Friday, March 16, 2012

Sister act

How siblings fared in the making, promotion of family’s documentary

Express Staff Writer

Director Sascha Rice (seen here) and her big sister, Hilary Armstrong, have been traveling around with their film about the legacy of former Gov. Pat Brown, their grandfather, and his effect on California politics. Courtesy photo

During the most turbulent decade of our time, California Gov. Pat Brown sought to create a "superstate." Told from his grandaughter's perspective, a dynamic American dream story unfolds in this unique portrait of the "godfather of modern California." The following is an email Q&A with producer Hilary Armstrong and writer/director Sascha Rice of their first collaboration on the film "California State of Mind—The Legacy of Pat Brown.

It's been a busy year since you were last here with the film. What are some of the highlights?

Rice: My top three were: screening and selling out at the MOCA in Los Angeles, meeting screenwriting author and icon Chris Vogler at the Big Bear International Film Festival and being part of the incredible panel at the Paley Center Docfest in New York.

Armstrong: Highlights for me were having James Franco come to our Carmel Film Festival screening and tell us afterward that he loved our film, having Tom Brokaw get misty-eyed on stage at the Paley Center as he recalled stories of our grandfather's impact on California, and showing our film to a sold-out crowd in Sun Valley, my home away from home.

What have you learned?

Rice: I have learned so much personally and professionally. I feel like I am a different person than who I was before the journey. I am honored to be considered a documentarian. I realized about two-thirds of the way through the project that I had taken on a monumental responsibility. I learned that you don't need to be a politician or a journalist to have a voice in the political dialogue.

Armstrong: I've learned that there is a fine line between making your own family story compelling, warts and all, without destroying family relationships. We always knew we couldn't create a puff peace about [Pat Brown] because people would be bored. I think Sascha did a beautiful job balancing all the very complex elements.

Have there been any perceptions about your family that have surfaced in your touring that surprised you?

Rice: There was so much I learned about my grandfather, and what surprised me most was that he didn't go to college because he couldn't afford it—that was news to me. I knew he hadn't, but understanding why gave me a deeper appreciation of why he championed the master plan [for education] and wanted to make education accessible to all who wanted it.

Armstrong: I was very nervous to hear what my family thought of the film. The worst complaint was "I don't like how high definition shows my flaws!"

What have you learned about each other in the process?

Rice: I have learned that my sister is incredibly resilient—she's one of the bravest people I know. My sister taught me to take a page from our grandfather's book, when someone said "no" to Pat Brown, he liked to say "Let's mark them down as undecided." Hilary has always been the supportive big sister. I always looked up to her and was in awe of her social skills—she is kind, charming and fun. I watched this translate into great PR and fundraising skills. We hadn't really ever had conflict with each other growing up, so it was really unfamiliar territory to not be in total harmony at every turn. I think it was hard sometimes because I was the little sister being the boss. Even though there were times we didn't agree, she ultimately supported my vision.

Armstrong: I've learned that it is complicated to work with your sister on a film that is about your grandfather, [Pat Brown]; uncle, Gov. Jerry Brown; and mother, former Treasurer Kathleen Brown. There will inevitably be a lot of strong opinions on how to handle a myriad of things.

What's next?

Rice: We hope to have the film broadcast in Idaho, so we hope to make a connection to a local public television station so that we can bring the film to a wider audience.

Armstrong: We are preparing to launch our educational outreach. Our curriculum will enlist a new generation in discovering how they can make a positive impact in their communities today.

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