Veteran documentary filmmakers Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg return to the Sundance U.S. Documentary Competition with “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work.” Their recent efforts, “The Trials of Darryl Hunt” and “The Devil Came on Horseback” also screened at Sundance and both films won the two both nominations and festival wins, including a Spirit Award nomination for “Hunt” in 2006. Their latest is, of course, a profile of the iconic comic personality.
This expose chronicles the private dramas of irreverent, legendary comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers as she fights tooth and nail to keep her American dream alive. The film offers a rare glimpse of the comedic process and the crazy mixture of self-doubt and anger that often fuels it. A unique look inside America’s obsession with fame and celebrity, Rivers’s story is both an outrageously funny journey and brutally honest look at the ruthless entertainment industry, the trappings of success, and the ultimate vulnerability of the first queen of comedy.
Being able to break through Rivers’s self-made facade is a tribute to filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. It is obvious the magic of this film is the inherent trust between filmmakers and subject. Shot over the course of a year, the film enlists a resilient cinema verite style to craft a moving look at this iconic performer, stripping away her comedy masks and laying bare the truth of her life and inspiration. [Synopsis by Sundance Film Festival]
“Joan Rives: A Piece of Work”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg
Screenwriter: Ricki Stern
Executive Producer: Ricki Stern
Producer: Ricki Stern, Annie Sundberg, Seth Keal
Cinematographer: Charles Miller
Editor: Penelope Falk
Music: Paul Brill
Sound Recordist: Seth Keal
Sundberg and Stern re-introduce…
Ricki Stern: I grew up making super 8 films with my brother. He set my dolls on fire and tossed them out of his exploding blimp and we bought dry ice from Chinatown so our potions would bubble for our Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde short. I was his prop and lighting assistant and often the full cast. My love for acting and directing fully jelled after college when, working with college friends, I made my first documentary about four NYC teens. For me storytelling always starts with character – understanding his/ her motivation, desires and obstacles. The fun of doc filmmaking is the tactile process of illuminating a universal story in a cinematic, narrative framework and working in the documentary world has allowed me to be fully involved in all the crafts of filmmaking – from lighting, to sound recording, filming, editing, sound and music design.
Annie Sundberg: My filmmaking background is a mix of narrative and non-fiction. I studied English and History in college and have always been drawn to story in its various forms, how we translate experience, how we recreate it, how we record it. I came to filmmaking because I was deeply moved and influenced by films growing up, and I wanted to create similar experiences for others. Documentary films are particularly satisfying as you have the dynamics and challenges that come into play psychologically between filmmaker and subject, and the process of making the film can change people on both sides of the camera in unexpected ways.
…and what brought on Joan Rivers, their initial concerns… preconceived notions and an unexpected integral moment…
I (Ricki) first met Joan Rivers through family. I knew very little about Joan’s history in the comedy world. I had never seen her stand up, but I knew she was considered the grand dame of comedy. We had recently finished several documentaries that addressed subjects like genocide and injustice, so the idea of doing a film about a comedian was appealing to all of us at Break Thru Films. Once we spent time with Joan, it was clear that her personal story as a breakthrough female performer and her life’s course of struggle and reinvention were universal stories. Her story would ultimately emerge as the quintessential tale of a performer determined to stay in the spotlight.
After two brief meetings, I asked Joan if she would like to be featured in a documentary that would illustrate her life-long work while also capturing the obsessive drive of her every day struggle to keep performing. She said “Yes” with no hesitation. However, I was a bit wary. We warned her, “Joan we will be there on Saturday morning as you roll out of bed with no make up.” She responded, “I have lived my life in front of the cameras, I know how this goes.” Even after she reassured us, I was still concerned that she would hold back her acerbic humor, close doors at meetings, limit time with us.
Remarkably, in the course of filming her over the following fourteen months, Joan never gave us reason for concern again. Joan allowed us unedited insight into her life and unconditional access to meetings, rehearsals, hiring and firings, dress fittings, birthdays, dog training and holidays. The only place we were not allowed was Prince Charles’ birthday (but honestly that was more a function of Buckingham Palace security than anything else).
One of the challenges we faced in making a film about a pop culture icon and a controversial legendary person was confronting people’s preconceived idea of Joan Rivers. Joan Rivers’ persona has been exploited widely and she can be a polarizing figure, so our task was to peel away layers and expose the self-driven, work obsessed, perfectionist and inspiration in a way that would surprise audiences. We devoted a lot of time to shooting Joan as she traveled throughout the US and UK in order to capture her unguarded moments, and to build a structure that communicated deeper meaning in what might otherwise be presented as a reality television glimpse of a celebrity.
While much of Joan’s work this year could be taken at face value as entertainment, scenes were constructed to tell Joan’s greater, more universal story – that of an aging performer in a business and culture driven by beauty and youth.
The other challenge with filming Joan Rivers over a year was in choosing which new adventures would be important to the narrative, and then physically shooting her marathon days. We were never certain which possible job offer might lead to a transformative event and define the film’s narrative arc.
We adapted the thinking of new parents who missed their baby’s first steps – if we were not there to see it happen, it did not happen, and we had to let it go. When Joan was scheduled for 24 hours in a Northern Wisconsin casino, we looked at it as a small gig in the dead of winter in a remote town that required three flights just to get there. At the last minute we decided to send Charles Miller (DP) to cover the trip with Joan. We figured it wasn’t a big show and probably not important but you never know… and then, the raw and unexpected footage of an audience member heckling Joan turned out to be an integral moment in the final film.
Joan’s sheer workload was an additional challenge. The following is a typical two-day shoot with Joan: Fly at night with Joan to Palm Beach, meet her the next morning in her hotel room at 6:00AM for hair/ make up, followed by 7:00AM local interviews and then a breakfast lecture and book signing. Next, pile into an SUV with Joan and her assistant Jocelyn and drive four hours to Key West for another two-hour book signing.
With 15 minutes to spare, drive past Hemingway’s house, spend some time looking for the best gay scene in town and then land at a theater where Joan warms up the band, changes clothing and does an hour stand up set. Then, drive to Miami and arrive at an airport hotel at 2 AM. Four hours later, fly off to LA where Joan is booked at 1:00pm on a talk show. After the show, take the red eye with Joan back to NYC, landing Sunday morning where she drives to her country home to entertain friends for the night. It’s hard to believe she’s 75.
Joan definitely tired of us at times, questioning the film’s interest and narrative. “Is there even a movie here?” She joked to Howard Stern that if she died during the course of the filming, we’d have a great movie – that became the running joke. I believe Joan quietly wondered, and feared, how her life caught on film would look cut into a documentary. Would her every day life be interesting? Would her comedy translate to film? Who would really care?
And how do they think the film will go in Sundance and influences for the film…
Joan Rivers is funny, edgy and relevant. Her comedy dissects the truth, using comedy to ease the pain of tragedy. She has confronted suicide, business failure and biting criticism, and in the face of it all she perseveres. Ultimately Joan engenders strong feelings in people…they love her, they hate her…and because many people have some prior understanding of Joan, the film works to strip away those associations to reveal a private and surprising portrait of this very public persona. While the film pays tribute to the queen of comedy who broke boundaries, and paved way for other female comedians (in what is still very much a boys’ club), Joan’s story is universal as it speaks to aging in a culture obsessed with youth, and exposes the fleeting nature of fame by looking at the exception to the rule.
It was difficult to find the film’s tone. Joan is a woman in her 70s who lives a polished life yet her humor and energy are edgy and youthful. During the editing process, we listened to a lot of music from grunge to classical, opera to acid rock. Surprisingly, all of these types of music worked for sections of the film but none clearly defined the film’s overall tone.
Joan is complicated, and her character has elements that respond to each of these different types of music. Unexpectedly we found inspiration in films that appealed to both children and adults, namely “Where The Wild Things Are” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” The music from these films embodies elements that are at the same time ironic, bold, youthful and angry. Ultimately, we used voice as a musical element to create an organic sound that engages the audience and connects expressively.
Finally, what’s next for Sundberg and Stern…
We are finishing up a feature documentary “Burma Soldier” for HBO, about a former soldier in the Burmese military who risks his life to become a pro-democracy activist. We’re also in production on a new film (supported by Sundance/Skoll Foundations “Stories of Change” initiative) following a young woman who makes the cut for an innovative and demanding education program – YouthBuild – in North Philadelphia.
We are also developing some projects now for television, including a new series based around Kenneth Cole’s AWEARNESS campaign.