Class makes documentary film about local comedian

by Margarette Nelson | 5/20/14 6:27pm

Ten minutes before the start of 10A classes last Thursday, Jake Greenberg ’17 strolled into the Black Family Visual Arts Center’s video editing suite with a hot mug of coffee from Dunkin’ Donuts. While other students spent the previous night celebrating Green Key, Greenberg and his classmates from Film Studies 39, an advanced video making class, were busy applying the final touches to their original documentary, “Good Vibes and Duct Tape: Stories with Cindy Pierce.”

The film, a biopic about local comedian, author and innkeeper Cindy Pierce, will premiere with double screenings at the VAC this Friday evening. Seven students worked together to write and produce the 30-minute documentary in addition to making a behind-the-scenes film about the process.

Film and media studies professor Jeffrey Ruoff said before the term begins, he typically chooses a Dartmouth community member or Upper Valley resident as the subject for his class’s film. Pierce was an easy choice, he said, because she is well known locally and at the College.

Pierce has performed comedy shows about sex and relationships at the College’s V-Week programming since 2010. She was awarded a prize from the Center for Gender and Student Engagement in 2012.

In the class, students collaborate to produce a “professional-quality” documentary, a project that no student could easily complete on his or her own, Ruoff said.

The class’s film focuses on various aspects of Pierce’s life, including her roles as an innkeeper, mother and story-teller, producer Julian Danziger ’15 said. Its title references one of Pierce’s routines in which she claimed that if she ever wrote a book, she would call it “Good Vibes and Duct Tape.”

Students began the term making “treatments” for the film, an outline that fleshes out focus areas, themes and specific shots that the producers and directors want to capture, said Greenberg, a writer and publicist for the project.

Next, taking into account their preferences and talents, Ruoff said he assigned students to specific roles, such as producer, writer or cinematographer.

The film includes clips from Pierce’s Inn in Etna, one of her performances at Middlebury College and a show at Psi Upsilon fraternity. It also includes interviews with Pierce’s family as well as archival footage provided by Pierce, Danziger said.

Pierce said she quickly learned to be aware of the camera’s intrusion without being bothered.

“They filmed my inn-keeping, cooking in the kitchen and my morning routine,” Pierce said. “I’m not very private. I just pretend it’s not there and keep doing what I’m doing.”

Greenberg described working with Pierce as fun and rewarding. Because Pierce’s life is so “multi-faceted” though, he said identifying and crafting a “central story” proved challenging.

“[Pierce has] a unique brand of comedy that is as much an educational as it as an entertainment experience,” Greenberg said.

Students continued shooting scenes and amassing film until the writers felt like they had enough material and direction for a coherent story, Danziger said. Once they had their idea, they completed the project in a single, albeit long, night, he said.

While Ruoff provided general support and direction, Danziger described him as “hands off” with the film’s day-to-day production. In total, the class worked with 30 hours of footage for the project, he said.

Ruoff said his leadership style was intentional, as he wanted students to learn from the project’s collaborative nature. Ruoff said each student’s contribution was “pivotal” to the film’s successful completion.

“One of the challenges is to come together as a group and find common purpose, to communicate well, to criticize constructively, to fill in and help out, to share knowledge and experiences with each other,” Ruoff said.

Pierce, who recently watched the film’s two-minute trailer, said she was pleased with the result.

“I’m just amazed how they captured the essence of my life,” Pierce said. “It’s always good to have documentation of a time in your life. It’s like having a funeral before your funeral.”

Danziger is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.