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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Ricki Stern '87 returns to campus to screen ‘Knuckleball'

Filmmaker Ricki Stern '87 visited the College over Homecoming weekend to screen her latest film,
Filmmaker Ricki Stern '87 visited the College over Homecoming weekend to screen her latest film,

When she was in her teens, Stern was more inclined toward theater, acting in plays whenever she could, she said. When she came to Dartmouth, she still dabbled in theater but expanded her studies into the film department. Stern found Dartmouth's isolation to be a blessing for her creatively, she said.

"Being isolated up there [at Dartmouth] was both a good thing and a bad thing," she said. "It gave you this breath of relaxation from, How am I going to get a job?' to just like, I'm going to sit here, I'm going to be here and I'm going to create.'"

After she graduated, Stern went on to work in New York City and eventually decided that she wanted to make movies for a living.

"[In New York,] I did some production work, worked at Saturday Night Live those kinds of things," Stern said. "Then I went to graduate school and realized that there were stories that I wanted to tell."

When selecting the subjects of her films, the strength of the topic is only one important factor.

"I think now we look for a subject that's interesting to us, and we look for strong characters in the story," Stern said. "We focus on the character and what drives that person. A lot of these films treat their subjects as a thesis topic. I think it's more of like, Oh my gosh, I heard of a great story or a great character.' I want to make that movie."

Stern produces her films with her directing partner Anne Sundberg '90 through her production company Break Thru Films. The two first met while working together as assistants on a film shooting in Vermont, and when Sundberg wanted to move to New York City, Stern arranged a job for her. Around the same time, Stern was working on a documentary about a gym in the South Bronx, a project on which Sundberg agreed to assist, beginning a long-term partnership, she said.

The idea for "Knuckleball" was first presented to Stern in the form of a one-page pitch from the film's producers, Christine Schaumer and Dan Cogan, and the idea directly appealed to Stern's interest in deep character development.

"In this one-page summary, they had honed in on these guys, these characters, who throw this last-chance pitch," Stern said. "This quirky, sort of magical pitch that takes craftsmanship and gets better with age."

"Knuckleball" is a film that delves into the titular baseball pitch. This pitch is unusual because the ball travels a lot slower than normal pitches such as fastballs and curveballs moves erratically until it lands in the catcher's mitt. It also requires the pitcher to throw the ball perfectly off his fingertips or the ball will flounder and be easy pickings for the batter.

Because the pitch is risky and hard to execute, only two men in all of Major League Baseball history Tim Wakefield of the Boston Red Sox and R.A. Dickey of the New York Mets were full-time knuckleballers as of 2011. The film follows both men in their respective 2011 seasons while chronicling the history of the knuckleball.

As per Stern's tastes, Wakefield and Dickey are interesting characters, indeed. In the 2011 season, Wakefield was the oldest player in the MLB and played an integral role in Red Sox history. Dickey was a former Olympian and college baseball star who learned the knuckleball in order to continue to play in the MLB.

Beautifully shot, "Knuckleball" promises to enthrall even those without an interest in baseball, showcasing surprisingly funny scenes that feature many a batter being confused by this seemingly simple pitch. The film drags, however, in parts that focus too much on the personal struggles of the two main characters. As a result, it tends to shift the focus of the movie from the pitch to the players, which should not have been the intention of the film.

Before screening the movie, Stern, along with her director of photography Charles Miller and sound designer Rich Bologna, taught a master class to Dartmouth film students. The screening was followed by a question-and-answer session with Stern.