘characters’ for real people. There were a few central players in this controversy that was playing out in my hometown so I knew the essential people that I would need to interview to tell this story. So that was pretty clear. And I was very fortunate, in that, the central characters — the central people I needed to film with in the film — happened to be very interesting characters in the filmmaking sense. So that’s kind of where I started. In the first film, it was much more obvious the direction I should go in terms of who I should talk to. In the second film, it was a lot more difficult in a lot of different ways. First of all, I’m tackling this huge topic and it is a really huge topic and there are stylistically — there are so many different ways I could approach that, and so many different ways that topic had already been approached.
So that was one choice: So what’s the kind of film I want to make? Is it a film about the leading experts on this issue? Or the people who are the political movers and shakers? So how do you kind of circumscribe the world of the film? But fortunately, I think I knew very early on the specific story I wanted to tell about this very large topic, which was the very direct and personal and first-hand experience about people in Oregon who were considering using the law. And that was very clear to me, early on. I think for a multitude of reasons, I thought that would be … that was the film that I wanted to see. And I felt that was the film that hadn’t yet been made and needed to be made — especially about such a controversial topic and especially about a topic that is frequently spoken about in theoretical, ethical and philosophical terms — terms that are removed from direct experience. That’s how I drew the line around this world, and the decision to talk to one person or another was made. And then, of course, the reality of actually finding and filming with people in Oregon who were facing their imminent death and were considering this. That was a huge, huge challenge. And it took a couple of years to find stories that I thought that I really need to have a film.
How do you gain the trust of your subjects?
Richardson: I feel that, first of all, a lot the credit goes to Cody, and ultimately her family, for opening up to me. And if you don’t have a willing collaborator in the film, it doesn’t matter what you do as a filmmaker. That’s just luck. But, of course, the first time I met with Cody and her husband, Stan, they weren’t saying, ‘Sure, come right in. Move right in with us and start filming.’ So it was definitely a process. And I think for me, that process started with just meeting with Cody and her husband — without a camera, of course, and talking with them at length about the film that I was making and why I was making it. And really trying to be as open as possible about that. I had been working with them for two years. So I had a lot of conversations like this, and I have a better sense of it. I was more comfortable with the conversations at that point. Initially, I remember the very first person I spoke to on the phone — the very first thing that I wanted to do on the phone was apologize to him for asking to make this film — because I thought, who would want to have a camera in the room at this point. Who would want to invite…I felt like I was imposing or being a burden, when in fact — this person had invited me into this space and wanted their story told. It was one of those things of frequently — I found in the making of this film — there’s a lot of apprehension around the topic of death, of course… and actually about this issue.
But frequently, the person who is terminal is the strongest in the room. And that was certainly the case with Cody. She was, fortunately, was initially open to the project and over time became very committed to it. And I think in terms of intimacy and access, there’s a multitude of factors that go into it. I think it’s earned. I think it can take time. Cody and I started off with a formal interview — like you and I are have, although first off, it was just one other person with a camera in her home to make it as comfortable as possible and then — that was kind of the beginning. And then, well, Cody do you think I can film with you and your family when you go to the beach? And then she had to kind of negotiate that with the family. And I spoke at length with her children, and they were wisely very wary and skeptical of me, as I think unfortunately most people are when someone asks to make a documentary about them. There’s a lot of wariness there. I was able to earn their trust over time. You just have to be very open and saying… and be open about what your role is as a filmmaker and that’s to tell a story and to ask — even in difficult times. And it’s the other person’s role to say yes or no. and it’s always, I think a matter of you are there at their invitation. And I think when you respect the times that they say no, and you don’t push — you earn trust and respect. And you show that you respect them and their needs for privacy.
Where there any stories you wish you could feature more in the film, but could not?
Richardson: Well, there are a lot of stories that I did film that, of course, cant not be in the film just because of running time, so that’s always difficult because I spent time filming them. But more importantly because someone had been very generous with me sharing their story and then it’s not in the film – that’s really difficult. But I was fortunate that when I made those calls to tell a person: “I’m so sorry but your husband who is deceased is not in the film,” people were very understanding about that and said to me: Well Peter, of course, we knew that going in – that we may not be in the final film. That’s fine and we understand. That was a huge relief.
I wasn’t sure if that was clear – if that was an expectation around that. But yeah, there were times — I mean — when I first met Cody, she felt that she only had maybe a couple of months to live. And so, I felt when I met her, it could be a very unique and special story and that I would only have a very limited time to film with her and of course it ended out being a much longer time. And there were other people were I would I would start to film with them and they would say: “You know I think that’s it. I don’t want to film anymore.” And then there were other people where I started to film with them and literally a day or two days later, I would get a call that they had passed away. In fact in all cases, from their underlying illness – not because of taking the medication. So, it was a very, very challenging film in that respect, because the nature of the people I was filming – it was very unpredictable what would happen, given that they had terminal diagnosis.
How do you deal with the emotional impact?
Richardson: That was really difficult. I knew going into it – that’s what I was going to be getting myself into. But it didn’t make it any easier. And there were a lot of people in my life – mentors, people that I trusted – who kind of warned me, like: Peter, do you really want to do this, because its going to be so difficult? You’re going to really develop a connection with these people and then ultimately lose them. So, that was really challenging. But I think that I was so committed to making this film and telling this story that I said to myself: I’m going to do it, regardless.
Also, the reality is, there are people who do this for their who lives – their whole career – and their called doctors. These are people who, although some doctors are certainly more removed from their patients, I think that doctors like Dr. Morris, who you see in the film – this is someone who, not only has the most intimate relationship with their patients but also who is not just seeing them on a single occasion. And she and I spoke at lengths about this. There is a reason why she chose this specific kind of oncology and that is because she does develop these longer term relationships with her patients. And she loses many of them. And she is the one who is trying to save them and cure them. So I think that going into I said to myself that its going to be difficult but its possible; its possible as a human being to do this. I’m not doing it for the rest of my life. I’m doing it for a few years. But it was still very difficult and I still miss all of the people that I filmed with very much. But also, it’s been such a gift for me to be able to spend this time with them and I’ve learned so much, not so much about dying, really, but living. There’s a lot of wisdom that was shared with me from people who were facing the end, who really understood ultimately what was important because they had to decided how they were going to spend the days they had left.
Has this experience changed you in any way?
Richardson: I think it’s a reminder. It’s easy to forget that life is short and that we only have so much time and we don’t know how much time we have left. Today could be the last day. And to be — conscious in your life and about the choice you make in your life and what you’re priorities are. And to not go through life pushed by whatever directions and to really prioritize things. I think I really — you know my parents are in their late 60’s and I really try to be mindful and aware and really value the time we have together even though I’m sure they’re going to be around for a lot longer. But honestly, its something that I really think about, how to really appreciate that time. So, I think those are some of the lessons. There are many, many others but its easy to forget that stuff and you forget it really quickly, especially when you’re busy. It’s very easy to forget that stuff. Seeing the film, even when I see different parts of it at screenings, even when I see the trailer, it really hits home. It really causes you to reassess your priorities and for me, to remember the experience of making it and the experience of being with these people.
What’s your favorite part of the film making process?
Richardson: I don’t know — I think there are aspects of every part of the filmmaking process that I really enjoy and then ones which I don’t enjoy. You know, I really like shooting but sometimes shooting is really difficult and is uncomfortable, especially making this kind of film. I mean, there were times where I felt pretty self aware and pretty uncomfortable having a camera in the room. And there are other times that you feel – the best times when you feel really in sync in way with the people you are filming, or feel, strangely, kind of invisible – that they are just themselves, and they’ve forgotten about you. I think those times can be really rewarding. And then I think the editing process is one that I really enjoy because that’s where — you’re making a lot of really conscious decisions about the kind of story you’re going to tell. It’s also very difficult, not only from a labor perspective, but making the choice to eliminate this quote, or that quote, or this scene, or whatever, is really challenging. But I think that’s where ultimately a lot of the storytelling happens. I mean there’s a lot of story telling going on in shooting as well, but that’s where you really start to construct it. So I really enjoy the editing process.
Was there a specific stylistic palette?
Richardson: Well — I think the style of the film evolved and over the course of three years of filming, I think my camera work definitely became much more intimate and much closer. But I’m not a person who likes to have a camera a foot or two feet away from my subject, like the face of my subject. It’s just not an aesthetic that I like and I just feel that you really start to feel the hand of the filmmaker in there. And I always think to myself “what’s that person thinking having the camera – even if it’s a small camera – having the camera that close.” You know, its just human to become more self-aware. And then I think there’s that aspect of self-performance that comes when the filmmaker is that close. And I think, generally, I prefer in the shooting and editing, a quieter style that’s hopefully — you know, film and documentary, especially, is a very highly constructive form because you are creating a reality, a continuous time and space for a viewer out of very edited footage — but hopefully, the style I try to convey is an invisible style, which some would say is the most deplicitest style of documentary filmmaking because it’s one that doesn’t call much attention to itself. But also, I’m very aware, in the editing process, of really communicating the experience because I was there filming and communicating the actual experience of that day and what was really there, even though its in a very abbreviated form. But generally, I like shots that play out a little bit longer, that are sort of more observation in style, and that’s generally the approach that I take.
How did you maintain an ‘invisible’ presence in scenes that you’re physically close to the people you’re interviewing?
Richardson: It is what it is. Everybody kind of like – You know, it’s the will and suspension of disbelief. It’s like Okay, Peter’s getting in the car. But, the fourth or fifth time you get in the car with a family, they really do start to forget you. And, I don’t know if the Curtis’ were just being generous but they would frequently tell me – and Cody would frequently tell me – Oh Peter, we forgot you were even there. And I sort of believe it actually. I mean, these were some very intense – times in their life that I was present for and I think that they were – the last thing, in a way, they were thinking about is about is my camera. When Cody’s meeting with her doctor, with her husband and her daughter there, they are focused on one thing: it’s her and her treatment. And even though the camera is fairly close, I would basically pick one spot and hopefully that worked for the scene that I was needing to cover out. And eventually, you do kind of start to forget the person in the room there. So every situation is going to be different and I would basically just –- when I would show up, I would say, great to see everyone and mic everybody up and then: Okay, I’m going to disappear now. And then I would go behind the camera. There is a – in documentary – certainly and element of collaboration. That, I’m going to be myself and forget you’re there. And ideally, over time, I think people really do kind of start to forget and really do – are themselves and are not performing themselves.
So you don’t think the dynamic changes when you’re physically there?
Richardson: Well I’m sure they didn’t forget that I’m there, truly forget that I’m there, because that would be impossible. But I think that, from what I observed with Cody’s family, when I was filming and when I wasn’t filming, it seemed to be pretty consistent to me. So, I think that they were pretty accustomed to having me around after I’d been around for quite sometime.
What about funding?
Richardson: Well, the project was – the film was totally self-financed for a really good portion of it. And then, I did apply for one grant so that I could hire a co-editor and that was Pacific Pioneer Fund, which is an excellent grant. And if you live in a Pacific state, I would recommend apply for it because there is a relatively – I think, although I don’t know for sure – a more limited pool of applicants because you can only get it once in your career and you have to live in California, Oregon, and Washington. So that grant, which I applied for and received, was really instrumental as I was beginning the editing process, in putting together the material that eventually got HBO on board with the film. So really, because I owned the mean to production, meaning a camera and a good microphone or a series of wireless microphones and a computer, these are all relatively easy things to do now, and because I was making a film about the place that I lived and could shoot it myself, the expenses for production were pretty minimal; it was like my gas and hotels, hard costs basically. That really made this film possible. And I think, also, that was something that I understood when I was considering making the film.
In a way I had felt a sense of responsibility to make this film because I felt, one, that it needed to be made; and two, this would be a difficult film to get properly financed if someone wanted to come in from New York, or Los Angeles, or a foreign country, move to Oregon and make this film because it would take years. Its not exactly a commercial topic, not likely to get financed by someone, so I think there was a little bit of acknowledgement there, as well, on my part. Here I was, a documentary filmmaker living in Oregon, this is a film I should really — that really needs to be made. So really up until the postproduction and editing, that’s where you really have to hire a sound mixer or a colorist. Yeah, the financing was — it was all self financed. And its not because I’m independently wealthy, its just because I was willing to work for free – for myself – and because I was making a film that was… you know Cody and her family lived 10 minutes from where I lived. So that made it doable.
What were some of the reactions you’ve received about the film?
Richardson: There have been a lot of really wonderful reactions to the film and I’m sure there are a lot of people who see it and really disagree with the choices portrayed in the film. And I welcome that. I didn’t make the film to convince someone about the topic. I think one of the reactions that I had after the film that’s really stuck with me was – after its first screening at Hot Docs up in Toronto – I had a woman come up to me afterwards and she was like in her mid to late 20’s and she said: “I just lost my mom to cancer and she was about Cody’s age. Your film, for me, represented all the conversations I wasn’t able to have with my mother.” That was just so moving and I can’t imagine — as a filmmaker, its incredibly rewarding to hear that. And then I think about if Cody would have been able to hear her say that, what a gift Cody gave to this person and to other people who may have had a similar experience. I think Cody knew that going into this and I think that’s why she was so committed to it. And all the other people who I filmed with understood, when they were facing their death and struggling (most of them) with cancer, how scary that is and how isolating it can feel; why not be in a film and be able to provide, through that film, some comfort to other people who were facing this.
What is the biggest challenge you faced in documentary film?
Richardson: I think the challenges are different for different films. The biggest challenge with this film was, of course, access. I was very, very fortunate to have met the people that I met with and have them be so open to me and the camera. That very easily could not have happened and there would have been no film or it would have been very, very different. I think that’s a big challenge. There are so many documentaries being made right now; I think its very challenging in a way to tell an original story. Going into the next film, I want to be — not careful — just really sure that this is a film that I want to make because I think it’s really challenging to make an original film. I was talking to a festival programmer a little while back and saying: Well, what kinds of films did you guys get this year? And they were like: Well, we got three films on monster truck rallies; we got six films about bees; we got like… and its just like wow, that really says it right there.
Not that there can’t be multiple films about those subjects because of course they’re going to be different. But I do think that there are certain subject matter and stylistic expectations that are being constructed right now about documentary, especially about documentaries that are in the main stream or that would play theatrically. That they will have a specific view point, that there will be maybe a call to action, that they are always political in nature; I think those are somewhat challenging and maybe limiting for documentarians and I don’t think they should be. I think that documentary filmmakers should make the films they want to make and not make the films they think are marketable. And it kind of goes without saying but it’s a competitive world out there and it’s easy to sort of start second-guessing yourself and not just following whatever you gut is about a certain story. I think the challenges are always different. It’s going to be finance — there are myriad challenges with making documentaries, which I think is all the more important that the film you make is something you have total belief and conviction in because it is — man it is like — with this film, I always knew I would finish it and I was lucky, in a sense, because it was my second film. Had it been my first film, maybe I would have given up and been like: You know what, this is too difficult; or, this film can’t be made; or, I’m not the one to make it; or all these different things. I think you really have to believe in your film to make it through all that stuff.
Because your film has a political and social undertone, did you expect a certain reaction?
Richardson: I think I was really focused on telling a specific story and that kind of lead the film in a direction in terms of balance. That it is kind of – – in Q&A’s and stuff I try to admit that “Yes, the film is more one side than the other but it wasn’t a calculated decision based on an idea that I wanted to favor one side or that I even had an opinion about this topic going into it.” And people ask me, “what do you feel about this law,” and I say: “well, my opinion is represented in the film. Here is one aspect of it and here’s maybe another aspect of it. And certainly there is more side than this side but it’s not because I favor the side. It’s because that’s the story I felt needed to be told.” And I think even in that side, if you will, you – through the film – learn that this decision is not an easy one and that people, in a way, are reluctant…
A big driver for me in the editing process is respect for the people you film with and that I tell their story, or their side, as accurately and as well as possible so that if they can one day watch the film they’ll say “Yes, that’s me.” And if there’s another side in it, they’ll say “well that’s the other side and I don’t necessarily agree with it but they’re there as well.” I think that certainly there was an understanding that I wasn’t just making this film in a vacuum. That there’s a much, much larger political issue and that the film may be used by – – organizations or used for more political purposes to support one side or the other. And I’m comfortable with that, in the sense of I feel good about the story that I told and that it was accurate. And that’s what I found. And I also think that — that was one of the reason I wanted to make the film because I felt that was need in this larger conversation. People were talking about assisted suicide or death with dignity or whatever you want to call it in terms and with information that was frequently removed from actual experience. And so, I feel as a documentary filmmaker, we have the opportunity to help illuminate that discussion through the films that we make. So I think that was part of it as well. I’m interested in politics and issues like this that are very – – not very black and white in my mind and have a lot of a very complex gray areas are appealing to me. I think that, more generally speaking, character driven stories that speak to larger political themes and issue of our time are appealing to me.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Richardson: Well I have a lot of advice. I think the biggest advice is — and it sounds basic or cliché or whatever, but go make films and finish them. I think that’s the first step. Don’t second-guess yourself. You’re probably better at this than you think you are. I always think about this and it’s not exactly the quote but I read this quote from a writer named Philippa Boyens, who’s Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s writing partner on all the Lord of the Rings, very successful screenwriter. And she went to NYU and got her MFA there and the quote was, “I wasn’t the best writer in my class, but I’m the one who’s still writing.” And I think that tenacity and persistence and patience is a really big part of success.
I think that especially as you’re young, although this isn’t solely a young person’s profession, but when you have a certain amount of freedom in your life, that you don’t have a family or a mortgage or all of these things, that you should really cease that time to go make films and just get out there and do it. More specifically, I think it’s really great the more roles you can fulfill in the filmmaking process, the more likelihood you have of completing your project. If you’re able to shoot, I think that’s a huge step I see in whether a film gets finished or not, and in what timeline it gets finished or not. I think that with documentary, especially, we’re very fortunate in that we have a lot more control whether our film — whether our film gets finished or not has a lot more to do with us than it does with certain external factors, which sounds strange because we’re dealing in a very uncontrolled medium that’s dependent upon the outside world. But what we’re also not doing is trying to make a narrative film that, although narrative films are often made very cheaply, there are a lot of external factors out of your control that can make those films very difficult to make. Not that you shouldn’t go make those films, but I think that, in a way, there a fewer excuses with documentary to not go out there and do it. So, that would be my advice.