Tenant lore has it that when film producer Saul Zaentz made a bundle on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, he used it to build the Saul Zaentz Media Center, a seven-story West Berkeley eyesore that houses some thirty documentary film producers and sound engineers. In homage to leading man Jack Nicholson, they call it "The House That Jack Built," and in the last twenty years its tenants have produced no fewer than thirteen Academy Award nominees.
But Saul Zaentz no longer owns the building. Wareham Development bought it in January and promptly told the tenants to expect rent increases of 40 to 100 percent. Unless they find a way to appeal to Wareham's sense of magnanimity, many of these producers and writers will hit the skids, dispersing what may be the most unique scene in the history of documentary film.
Outside the entrance, a construction crew is in full gear. Steam shovels pick at rubble, and a man in a hard hat pounds soil into a fresh planter. Tenants skulk in and out through a narrow hallway with exposed pipe where signs proclaim "Pardon our appearance. These upgrades to the Saul Zaentz Media Center are necessary to continue its presence as a world-class media center. You'll love the finished product."
Up on the sixth floor, Rick Goldsmith mutters as he looks for a new tape. His office spills over with legal pads, banker's boxes, and obsolete TV monitors. A collage of newspaper clips by George Seldes the Chicago Tribune reporter whose blunt dispatches got him expelled from both the Soviet Union and Mussolini's Italy hangs over his desk. Goldsmith's 1996 documentary about Seldes, Tell the Truth and Run, earned him an Oscar nomination. Today Goldsmith is buried in his dubbing room assisting a colleague whose office is two floors down. "I can't remember what this is," he says, nodding toward the monitor. "But she says, 'I need some window dubs for this.'"
Such collaborations as this, Goldsmith says, are key to the tenants' renowned output. A producer on the fourth floor needs someone to review her rough cut, so she bounces over to a director on the third floor. Small talk ensues, and a new idea is born. That's how Goldsmith's latest project, a documentary about the suddenly relevant Daniel Ellsberg, came about. Goldsmith had taken a stab at the subject a few years back, but shelved it when he ran into too many roadblocks. Then his co-tenant, radio and documentary producer Judith Ehrlich, floated the project again. They grabbed Ellsberg at a speaking event and began a two-year-long courtship. "It was exactly because we were in the same community, knew each other from different events and other filmmakers we had worked with, or would sit in on each other's rough cuts," he says of the project's genesis. "Would that have happened without this kind of cross-pollenization?"
In truth, none of it would have happened without Saul Zaentz. John Fogerty fans may think he's the devil, but Zaentz leased out these offices at bargain-basement rents for two decades, often with nothing more than a handshake for a lease. Along the way, however, he also let the building turn into something of a dump. The offices aren't soundproofed and the HVAC system is degraded. When Wareham bought the property in January, it put down $20 million and has spent a hefty sum fixing up the joint. Of course, they aren't doing this for charity, which is something the building's tenants are coming to terms with. It's always a shock when your patronage is taken away.
Down on the third floor, Goldsmith walks into the offices of Jim LeBrecht, the sound designer for two of his documentaries. The two just finished giving a tour of the building to City Councilman Laurie Capitelli as part of their campaign to get the city to intervene. "I did okay on the first audition?" LeBrecht jokes.
"You were very eloquent."
"Yeah! Oh, yeah."
It's safe to say that few cities would regard the tenants with more affection. The mayor's office has spent a month negotiating with Wareham to ease back on the new rents, and Wareham has agreed to stagger the increases over a period of as much as three years. "That was the accommodation they tried to make with the tenants in order to make it more palatable," says Wareham representative Andrew Neilly, "but obviously that isn't sufficient, for some of the tenants at least." Last week, at a special city council meeting, fifty artists and filmmakers crowded the chamber, where their representatives said all the right things about preserving art and beating back corporate greed. But according to one City Hall source, the city has no real leverage. Commercial rent control is unconstitutional, and Wareham has no pending use permits to hold hostage. All they can do is ask nicely, and that tactic has been deployed already. By May, unless something truly extraordinary happens, many of the Bay Area's most interesting filmmakers will be dispersed.
That just about breaks Rick Goldsmith's heart. According to his colleague Abby Ginzberg, tenants have met with Oakland officials to find a comparable site in that cheaper city. But the odds of all this talent regrouping under one roof are mighty long. It was here that Goldsmith helped organize a monthly film night, where his colleagues would grab a new doc and a few bottles of wine, sit down in someone's living room, and watch the piece with the filmmaker on speakerphone from somewhere in America. It was here that his daughter first fell in love with the movies.
"I remember, my kid was really young, never been to the movies before," he says, pointing excitedly at LeBrecht. "And he was mixing Barney, the first Barney movie! He was doing it! Aw, c'mon, Jim! You can't run away from it! That was the first movie my daughter ever saw. She was four years old."
"I was the voice of Twinkin, who came out of the egg at the end of the movie," LeBrecht grins.
In one month, such stories may be all that's left of the House That Jack Built.