Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg emerged as filmmakers to watch in the last few years with a trio of crackling social–issue documentaries. Seeking a lighter project after The Trials of Darryl Hunt, The Devil Came on Horseback and The End of America, the New York filmmakers followed a certain driven comedienne for a year. Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, which closed the San Francisco International Film Festival last month and opens in Bay Area theaters this Friday, mixes biting humor with a tough-minded portrait of an aging, still-ambitious professional in this business we call show. With Sundberg and Stern’s gracious cooperation, most of our interview (in a Fairmont suite the day of the festival screening at the Castro) centered on the current state of documentary filmmaking.
SF360: I would expect that you had editorial control, but can you talk about what input Joan Rivers had during postproduction?
Ricki Stern: Joan looked at the film and at first she really liked the film. She had a few little comments, and they were always about her sensitivity if she said something that was critical of other people. We listened to her and tried to make it so it wouldn’t offend [those] people. Then, in her obsessive, self-critical way, she wrote pages and pages of notes. ‘C’mon. You’re not going to get pages and pages of note changes.’
SF360: How do you see your responsibility to your subject?
Stern: In every film we’ve made together, we have such respect for our main subject as the protagonist of our story. Even if we don’t love them or even if we’re not best friends with them, or we couldn’t stand being in the same room with them, however it works out, there’s something about their character and what they’re overcoming that drives a certain respect in telling their story in a way that inherently usually works out. In Joan’s case, there are a few little sensitivities, with her daughter, that we were respectful of and tried to work around. We did a film years ago, an inner-city story, and one of the girl’s boyfriends was in prison, and she gave me his photograph. I was cutting the film, and someone said, ‘That boyfriend is going to kill her if you use this photograph.’ So you have to try to adhere your honesty and the truthfulness of your story and make the movie you want to make, but if there’s something people really can’t live with and is going to affect them in such a way that it’s going to be harmful to them, I think we’re very sensitive to that.
Annie Sundberg: With Brian [Steidle, the former Marine in The Devil Came on Horseback who joined the African Union in 2004 as an unarmed observer of the cease-fire in Sudan], the only caveat we made for him is that we would take out or possibly blur photographs of other African Union officials who might still be working who could be in danger. Or make sure that when this film got out and became public that certain people who were working on the ground weren’t then going to be targeted as a result. Beyond that, I think there are two ways of making a film. One is deeply objective and another one is being a little bit more on the bus with someone, so to speak. We’re developing another project and we were looking at footage last night on our flight out here, and that’s a situation where the filmmaker is very much in collusion with the subject. You hear conversation between the filmmaker and the subject, and that process is deeply transparent. [But] you have to trust the filmmaker when the filmmaker’s voice is completely removed, because then you’re basically saying you trust that they’re presenting the honest truth of what they captured.
SF360: So would you put yourself in the Wiseman school versus the Maysles school? High School or Grey Gardens?
Stern: I think more the Maysles school.
Sundberg: Yeah. Stern: I think what Fred Wiseman did was groundbreaking for his time, but it’s rarely done now where you’re just a fly on the wall and you just let it roll. I think more Maysles and even Errol Morris, sort of a combination of having a point of view and having a relationship with the subject and crafting your story. Sundberg: That’s a burden that doc filmmakers often have put upon them, the role of hard journalists. There’s a documentary line of ethics that needs to be walked but at the same time I think that an interesting film should have a point of view. It should have a style and a tone and a feeling that’s unique. And that doesn’t mean that it’s always straight reporting.
SF360: These days, the Wiseman approach doesn’t provide the kind of drama that TV programmers demand.
Stern: We’re constantly coming up against that when we’re trying to pitch things to channels to get funding upfront. ‘Well, what are the stakes? What are the arcs? Where’s the drama? Where’s the meat and potatoes? What makes this unique?’ So these quiet stories, or sometimes even an Errol Morris story, his earlier film about Temple Grandin [Stairway to Heaven in the ‘First Person’ series], just a quiet story about a woman that is so brilliant in the way it’s constructed and the way you get into this character. You can’t get funding for that. Don’t try to get funding for that; just go do that. Even Joan. We didn’t get funding to film Joan. We went to everyone to fund Joan. No one would jump off the diving board with us and take a plunge in the water. Some of the comments were, ‘We love Joan, but she’s not our demographic.’ ‘I don’t like Joan, I don’t think she’s funny.’ ‘Joan’s wonderful but what are you going to show us that hasn’t been seen? She’s all over the place. We’ve known her for years. She has a Lifetime movie about her.’ So the challenge of this film was taking someone who everyone thinks they know and actually peeling away layers to expose something that no one knows, or very few people know. We’re big ones of, ‘It would be nice to get the money upfront,’ but sometimes you just have to take what you’ve done, money you’ve made and reinvest in the next thing.
SF360: Part of my frustration with American documentaries now is that they are formulaic. I don’t blame the filmmakers. It’s a remote-control world, and if the viewer doesn’t know in the first five minutes why we’re here, why we’re following this person, what their journey is, he or she is out of here.
Stern: In the Joan film, in some ways it sets it up from the beginning: This is a year, and she’s had a tough year before and she’s going to try and fill her book and get back on top. Now, there were many earlier cuts that were more subtle than that and sort of took you along for the ride. But I think you’re right, there is this sort of comfort in “What are my expectations, what are the stakes,” and the reason we constructed it that way is it does keep you in there. There are wonderful films that have no narrative structure, that just work on you as impressions, but if you’re telling a story like Joan Rivers in a year and it’s verité, I think it benefits the storytelling if you work to create the sense of stakes and anticipation. Sundberg: The formulaic stuff that you’re talking about, I think that’s why you see a lot of competition films. I think that’s why you see a lot of the things that sell. If you look at the top ten documentaries, Michael Moore’s got like five of them. But if you take his personality and the issues out of there, you’ve got Spellbound. People love animals, so you’ve got March of the Penguins. The other thing that does well are music or event docs around celebrities. Then the hard thing is to try and create something that’s fresh, that’s out of the box, that has a tension that keeps you watching for 85 minutes. You know, competition’s easy.
SF360: I couldn’t agree more. That’s the stakes thing, but also there’ll be an ending. Now, I don’t have a problem with saying at the beginning, ‘This is going to be a year,’ because that doesn’t guarantee there’ll be drama—nothing may happen, I’m taking my chances watching it, but at least I know there’s an end. It’s not just going to meander.
Sundberg: I’m sure we could find money if we could find a really good competition animal film. (Laughs.) Stern: People come to us with wonderful stories all the time. I talked to someone yesterday [who had] a wonderful story about dancers who are working with young people who have problems, not necessarily autism or Asperger’s but socializing. You could see how there’d be a transition, you’d follow these kids, there’s dance, that’s beautiful on film, but I can’t pre-sell that. So you’re going to have to get the money. And then I bet you we could tell a really good story. But no one’s going to put money up for that. That’s a sad thing.
Sundberg: I also think there’s a little bit of a backlash right now against the social action documentary. We were just at a festival up in Toronto, Hot Docs, and we asked the programmers if they’re seeing different shifts in trends in what films are coming out. They were like, ‘They’re a lot more personal documentaries and, ironically, a lot of documentaries about fathers this past year.’ But I think there’s been such a pressure on documentary filmmakers to have a social action agenda that accompanies their films that—
Stern: In order to get funding. Sundberg: In order to get funding, in particular, because all of the grant-making organizations got wise to, ‘Oh my God, we can quantify how our dollars are being used. So in order to make a film about this, it’s going to have to satisfy all these other needs. Tell us how you’re reaching your audience. Tell us how you’re changing viewpoints. Tell us how you’re making things better.’ And I think the films are suffering. Stern: Grey Gardens —how would you have sold that? Two quirky people in a house. ‘What am I going to see? Are you going to be in the house the whole time? It’s too much. It’s a mother and a daughter? What’s my demographic?’ I hate that, but that’s what you’re up against. So you just have to believe in what you’re doing. I think that some of the best documentaries out of Sundance this year— Gas Land [by] Josh Fox, he just told his story. It was very personal and he went and he did it. And Catfish [by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman], which is sort of controversial to some, but again they didn’t really know what they were going to get. As an audience member, to have this sense of surprise—‘Oh my God, I can’t believe they got this’—makes it so wonderful. But if you have to pre-sell your film, you’re writing a six-page treatment about it, they want to know how it ends. We never know how it ends! You’re making it up. We pitched something—on a tangent, but we pitched something to a channel that was a celebrity in Africa. And they were like, ‘What are we going to see?’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know. He gets mauled by a lion? Would you like him to get eaten? I can tell you where he’s going to be and where he’s going to go, and you know there’s natural elements he’s going to be up against. But we don’t know.’ They wanted to know. Then, ironically, a week later when he was out doing one of the tasks that was at hand in the film, his colleague got swarmed by killer bees. So I sent the video link to these programming executives: ‘Is this what you’re looking for?’ (Laughs.) ‘Cause we’ve got it.’
SF360: Pass it on to the Snuff Film Department.
SF360: One of the things I respect American doc makers for doing is the investigative journalism that TV networks have abdicated. And a certain public looks to doc filmmakers for that.
Sundberg: Josh Fox’s Gasland is an excellent example of that. Stern: Literally, that’s civic journalism.
SF360: But what’s an art documentary nowadays? And who’s working in the tradition of essay documentary?
Stern: Alan Berliner, I think, is a really good essayist and, thankfully, he’s been able to get funding to do his films based on his reputation and he’s very creative and he’s been successful. Michael Moore, what does he call himself now? Not a documentary filmmaker but a— Sundberg: Provocateur?
Stern: I don’t know. He’s got an agenda and a point of view and it’s really like an essay. Sundberg: There’s Alex Gibney’s film based on Lawrence Wright’s play, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which is a film about a play that was done as an essay. But the personal essay films? Those are harder and harder to make. And the art films—I think what happens if you come to a festival like San Francisco or Tribeca or any of the big festivals, you see these amazing documentaries that touch you and move you and make you laugh or whatever it is and then they get such small distribution you’re lucky if you can find them on Netflix. That’s just the unfortunate nature of it all.
SF360: Could you throw out a couple titles from the last year that readers should seek out?
Stern: 45365, it’s a year in that zip code. It’s just like snapshots of this town [Sidney, Ohio] over a year and it’s very lyrical and atmospheric and beautifully filmed and creatively put together. And it works on that level. Sundberg: Another film in that vein would be October Country [screened in S.F. Docfest in October, 2009, and played the Roxie May 7-20, 2010]. Someone basically said, ‘I, in this downturn, am going to profile one particular community over the course of a year.’ And they found a very interesting story that’s a little bit like the Capturing the Friedmans tale, where you think you’re going in to make one film and another emerges. In terms of art films, I didn’t see it and I was very sad to miss it but The Arbor at Tribeca was a very artful documentary that mixed genres completely. We had a really nice breakfast with Tabitha Jackson, who’s now head of arts commissioning for Channel 4, and she was saying, ‘That’s exactly the kind of film that we embrace because it is boundary pushing and it won’t find a huge audience necessarily but it’s absolutely worth seeing.’ There are narrative elements to it, there’s total visual abstract sequences in it.
SF360: I’m of the opinion that public television abroad has a much wider tolerance for different styles and approaches than American television.
Stern: Yeah, the international market can provide a place for a film that might not have as broad an audience in the United States. Unfortunately, we’re looking at the Sundance Channel, which used to program these great films out of Sundance or other festivals. You could always find a home for a really good film on Sundance and now their programming is changing. Their agenda is changing.
SF360: I was unaware.
Stern: I don’t know if it’s publicly out there, but they’re looking for more reality program series. Not just Sundance Channel but every channel, the dollars spent to promote a one-off documentary, they can’t afford it anymore. So they want series. And the home for one-off documentaries is dwindling.
Sundberg: One thing that we do have in New York which I wish more cities would start is a program called Stranger Than Fiction. It’s curated by Thom Powers, who programs documentaries for the Toronto Film Festival, and it’s housed at the IFC Film Center. It’s every Tuesday night and there’s basically a fall season and a spring season. Eight to ten films are programmed and there’s a Q&A with the director afterwards. It’s often a festival favorite, or sneak previews of films before they’re released, or films that may not get a proper theatrical that are going to DVD. But every one of them is great. People go because it’s documentaries in a proper theater with a really good conversation afterwards.
Stern: I think that’s what we like to see coming out of the festivals, that there are nontraditional storytelling methods that are being used in documentaries now, which is what we’re interested in. So we want to keep pushing that as well.
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