Sydney Film Festival – Interview: Peter D. Richardson (director of How to Die in Oregon)

Interview: Peter D. Richardson (director of How to Die in Oregon). By Simon Miraudo.

How to Die in Oregon makes its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday June 11. It also screens on Wednesday June 15.

How to Die in Oregon is the haunting new documentary from director Peter D. Richardson about the controversial Death with Dignity Act, which makes legal physician-assisted suicide for residents of Oregon suffering from a terminal illness. The film follows a number of Oregonians and their families coming to terms with their mortality, and making life changing (and life ending) decisions. Ahead of the film’s Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival, we spoke to Richardson about finding willing participants, asking them to allow him to film their final moments, and his relationship with the picture’s central subject, Cody Curtis. You can read our review here.

Peter D. Richardson collecting the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

SM: I’d like to begin by asking what drew you to this subject.

PR: It was really a serendipitous moment. I had just finished my first film; a film called Clear Cut. It was actually the day that I was leaving for Sundance with that film. I was very fortunate, a first time filmmaker, to get into the festival. It was the morning that I was leaving for the festival from where I live in Portland, and as I was leaving my hotel room that morning, I looked down and saw the newspaper, and the headline of the newspaper announced that the United States Supreme Court had ruled upholding Oregon’s Death With Dignity law. The law had been challenged by the Bush administration, and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, but it was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court and that just happened to be the day it was announced. I just saw that headline and knew that that was the next film I was going to make.

SM: Interesting, well tell me about approaching the families, and asking them to allow you into their lives for essentially their final moments.

PR: That was obviously a very delicate process. The relationships didn’t start out where they ended, in the sense that they became more intimate over time, as any relationship does. I think that has to do really with the trust I was able to build with these families as a filmmaker and just as an individual and also, through their courage and their increasing openness and almost a sense of collaboration, if you will, in the making of the film. With the Curtis family in particular, who I filmed with for 10 months – and there was only one other person I filmed with longer than them – I think as we really got into the filmmaking process, the whole family could see that I wasn’t going to be an invasive presence in their lives, but also they got a sense of the kind of story I was looking to tell, and it was really as much their story as possible. I think when they saw that, they were able to open up more and ultimately could really see the value in having their story told and shared with other people, and also the value it could bring them in their own lives, and also, in a way, the filmmaking process almost became a part of their grieving process. The children in particular, Cody’s children, told me after the filmmaking process, that the interviews that we conducted together were in a way free therapy for them. I think the filmmaking process ultimately ended out being a positive force for their lives, which in the end led to this real intimacy between myself and the families. But it didn’t start out that way. When I first met with Cody and her husband Stan, Stan and both the children were really against participating in the documentary. It was really only Cody that felt really strongly about letting me in with my camera and because this was something she wanted – and as Thomas her son said, ‘When your mum is dying of cancer, you don’t tell her no.’ – they ultimately agreed very reluctantly to film with me. Again, as time passed, they became more and more open to the camera.

SM: As you said, it’s very intimate, and although they came around in the end, was there a moment where you felt as if you were intruding; where you felt, ‘Hey, maybe I should not be here’? Did you have those moments of doubt?

PR: Absolutely. I think that was really my central doubt going into the whole film, not just her story, but the film itself. I felt very strongly that this was a film that needed to be made, and that this was a story that needed to be told. One specific issue that was very important was that this was the time to tell that story, and also the larger issue of death and dying in general, is one we need to address in this country. Really, all over the world, most places in the world, especially westernised first-world countries. We’ve become very sophisticated in hiding death from our daily view; maybe especially in America but I think a lot of places around the world. Now, most of the time, or a lot of the time, death happens in hospitals, and it’s out of the context of our daily life. I think in the film, part of my hope was to find a way to address and talk about death and dying again in a frank, not as sensationalised manner, but I an honest way. I felt very strongly about that, but at the same time, in order to tell that story, it would mean having access to and portraying the most intimate moments in a person’s life, and at the end of their life. I really questioned, ‘How can a person participate in the film, and derive some benefit? Is it possible to have them feel that they want this story told?’ I really questioned that going into the film, and in fact the very first person I called to film was Hank, who unfortunately isn’t in the film, but I remember thinking almost catching myself as the phone was ringing, and I was getting ready to talk to him, thinking almost impulsively that the first thing I wanted to say to him on the phone was ‘I’m sorry. Not only am I sorry for your illness – he had prostate cancer – but I’m sorry for even calling you and being so audacious in a way to ask you let me film you right now’. So I caught myself in a way, and I almost approached the beginning of this conversation with great trepidation and fear, and tip-toed around the subject. Then I found that he was very confident about having this film made about him, and to be on camera, and to be able to share his story with other people. I think sometimes during the course of making the film I’ve heard people say the people who are dying, the ones with the terminal illness, are the strongest ones in the room. I think that’s true a lot of the time; that they’re the ones who want to be the most open, and in a way it’s the rest of us that are fearful, or feel bad about this. But at least in my experience, people who are facing the end often do want to be open and frank about it, and certainly the ones I filmed with saw the film as an incredible opportunity to have their story told and to be able to share with other people who were facing what they were facing, and through that be able to share some comfort. If you go to the Facebook page for the film now – the HBO premiere just happened on May 26 – it’s just amazing to see the posts from the people relating their own stories, facing death and dying, and what an incredible comfort they’ve taken from seeing the film, and relating it to their own stories. I think the wisdom of the people I filmed with is that maybe they knew that by having their stories told, this would be the ultimate effect; other people would find great comfort in seeing their stories portrayed.

SM: I think one of the great parts about the film – and I enjoyed it very much – is that it’s not a polemic. It’s about the people more than the politics. It’s not concerned with “selling” the Death with Dignity Act, in a sense. The majority of people you speak to obviously are in favour of the act, and that serves the story you are trying to tell. When you were first trying to put together the project, did you consider approaching more doctors or politicians or pundits that were against the cause?

PR: It was a very conscious choice to tell a very personal story, and not a political one, even though it is such a big issue, philosophically, ethically, politically, medically. But purely as a filmmaker, I just wasn’t at all interested in making that film, and telling that story. I didn’t think that would be a terribly interesting film, and it had already been done already. I think it was a very conscious choice to not focus on the political for a multitude of reasons: that was the story that I felt needed to be told; it was the story I wanted to tell; it’s the most necessary story in a way right now, that this is an issue that is talked theoretically in way, by a lot of people on both sides of the issue, and I really felt there was a real lack of primary information, if you will, what the actual experience of someone who is dying and wants this medication, and it’s not at all how either side portrays it in a way, it’s much more complicated, and much more nuanced, and ultimately much more difficult, right? Much more human. And that’s what I really wanted to focus on. And in terms of balance, certainly the film is more the story of people who want to use this medication, and who decided for it to be a positive in their life, even though it does come with a lot of conflict, when they all make their personal choice. But wherever possible, I wanted to include the other side, but always in a manner where it felt as genuine in possible. By that I don’t mean people who are philosophically opposed to this are not being genuine, but I wanted to find the ways in which people may have been directly impacted negatively by the law, and a lot of ways, it’s hard to find those stories in Oregon, but when the story of Randy Stroup unfolded – who you see in the film is denied medical coverage, but gets a letter offering him assisted suicide instead – that was really the first major story that’s played out here in Oregon that has caused people to question the law. Once that happened, it was really clear to me that it needed to be in the film.

SM: Do you still keep in touch with the families, and specifically the Curtis family?

PR: Yeah I do. The Curtis’ are the family I keep in closest contact with. Right now, I’m in almost daily contact with them by email, because the film just premiered on HBO, so there’s been a lot of response. Really, throughout the editing process, and through the film being released, first going to Sundance – the Curtis’ came to Sundance, as did Nancy Niedzielski, and Cody’s doctor, Dr. Morris; they participated in Q&A’s – so I keep in very close contact with them.

SM: The film’s finale is really affecting. Was it a decision you made, to not be physically in the room with Cody and her family, or was it requested?

PR: It was a decision Cody and I came to together. Cody and I first discussed whether and how her death would be filmed just two days before, so just after we’d completed our final interview. She ultimately was not comfortable having the camera in the room, really for reasons of self-awareness; just being aware of the camera in the room, even though she and her family were very good about forgetting I was there, that I was around so much, that I had this very minimal footprint. This was definitely a time where it would not have been appropriate for them to have a camera in the room. So we came to the conclusion of, ‘Let’s have the camera outside of the window of their apartment, have another camera inside the apartment, but never go inside her room, and record the sound, but never actually go inside the room’. Ultimately I think it was for the best; it had been such an intimate journey with Cody and her family, and I think it would have been too difficult for the audience to be in her room at that time, and really in a way it would have detracted from her story.

SM: It’s hard to know with a documentary when you’re finished; when you’ve got enough footage, and when you’ve got the right footage. Was there a moment where you finally felt that you had what you needed?

PR: Really it was shortly after Cody had passed. I really didn’t start filming with Cody and her family until two years into the filmmaking process. I had already filmed very extensively with a lot of other people, and covered the Washington initiative, and a lot of different aspects of the law. Then I met Cody and I began filming with her, and when I began she thought she was only going to be alive for just a couple months, and then she ended up living 10 months. So I think once her story was really unfolding, it became clear that this would be the primary storyline in the film. And then it was this kind of surreal conversation Cody and I had in a way, with her saying, ‘Well Peter, I’m still alive, I’m still here, do you want to continue filming?’ And of course, the answer was yes, this was the reason I made this film, to follow someone on that journey no matter what happened. And even up until the end, Cody was really in a way conflicted about whether to take the medication, and as she says in the film, she would have preferred to have not to; would have preferred to die of natural causes other than her underlying illness. But then it became clear to her that it wasn’t going to be an option for her; it wasn’t going to be the way she wanted her life to end. I did do some filming after Cody had passed, some interviews with her husband and with her doctor, and then I also filmed her memorial, but that’s not in the film. The family has that footage and kept it for their scrapbook. That’s basically when the filming ended.

SM: Going forward, do you want to keep working in documentaries, or move into narrative features?

PR: I think I’ll always make documentaries, throughout my career. I’m interested in the narrative world as well, so I think if the right story and the right opportunity and all the stars aligned for a narrative do so, it’s definitely a form I’m interested in. Even if I did the narrative for the next film, I think I would … this won’t be my last documentary, I’ll say that.

How to Die in Oregon makes its Australian debut at the Sydney Film Festival on Saturday June 11. It also screens on Wednesday June 15. Get more details here.

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