Amy Poehler interview: ‘Lucy and Desi’ documentary
When Amy Poehler decided to direct “Lucy and Desi,” a documentary about the personal and professional partnership between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz and their enduring impact, she knew she had a unique task at hand. “In the doc space, there’s often this obligation or assignment to take people into a world that they don’t know and to tell them about people that they should know. And we had the opposite problem with Lucy and Desi,” Poehler tells Gold Derby at our Meet the Experts: Documentary panel (watch the exclusive video interview above). “How do we make these iconic, larger-than-life, incredibly famous people seem like human beings, which they are? They’re mothers and fathers and lovers and friends, so we kinda had to work from that.”
The actress, who makes her documentary directorial debut with the Amazon Prime Video film, soon realized that the way in was to center it on Ball and Arnaz’s love story of two unlikely people who came together and changed each other’s lives and TV forever. “The love story of Lucy and Desi became the framing element for the film and their actual love story is kind of a three-act structure,” she notes. Key to telling their love story was unearthed audiotapes from Ball and Arnaz themselves, shared by their daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill. Ball had recorded extensive interviews with Ladies’ Home Journal with plans for an eventual book, while Arnaz had recorded an audiobook of his own memoir.
“[Luckinbill] opened her doors for us, literally, and they found this very special box of stuff that had been tucked away,” Poehler says. “Once we got Desi’s and Lucy’s voice in the film, it changed the way, I think, how we feel about the film because we really want Lucy and Desi to feel present, alive and of this moment because they certainly are.”
SEE ‘Lucy and Desi’ editor Robert Martinez: Finding audiotapes on a shelf ‘ended up being a big reason why this project feels so intimate’
It was important for Poehler to give Arnaz his equal due as well. Despite their success with “I Love Lucy” and their production company Desilu, Arnaz’s story is oftentimes forgotten or runs secondary to Ball’s achievements. But Arnaz, who immigrated to America from Cuba as a teen, was a sharp businessman and producer who changed the way episodic TV is filmed after he suggested “I Love Lucy” use film and three cameras (he also had a no retakes policy).
“What Lucy and Desi shared was that a woman and a Cuban-American man of color in the 1950s weren’t allowed to be part of the room. They weren’t in the room making decisions. So they were both certainly outsiders, outliers, but Desi’s story is a really amazing one,” Poehler states. “It’s also very truly an American story. It’s an immigrant story of a kid who gets here at 13 having been chased literally out of his country, a country that he misses desperately when he lives in the U.S., but he becomes this self-made, incredible story of capitalism and success and all the while he’s straddling two very separate identities. His status on TV alone was groundbreaking and the fact that he and Lucy were married on TV, as well as in real life, was incredibly groundbreaking at the time and people forget about it. We really wanted to make sure that Desi’s story was told because it is often the story that people don’t know enough about.”
Poehler also wanted to tell the story of the pair’s lives after “I Love Lucy” went off the air in 1957, which would’ve been an easy stopping point. Ball and Arnaz divorced in 1960 and both remarried other people with whom they had longer marriages than they had with each other, but they maintained a close friendship until Arnaz’s death in 1986 (Ball died in 1989). They also had continued professional success — Ball via her subsequent sitcoms (she won two Emmys for “The Lucy Show”) and Arnaz as a producer.
“We were not making a documentary about ‘I Love Lucy.’ We were really interested in those 25, 30 years after the show ended almost, where not only Desi and Lucy still connected and in a relationship even though they had moved on to new relationships, but Lucy was still working,” Poehler explains. “She was on three TV shows after ‘I Love Lucy’ and in the public eye, whether it was doing stuff with Carol Burnett on her show or the many sitcoms she did after. That third act, I think, is where a lot of discovery comes from because when we fall in love with people on television, we think when we turn off the television that those people don’t exist. And when people leave TV shows, we think they’ve just kind of jumped off a proverbial cliff, but Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz the producers went on to build the careers of so many people, to produce so many shows and to continue to work. Not only is their story about, frankly, the American dream and also about meeting the right person at the right time, but they’re both a story about longevity.”