There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Joan Rivers is a piece of work, but what makes someone want to film a documentary about the long-time comedian, actress, red carpet host and all-around entertainer? With two previous Sundance documentaries under their belt (The Devil Came on Horseback, The Trials of Darryl Hunt), directors Ricki Stern and Anne Sundberg return to the festival for a third time with Joan Rivers - A Piece of Work, a documentary that sets out to explore Rivers' wild career on and off the screen.

Cinematical caught up with Stern and Sundberg in an effort to learn a little more about the doc before it premieres in the U.S. Documentary Competition section at Sundance.

Cinematical: Give us the "word on the street" description of your film

Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg: Joan Rivers a piece of work – takes the audience on a year long ride with Joan Rivers in her 76th year of life, it peels away the mask of an iconic comedian exposing bare the struggles, sacrifices and joy of living life as a ground breaking female performer.

It's an emotionally surprising and revealing portrait, and many people will come away saying, wow, I have a new understanding and appreciation for Joan and her career.


Cinematical: A lot of people love Joan, and a lot of people don't find her to be their preference in comedy, so what did you see in her that was ripe for the documentary treatment?

Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg: 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.

There are many documentaries that show us the hard things we are supposed to pay attention to in the world - things that demand attention and change - and Joan, remarkably, is very much about that in her own life. From the subjects she tackles in her comedy, to her approach to making things happen in her own world, she's inspiring and very much a 'get out there and live life' voice at age 76 - something people may be forgetting in the harsh economy and world of the last year. And it's great to be able to offer a documentary that will make people laugh in the midst of the big struggles in life.



Cinematical: Give us your one film festival rule

Ricki Stern/Anne Sundberg
: See as many films as possible.

For more on the film, watch the Sundance "Meet the Artists" video below.


And here' the Sundance synopsis:

This exposé chronicles the private dramas of irreverent, legendary comedian and pop icon Joan Rivers as she fights tooth and nail to keep her American dream alive. The film offers a rare glimpse of the comedic process and the crazy mixture of self-doubt and anger that often fuels it. A unique look inside America's obsession with fame and celebrity, Rivers's story is both an outrageously funny journey and brutally honest look at the ruthless entertainment industry, the trappings of success, and the ultimate vulnerability of the first queen of comedy.

Being able to break through Rivers's self-made façade is a tribute to filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg. It is obvious the magic of this film is the inherent trust between filmmakers and subject. Shot over the course of a year, the film enlists a resilient cinema vérité style to craft a moving look at this iconic performer, stripping away her comedy masks and laying bare the truth of her life and inspiration.


Head over to
the film's page on the official Sundance site for screening and ticket info, plus much more.