“I was very blown away by the way in which Lucy and Desi adapted their relationship to each other throughout their lives, and remained friends and partners until the end of their lives,” Poehler tells The Hollywood Reporter.
The documentary Lucy and Desi chronicles the rise of comedy icon Lucille Ball and her relationship with Desi Arnaz. The film, which will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 22 before heading to Amazon on March 4, also marks Amy Poehler’s first foray into the documentary directing space.
Poehler has directed features before, including Netflix’s Wine Country, as well as episodes of her TV show Parks and Recreation. But when speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, the actress-writer-producer-director says she’s always had respect for the documentary as a separate art form. Digging into the life and relationship of Ball and Arnaz proved to be the perfect segue way into that space.
Lucy and Desi features never-before-seen footage and photos, as well as first-person narratives from Ball and Arnaz themselves. Additionally, Poehler interviews many who knew the duo and those who were impacted by them: their daughter Lucie Arnaz, Desi Arnaz Jr., Carol Burnett, Bette Midler and Norman Lear. And there’s still a treasure trove of material about Ball and Arnaz, I Love Lucy, and their relationships with costars and mentors that Poehler discovered. Some much so, Poehler says, that she even explored doing a docuseries instead of a feature. But with Lucy and Desi, Poehler ultimately wanted to focus on “one relationship and how it transformed through time.”
The director talks to THR about some challenges she faced while directing the doc about the power couple and the most surprising thing she learned about Ball and Arnaz.
What made you want to do a documentary about Lucy and Desi? Were you a fan of the show?
Imagine Entertainment approached me with the idea. I’m such a fan of Ron Howard and his work. He’s a huge inspiration to me. I think at the beginning of this project, I represented a lot of people. I knew a good amount about Lucy and Desi but it was really just the tip of the iceberg. Of course, I always was incredibly impressed by their talent and their innovation. I don’t think I really understood what they were like as real flesh and blood people. So it was very, very cool to dig into it.
You’ve directed films before, but this is your documentary directorial debut. Did you look at any documentaries for inspiration?
It’s such a hardy art form. I have such respect for it and reverence for it. It is one of, I think, the most interesting ways to tell a story. So I did and I am influenced certainly by other documentarians and moved by them. But I think that what I really tried to do was remember what I enjoyed the most out of the stuff that I watch about real people in their lives, which is anytime I can feel connected emotionally to the story. If it becomes something that’s about what people did, rather than what people felt, then sometimes I’m not as interested. Even if they climbed Mount Everest, you know? I have to feel something and Desi and Lucy were such big, emotional, incredible feelers. I came at it from that aspect. It is not the history of I Love Lucy, and it is not a list of their accomplishments.
Would you say directing a documentary is different than directing a feature film?
It’s very busy, you do a ton of preparation. You really go very wide before you get small, and it’s really a completely different animal. In some ways, you have more control than ever, because you’re deciding what’s in and what’s out. But you also don’t have the same amount of control that you do in a scripted film, because you really do have to let the story tell you what it wants to be too.
What would you say is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about the couple?
Why we were so excited to present the film in their words is [because] we got this kind of trove of material where they were speaking about their lives. Not enough is spoken about Desi’s early trauma and the way that he turned that into an incredible success [and] how expensive that was for him, personally. I also was really moved by the way, in Lucy’s later years, she not only continued to work, but she also mentored a lot of young women, especially in comedy. Everything from getting to know exactly what they were dealing with in the television studio system at the time to realizing that Desi brought the conga line to the U.S. You know that dance that your aunts do at your cousin’s wedding? It’s because of Desi.
I didn’t know that Lucy was the last person Desi spoke to, and that they had a phone call. I started tearing up because it makes you think about time wasted, and how short and fleeting life is.
I think that those are [important] themes: what do you want to do with your time? What does a successful relationship look like? I was blown away by the way in which Lucy and Desi adapted their relationship to each other throughout their lives, and remained friends and partners until the end. And it’s so symbolic because here you have this couple that represented safety and security, rupture and repair. That is a thing that we, as Americans, had for the past 60 and 70 years looked for in our television. Then to see that they also worked on that in real life is very cool.
Did you face any challenges in getting someone to participate in the documentary?
Who would I like to have spoken to? Just purely from a production standpoint, I would have loved to have talked to Madelyn Pugh Davis, the writer of I Love Lucy. [And] I really want to talk to Lucy. And even though people are not usually the most reliable narrators [of their own lives], what I found amazing with both Desi and Lucy is their ability to be pretty clear about their wants and intentions of things and their respect and love for each other. And so Lucy’s voice is the voice that I heard a lot and I thought about a lot.
After researching it so heavily, how do you feel about the industry nowadays compared to then?
I think that sometimes, there’s a disproportionate focus on the way women are different, don’t get along, are fighting and scratching and crawling their way up to some position. In my experience, the talented women that came before me have been incredible resources in which to depend on and to learn from. I would like to think I count myself in this group [and] I also see it among my peers. The women that I know that are my peers are using their currency to promote and amplify young female voices. I see a lot of that happening from the generation above me and the generation below me. And what is interesting about that perspective of being in the middle is that you get to see you’re in this Matrix-style straddle of future and past. I find the support of women in this industry and the mentoring, especially with women in comedy, to be the norm, not the exception.
Lucy and Desi both were outsiders. He was a Cuban immigrant and people didn’t let Cuban men run a lot of things and they certainly didn’t let Latin men play sophisticated men of power on TV. We have a beautiful Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado in the film who speaks to what it was like coming to America as a young child and seeing the character of Ricky on TV— a man who was not a fool, who nobody made fun of his accent, who was in charge, beautifully dressed, and had a wife who adored him. That really meant something, especially when he, like a lot of people in the 50s who came to the country, [were] not speaking the language.
Was there one aspect of the documentary that was more challenging to put together?
They just did so many things. They’re the reason why we have reruns. A lot of I Love Lucy audiences are on other people’s laugh tracks, they created the way that we shoot, they’re like straight-up innovation. It was hard to not explain all of those.
Was there ever any thought for you to make a docuseries instead of making just a documentary film about Lucy and Desi?
It’s so interesting you say that because it just feels like I could stay in this world for a really long time for a couple of reasons. I really respect Lucy and Desi. His work ethic— and this is purely personal— I like being around it because it’s very inspiring. Lucy studied with Buster Keaton, and I was like, I would love to see an entire episode of what it means to work in a physical way with props in comedy. I think one of the things that surprised people is Lucy in real life was not a zany, wacky comedian, cracking jokes. She’s a very serious person who approached her comedy very seriously. She was an actress first, who played things very grounded and real. I would recommend this for all your readers and for people that haven’t seen it, Stagedoor is an amazing film. It’s with Katharine Hepburn and Lucille Ball, and I was like, “What is the making of this film?” If you are into any process, Get Back, the documentary about the Beatles, is a great example of it and proved that so many people were interested in the process of watching a song being written. So process is really interesting to watch, especially when it’s done by people whose work you really admire.
Interview edited for length and clarity.