“The Columbarium” | Interview with Tyler Trumbo

| February 17, 2015

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Built in 1898, the Neptune Society Columbarium is the only non-denominational burial place within San Francisco city limits that is open to the public. Its beautiful neo-classical architecture, stained glass windows and intricate mosaic tile floors make it the gorgeous and haunting subject for the short film The Columbarium In under four minutes, filmmaker Tyler Trumbo (Stanford University) offers a rare glimpse of the Bay Area architectural wonder and looks deeply at the relationship of life and death through the eyes of caretaker Emmitt Watson.

We connected with Tyler via email to discuss the documentary and his impressive subject, Emmitt Watson.

Emmitt Watson in The Columbarium

Emmitt Watson in The Columbarium

Tell us a bit about yourself and your background in film. How did you get into documentaries?

I grew up in the itty, bitty town of Fincastle, Virginia. It was filled with a culture of history and storytelling that dazzled me as a kid and helped form my passions in life: people and stories. There were no filmmaking outlets in the mountains so you had to make your own. Honestly, I got into documentary because it was the quickest way to get my feet wet without much money or resources, and it started a slow-burning love affair. After receiving a B.A. in American Studies at the College of William & Mary, I spent five years as a producer, director and editor for Two Rivers Multimedia, a small production house focusing on short documentaries for museums. This led me back to the mountains of Virginia where I was able to help create profiles that showcased the passions of artisans and musicians that call the mountains their home.

Tell us about the Columbarium. What is it?

The Neptune Society Columbarium in San Francisco is a giant cathedral-like repository for cremated remains that stretches back to the late 1800s. Every nook and cranny is embedded with niches or display cases containing urns and people’s prized possessions, anything from baseballs to ballet slippers to Johnny Walker bottles. To see a person’s life boiled down to a few objects tells a fascinating story. It is truly like a history museum of the people of San Francisco.

Emmitt Watson touching up paint in the Columbarium.

Emmitt Watson touching up paint in the Columbarium.

How did you meet your subject, Emmitt Watson?

Emmitt is not only the steward and groundskeeper for the Columbarium, but he is also the caretaker of these people’s stories. He frequently leads tours, so I was able to meet him upon several visits to the site.

Emmitt Watson, reflected in glass.

One of the many memorial niches in the Columbarium.

“I look at it in pieces. You think you’re looking at that whole window, but you’re probably missing 80% of that window.” What do you think this means to Emmitt and, for that matter, to you? Any correlations to the documentary filmmaking process?

I think [that] for Emmitt, he uses the pieces of a stained glass window as a metaphor for how we look at people. It is easy to meet someone and think you get the whole picture, but look closer and you see that each one of us is made up of different pieces and parts. It’s those pieces that tell a much deeper, complex and more interesting story of [who] we are as individuals. We just have to take the time to look. That process of looking is how and why I make documentary films. I’m fascinated with taking a topic and flipping it on its side to see it from a new perspective. That is honestly what drew me to the Columbarium and to Emmitt because they inspired me to see death from such a beautiful and unexpected perspective.

Stained glass windows in the Columbarium.

Stained glass windows in the Columbarium.

How did being around that location, a unique place of history and death, affect your production?

The emotional weight of being physically surrounded by death overwhelmed me when I first walked into the Columbarium. Yet, the space began to change once I took time to examine individual niches and see the vibrant and passionate tokens of people’s lives. The anxiety of death was replaced with a warm curiosity to explore. The space morphed for me from a solemn place of death into a cave of wonders where the story of life was celebrated. I really wanted to experiment with capturing that evolution visually – starting wide on the space, focusing on the dazzling architecture and sheer volume of niches, then revealing the power of life found within the Columbarium by shifting focus to the individual niches and Emmitt’s unique perspective on life and death. I just wish my production could have been longer in order to delve into the fascinating histories of the city that can be mapped when looking at these individual niches from a collective angle.

Some of the niches in the Columbarium.

Some of the niches in the Columbarium.

Why black and white?

Black and white was a parameter given by Stanford for this particular project, but I let that parameter inspire how I approached shooting the space. There are so many colors inside. It is truly stunning. Yet when reduced to black and white, the architecture and the grid-like patterns of the niches really popped in a way that I felt accentuated the fascinating dichotomy of a place that is at once lined with death yet filled with life.

Emmitt’s great. What else can you tell us about him that’s not in the film?

There is so much more that I wish could be in this film! He started out as the gardener and painter for the Columbarium in the 1980s, and has since become the resident historian, storyteller and caretaker for the families involved. There was one scene I had to cut that [hints] upon his relationship to the families. His office is lined wall-to-wall with cards and letters from families sharing stories about those inside and thanking him for the care and passion he has for these people. His inspiration and passion reaches far beyond the walls of the Columbarium.

Emmitt Watson in the Columbarium.

Emmitt Watson in the Columbarium.


What filmmakers or other artists have influenced you?

I can’t really say that there is one filmmaker that I point my creative compass towards when approaching my filmmaking. For me, the project really is my guide in terms [of] approach and style. Each place and person carries their own themes and their own perspectives. The fun and excitement for me comes from trying to find a unique way to get those themes across cinematically. Yet, one artist I guess I go to when needing to fill my creative bucket so to speak would be J.M. Barrie, the writer of Peter Pan. That sense of wonder towards the world and his emphasis on the importance of imagination is something I try to instill in all of my projects.

What was the hardest part of making The Columbarium? How about the easiest?

The hardest part, hands down, was working with the required 16mm Bolex film camera to shoot this project. You had to wind it up with every shot and each wind only lasted 27 seconds. It was so loud when filming that all sound had to be captured later, which actually became a fun project in sound design. You couldn’t take any sound for granted since everything that is heard in the final film was a creative choice. Using the Bolex, you also had to be hyper aware of all aspects of filming, from proper exposure to lens choice to framing. It was a fantastic teaching tool by placing a terrifying amount of trust into your own abilities and decisions on set, since you couldn’t look at what you shot until a week later. The easiest part was pulling together a rough cut. Emmitt gave so many incredible insights that I knew I wanted within the film. The hard part was whittling it down to the essentials.

Tyler Trumbo, director of "The Columbarium."

Stanford filmmaker Tyler Trumbo, director of The Columbarium.

Tell us about your Stanford experience.

Honestly, Stanford has been incredibly hard yet incredibly rewarding. The web of support and creativity amongst the small class of eight students is strengthened with every one of the four films made within the two-year program. There is an immediate dedication brought to the table by professors, students and staff that truly does foster a sense of respect and excitement. It is humbling and awe-inspiring to witness eight new films brought to life every quarter by the sheer passion of peers and mentors. This importance of collaboration is my biggest takeaway and one of the strongest elements of the program.

Born and raised in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, Tyler Trumbo is now a San Francisco-based videographer and editor. He is pursuing his M.F.A. in Documentary Film and Video at Stanford University and is currently in production for his thesis film.

Head to Tyler’s website for more info: www.tylertrumbo.com

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