There’s very little Amy Poehler can’t do. She serves as an executive producer on four projects currently on the air, including Emmy contenders “Russian Doll” and “Making It,” which she also co-hosts. She also voices two leading characters on Fox’s animated series “Duncanville,” which she co-created.
Though she’s stepped behind the camera many times over the course of her career, this year came with a whole new challenge: directing an Amazon Prime Video documentary about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, titled “Lucy and Desi.” Luckily, the timing was perfect.
“Working on a documentary during these past few years was very fortuitous because so much of it is research, interviews and time with your editors, so I didn’t have as much on-set experience,” she tells Variety of filming during the COVID-19 pandemic. “I take great pride in working in an industry where a bunch of different unions came together very fast to say, ‘We’re all going to do something that’s going to be really uncomfortable and unpleasant, and we’re going to hate it and we’re going to keep doing it to keep working.’ I think that there’s an incredible lesson in it there. There’s a lot of different kinds of people that work on a film, and they all said fine, we’ll do this so that we can keep working so there’s a little bit of magic in it still.”
Speaking of magic, Poehler tapped some of the biggest names in the industry to take part in the doc. Her goal was to show the off-screen side of the of the legendary duo, diving deeper into lesser-known aspects of their professional lives and Ball’s trailblazing career as a studio boss.
“They established their own studio. That’s an enormous operation,” producer Norman Lear says in the doc. Carol Burnett refers to Ball as “fearless,” while Bette Midler points out that she changed the game for women.
“We really wanted to try to only interview people that knew Lucy and Desi because the idea was to try to keep them alive or to bring them back to life, to make them people rather than Halloween costumes,” Poehler explains. “Once that happens and you have people talking about how funny they are or how iconic they are, you kind of forget the flesh and blood part.
Once the team decided to home in on the relationship as the focus, “everything started to fall into place” for the 102-minute doc. “We really wanted to tell a love story. It’s a very long love story that they have. It goes through a bunch of different changes publicly, personally and privately, and it really, I think, asks the question of what is a successful partnership? What does it look like? Who do you want with you at the end of your life?” Poehler says.
Although Ball and Arnaz were married from 1940 to 1960, and the heyday of “I Love Lucy” (1951-1957) was more than 60 years ago, the couple’s story “felt very modern” to Poehler.
“They’re two outsiders, two disruptors, people who were not always invited into the room who made their way into the room, made decisions and the stuff that they innovated, that they made decisions on is still the way we make television. There’s not that much that has changed,” she says. “The negative side of that coin is there is not much that has changed.
“Lucy was a woman running a studio when no one was, and Desi is Cuban American immigrant slash refugee, who comes to this country and decides he’s going to try to figure out the system and work within it, so it’s very, very topical and modern, so we really wanted to make sure it felt that way.”
Poehler, like many, recalls watching the sitcom with her family or home sick from school. Then, as she got older, she began to realize just how pioneering and special Ball was, then and now, and how much the sitcom she forged laid the foundation for today’s TV.
“I think what that show did and what Lucy and Desi did, is they created this idea of rupture and repair. We talked a lot about it the film — this feeling, in post-war America, that you would sit with your family and you would watch a problem get solved,” says Poehler. “That is what we see today in most sitcoms: how are we going to fix this?”
Ball’s real-life pregnancy coincided with Lucy being pregnant on the show, which was one of the first times that happened. At the time, CBS did not allow the word “pregnant.” Instead, “expecting” was deemed more appropriate. It was OK, however, for CBS to schedule the 1953 episode to air the same day as Ball’s real-life delivery of Desi Jr. by Caesarean section, with hopes to improve ratings.
“Just to think about what it was like to have to worry that your pregnancy would be something that America wouldn’t accept, or the networks wouldn’t want to shoot, or you’d have to dance around it, just seems funny and silly now, but that certainly was the case then,” says Poehler.
Plus, Ball worked through it all — just one of many qualities that the director was blown away by.
“They did 41 episodes in 40 weeks. It was really three writers. It was Jess Oppenheimer, the showrunner and writer, Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. I mean, just three people wrote 41 episodes and the grind of that is wild,” she says. “I think about that a lot when I watch Lucy specifically, who had two kids in the pinnacle of her career and was working her butt off. Work was really important to her. It’s what she took her greatest pride in. She had a lot of self-esteem about how hard she worked, and I think comedy and music both have this thing where, if you do it well, it looks easy. People think they can do it and I just always was really impressed by how hard she worked and how much that mattered to her that people knew that.”
One of those people is her daughter, Lucie Désirée Arnaz, who participated in a huge way in the doc — and who Poehler refers to as a “very special unicorn.”
“She has a very, in my opinion, healthy perspective on her parents. Her parents are very, very famous and she spent her entire life being famous and in the public eye and she also has to be very protective of their legacy. So there’s this interesting dance. I would imagine working with someone like that could be really frustrating, because they would want some version of their parents’ lives to stay intact, and I found her to be a true open book,” Poehler tells us. “She gave us an incredible amount of access to photos and video and also audio recordings, which was huge for us, because we really tried to tell the film [in]Lucy and Desi’s own voice as much as we can. We want to hear from them.”
That wasn’t an easy task — “in that generation, the word trauma was not discussed, and feelings weren’t discussed,” Poehler points out — but thanks to Lucie, they were able to fill in the blanks.
“She was this emotional center that helped us give some context to what her parents were feeling and what she was feeling,” she says. “Why I think she was so incredible in the film is that she, like us, cared very much about her parents’ marriage. Children of divorce have a perspective on their parents’ divorce that is uniquely their own. However, Lucy and Desi were America’s couple, so it was really amazing that she gave us that tender look and let us in and was very vulnerable about that because it was what we needed to make us feel connected to the story.”
Michael Schneider contributed to this story.