In 2002, a senior named Peter D. Richardson was among the first group of students to make their own documentaries as part of Associate Professional Specialist Ted Mandell’s class in Notre Dame’s Department of Film, Television, and Theatre (FTT).
“It was an incredibly fulfilling experience, and I was hooked,” Richardson says.
Four years later, his first documentary Clear Cut: The Story of Philomath, Oregon, was selected to premiere at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. His next film, How to Die in Oregon, then won the 2011 festival’s U.S. Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize.
Although Richardson had primarily worked on fictional projects as an FTT student, he says Mandell’s documentary course made him realize he could combine his passion for photojournalism with filmmaking.
“Throughout my four years at ND, I worked as a photographer for the Observer, which I loved,” he says. “The job brought me into other people’s lives and work, which was endlessly fascinating. I really enjoyed meeting these different people, hearing their stories, and then getting to help share them with others.”
The challenge and privilege of filming some of the most intimate moments in his subjects’ lives is what continues to inspire Richardson, whose home state of Oregon became the first to legalize physician-assisted suicide in 1994.
According to a synopsis on the Sundance website, How to Die in Oregon “gently enters the lives of the terminally ill as they consider whether—and when—to end their lives by lethal overdose. Richardson examines both sides of this complex, emotionally charged issue.” The film premiered on HBO in May.
Richardson says he was incredibly honored even to have his film selected as one of the 16 documentaries in competition at Sundance, let alone the winner of the category’s top prize this year.
“I felt shock and a deep sense of gratitude,” he says. “Also, validation. I was making the film for four years, and inevitably during a period that long—although not all that long in documentary terms—you question what it is you’re doing, whether you will ever finish, and if it will be any good. Winning the award is an answer to those questions.”
Richardson’s film will attract significantly more viewers because of the prize, says FTT Professor Emeritus Jill Godmilow, who won the 1987 Sundance Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Category for Waiting For the Moon. “People pay attention to what wins at Sundance.”
She says the prize will also make Richardson a much more credible producer in terms of raising money for his next documentary project, noting that “it’s as good as an Academy Award nomination.”
Looking back, Richardson credits much of his professional success to the strong foundation he received as a student in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre.
“A few unique and important aspects of my experience were the equal emphasis on both production and theory courses, the quality of courses outside of the major, access to resources and equipment, the dedication of the faculty, and a total emphasis on undergraduates,” he says.
The result is that Notre Dame prepared him to be a filmmaker, not just a crew member, says Richardson, who serves as his own director, producer, editor, and cinematographer. “This may sound cliché, but the documentary world is filled with multi-hyphenates these days, and the more roles you can fill, the greater likelihood you have of realizing your film.
“I also direct commercials and work with much larger crews on those, but familiarity with all aspects of filmmaking has served me well in that field, too.”
Make it Happen
Richardson, who still keeps in touch with faculty mentors such as Godmilow, also still remembers the best advice she gave him: “If you can't get a job in the industry after college, take whatever job will offer you the most flexibility and pay the most money in the least amount of time, no matter what it is, and then...Go make films!”
He also recalls a "field trip" with Professor Donald Crafton's Sound Design class in 2002, when they went to Skywalker Ranch and met with Rick McCallum, George Lucas’ producer on Star Wars Episodes 1-3.
“Rick encouraged us to go make movies before, in his words, ‘we had a mortgage or needed to drive a nice car or got married and had kids.’ He was adamant: There were no excuses. If you want to be a filmmaker, go make films. That advice, while simple, really stuck with me.”
Current FTT students should take that to heart as well, Richardson says. “It's never been easier to make your first film.”
Learn More >
- Department of Film, Television, and Theatre
- How to Die in Oregon official website
- Video of Peter Richardson talking about How to Die in Oregon
- Jill Godmilow faculty page
- Ted Mandell faculty page
- Donald Crafton faculty page
- 2011 Sundance Film Festival Awards
By Kate Cohorst