Aug 10, 2019

Q&A with the filmmakers of "Alternate Endings"

Mike Allen
Woman stands over a green burial grave and holds a rose. Several other people stand around the grave.

From "Alternate Endings": A woman places a flower into Barbara Jean's green burial grave. Photo: Courtesy of HBO

Our friends Perri Peltz and Matthew O’Neill, the directors and producers of "Axios on HBO," have spent 2 years and traveled to 10 states to produce a landmark documentary on death and dying, "Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America." It premieres this Wednesday, Aug. 14, at 8pm ET on HBO.

What they're saying: Here's a bit of a long conversation I had with Peltz and O'Neill, who repeatedly hopped on planes over the past 2 years when they heard one of their subjects wasn't doing well.

Your subjects were really talkative. Some of them were even funny.

  • O’Neill: "The humor is because there's a great deal of comfort and affection in each of these stories. If there's one thing in each of these stories besides death, it's love. And out of that love comes humor and comes teasing and intimacy and smiles."

Why do we have so much trouble talking about death?

  • O’Neill: "The baby boomer generation has had a greater degree of control over their lives than any other generation before them. It's because every topic that's taboo — be it sex, be it drugs — it's all on television and it's all being talked about. And death is the last taboo."
  • Peltz: "As Axios would say, why does it matter? We both believe that if this film can at least begin a conversation about death, that's going to take us to a better and more informed place."

When you screened a segment at the Aspen Ideas Festival, people cried.

  • O'Neill: "What we've been hearing is some variation of 'I was nervous about watching this. I was afraid to watch this, but since watching it, I can't stop talking about it. I talk to my husband about it. I talk to my kids about it. It made me have a conversation with my kids here that I've been putting off.'"

How did making this documentary change you? 

  • Peltz: "My mother has been trying to talk to me about her end of life for a good 10 years now. And every time she says, 'We really should talk about the end and what's going to happen and about my will,' I basically put my fingers in my ears and say: 'No, no, no, no, no — another time.' And what I've learned from this film is we have to talk about it. I went back to my mother and I said: 'You're right. Let's talk about it.' And that, for me, was a big difference. I'm still afraid of dying. But I'm willing now to have a conversation about it."

🎬 Watch a clip.

Go deeper:

Go deeper