Q and A with Ricki Stern, co-director of Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a documentary film about the legendary comedienne, is screening at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival on Sunday. A veteran of 40 years in the entertainment business, Rivers is a Tony-nominated actress, best-selling author, Emmy Award-winning television talk show host, playwright, screenwriter, motion picture director, columnist, lecturer, syndicated radio host, jewelry designer and cosmetic company entrepreneur, red carpet fashion laureate, and a successful businesswoman.

Ricki Stern co-directed the film with Annie Sundberg. The directors and their team spent a year shadowing Rivers.

Q: What was the genesis of the film; and what made you interested in working with Joan?

Ricki Stern

Ricki: I first met Joan through family. I knew very little about Joan’s history in the comedy world; 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 an aging performer determined to succeed and remain 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.”

Remarkably, in the course of filming her over the following 14 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).

Over what course of time did you begin and finish shooting?

Ricki: We filmed Joan over a 14 month period, beginning on her 75th birthday and finishing in the summer of 2009. At our first sit down interview with Joan, her assistant Jocelyn checked the lighting to make sure there were no unflattering shadows on Joan, but after that day, they never checked the lighting again. Our trust in each other was sealed that day.

Our very first day filming, Joan’s dog had been put to sleep the night before and she met us at the door in tears. She wanted a new dog that day. So we all walked down to the nearest pet store and Joan got her new dog Sammy. Just walking from Joan’s apartment to the pet store and back provided enough funny and intimate moments that we were hooked. After one day of shooting, we knew Joan would be a complex, controversial subject who would take us on a rollercoaster ride for the following year.

Q: What were your biggest challenges during filming?

Ricki: 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. 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.

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 7:00 a.m. local interviews and then a breakfast lecture and book signing. Next, pile into an SUV with Joan and her assistant Jocelyn and drive 4 hours to Key West for another 2-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 a.m. Four hours later, fly off to LA where Joan is booked at 1:00 p.m. 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?

What do you think people will learn about Joan that they weren’t aware of before the film?

When I first showed Joan the fine cut, just the two of us in her apartment with grilled American cheeses set before us, she was fairly quiet throughout the viewing. She’d occasionally jot down a note and chuckle at an old joke but her feedback was very minimal. Of course the scenes we worried about the most – when Joan was the most vulnerable and bare – were not a concern for her. All her comments were directed at how other people might feel – she didn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. The worst part for me was when the DVD kept skipping and going back to the head of the film which opens with extreme close ups of her face – she merely comforted herself under her breath saying “it’s a documentary; it has to look like that.” But after a week of calm, Joan’s worry resurfaced and she sent long, general notes and short terse requests. She wrote everything from “it’s wonderful” to “it’s so negative.” This is the perfectionist side of Joan; the side that keeps her up all night preparing and rehearsing, writing and rewriting; the side we strove to illustrate in the film and the side that occasionally drove us crazy.

What do you want people to take away from this film? What makes this film important?

Joan Rivers is funny, edgy and relevant. She’s a captivating and bold female performer, writer, icon, and businesswoman. She has the bravery to tackle issues in her comedy that  has left her excluded from the boys’ clubs and removed from lists of more “appropriate” lady comediennes. Her comedy dissects the truth, and she embraces humor to ease the pain of tragedy. She has personally 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 exposure to Joan, the film works to strip away those surface associations to reveal a private and surprising portrait of this very public persona.

While the film pays tribute to the reigning queen of comedy – who broke boundaries and paved way for other female comedians from Kathy Griffin to Sarah Silverman – 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 closely and unforgettably at the exception to the rule.

Ricki Stern is a director, producer and writer. She founded Break Thru Films, Inc. in 1990. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work will be shown at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival on Sunday, October 24 at 5 p.m. in the Tradewinds Auditorium of the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute. Tickets are available now at www.bdatix.bm.

See the trailer.


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