Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg Turn Joan Rivers Into A Piece of Work

The directors hold court with the iconic comedian over the course of one year in their latest documentary

Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work takes the audience on a yearlong ride with legendary comedian Joan Rivers in her 76th year of life. This new documentary from co-directors Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg peels away the mask of an iconic comedian and exposes the struggles, sacrifices and joy of living life as a ground breaking female performer. The film is an emotionally surprising and revealing portrait of one the most hilarious and long-standing career women ever in the business.

We recently caught up with both Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg to find out what it was like to follow around Joan Rivers for an entire year. Here is our conversation:

How did your preconceived ideas about Joan Rivers as both a comedian and a person play into creating this documentary?

Ricki Stern: Very quickly into the filming, I went to see Joan Rivers do her stand-up. I thought, "What a brilliant comedian she is." In that stand-up act in New York City. Prior to that show, I really didn't think about her comedy. I didn't know her material that well. I knew her from her work on the red carpet. I thought she was funny and quick. It wasn't until I saw her stand-up that I realized how relevant she is now. How contemporary her comedy is. And how cutting edge it is.

Annie Sundberg: My understanding of Joan's stand-up was nil. I grew up in Minneapolis. I was exposed to a different kind of humor, with a traditional style of comedy. I was raised by a middle American family and grew up on the Carol Burnett type of sketch show. As far as stand-up, I was into Bill Cosby and his fatherhood routine. Those were my comedy references. I, as a woman, was really impressed by what Joan was doing. Both right now. And thirty-four years ago.

It's interesting to see some of the stuff you guys left out of the documentary in terms of what she has accomplished in her life. How did you decided what was important to show, and what was important to leave off the table?

Ricki Stern: I had boxes of her work. I knew everything about Joan. And I had read her book. It wasn't for lack of knowledge. It was left out deliberately. The film is a year in the life of Joan Rivers. Interwoven into it is the essential part of who she is today. One of the things that is woven in is her history. That history is that she is a groundbreaking female comedian in a world where there were very few female comedians. And still are. But she continues to pave the way for female comedians. The work she did for E! on the Red Carpet, and even on QVC, which I filmed, was deliberately not in the movie. Because I wanted to focus on Joan "the performer". People say, "But she does perform when she is on QVC or on the red carpet." Joan says, "No!" She is selling. This is a job. What she is passionate about is her comedy. Her stage work. It's the thing she lives and dies for. In 84 minutes, I thought it was important to stay focused on her life as a performer.

Annie Sundberg: I would add, even though I didn't grow up with a tremendous depth of her stand-up comedy, that I did understand the Joan of The Tonight Show and the Joan of the red carpet. In some ways, that felt like familiar ground. It has been trodden upon in other areas. What the film does show is a totally different down town side of Joan that is very immediate, and very raw. It's the performance side, as opposed to the television side. Which I think people are much more familiar with.

What was your relationship with Joan like before you started this documentary? And how did that play into what we eventually get to see on screen? More importunately, how did that relationship evolve throughout the course of this year you spent with her?

Ricki Stern: I knew Joan through my parents. They'd know her for years. And I had met her twice. When we got into this, I literally called her up one day and said, "Do you want to have a serious documentary done about your life?" She said, "Yes!" We met for about an hour shortly there after. In her apartment. It was there, in that hour, that I saw this very open, somewhat vulnerable, honest person. I knew she would go down this path with us. And she will be really present. She will let us into her life in ways the audience would never expect. It went pretty quickly. This was a pretty intimate travel experience. It was just Joan, one assistant, and two crewmembers. Whom she became very close with. We were traveling in a plane. We were traveling in cars. We did this for some very long hours. We got to see her intimately behind stage, where she was very nervous. She warmed. And had affection for the whole shooting experience.

Annie Sundberg: I will say that in the very fist interview that was shot, it was interesting to watch Joan open up. It was the only time we ever got a lighting note from her. The cameras were set up, and Joan knew exactly where the key light needed to be. From that moment on, there was never any real direction on our part. The trust between us just came at that moment. In terms of how Ricki's relationship with her evolved? There was an immediate comfort level between the two of them that formed the basis of where the film went in terms of what she was willing to share with the camera.

In my life, I never thought I would see Dolly Parton or Joan Rivers in public without there make-up. How did you guys convince her to show you that in a film? And how do you think having her take off that mask of make-up exposes who she truly is? How that directly ties into the narrative that you are presenting?

Ricki Stern: Its an obvious symbolic thing. Putting on the actor's mask. The theater mask. So much of our experience with Joan was watching her prep for work. There was a lot of time in the make-up chair. We wanted to shoot, quite beautifully, the experience of her putting on this make-up. When we were shooting it, we built this ring that looked like a make-up mirror. Only it didn't have the mirror in it. It's just a circle of lights. The camera is filming this as she is looking right into the lens. There is a certain comfort in that. She didn't realize that we were shooting it that close up. I don't know what she thought. There was this trust. She often approached us without her make-up on. When she is talking about business, she doesn't have all of her make-up on. She will come from the dermatologist, and she isn't wearing her make-up. She says, "Look. This is my life. If I am going to let these people go along on the journey, they'll need to be there for the whole ride."

I spoke with Joan the other day, and she said she had no control over what you guys decided to show in the documentary. Is that true?

Ricki Stern: She watched the footage. Her big concern was that, if she said something mean about someone off the cuff, funny...If someone was leaving the room and she made a comment about their shoes, or whatever it was...She was very sensitive to that. The only thing she asked is that we soften some of the mean, off the cuff things she might come back at people with. That's really it. She certainly had a lot of feedback. She sent pages and pages of notes. We were like, "No. You knew what you signed up for. And this is the film. It has to be what it is." I think she eventually warmed to it. What did she say to you?

She said that you guys had creative control over the film. And that she didn't have a deciding factor in it.

Ricki Stern: She didn't. But she tried.

One of the more interesting aspects presented in the film is that people don't approach Joan because they are afraid of her. But the truth is, she's a little shy. Which in turn makes her seem unapproachable. Is that what you experienced in traveling with her?

Annie Sundberg: My sense is that she doesn't extend herself in situations unless she is comfortable. She is incredibly gracious and outgoing with everyday people. And people in the street. She is a little bit shy or reserved around other celebrities. And media people. If you went into a diner with her, or were standing on the sidewalk with the hotdog guy, she is going to make conversation and engage them. She feels comfortable in her celebrity persona. I think she's not so comfortable when she is forced to go in a room with other celebrities. She feels shy. I will say, we had a conversation with a writer on the West Coast who was interviewing at a festival. And he had a great experience with Joan working at a car park at a venue where she was performing. He will never forget Joan coming in and chatting hi up. She was immediately, "Do you like your job? How much do you make?" That is where Joan is not shy and reserved. Because this is the anti-celebrity element to her. Which is actually about humanity.

What were both of your roles behind the scenes as director and co-director? Did each of you take on a different persona in dealing with Joan? In trying to get certain things out of her?

Annie Sundberg: This is really Ricki's film in many ways. She can talk about that.

Ricki Stern: I was the director. Annie was the co-director. What that means is, this was a film that required an intimate relationship with Joan. There was so much travel. We really had to be flies on the wall. And out of the way. I did most of the shooting with the crew. In New York, there were times when Annie could come to a shoot. But it was more about my relationship with Joan. That's how it unfolded. That's not typically how we work. In this case, it had to work that way.

Annie Sundberg: In most circumstances, when we work as co-directors, there is often a back-and-forth about how a scene is working out. Or how the editing is going. Or collaborating on ideas. It's nice to have that extra voice coming from a distance when one person has been working so deeply on a project.

Ricki Stern: We generally share interviewing duties, and all those types of things. But with this, it was a unique experience.