Below Portland-based filmmaker Peter Richardson shares a scene from his second feature documentary, “How to Die in Oregon,” winner of the Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The HBO release comes out on DVD February 14.
Why I Made the Film
“How to Die in Oregon” was born out of a rather serendipitous moment in 2006. I was departing Portland for Sundance with my first documentary, “Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon” and, as I left my airport hotel room that morning I saw the USA Today that had been delivered to the door. One of the above-the-fold headlines announced that the Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision, had upheld Oregon’s Death with Dignity Law — the law had been challenged by the Bush Administration under the Controlled Substances Act. It was clear to me in that moment that this would be the topic of my next film.
What inspired me to make “How to Die in Oregon’ was the desire to tell a profoundly human story about this unique right that residents of the state of Oregon have: to legally end one’s life by lethal overdose if two physicians agree on a 6-month or less prognosis. In my experience making the film it was a choice that many people welcomed and was one that gave them great comfort, but it was also a choice that caused them to think in very profound and existential ways about the meaning of their life, how they would spend the time they had left, what truly mattered to them, and ultimately when and how they would say goodbye to their loved ones. All these elements play out not only on a personal level in the film, but also within families – how do you say goodbye to your children and husband – between patient and doctor, and with friends and co-workers. I also found the negative ramifications such a law could have on the poor or marginalized in society, and how it could challenge our traditional notions of the role of a physician as healer. It’s a magnificently complex issue, but my interest lied in the very specific, intimate, and personal stories of a few Oregonians as they neared the end of their life.
More About My Main Subject, Cody Curtis
About two years into filming I met the individual who would ultimately become the main character in the film: Cody Curtis. Cody was 53 years old at the time and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer of the liver. By the time I met her, her husband Stan, and their two children, Jill and Thomas, Cody had already been through surgery in an attempt to eradicate the cancer, which, despite excellent medical care and support from her family, was ultimately unsuccessful. Once the cancer returned she had decided not to pursue additional curative therapies, which at this point were not predicted to appreciably extend her life, and instead would undergo only palliative care. She also decided that she wanted to obtain the life-ending medication under Oregon’s law, which she kept in her nightstand, just in case.
Here’s the Scene
In this scene we see Cody, her daughter Jill, husband Stan, and her surgical oncologist Dr. Morris — the physician who, at Cody’s request, gave her the lethal prescription under Oregon’s law.
Behind the Scene
This was the first time I was allowed to film Cody’s doctor, who rather courageously agreed to appear on camera. Up until that point I had never gained access to one of my characters’ physicians, and if they were ever referred to in conversation it was only by the first initial of their last name (“Dr. M”) to protect their anonymity.
At this point in the film we’ve just learned that Cody has outlived her 6-month prognosis and, thanks to a newly developed and very effective palliative care routine, she is feeling remarkably well and many of her symptoms are being effectively managed. Cody had initially planned to take the life-ending medication on Memorial Day, so through the summer she entered this kind of limbo where she was living on borrowed time and was feeling much better than expected. She and her husband called it their “golden summer.” It was also a time of great introspection for Cody as she wrestled with how and when she would know it was “time.”
What always strikes me about this scene is the remarkable humor, courage, and honesty that Cody and her family brought to such tragic circumstances. I was asked during a Q&A at a festival whether I edited the humor “in.” The answer of course was no, but my co-editor Greg Snider and I were also careful not to edit it “out”, because present in nearly every moment of filming with Cody and her family was that mixture of joy and sadness, love and tragedy that, for them at least, was life at the end. It felt as if they were continuously celebrating the life that Cody had led and was still leading, while at the same time finding a way to say goodbye.