Los Angeles native Jeanne Elfant Festa dreamed of being a stand-up comedian, but at age 40 she had an epiphany that led to an award-winning career. After a friend asked her to help produce a small stage play. Festa, now 60, discovered the joys of behind-the-scenes work. Since then, she has co-produced memorable award-winning documentaries of the past decade: The Beatles: Eight Days a Week; The Apollo; Pavarotti; The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart and, most recently, the Emmy Award-winning Lucy and Desi.
Festa talks to Senior Planet about her life as an award-winning documentary producer:
Q: Congratulations on the two Emmy wins for Lucy and Desi. What drew you to look further into the lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz?
FESTA: I’ve always loved Lucille but I think we all knew less about Desi Arnaz, a man who did not take no for an answer and was a brilliant businessman. He’s been kind of pushed under the carpet while others have taken credit, and you see that in our film. So, at the forefront it’s Desi and his perseverance because literally at every turn people would tell him he can’t do that.
We couldn’t fit in every detail but, before him, nobody had a studio with a live studio audience, so he actually changed the way we do business. Even those little things where he took a hammer and a nail and said, ‘Okay, I’m going to build this’, because he did. He was there every step of the way. Thanks to their adult children, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill and Desi Arnaz Jr, we had access to never-before-seen archival recordings, including taped recollections and home movies, and comments from the Arnaz children and from fellow legends Norman Lear, Bette Midler and Carol Burnett.
Q: Why was Amy Poehler the right director for Luci and Desi?
FESTA: People might say she’s a performer but, when you’re a comedic actress and you’re presenting the core of who you are, you’re actually directing the process. And Amy was in our living rooms with Parks and Recreation in a way that was very similar to Lucy and Desi. Amy also wrote, directed and produced that show, so I just thought she was perfect for this. She was the only person on my list. Amy had a clear vision and insisted on interviewing real people who knew Lucy and Desi – in a way that would keep them alive – while also creating a very forward looking film. She really brought them back to life, rather than portray them as untouchable icons. If we only talk about how funny and brilliant they were, you forget their humanity and Amy really shows them as real people with all the love and relatability.
Q: Did your heart sink last year when Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem co-starred as Luci and Desi in Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos?
FESTA: We knew it was coming and watched it come to fruition. But it had a positive effect because people wanted to see these two incredible actors and so it just enhanced our project.
Q: Together with your three partners at White Horse Pictures, you are responsible for producing and documenting the artists who have literally formed the soundtracks of our lives. The Beatles, Bob Dylan, The Bee Gees, Billy Joel, Pavarotti. . . Is it easier if the subject is deceased?
FESTA: I don’t think so because, even if the person has passed away, you’re still dealing with their family members protecting them. So I actually think it’s more difficult when they’re not here to talk in the first person to look back and reflect.
Q: What was your first music documentary?
FESTA: Foo Fighters: Back and Forth was the first film I executive produced. It really came about because I had done all this background research and I had story points and ideas. And then one thing led to another and I had a friend who had these remote cameras so we could do this without affecting the band’s mojo.
Q: You’re trading in nostalgia too with these documentaries? Baby boomers love to indulge in the golden era of music with The Beatles, Bob Dylan or The Bee Gees?
Of course there’s a nostalgia component but we pride ourselves on making documentaries that are like films with a narrative feature.
FESTA: Of course there’s a nostalgia component but we pride ourselves on making documentaries that are like films with a narrative feature. We don’t do any reenactments and use a classic three act structure. And the research process is incredibly deep, looking for things that perhaps people weren’t aware of or highlight things they might have forgotten, like how The Bee Gees were really kids when they began in Australia and all the artists that they wrote for, so I think we really explained their brilliance. So much of this has to do with the process of creativity. And I think audiences are interested in the big Why? Which is one of our biggest discussions when we first start a project.
So much of this has to do with the process of creativity
Q: What’s your secret to aging with attitude?
FESTA: I think the secret is exercise. Every morning, I start my day at 7am with calisthenics or a jog. I do a 75 minute routine which might include burpees, planks, Pilates or yoga. I do that every day except Sundays when I sleep in but, even then, I’ll go for a walk because you have to move every day. Movement is number one by far to keep you physically comfortable and to start your day off freshly meditated with a good and positive attitude. No matter what your life looks like, you’re met with roadblocks so if you’re relaxed when you hit those roadblocks, you can look at it another way. It’s also good to remember that we can learn from our mistakes – even if that’s sometimes difficult. So be healthy and use common sense like don’t drink or eat too much. Nourishment is key. And family is really important too. I’m lucky I’ve been married to my husband for 37 years and we have two incredible kids. Pets can be a tremendous source of support too. I love my pets. I have my dogs and a bird and some koi. Pets really center you. Also, as my mother would say – remember to moisturize!
Q: What’s your favourite documentary you’ve produced?
FESTA: Probably The Apollo which chronicles the unique history and contemporary legacy of new York’s landmark Apollo Theater. Over the last 85 years, what began as a refuge for marginalized artists has emerged as a hallowed hall of Black excellence and empowerment. It took us seven years to reach the finishing line and it was a real labor of love. On a personal note, my parents used to live in Brooklyn and my father loved Harlem and told me all these amazing stories about going to The Apollo and I know he would be so proud to see it if he was alive today.
Q: What’s next for you at White Horse Pictures?
FESTA: We’re working on Wilder about the life and work of comedic acting legend Gene Wilder, also STAX, a look at Stax Records, responsible for some of the greatest soul hits of the 1960s and 1970s, plus a documentary about legendary musician Billy Preston. We are also producing the fully authorized feature, Shari & Lamb Chop, focusing on the legendary and beloved ventriloquist Shari Lewis.
Lucy and Desi is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Pic credit (top):Todd Williamson
Pic credit (middle) Amazon Studios
Gill Pringle began her career as a rock columnist for popular British newspapers, traveling the world with Madonna, U2 and Michael Jackson. Moving to Los Angeles 27 years ago, she interviews film and TV personalities for prestigious UK outlets, The Independent, The i-paper and The Sunday Times – and, of course, Senior Planet. A member of Critics Choice Association, BAFTA and AWFJ, she wrote the screenplay for 2016 Netflix family film, The 3 Tails Movie: A Mermaid Adventure. An award-winning writer, in 2021 she was honored by the Los Angeles Press Club with 1st prize at the NAEJ Awards.