The Directors of Joan Rivers Documentary ‘A Piece of Work’ Remember Its Star
In the days since the passing of the legendary comedian, the directors of the documentary about her remember why she was so special.
In the days since Joan Rivers has passed away, perhaps you, like me, have turned to the comedian’s best work as a form of catharsis to deal with the jarring reality of her sudden death.
If that’s the case, you've revisited the documentary about her life, Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which was released in 2010. In the days since Rivers suddenly left us, A Piece of Work has been something for us to latch on to: a reminder of the legendary comedian’s steeliness, saltiness, and unbreakable spirit.
A day after Rivers passed away, we approached the film’s directors, Ricki Stern and Ann Sundberg—an outreach that was an instinct of sorts. We couldn’t help but return to A Piece of Work upon hearing the news of Joan’s passing, and assumed that many other grievers felt the same way. We asked Stern and Sundberg, who spent so much time with Rivers during the months of the film’s shoot, if they’d be interested in sharing with us anecdotes about their experience.
Stern responded with the text from a Q&A they had done about working with Joan around the time of A Piece of Work’s release. “I don’t think I have it in me to write something else,” Stern said after we asked if she’d be willing to pen a remembrance of Rivers. Still, a read through of the quotes she gave at the time of the film’s shoot is more than worth revisiting. It’s worth cherishing.
In any case, here is what they had to say about working with the one, the only, Joan Rivers on the documentary, A Piece of Work.
Q: What was the genesis of the film; and what made you interested in working with Joan?
I (Ricki) first met Joan Rivers 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 lifelong work while also capturing the obsessive drive of her everyday 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 makeup.” 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).
Q: Over what course of time did you begin and finish shooting?
We filmed Joan over a 14-month period, beginning on her 75th birthday and finishing this past summer 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. Frankly there was so much running and fast shooting with Joan (in cars, airports, airplanes, bathrooms, backstage dressing rooms) we rarely set lighting and relied on an LCD light panel for a lot of our shooting. We showed up in the early hours, threw a microphone on Joan and simply followed her on a year-long quest to reinvent herself.
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: Was there anything different in how the both of you approached this documentary as opposed to your previous works together?
People have wondered during the year at our decision to make this film. The film is a departure our most recent documentaries like The Trials of Darryl Hunt and The Devil Came on Horseback or even the one we doing now for HBO called Burma Soldier, but these films all have one thing in common - they have strong, character-based narratives. We don’t set out with a goal to tackle social issues like criminal injustice and human rights violations. We are first drawn to and motivated by interesting people who have powerful, compelling stories, like Darryl Hunt, who served 20 years for a murder/rape he did not commit, and Brian Steidle, a former Marine who bore witness to genocide in Darfur. Not surprisingly, Joan Rivers is fascinating person with a strong point of view and a misunderstood story that has never fully been told. And thank god she’s funny.
We have a fairly organic way of working together. We will sometimes go on shoots together but we often split up and reconvene in the edit room. We discuss style, tone, music and story as we go. For this film, we deliberately kept the crew size down to 2-3 people so we could be inconspicuous in most settings and keep Joan at ease; therefore, our shooting team mostly consisted of Ricki, Charles Miller (DP) and Seth Keal (sound & producer).
Q: What were your biggest challenges during filming?
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 U.S. and U.K. 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 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 a.m. for hair/makeup, followed by 7 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 standup 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 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 everyday life be interesting? Would her comedy translate to film? Who would really care?
Q: 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 closeups 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.
Q: 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.