A beloved television powerhouse hailed for her keen comedic instincts on-screen as well as having a shrewd producer’s eye for nurturing behind-the-scenes projects and bolstering the talents of others — that’s the eternally iconic Lucille Ball in a nutshell. But it also aptly describes Amy Poehler, which may be why the true-life story of Ball and Desi Arnaz’s relationship and profound impact made an ideal project for Poehler to make her debut directing narrative non-fiction in the new Amazon Studios documentary “Lucy and Desi.”
“I had great respect for her and her comedy, but I didn’t really have any idea what she was like as a person,” Poehler told Variety at the film’s premiere at the Directors Guild of America headquarters on Tuesday. “I just knew her as her character, and then — like I hope most people will when they watch to the film — I was reminded that she was a human, mother, woman, daughter, wife, producer, trailblazer and student. Just a tender human, like the rest of us.”
“They were the first ultimate power couple, in many ways,” added Poehler, whose film serves as a more detailed — yet no less dramatic and moving — companion piece to Aaron Sorkin’s widely hailed scripted, creative license-heavy account of the Arnaz’s intertwined business and personal lives, “Being the Ricardos.” As Poehler delved into the extensive Hollywood history of the duo and their Desilu empire she was astonished to discover the scope of the couples’ reach beyond the still-popular “I Love Lucy” series. Their pioneering triumphs including developing the multi-camera sitcom format, shooting television on film for delayed broadcast and subsequent syndication, and parlaying their TV riches into a vast and prolific production arm.
“I don’t think people know the amount of shows that Desilu had on at one time, or the amount of shows that they shepherded — ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Mission: Impossible’ are because of Desilu — or how big their empire was at one point,” said Poehler. “They were huge in a very short amount of time. So I was just inspired by their big swings, which they took together, and I think they got a lot of confidence from each other. It’s kind of thrilling to watch. They gamble on themselves over and over again, and it’s really exciting!”
Poehler also saw a common quality between Ball and Arnaz’s sitcom formulas and their famously alternately red-hot and rocky romance, including their continued devotion after they divorced.
“The big takeaway for me was that the show — and television in general — does a lot of rupture and repair. As a family, you sit, you watch things break, fall apart, come back together,” she explained. “And I don’t think I really knew the long life that Lucy and Desi had still with each other, post-show, and how they were a very real human example of that. I don’t think, like most people, that I even really knew what Lucy and Desi were up to once that show ended, and I was blown away by the way that they still operated, respected each other, loved each other.”
Poehler’s docu-directorial debut drew a collection of her closest colleagues, including her “Parks & Recreation” co-star Aubrey Plaza, recurring “Parks” player Kathryn Hahn and Natasha Lyonne, star of the Poehler-created “Russian Doll,” as well as admirers like Charo, who appears in the film, and Melissa Rivers, whose mother, comic Joan Rivers, venerated Ball as a smart, business-savvy glass-ceiling-breaker who paved the way for her and countless others to succeed.
Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, Ball and Arnaz’s daughter, was intimately involved behind-the-scenes, including providing a treasure trove of audio recordings of both her parents reflecting with disarming candor on their lives and careers. She’s been basking in the glow of the modern zeitgeist warmly embracing her parents once again, through both “Being the Ricardos” and “Lucy and Desi.”
“It was just bizarre, wonderful timing,” she told Variety. “It’s wonderful because one is… a theatrical version. It’s a painting, not a photograph. The documentary is more of a photograph, because you see true things: people who knew them talking about them. And it’s way different than what Aaron did – and what Aaron did was great… This is a whole other animal.”