Documentarian Marina Zenovich is adept at exploring the lives of complicated men. From Lance Armstrong to Roman Polanski to Robin Williams, the two-time Emmy winner has tackled subjects who have summited the heights of their professions and endured the humiliating depths as well. Her latest protagonist, former California Gov. Jerry Brown, fits the bill precisely, having done what no other politician has done — lead the country’s most populous and economically vital state over four terms.
But Brown had his failures too. The progressive Democrat fell short three times as a presidential candidate including a contentious bid for White House in 1992 that saw him politically bludgeoned by the more moderate Clintons. With ‘Jerry Brown: The Disrupter,’ which bows tonight on PBS, Zenovich takes the viewer through the California icon’s improbable arc, first elected governor at 36 years old and again at 72 with an Oakland mayor stint in between. The director enjoys a unique vantage when it comes to Brown. Her father was the late George Zenovich, an influential Democrat who served in both the California State Assembly and Senate, and she’s known Brown since her teen years.
Variety caught up with Zenovich ahead of the film’s debut to discuss his legacy as well as her upcoming Amazon docuseries Desperately Seeking Soulmate: Escaping Twin Flames Universe, based on journalist Alice Hines’ investigative feature in Vanity Fair. As for her ultimate goal with ‘Disrupter,’ the critically acclaimed filmmaker says: “If I can get young people to see the journey Jerry Brown went on and be inspired to run for office or work in politics, I feel like I’ve done my job.”
How did this project come about?
I wanted to make a version of this film for a very long time, since the 2000s, and my initial idea was to follow him when he was in office. When I saw ‘Weiner,’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is what I need.’ You need that total access. And because my parents knew him and my dad served under him, I could have had that access. At first, he said yes, and it was like ‘You wanna be in the room when policy is happening?’ Then it was a no.
When did you start working on this iteration of the film, which is more of a reflection-on-a-career than an in-the-moment story?
When we were editing ‘LANCE.’ But I’ve always had it on my backburner. We put it together in 2017, got money in 2018. Then COVID happened. And it’s finally coming out in ’23.
Why should we be thinking about Jerry Brown’s political career right now amid this very surreal political moment we’re all living in?
It’s not so much his political career we should be thinking about. It’s more his political sensibility and the fact that they don’t make people like this anymore. He has such a strong moral fiber. It’s so important that people remember what it was like before, when Democrats and Republicans used to reach across the aisle and work together. Jerry — especially Jerry 2.0, the second time he was governor — really showed how to do that. Our political scene right now seems straight out of a cartoon because everything is so ridiculous. I can’t even talk about politics. It’s so upsetting.
What’s your overall sense of Jerry?
He’s a total leader. He was not without fault. He’s human, and that’s what we tried to show. You can be a leader and still be human. I don’t know who there is out there who is like him. I mean, he’s really one of a kind, and I think a lot of people miss his governing style and the fact that he’s a grown up. I think we’re lacking grown-ups with real vision and intelligence and politicians who are doing things for the right reasons.
You speak very fondly of him. At the same time, he seems like a difficult interview. Quite cantankerous. How did you navigate that?
Jerry is notorious for being a difficult interview. I think he was harder for me than other people because he’d known me since I was a teenager. You’re always trying in interviews to get people to surprise themselves, say something interesting, get emotional. Everything I was trying to do, he was not interested in. That was very hard. At the premiere in San Francisco, a lot of his family was there, and they went nuts over the opening of the film [when Brown is growing irritated over the questions]. They’re like, ‘Oh my God, I thought it was just me. I thought he just talked to me like this.’ Of course I thought it was just me [laughs]. He’s a man of ideas and doesn’t have time for anything else. And that’s fine. That’s who he is. I kept it in there because it showed just what he’s like. I interviewed him three times. He was giving me such a hard time that at a certain point my sound man said, ‘You know, she’s a pretty well-known documentary filmmaker.’ He had to stand up for me. Jerry’s an intellectual snob. So, you don’t want to get too heady. I worked advance for him in ’92. We stayed in touch. I knew his dad [former California Gov. Pat Brown] and mom.
Did you see any parallels between the Brown family political dynasty and the Cuomos?
No, but I am also fascinated with the Cuomos. I’m the daughter of a politician, so I’m forever fascinated by politicians. I saw Mario Cuomo in ’84 when he gave that keynote speech at the [Democratic National] convention. He was unbelievable. I’ve been following the Cuomos, but I hadn’t thought about [parallels], but they are kind of similar.
The footage you have from the confrontation between Jerry and Bill Clinton at the ’92 presidential debate is wild as was Hillary later dissing Jerry at the convention. Did Jerry ever reconcile with Bill or Hillary?
I think they did in the way that friendly foes can. What the Clintons were doing in ’92 continued to play out for the rest of time. And that’s interesting to see just the control they had on the Democratic Party. And Jerry was always kind of an outsider. It was definitely interesting to work on [this film] and then see what has been said about the Clintons since then?
But that doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily anti-the Clintons, right? I’d rather Hillary than Trump. I hate how people don’t really trust politicians. I would like faith to be restored in politicians. They’re humans. They’re doing the best that they can. Now it’s just a complete shitshow.
Are there any current politicians who are leaning on Jerry for advice or guidance?
People should. I think a young politician would be smart to pick up the phone and contact Jerry Brown for advice. Hopefully, there’s someone out there who’s savvy enough to do that because Jerry has a lot of advice to offer.
Going from Jerry Brown to ‘Desperately Seeking Soulmate’ seems like quite a pivot.
Audiences are more interested in cults than they are in political figures, and that’s a bit sad to me. My favorite part about doing ‘Desperately Seeking Soulmate’ was talking to people who have attempted to find their twin flames and hearing how they’ve been taken advantage of or manipulated or are embarrassed because they fell for something like this. Everyone is looking for love and they will do anything to get it. It’s fascinating to be a documentary filmmaker and and do these different stories and see what resonates with people. I’m always looking to be inspired. And I’m looking to interview people who are inspiring.