The Searcher

Marina Zenovich on Arnold Schwarzenegger, Peter Coyote, and Jerry Brown: The Disrupter

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jerry Brown in Marina Zenovich’s Jerry Brown: The Disrupter: “It’s a very strange world. It’s Alice in Wonderland.”
Jerry Brown in Marina Zenovich’s Jerry Brown: The Disrupter: “It’s a very strange world. It’s Alice in Wonderland.” Photo: courtesy of Marina Zenovich

Marina Zenovich’s inspiring Jerry Brown: The Disrupter (a DOC NYC highlight, which shares editor Chris Peterson and a Linda Ronstadt connection with Denny Tedesco’s Immediate Family) features on-camera in-person interviews with former California governors Arnold Schwarzenegger and Gray Davis, former assembly speaker Willie Brown, former treasurer Kathleen Brown (Jerry’s sister), Anne Gust Brown (his wife), Peter Coyote, journalists Todd Purdum, Miriam Pawel, George Skelton, Dan Walters, and Warren Olney.

Marina Zenovich with Anne-Katrin Titze on Jerry Brown: “He’s a searcher, he’s curious, he’s inquisitive, he’s intelligent.”
Marina Zenovich with Anne-Katrin Titze on Jerry Brown: “He’s a searcher, he’s curious, he’s inquisitive, he’s intelligent.”

Some of the famous people (Warren Beatty, Jane Fonda, Michael Moore, Natalie Wood, Anjelica Houston, Nancy Pelosi) supporting Jerry Brown’s runs for governor and president are never mentioned by name, they just show up in the background. And the Dead Kennedys’ California Über Alles is strategically placed on the soundtrack.

“The harder you swim upstream the faster you go downstream,” Jerry Brown is heard saying in a clip from 1975. “It’s a very strange world. It’s Alice in Wonderland.” The political machine and the necessity to work with the Zeitgeist doesn’t cease, and yet if public service, if a life, is about something larger than oneself, not all is lost in the morass of egotism and greed that might very well destroy our grand planet.

“So look” the documentary starts “I’ve been trying very hard.” Zenovich’s voice is interrupted by Jerry Brown: “What?” She continues “I’m trying to get you to explain who you are!” Despite the fact that Brown calls this a “non-question” because it is indeed impossible to answer by anyone, this thorough documentary does a marvellous job in showing us why this country, and any country for that matter, would be blessed right now with people like Jerry Brown in charge.

Marina Zenovich: “I’ve known Jerry Brown since I was a kid. It really helps going into the film to know this because you understand our dynamic.”
Marina Zenovich: “I’ve known Jerry Brown since I was a kid. It really helps going into the film to know this because you understand our dynamic.” Photo: courtesy of Marina Zenovich

Jerry Brown, the Governor of California from 1975 to 1983 and then again from 2011 to 2019, who also was a three-time presidential candidate knows what it means to win and to lose during his 50 years in politics. Integrity, humility, and strength from failure are consequential attributes when it comes to tackling urgent concerns such as climate change, overall care for the environment, diversity. The Los Angeles smog and its consequences were on Brown’s agenda in the Seventies and it is disheartening to see how much he was disregarded as a Cassandra then, when the worst could still have been nipped in the bud.

The use of first-rate archival footage, intermingled with interviews with the man himself, plus with those who know him, such as his wife, his sister, campaign managers and aides, colleagues and friends, has the cumulative effect of a wake-up call. Things don’t have to be the way they are now. Not everyone has lost their mind or given up. Marina Zenovich’s Jerry Brown: The Disrupter is one of the most hopeful films I have seen this year.

A New York City connection - March 1, 2001, Jerry Brown (when he was Mayor of Oakland) delivered the third annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture inside Pope Auditorium at the Fordham University, Lincoln Center campus.

From New York City during DOC NYC, Marina Zenovich joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I remember that you started your second Roman Polanski film, Odd Man Out, with a quote by Saint Nicholas of Flüe, the 15th century hermit and patron saint of Switzerland [“Don’t get involved in other people’s affairs.”] You have a tendency to start in very unexpected ways. hHere you begin and end the film by being scolded by your subject.

Marina Zenovich: Ha!

AKT: Tell me about that decision!

Former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown on Jerry Brown’s offhand presidential announcement to the press: “I thought it was typical of how Jerry Brown operates.”
Former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown on Jerry Brown’s offhand presidential announcement to the press: “I thought it was typical of how Jerry Brown operates.” Photo: courtesy of Marina Zenovich

MZ: Well, first thank you for doing your homework. I loved starting the Polanski, my second Polanski film with that quote, because it was kind of like I was meddling in his affairs. And I thought it’s fine that I was but I just thought that that quote perfectly summed it up. I’ve known Jerry Brown since I was a kid. It really helps going into the film to know this because you understand our dynamic. I think he still thinks I’m a teenager, which is fine, ha! But not ideal when you are interviewing someone.

Jerry is notorious for being a very difficult interview but at a certain point my sound man, Josh Wilkinson, had to defend me and say: “I don’t know if you know but she’s a pretty well-known filmmaker and she knows what she’s doing.” It was so embarrassing! But I got what I wanted, I made the film, it’s here at DOC NYC.

AKT: But you’re asking, when you think about it, some really tough questions. “Explain who you are!” Wow, how do you answer that? It is a tough question, although I am certain some politicians nowadays would simply love to be asked that question. But he doesn’t, so you already introduce the difference.

MZ: We had a lot of exchanges like that, it’s not like it’s the only question I asked him. When you’re interviewing - and Connie Chung taught me this - you know, don’t be afraid to look stupid. And she taught me this because I used to transcribe her interviews. It was my job when I was a struggling actress in New York. And I was astounded at how she just was herself and it taught me something important. Like, don’t be afraid to look stupid because you’re trying to get something out of someone.

AKT: Oh, yes.

MZ: Not in a bad way, you’re just trying to get them to open up. And you never know what’s going to work with each person, so you just try everything. And with Jerry, I mean, he’s an intellectual. He doesn’t have time to answer those stupid little questions because he’s more interested in bigger things. My job is kind of to get him uncomfortable.

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (2003-2011) on Jerry Brown: “You really could not put him in a box.”
Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (2003-2011) on Jerry Brown: “You really could not put him in a box.” Photo: courtesy of Marina Zenovich

AKT: You have a clip of him saying this in 1974 “Let’s talk about the issues!” It is always about the issues and not about the person. And I noticed that you were doing something similar in the structuring of the film. Some of the famous people are never mentioned by name, they just show up in the background. You have Jerry there supported by Warren Beatty and Jane Fonda. Then we see him on the arms of Natalie Wood and Anjelica Houston. Nancy Pelosi is sitting in the front row, Michael Moore is supporting him. Tell me about the choice of clips and working with the archival!

MZ: The archival was a project in itself. It’s a 95-minute film and 75 minutes are archival. I think viewers are hit over the head so much these days with what something is and I love being subtle and just kind of showing things and let people figure it out for themselves. Jerry was a rockstar so you did have Warren and Jane Fonda - I think there was a clip of Carly Simon coming out for him, it got cut. He was a legend and we wanted to show that in a sly way without hitting it on the head.

AKT: Very effectively because he’s just so inspiring. It’s inspiring to have someone who is about substance and who talks about something important, whose life is about service to others. It’s incredible how rare it is to see. It’s wonder full to see that in a 90 plus minute film.

MZ: Oh good! I feel like my job is to inspire people with the film because Jerry’s so inspiring. The reason why I made the film and toiled over it for years while working on other projects is that he is so inspiring, his life. I never met anyone like him and I don’t think I ever will again. I mean, he does things for the right reasons. He’s a searcher, he’s curious, he’s inquisitive, he’s intelligent. He’s just so many things that I think will inspire young people. So hopefully we’ll get a lot of young people maybe going into politics after seeing this.

Jerry Brown: “You’ve got to get on the side of nature.”
Jerry Brown: “You’ve got to get on the side of nature.” Photo: courtesy of Marina Zenovich

AKT: Maybe, yes. Also he is not afraid of failure! And failure again and again.

MZ: Exactly!

AKT: Which is what you need, that kind of persistence in a way.

MZ: Yeah, no, I love that you say that! There’s so much ego in politics, well, there’s so much ego in everything, especially with men, I find. He does fail and when he fails he calls it like it is. “The voters have had enough of me and I have had enough of them. And now I’m going to go find myself.”

AKT: Exactly!

MZ: And he goes to Japan and works with Mother Teresa. I mean, that journey is unbelievable. Maybe somebody would say, oh he was lost. Who cares! The courage to try to find himself again.

AKT: “From an early age I was interested in heaven and hell and saints and devils,” he says. That shows throughout his whole life.

MZ: It’s very up there, you know. So when I come in, trying to get him to be emotional, he’s in his head a lot. But I have to say that Jerry is somewhat misunderstood and has been for a lot of his career. It’s only now that people realize how important he is and how kind of sorry we are that the trajectory of his political career didn’t work out for him to be President, but man, could we use a leader like that now!

AKT: Yes, that is so totally the thought I had throughout watching the film.

In 2001, Jerry Brown delivered the third annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture at the Fordham University, Lincoln Center campus.
In 2001, Jerry Brown delivered the third annual Marshall McLuhan Lecture at the Fordham University, Lincoln Center campus. Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

MZ: Well making it, when we first laid that out, it was like, oh my god, this is so depressing, he tried so many times and he didn’t make it. But there’s a story in that in itself, like the courage to keep trying. The kind of searching of yourself and what you want to do and doing the right thing and being a servant. I don’t know.

AKT: And maybe you don’t have to be President in order to have that impact.

MZ: Yeah, I mean that he ran for Mayor of Oakland, which seemed crazy after being Governor. Only someone who studied Zen could do that. Could you see any other American male doing that?

AKT: No, it’s incredible. The fact that smog, climate change, all those issues he addressed so early on. I remember as a child in Europe hearing about smog. It was there but just not taken as seriously by others the way he did.

MZ: I think a big lesson of the film is that if someone’s ideas seem far out like Jerry’s did in the Seventies to try to listen. To me I feel that’s much more a European thing. I don’t know Europe now, but in the past. You know Jerry got that name Governor Moonbeam and it really did a disservice to him and the writer Mike Royko who gave him that moniker basically said I’m sorry I did that. It affected how people viewed him. He was a man ahead of his time. We have to listen to those people who may sound crazy in the moment. I mean Elon Musk was like that originally but not now. Now he’s really proven to be a loser.

AKT: A few more touches I found interesting that you have sprinkled throughout the film. Peter Coyote’s voice is so melodious and he has such a great narrator voice, that every time he spoke I forgot that he is talking as himself. It’s as if he’s narrating the film.

MZ: Oh that’s interesting. I have to tell him to stop taking all that narration work. Because he’s such a good character and he’s so visually pleasing and so well-spoken. I’m dying for him to see the film because he’s so good and he gets Jerry. He just gets him and I guess he is a bit like a narrator.

Linda Ronstadt (a Jerry Brown girlfriend) in Denny Tedesco’s Immediate Family
Linda Ronstadt (a Jerry Brown girlfriend) in Denny Tedesco’s Immediate Family Photo: Denny Tedesco

AKT: It becomes the voice of the film and then you show him, and it’s no, he is talking as himself! Also Arnold Schwarzenegger provides the title and calls him the disrupter. And it’s very funny because there you have him calling Jerry and odd character!

MZ: Yeah, what can I say, you have two people say he’s a disrupter, his sister Kathleen Brown does and so does Arnold.

AKT: How was it interviewing Arnold?

MZ: Oh it was fun. I mean, you know Arnold is Arnold. At a certain point I wanted to make something about Arnold, it didn’t happen. But when I interviewed him for the Jerry Brown film I think he had like six people in the room and I hate having other people there because when I interview it’s really a meeting of the minds and hearts and you don’t want an audience. That’s for later.

And I was thinking I’m glad the Arnold thing didn’t work out because I couldn’t handle this. But it was amazing and he and Jerry really get along and were there working across the aisle as Republican and Democrat the way it used to be and the way it’s supposed to be and I don’t know what’s happened.

AKT: The powder-blue car is another lovely touch that you show. We can see Jerry’s choices and the difference to what we have today. It must have also been fun working with the archival footage!

MZ: Oh it was a blast! When I saw the film for the first time at the postproduction house I thought to myself, oh my god am I just trying to live in the Seventies? The archival footage you can almost taste it, it’s so visually pleasing.

AKT: The handbags the women were carrying, I loved those!

Jerry Brown: The Disrupter poster
Jerry Brown: The Disrupter poster

MZ: Yes! It’s such a different time, it’s a calmer time. I mean I love all of that archival footage and we tried to have fun with it. I mean Jerry was known for his blue Plymouth and we loved the backstory of Gray Davis saying “Yes I think that’s your car!” We had a blast making the film, it was hard but it was fun and I’m thrilled that DOC NYC is showing it in New York.

AKT: A point Jerry makes, I believe in 2018, is when he speaks about “moral energy.” This is such an interesting way to put it. It connects to wisdom and a life lived. Okay, you might be older than before, but there’s a “moral energy.” I have never heard that expression before and I love it.

MZ: Oh that’s beautiful, that’s so Jerry. Another good line along those lines is when he says “I don’t have much of a future, I’ve got more of a past.” Wow!

AKT: Yes! At the very end I also thought you made great choices. We see him sitting in a chair with the dog walking by in the landscape that was settled by his great-grandfather over 150 years ago. And then you show landscapes and cityscapes of California.

And the very very last one, if I’m correct, shows the freeway and light comes in from the side that almost seems to erase part of it. It’s as if the smog and possible horrible futures meet but at the same time it’s so beautiful and hopeful. Can you talk about that choice?

MZ: I love that! It was my editor Chris Peterson’s idea. Why don’t we just end this on shots of California? I think he’s in love with California, Jerry. And I was like, hmm, I’m not sure. But when I saw it, it was like oh my god this is such a great idea. I love what you think! I didn’t think that but that’s a beautiful reference because we really didn’t know how to end it. And I love that Jerry is just sitting there. He’s done all that he can, right? And his dog walks by and he’s still fighting against nuclear war and climate change. And then we show the beauty of California which everyone loves.

AKT: And then everything from Joan Didion and, I don’t know, the Gold Rush and back into Californian history comes back like a wave.

MZ: Oh that’s beautiful.

AKT: I loved it. Beautiful film!

MZ: Oh great. Thank you so much. Great to meet you!

Jerry Brown: The Disrupter is available on DOC NYC for online screening in the US and Canada through Sunday, November 27.

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