"Beautiful People Who Do Beautiful Human Things" : A Conversation with Filmmaker Vanessa Gould

Posted by: Sierra Council

To kickstart our “Meet A Filmmaker” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing award-winning  filmmaker and director, Vanessa Gould. We met Vanessa at this year’s Doc10 Festival where her acclaimed film, Obit, had its Chicago premiere.

Vanessa’s story has a unique start. Unfulfilled by her previous career choice, she was encouraged by a friend to express her creative energy through film. Without a film school background, she admits that in the beginning she was at a loss. A politically passionate person, she struggled trying to figure out what type of of film “the world needed” and felt an initial pressure to tackle social issues.

However, her first film, Between the Folds, turned those expectations upside down. Falling in love with the ways math could be visible and artistic, she pursued a story about origami artists.

“Because I was able to find something that I was so in love with -- even though no one thought it could be a movie  --  I did it. I kept following my intuition and it grew into a feature length film.”

That film was later picked up by Independent Lens, went on to win a Peabody Award and has been shown in nearly 70 countries around the world.

Today, Vanessa’s most recent film, Obit, is hitting theaters nationwide after capturing the attention of major film distributor Kino Lorber.

At first glance, a documentary following obituary writers isn’t exactly the first choice for a Friday evening festival flick. However, this film is a captivating surprise. Called "engaging and lively" by The Hollywood Reporter, the film follows New York TiImes obituary desk writers, revisiting the narratives of those who have passed and serving as a reminder of the beauty in everyday people’s stories.


In our conversation, I had the opportunity to learn more about her filmmaking journey, her passion for “the process” and her advice to aspiring filmmakers on how to thrive off of their artistic vision. Here’s a few edited excerpts of what she had to say:


So let’s talk you latest film, “Obit.” What inspired you to pursue this story?


“About 6 or 7 years ago, one of the featured subjects in my last documentary film passed away. He was a reclusive artist who worked outside of Paris. He was just on the cusp of getting recognized for his work when he got sick with cancer. When he died, it just felt like all of the artistic thinking, the things that we could learn from his work, were going to disappear quickly. It was like it was going to evaporate like smoke. I felt this panic to do something.


So I wrote to about 20 newspapers, sent the announcement of his death and two to three photos of his work. It felt like a long shot but three days later the only newspaper that contacted me was the New York Times.”


Her curiosity continued to grow as she continued to read the obituary pages daily. Despite her own belief that the New York Times would favor presidents and company CEOs, Gould learned that many obituaries highlight people who had a small influence over the world, yet “helped us see who we are as a civilization but that we had never heard of before.”


While working with the New York Times, she came across various obstacles trying to piece his life together. With many of her questions, she never did find answers.


“I couldn’t believe that the facts of someone’s life could disappear so quickly.”



How did this idea transform into a feature length film?


“Honestly, it was a really hard film to make. It wasn’t about an event or a plot where you could follow a chain of events. It was more about a meditation on the idea on the passage of time and what we can remember as time passes.”

Gould says making Obit was a slow process, calling it the classic “find the film in the edit room” story. Between the unexpected challenges of financing, finding archival footage for her characters and a tedious editing process, the full film took almost three years. She credits her film editor, Kristin Bye, for making much the magic happen.


How do you hope this film will impact viewers?


"Well, I think studying history is incredibly enriching. It teaches us a lot about ourselves. We learn about past lives and the obstacles that people overcame. The struggles they contended with and fought for. The progress that has been made. History can teach us a lot about the current problems that we have."


She goes on to describe that while her non-literal approach to filmmaking doesn’t address a specific message, it’s meant to highlight the joy that comes from learning from those that come before us.

Gould also touches on the importance of the work done by print journalists that are becoming rarer as we move into the digital age.

“Viewers get a really rare and special glimpse at the devotion and hard work that print journalist put into getting their stories right. They have the ability to be the last word on these people’s lives. It shows the function of print journalists at their very best."


She says she is proud of how her film is able to “elevate” these narratives and offer a new way to tell old stories.



Any advice for filmmakers?


“Preparation is everything.” says Gould. “Gaining the trust of your subjects is easier once you have prepared yourself.”


She says having access lays the foundation for a powerful film. If you have real “command” over the material, that’s how you gain trust and become more devoted to the project.


“Some people can just pick up a camera and run with it. But for me, what works is the opposite. A lot of studying. A lot of research. And then building the foundation of your trust and your access on that.”


For Vanessa, making films like Between the Folds and Obit are a sort of therapy for dealing with the “political problems of the world”. She says that she prefers to look for “beautiful people who are doing beautiful human things.”


In wrapping up our conversation, Vanessa encourages filmmakers not to be afraid to pursue their own individual passions.


“Ask yourself - “What film can I make that no one else in the world can make? It’s about cementing your voice.”

Obit will be playing at the Music Box Theatre from May 19th until May 25th. For more information, check out the film's website at www.obitdoc.com.