Alumni Q&A: filmmakers Ricki Stern & Annie Sundberg
Ricki Stern ’87 and Annie Sundberg ’90 are an Emmy-award nominated duo renowned for their work in writing, directing and producing. Their films received acclaim for their focus on intimately complex human journeys and interactions. Their production company, Break Thru Films, most recently produced a documentary called “Marathon: The Patriots Day Bombing,” which was produced in collaboration with the Boston Globe and tells the story of the survivors of the Boston Marathon bombing on April 15, 2013.
How did you become interested in documentary filmmaking, and how did you two begin working together in this medium?
AS: When I was at Dartmouth, English and history were my focus, and I had a chance to take a documentary production course from a wonderful professor named Maury Rapf. Rapf was this really interesting professor with an expansive knowledge and love of film. He especially loved documentary, and he showed me this incredible synthesis. For me, documentary was this incredible blend of some of the objective observational journalism that I’d been drawn to, and also this incredible art form. Out of college I worked on a film called “Where the Rivers Flow North,” where I met Ricki [Stern]. I was working with the director, and she was working with the producer, and we just became really good friends. Afterwards, we were in New York, and I will never forget when Ricki basically said that she had an idea for a film, and we started on our first project together. We worked with three other Dartmouth people to help us realize that film, and it became “The Trials of Darryl Hunt.”
RS: My background was in the theater, and when I came to Dartmouth I took a lot of English classes, but I also found the film department. When I took a film class, one of the first classes I got into was a documentary class. I made a short film about a young woman who was in the Special Olympics. That experience, along with a screenwriting course I took with Rapf, got me interested. But I think ultimately for me, documentary film was a way in which I could combine my background in theater and understanding character and understanding the nature of the structure of a play and a narrative.
Both of you have collaborated with fellow Dartmouth alumni. How did the connections you formed during your time at the college influence your future careers?
AS: The film department at Dartmouth was an incredibly encouraging department. Because it was relatively small, it had a certain intimacy, and the relationships between professors and students were very deep. It really did feel like a family. It’s a network that continues. We’ve had so many interns who have then come on to work with us as producers at Break Thru Films that have come to us through this Dartmouth network. On this past film alone on the Boston Marathon bombing, we had three Dartmouth graduates working with us.
RS: [Hanover] is a very tightly knit community when you’re in college, and that can be liberating in some ways because there isn’t as much distraction as if you were in a city. I think the positive side of it is you work closely with people, so that when you graduate I think you have this built-in sense of how you want to work and whom you want to work with.
Your films have a focus on individual voices and portraying the stories of your characters. How did this focus reveal itself in your documentary about the Boston Marathon bombing?
AS: It was an incredibly challenging film just because there are so many pieces that were from the past, and we wanted to make them feel as immediate as possible, so we worked really closely with the Boston Globe photographers and videographers who were there that day. We did a huge push to get whatever social media we could in. It was remarkable that the survivors had so much first person footage that they captured of themselves and their families going through the whole experience of recovery. But for us it was really that we don’t make films that have a lot of talking heads; we don’t generally do biopics. We like to really go for stories where you can immerse yourself in someone’s life in the same way that a narrative experience can allow you to have that immersive experience, because for us, it’s the idea of walking in someone else’s shoes for a period of time.
RS: The Boston Marathon bombing was not just a domestic story. It was an international story, and I think we were challenged to find a way into that story, because there are so many stories there. There’s the work of the FBI and the work of the local police. There’s the work of the first responders and hospital personnel, and of course the survivors and the victim’s family. And so our way was to find a handful of survivor families that we felt we could tell the story through their eyes while also pulling back and incorporating the actual unfolding drama of the bombing itself.
What are you working on now?
AS: We are getting ready to start production on a new project about reproductive issues in America in 2017. We will be shooting down at the Inauguration [on Jan. 20] and at the Women’s March in Washington D.C. [on Jan. 21] and at the March for Life [on Jan. 27], which has been held annually on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.
RS: By working on this film about women’s reproductive rights, we’re looking to tell both sides of this very divisive issue in America. Not just abortion, but everything that trickles down from abortion, which is contraception, sex education, access to healthcare and providers for all women-related health issues. We feel like after the election, everyone is sort of scratching their heads and wondering how pollsters and individuals could be so off. I think our goal with the film is to ask those same questions and to learn and to listen to what the two sides on this issue feel and are fighting for.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.