University of South Florida graduates Seth Keal and Charles Miller spent a year with Joan Rivers and lived to make a movie about it.
Keal is a producer and Miller the cinematographer for Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work, a documentary stalking the acerbic comedian, pitchwoman and Celebrity Apprentice, now playing exclusively at the Tampa Theatre.
This weekend, Keal and Miller will accompany the film and conduct Q&A sessions at select screenings (today at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 4:30 and 7:30 p.m.). Tickets are $9, with discounts available.
Keal calls 2001 his graduation year from USF, although he had to finish a few classes later. Miller is Class of 2000. They each grew up in north Pinellas County but never met until USF's film school.
Now they're enjoying a Sundance Film Festival hit and bringing it to Tampa Bay. In a shared telephone interview, Keal and Miller talk about Tampa, the real Joan Rivers, and an extraordinary scene in which the comic goes ballistic on a heckler who doesn't appreciate a Helen Keller joke.
So, how do a couple of USF grads make it to Sundance?
Keal: Getting to Sundance is partly the work that you've done, but it's also partly who you're associated with. I don't want to misstate that, like, it's only who you know. But it helps.
I moved to New York and through a friend of a friend I hooked up with a woman who was with the Sundance Channel. She introduced me to (A Piece of Work directors) Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern. They had a movie at Sundance before we met, so they were building a name in the Sundance world. I told them about Charles, and we've been working together ever since.
Charles, you deserve credit for keeping the camera so close to Joan. I'd be worried that she might shove it in my face.
Miller: Not once in the entire process did she ask to have the cameras turned off or demand me to leave the room. She was really gracious that way. She had a good idea of what we wanted to capture, and she's a pro.
Charles, how did it feel looking through the viewfinder at Joan going off on that heckler at the Wisconsin gig?
Miller: It felt like, holy c--- , this better be recording and in focus. I learned early on with her that anything is bound to happen.
How does it feel, returning to Tampa as successful filmmakers?
Keal: It feels really good to come back with all this knowledge that a lot of people in Tampa helped to cultivate. Especially at Tampa Theatre, which is so beautiful. I went on dates to that theater when I was a teenager. It feels like I'm on the right track, and it's an ode to people in Tampa who helped get me to that spot.
Miller: It's absolutely great for my family in Palm Harbor and Fort Myers, that they can see that I'm not just up in New York taking pictures of street corners.
People who influenced my education will be able to see this (movie). Hopefully, if they do or don't like the film, they'll appreciate that it's born out of that experience I had in Tampa.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.