by writer/director Ricki Stern with co-director Annie Sundberg
I had met Joan Rivers briefly through my parents who have been friends with Joan for several years. My film partner, Annie, and I had just finished the film The Devil Came on Horseback about the genocide in Darfur and we were looking for our next project. I wondered about Joan Rivers. After a brief conversation on the phone with Joan, I met her at her grand apartment. In her den, we spoke intimately for about an hour. She was surprisingly honest about her life, sharing how she felt about turning 75 and how she was still passionate about her work. When I told her I wanted to do a cinema verité documentary following her for the next year, I stressed I would need all access, all the time, which meant showing up at 6 AM as she rolled out of bed without makeup. Joan did not hesitate.
The challenge in making a film about a Joan Rivers, a pop icon, was to reveal something new and surprising. I wanted the film to illustrate the dichotomy of Joan’s stage persona and the Joan that lies beneath—a vulnerable woman looking to her audience for approval and love.
Because of my background in theater, I have always been attracted to the circus life of regional theater and I saw several similarities in Joan’s transient lifestyle. As a stand-up comedian, Joan embodies the old-school performer who travels endlessly, performing multiple shows and then moves on to the next paycheck. It can be a lonely existence and I wanted the film to convey the bittersweet tone of Joan’s long life as a performer.
The film unfolds as Joan ventures into the year seeking her next great project. While following Joan to London where she launched her new play and to various book signings, we religiously filmed her stand-up act at a little theater in NYC where she goes to try out new comedy material without worry of failure. Joan’s irreverent and fearless stand-up work is the consistent backbone to the year, becoming a springboard for many scenes with her at work and with her family. Her stand-up act is where Joan unleashes her dark comedy mind and, while she hones and tempers her act for her larger Vegas shows, the unvarnished act is a window into Joan’s creative mind.
Ultimately I wanted the film to be a universal story about aging in a business that celebrates beauty and youth. Through the up-close exploration of her life as a performer, Joan reveals her groundbreaking history as a female performer and the personal sacrifices she has made to remain relevant in the comedy world.
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.