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Meet the IDA Documentary Awards Nominees: Peter Richardson of 'How to Die in Oregon'

By Katie Murphy

Editor's Note: Peter Richardson's How to Die in Oregon has been nominated in the Best Feature category at this year's IDA Documentary Awards, to be held at the Directors Guild in Los Angeles on Friday, December 2. Below is an interview we conducted with Richardson last May.

How to Die in Oregon, which won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, follows individuals whose lives have been deeply affected by Oregon's Death with Dignity Act, which legalizes physician-assisted death for terminally ill patients who request it. It's not an easy film to watch, and at screenings of this heart-wrenching and intimate documentary, filmmaker Peter Richardson admits that the ending of the film is often greeted with silence. This is an understandable reaction to such an emotional and powerful experience; as you become invested in the subjects of the documentary, you can't help but think of how, as Cody Curtis puts it in the film, we are all terminal. There are no easy answers when it comes to how to die, no matter what the state or country, but with How to Die in Oregon, Richardson hopes to at least make asking the questions just a little easier.

I spoke with Richardson before he left for Hot Docs, and we discussed his filmmaking process, how he handled such an intimate and sensitive issue with his subjects, his advice for beginning filmmakers and more.

IDA: What inspired you to make a film about the Death with Dignity Act?

Peter Richardson: Inspiration for the film came to me out of the blue, really. It was 2006, and I'd just finished my first film, Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, and the day I was leaving for Sundance with that film happened to be the day that the Supreme Court ruling upholding Oregon's [Death with Dignity] law was announced. The law had been challenged by the Bush Administration and it went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in a split decision to uphold the law. So I just knew that would be the next film I would make.

IDA: Beyond living in Oregon, do you have any personal connection to the law?

PR: It didn't come from a personal experience I had with the law; it was really just thesynergy of that moment. I realized that this was a film that really needed to be made because it was such an important issue and it hadn't been done yet. And it would not be an easy film to make, just from a practical perspective. It would probably need to be made by someone who lived in the state. Living in Oregon, I felt an almost responsibility as a documentary filmmaker to tell this story, and the way that I wanted to tell it would require a really long-term commitment to following the lives of a number of different people. So it was all of those different pieces coming together.

IDA: What were your goals in how you wanted to approach such a controversial topic?

PR: I knew pretty early on that I didn't want to focus on a political or theoretical conversation about this issue; I really wanted to focus on the personal stories of people who were considering using this law. That was what I was most interested in, and I also felt that there are many other forums and there have been many other expressions of the theoretical aspects. Where I felt there was a real lack was in, "Let's get down to how this actually plays out in people'slives." There was a journalistic sense that that's a story that needs to be told, but also to me as a filmmaker, this is an intensely personal choice that people are making--to get this medication and then to potentially use it--and I thought that would best be explored in a documentary. That was the film I was interested in making--about these personal stories, not about a number of different experts talking about this issue more theoretically or sharing their opinions.

IDA: How did you find your subjects?

PR: When I began researching this issue I discovered pretty early on that most of the people in Oregon who use the law or consider using the law have some contact with an organization called Compassion and Choices. I contacted them and said, This is the film I'd be interested in making; would you be willing to, on my behalf, make introductions to people you have contact with and I can speak to them about participating in the film?  That's pretty common for them. When there's coverage in the US or abroad about the law, because it's an initiative that's popping up in other countries and other states, they're frequently contacted because they do have access to people in the state who are considering it. So they agreed to make the introductions on my behalf. That led to the initial conversations with potential interviewees and subjects of the film that evolved to kind of personal relationships with those people as the filming went on.


Left to right: Dr. Katherine Morris (left) has a discussion with patient Cody Curtis (center) and her husband, Stan Burtis. From Peter Richardson's How to Die in Oregon, which airs May 26 on HBO. Courtesy of HBO


IDA: Cody in particular really allowed you incredible access. Was there ever any concern from her or her family or on your end with you filming such intimate moments?

PR: I think that as a filmmaker that would be the biggest challenge of the film--the fact that I was entering into very intimate moments at very sensitive times, maybe even the most sensitive times in people's lives. That was one of the central questions I asked myself, and I think a lot of documentary filmmakers ask themselves going into these situations: I really believe in this film, and this story needs to be told, but what is my presence going to mean for the people I'm filming with, and can that be a constructive process, not only for the film that I believe in, but for them intheir own lives?

I really questioned whether or not it was appropriate for me to ask of these people what I would ultimately need to ask in order to make the film. What I discovered really early on was that they felt very strongly about having their stories told and being able to share their experiences with other people, and they saw the film as their way of getting to do that. That was very reassuring, and that's what I encountered with Cody and her family as well, was that willingness and openness to share.

But initially, with Cody's family, that only came from her. Her husband and her children were pretty [much] against the idea of participating in the film for the obvious reasons I think most people would be, but Cody felt very strongly about it, so they just went along with it initially.

As the process unfolded and they saw how I would be a presence in their lives and that I could have a minimal footprint while I was filming and would be respectful of their privacy when it was asked of me, ultimately they told me that they found the process of being in the film a very constructive one, not only in the final product of the film itself but also in the actual filmmaking process. Cody's son and daughter referred to our interviews as "free therapy," and I couldn't ask for anything better as a filmmaker to have them say that.

But that was one of the essential challenges any time you make a very personal film likethat.  Frequently these kinds of films are made about someone in your family or are a very personal experience so there's less risk in the way that you're asking less of the people you're filming with, but in this I was a total stranger in these people's lives and that was a real challenge for me. It's a real testament to the courage of these individuals that they would give me such access. Certainly there were times when I was told that I couldn't film and that was always kind of a ground rule thatwas understood, but it's still remarkable the degree to which they were so open.


Left to right: Dr. Jason Bauer and patient Cody Curtis. From Peter Richardson's How to Die in Oregon. Courtesy of HBO



IDA: How have audiences reacted to your film?

PR: I've found the general audience reaction to be very positive. It is a very difficultfilm and I try to acknowledge that. At the beginning of screenings, I thank people for coming because I know that, one, it's not an easy film, and two, it's not an easy film to watch in a theater with a lot of people. But almost every screening I've been at has been full, so as difficult as this issue is--not only physician-aide in dying but the larger issue of death and dying--as much as people don't want to confront it, and there's this idea that "Oh, well, this isn't something we want to talk about in our society," I also think that this is something people do want to talk about. There is a hunger for a real and genuine conversation about death and dying--not in a morbid way or in a way that is anything but people wanting to have a dialogue about something we're all going to face. As Cody says, "We're all terminal." It's not something we can avoid, and that's scary, but also, it's why this film does need to exist and why we do need to have this conversation--because ultimately we are all terminal. There's very frequently silence at the end of screenings, and that's to be expected. This is a very, very emotional and powerful experience, but I also think it can be a really transformative one, and that's been my experience with touring around at festivals with the film.

IDA: Do you have any political or social goals for the film?

PR: I don't have any really political goals because I wasn't coming from a certain political perspective on the issue. In terms of social goals, one was just to share this story. There's a kind of journalistic mission with that: the idea of sharing a story about a very important social issue and a groundbreaking law that exists in Oregon, and how that might inform a debate in other states or other countries where the law is considered-- like Vermont, for instance, where wedid a screening. So there's that immediate goal that's directly tied to a specific issue.

My larger hope with the film is that it fosters a conversation among those who see it about this larger issue of death and dying that I think is critical for our country to have, no matter where you fall on this specific issue.  You can totally disagree with it, and I hope still find a lot of value in seeing the film and hearing these stories and hopefully feel like you can have this kind of conversation with your own loved ones. I actually get that a lot from people who've seen the film, about the conversations they've then had with family members--not specifically about death with dignity but just about this larger issue of death and dying and what would they want, and what are their views on it, and "We've never talked about this" because nobody does want to talk about it. So I think the film can be a catalyst to that kind of conversation.

IDA: Do you have any ideas for your next film?

PR: I have some ideas but nothing I've landed on. I want to get this one out into theworld and clear my head a bit before I start on the next one.

IDA: Do you have any advice for beginning documentary filmmakers?

PR: Go make documentaries. That's my single piece of advice. You can totally make a documentary or a feature film out of the trunk of your car, which is basically what I did with both of these films, at least initially.

There are incredible stories all around you. If you want to be a filmmaker, go make films. That was the best advice that I received in college. It was on a field trip for part of a sound design class and it was really inspiring, to just go make films. If you want to be a filmmaker, I think that's the best thing you can do.


Peter Richardson, director/producer/cinematographer of How to Die in Oregon. Courtesy of HBO


How to Die in Oregon airs May 26 on HBO.


Katie Bieze is a graduate student in the Film and Video program at American University and works as a graduate fellow at American University's Center for Social Media. She graduated from Duke University in 2009 with a BA in literature and certificates in documentary studies and film/video/digital.