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Documentary filmmaking: from Joan Rivers to ‘Burma Soldier’

NEW YORK — Edina native Annie Sundberg says what connects her other films to “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” is the same thing that draws her to all of her work: “interesting characters who are in interesting circumstances.”

MinnPost Asks: Annie Sundberg

NEW YORK — As 2010 comes to an end, it’s safe to say that the first decade of this millennium has left more than a few folks worse for wear. Yet it’s also worth noting that from out of all the social and political drama, two seemingly disparate creative voices — the documentary filmmaker and the professional comedian — could easily call this period something of Renaissance for both.

Annie Sundberg
Break-Thru Films
Annie Sundberg

It makes sense then, that one of the most engaging and buzzed-about films this year was the documentary portrait “Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work” (now out on DVD), which follows the ever-aspiring, often-desperate comedienne during her 76th year as she tries to rebuild her career from the ground up.

Less foreseeable, however, was that “A Piece of Work” would be made by acclaimed filmmaker, and Edina native, Annie Sundberg (who co-directs all her films with creative partner Ricki Stern). Sundberg and Stern previously have been known for tackling far more difficult subjects, ranging from a black man wrongfully accused of murder (“The Trials of Daryl Hunt”), to a former Marine dealing with his firsthand experience of the genocide in Darfur (“The Devil Came on Horseback”), to the upcoming HBO special about a Burmese Junta soldier who risks his life when he defects and starts a revolution toward democracy (“Burma Soldier”). Yet according to Sundberg, what connects these other films to “A Piece of Work” is the same thing that draws her to all of her work. “Interesting characters who are in interesting circumstances. A character at the core who’s up against something very unique.”

I spoke with Sundberg, who now works with Stern out of her Break-Thru Films offices in Manhattan, about her own interesting circumstances — and how she went from sneaking into double features at Southdale to smuggling her own films across the Thai border and into the refugee camps of Burma.

MinnPost: Your NetFlix bio — which I know is a very reliable source — says you got into movies because it was dark earlier than in other parts of the country, and you fell in love with movies because you couldn’t stay outdoors? First of all, did you write that bio?

Annie Sundberg:
[laughs] I did.

MP: Can you talk a bit more about your relationship with film while growing up in the Twin Cities?

I was a voracious consumer of film as a child and I would often try to convince my mom that I wanted to go see a double feature on Saturday and, you know, she’d be like “Why? It’s such a waste of time.” Neither of my parents were particularly film savvy. They loved films, but they weren’t cineastes necessarily, and so we had the typical suburban growing-up experience of going to see the opening night at the Southdale Cinema. But I have these very profound, emotional recollections of what it’s like to go to the cinema, especially on opening-night weekends and with your family, and have that be this sort of crazy spectacle of audience and movie. And that sort of love affair continued for me all while I was growing up.
MP: When did your love for blockbusters expand to more challenging films?

In high school, there were certain families of my friends who had helped the Coen brothers raise the initial production budget to shoot [their debut film, “Blood Simple”]. And I remember going to see the premiere of that — I think it was in St. Louis Park — and it was really exciting because it was such a fresh film. It felt like some of the films I had started falling in love with in the ’70s where they were less encumbered by the stars and the budgets and a different kind of storytelling was coming through and it felt really alive to me. So that sent me on a whole other pursuit of film education. And that was when I started really looking at, you know, sort of the classic period of the ’70s when you have everything from “Five Easy Pieces” through “The Conversation” through … I mean you can go through your film studies list of classic ’70s directorial choices. But documentaries seemed really close to that, and so when I got out of college I knew I wanted to do something in the storytelling world.

Trailer for “A Piece of Work”

MP: You began making short films at Dartmouth, correct?

Yes. I was lucky enough to have gone to Dartmouth and the Film Society … and it was the first time I’d seen certain documentaries by people like Werner Herzog, where that form was a starting to become kind of alive as well and was moving away from the traditional, you know, just observational documentary. … So I had done a couple short films while I was at Dartmouth, and one of them was a documentary, and it was about people who went dowsing for water in the Upper Valley. [laughs] I was looking for a character study, and it was actually a funny film, it wasn’t a serious documentary, it was more about what makes people believe they have the ability to sense where water is, and are they actually full of baloney, or …? You know it was sort of a slight, it was a little bit of a “Waiting For Guffman” take on people who walk around with sticks in their hands telling you where to drill a well. I had so much fun making it and I remember coming out of that thinking, well, maybe this is what I should do.

MP: Your filmmaking partner, Ricki Stern, also attended Dartmouth. Is that where the two of you met?

No, actually. We were a few years apart. I graduated college and I got a job as assistant to the director on a film called “Where the Rivers Flow North,” with Rip Torn, and that’s where I met Ricki [who was second unit coordinator on the film]. It was sort of my first feature film production experience. After that I moved to New York, [where after a year] I was connected to this amazing series called “The History of American Cinema.” It was a 13-part series for PBS that was basically like film education times 10. … This was 1993 and we were still cutting on film. … I mean this is such a classic first job in New York story. We were down in lower Manhattan in a rickety old building and the heat went out, and it was January, and we had all this archival 16 and 35 mm film, and we all basically had to take it home so it wouldn’t crack at night.

MP: How hard was it to find steady work in New York as a documentary filmmaker?

It was an interesting thing because that PBS series ultimately gave me a lot of relationships, which I’ve kept to this day with editors and producers, and led to an interview with a job for HBO where I was hired as an associate producer on a documentary called “One Survivor Remembers,” which was made with the Holocaust Memorial Museum and based on one of the survivor tributes that they had in the main hall — this happened in the fall before the museum opened. And that film won an Oscar. So that turned out to be a great experience. The point is, I landed in documentaries somewhat by chance. One job led to another, led to another, and what was so great about documentaries was the immediacy of the filmmaking. You didn’t need a huge budget.

MP: How did you and Ricki finally come together to collaborate as co-directors?

Well … you finally got a job, you’ve got a 401(k) because you’re working at a place like HBO, and Ricki was also working at HBO on a series called “Autopsy.” And so the two of us would get together and say, let’s start making our own films. And we basically, you know, started shooting.

She had a story that came to her out of North Carolina where she’d gone to grad school that was about a guy whose defense attorney was convinced he was innocent. It was a case of butchered DNA evidence. And I had a car, and my friend had an Aton camera, and we had a bunch of leftover 16-mm stock from this Holocaust documentary. And so we started driving down to the Carolinas and shooting this film that became “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.” So that was the first film that I actually started making on my own. And then while Ricki and I were making that film — which took 11 years to complete, because of the ins and outs of Hunt’s case — we made another film about an amateur boxer growing up in the South Bronx. Again we were sort of like, let’s find a topic that’s closer to home so we don’t have to trek down to Winston-Salem, North Carolina. But this was really funny because at the time a bunch of our friends were over at NYU Film School. So here we are at a bunch of these boxing matches, and there’s Brett Morgen and Nanette Burstein also shooting at the same boxing matches, ’cause they were following a totally different character for a film that became “On the Ropes,” which won the Oscar. It’s sort of an interesting thing when you look at how certain communities start to foster filmmaking talent.

MP: Is this documentary community singular to New York?

Had I stayed in Minneapolis, I’m sure that I probably would have tapped into some of the same … like last night I was at a holiday party, and there’s a woman there who’s an art director, and her husband, who is from Minnesota, he does a lot of sound work with Ang Lee. And you know, he and the whole Minnesota crowd … there’s a little bit of a translation to New York that I’m just tapping into again.

MP: Can you talk about your next film, “Burma Soldier,” that’s premiering on HBO in 2011?

[“Burma Soldier” is about] a former Burmese Army member named Myo Myint, who converted and left the army. He became an active pro-democracy voice and he addressed soldiers at the time of the 1988 uprising … and he convinced hundreds of soldiers to march in their uniforms for the first time against the regime.

Trailer for the HBO special “Burma Soldier”

We actually did something really interesting with the film called “reverse pirating.” Right before the elections in November we did a full Burmese translation of the film. We stripped all the names and the credits off of it and we reverse pirated it into Burma and into the refugee camps along the Thai border, so that people could see and hear Myint. So for him, he was thrilled. He was like, “Oh my God, the soldiers will once again hear me in the U.S.” So we got this film inside Burma and it’s sort of been ripped on DVDs, it’s been on Internet television, the democratic voice of Burma’s been really helpful with us.

MP: How did you and Ricki come to decide on Joan Rivers as the next subject you wanted to explore? How did that decision come about, and why a whole year devoted to filming it?

Well I think it’s sort of a lesson for any filmmaker or anyone who’s contemplating approaching a documentary — that you have to have a willing subject. I guess there are situations where you don’t have to, but those films are never very good. But the thing about this was we were literally just coming off of “The Devil Came on Horseback,” and we were very conscious that we were being labeled “the activist filmmakers.” We were being invited to conferences to speak about ways to do audience engagement, and I just looked at Ricki and I was like, “I feel like we don’t want to be burdened with this. I want to make films. I don’t want to activate audiences, I want to make good stories.” So both of us agreed to make and find a very different topic, and years ago we had been trying to make a film about women in comedy because it’s not easy, and we have friends who were on SNL, so we did early shoots with Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Rachel Dratch. We looked at that again and all of the sudden Ricki said, ‘What about Joan Rivers?’ I looked at Ricki and said, “What are you talking about?” And she said, “Well my mom knows her and I’ve met her a couple of times. She’s a woman in comedy. She’s the ultimate woman survivor in comedy. What about her?” It was literally like that.

MP: And how did you and Ricki navigate following her around for a whole year?

All of our projects, we’ll often trade off shooting responsibilities, because for a long time we both used to be on quote “set” together. And then we got to a place where once we figured out what the style was, how it was gonna look, what the feel of it was, what the tone of it was — then we sort of pass off shoots. And there were a handful of shoots for the Joan film where because of budget issues primarily, we just sent our camera man, because at that point we’d all been shooting together for eight months, nine months, so Charles had a real great relationship with Joan and he got on a plane with her and went to Wisconsin — and that revealed the heckler scene. And that was all Charles. … You know with any film you try to figure out, OK what are the important things to cover? And you can drive yourself crazy with the stuff you’re going to miss, ’cause you’re never going to get everything.

MP: Comedians seem to love this film on a really personal level. How deeply did you study that world before filming?

That makes me feel really good [that they feel that way]. We looked at other comedy films … and we realized it’s not interesting to hear other comedians talk about why comedians are funny. You actually want to see a comedian live their life, play their jokes out, and be who they are. And if they’re funny, you experience it. You don’t need to be told how to experience comedy. And so we really wanted to stay first person with Joan. And I think that the other thing, too, is that a lot of people don’t like Joan. I didn’t particularly dig Joan and her humor at first. It wasn’t something that I … I didn’t have an appreciation for it. I had only really known the later Joan — Joan on the red carpet. And as we started coming into this I was like, oh my God, she’s kind of brilliant. And I had a tremendous amount of respect for both her work ethic, her discipline, and how she’s wickedly smart and sharp.

MP: It also seems like the main character of that movie is her career, and other people’s awareness of that career. I think that a lot of people in a creative or artistic field can relate to that — it’s sort of this intangible thing that takes on a life on its own.

That’s one thing about Joan, when she talks to audiences or does Q&As, she has tremendous empathy for freelancers in the audience, because she’s like, you have that slight unease always about wondering about where the next thing’s coming from, you know? You can never really, truly relax. Even though she’s got a lot of creature comforts, she’s not sitting back and relaxing. She’s driven by a certain anxiety that I think a lot of us in the arts share. 

Dylan Dawson is a playwright, performer and documentary researcher. He currently lives in New York City. This interview has been condensed.