Amy Poehler misses going to big events just as much as the rest of us.
The comedian-turned-director, whose documentary “Lucy and Desi” premieres at the virtual Sundance Film Festival Saturday, is attempting to bring Park City, Utah, to her living room after the in-person event was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Every once in a while, I just breathe really heavy into a paper bag so I can get lightheaded and feel like I’m in the right altitude,” Poehler jokes, speaking over Zoom the day before her movie’s debut.
Poehler’s first time going to Sundance was with her co-stars from 2001’s now-cult comedy classic “Wet Hot American Summer,” which bowed at the fest.
“I have a memory of sharing a house with a bunch of misfits and having a really good time,” she recalls. “But I’m so thrilled to be here as a director, which is a real proper dream of mine.”
“Lucy and Desi” (streaming on Amazon Prime March 4) turns the lens on “I Love Lucy” co-stars Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who together created a TV empire starting with their beloved 1950s sitcom, and continued with their production company Desilu, which produced hit shows including “Star Trek” and “Mission: Impossible.” The husband-and-wife duo broke new ground on “Lucy” with depictions of pregnancy and interracial love, even as their marriage dissolved behind the scenes and they divorced in 1960.
Lucie Arnaz, their daughter, appears in the documentary and “let us into the very last intimate moments of her parents’ lives,” says Poehler, 50. Throughout her life, Lucie “really had to share her family with the world, so I was really blown away by her openness.”
It’s been a busy season for “Lucy” fare thanks to Aaron Sorkin’s awards-contending drama “Being the Ricardos,” which imagines Lucille (Nicole Kidman) and Desi (Javier Bardem) navigating personal and professional strife during a heated week of “Lucy” production.
“I haven’t gotten a chance to see it,” Poehler says. “But it’s cool to see people excited about how Lucy and Desi disrupted the system, because they certainly did. As people, we’re drawn to those kinds of stories.”
Question: What was your relationship to “I Love Lucy” before signing onto this?
Amy Poehler: Everybody knows the very two-dimensional story of Lucy and Desi – or as they often mistakenly call it, Lucy and Ricky. It was a show my parents watched, so it always felt like the kind of show that just came with your TV. And it really wasn’t until I started paying attention to Lucille Ball as a performer that I understood the genius of it. And that was the goal of the film: to give back the humanity of these two flattened-out characters who were incredible innovators and this very sexy power couple.
Q: You’ve directed TV episodes (“Parks and Recreation,” “Broad City”) and narrative features (“Wine Country,” “Moxie”). What was the most unexpected challenge of making a documentary?
Poehler: What you learn very quickly is you have to make a decision about how you’re going to step into a story, because there’s so many ways in. When you’re dealing with real people, there’s this feeling that you’re going to be leaving out as much as you’re keeping in, and you’re going to have to come to terms with the story you want to tell very early on. We wanted it to be about Lucy and Desi’s love. It’s a story about one marriage that is incredibly beautiful and productive and falls apart, and what does that rupture and repair look like?
Q: When “I Love Lucy” was on the air, it was rare to see a friendship like Lucy and Ethel’s where female characters got to commiserate and conspire and just be silly together. What struck you about that?
Poehler: Vivian Vance and Lucille Ball remained very good friends until the end of their lives. And the characters Lucy and Ethel – when you re-watch the show – they’re getting into the fun stuff and they’re allowed to be funny together. We take that for granted, but that was very, very new during the time they were on TV.
Q: Of you and Tina Fey, who’s the Lucy and who’s Ethel?
Poehler: I don’t know. It’s funny to think about those archetypes that were created, because then you go down the line of Mary and Rhoda, Laverne and Shirley. But you know, I think we’re both like Fred. (Laughs.)
Q: Given all the incredible talent we’ve lost these last few weeks, I was so moved watching this film to see how genuinely touched Lucille was by her standing ovation at the 1986 Kennedy Center Honors.
Poehler: I love that moment. She was a real journeywoman in this business. She did three or four TV shows after “I Love Lucy” – she worked constantly. One of my favorite moments in the doc is when she receives an Emmy for “The Lucy Show” in the ’60s and it’s been a while since she’s been up on that stage. She says, “I love my work. I thank you for giving me this for it.” And when she’s at the Kennedy Center and (Robert Stack) reads a letter that Desi wrote (for her) before his death, it’s just this really beautiful, full-circle moment.
Q: Speaking of incredible talent, Betty White hosted “SNL” while you were on the show. What do you remember about working with her?
Poehler: Oh my goodness, Betty White. What a genius. A giant. I was lucky to do a Mother’s Day “SNL” special with her. Betty was so funny and prepared and professional. No surprise, but she just proves my theory that the more talented you are, the easier you are to work with.