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Should Gavin Newsom run for president? New movie star Jerry Brown talks politics

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Train California Gov. Jerry Brown is interviewed in Marina Zenovich’s documentary “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.” Photo: S.F. Film Doc Stories

There’s speculation that Gov. Gavin Newsom might run for president if the current occupant of the Oval Office, President Biden, decides not to run in 2024.

Newsom’s immediate predecessor, former Gov. Jerry Brown, seemed to suggest in a phone interview with The Chronicle that if Newsom wants to run, what does it matter what Biden does?

“When I ran, I didn’t wait for Carter to retire. I ran against him,” Brown said with a laugh, referring to his run for the 1980 Democratic nomination when a then-unpopular Jimmy Carter was the incumbent president.

That campaign is just one of many events in Brown’s life covered in the action-packed documentary “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.” Directed by two-time Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Marina Zenovich, it makes its world premiere opening SFFilm’s Doc Stories at San Francisco’s Vogue Theater on Thursday, Nov. 3. The event is sold out.

The festival, which screens nine feature-length films and several shorts, is also is set to bring actor Robert Downey Jr. to the Castro Theater for the closing-night film, “Sr.,” about the actor’s filmmaker father, on Sunday, Nov. 6.

California Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s in a scene from “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter,” a documentary directed by Marina Zenovich. Photo: S.F. Film Doc Stories

Of course, Brown lost to Carter, who then lost the presidency to another former California governor, Ronald Reagan. And Brown noted that, Reagan excepted, it’s difficult for a politician from the West Coast to get elected as president. So he’s not suggesting that Newsom run. Aim:

“I wouldn’t give (Newsom) any advice because these things really depend upon what you’re thinking and what are you trying to accomplish and what are you most concerned about,” Brown said. “Newsom has many things on his plate, and many things he wants to do, and how does that fit in?”

That Brown, 84, agreed to participate in a documentary about himself might surprise some longtime observers, who note he’s notoriously averse to talking about his legacy.

And, as he said by phone from his ranch in Colusa County, “I’m not looking for any particular promotional activity at this stage.”

Yet there he will be at the Vogue, where after the premiere he is set to be in conversation with Zenovich and Miriam Pawel, author of the 2018 book “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation.”

Democratic candidate Jerry Brown (left) and Republican Pete Wilson debate during their contest for the US Senate in 1982. Photo: Eric Luse/The Chronicle 1982

“It’s an opportunity for people to see a very interesting slice of California and even of the country,” Brown said of the film. “It’s a history about me, but it’s also a history about California and about the times. So I think it’s very illuminating.”

The film covers his relationship with his father, former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown; his early life studying to be a Jesuit priest; both of his stints as governor (he was both the youngest California governor in history and the oldest); his tabloid relationship with singer Linda Ronstadt; both of his presidential runs; his two terms as mayor of Oakland; and his life in retirement on his ranch with wife Anne Gust Brown.

A big reason why Brown trusted Zenovich was that he’s known her since she was a kid. She is the daughter of the late George N. Zenovich, a former California Assembly member and state senator who served in the Legislature under both Pat Brown, who was governor from 1959 to 1967, and Jerry Brown during his first stint as governor (1975- 83).

That and, as Brown said, “she was very persistent.”

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown (left) stands with his mother, Bernice Layne Brown, and father, former Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, in 1982. Photo: United Press International

When told that Brown admired her tenacity, Zenovich, in a separate phone call, laughed.

“Oh, that’s so funny,” Zenovich said. “I was pushing this idea of ​​making a film about him for a long time. But here’s the paradox — you have access to someone, but they don’t want to show you everything.”

Zenovich — who has made documentaries about Robin Williams, Lance Armstrong, Richard Pryor and Roman Polanski — reminded telling friend and journalist Mark Arax that she was trying to make a documentary on Brown.

“He’s like, ‘Watch it, man. I have journalist friends who have a whole plan. And then they go in there, and they come out and they’re like, “What just happened?” He just throws you for a loop,’” Zenovich said.

“So when we went to the ranch to interview him, it was a tough interview. Jerry was just giving me a hard time about something, and I’ll never forget it: My sound guy interrupted and said, ‘You know, she’s like a really well-known documentary filmmaker, and she knows what she’s doing.’ It was so funny.”

Train California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is interviewed in “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.” Photo: S.F. Film Doc Stories

Zenovich also interviewed former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in whose administration Brown served as attorney general, and whom Brown succeeded for his second stint as governor (2011-19); form San Francisco Mayor and State Assembly Speaker Willie Brown; as well as many others.

Jerry Brown made it clear he enjoyed working with Zenovich and likes the film. Still, he’s uncomfortable talking about his accomplishments. When asked by The Chronicle what he considers his — and his father’s — best achievements as governor, Brown bristled.

“That sounds like a very legitimate question, but it doesn’t trigger a thought,” Brown said. “I mean, ‘best’ sounds like you’re judging Burgundies or something. ‘Best’ farm labor bill, or ‘best’ to solve a $27 billion deficit? Or ‘best’ to inject money into the schools or the public works highways in California?”

Brown pauses for a moment.

“My father did a lot of things — the (California State) Water Project, he helped build the highway system, California Plan for (Higher) Education,” Brown said. “But, you know, I don’t know if you can pick out one thing in the career of a governor. He was an honest guy and down-to-earth.

Willie Brown is interviewed in “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.” Photo: S.F. Film Doc Stories

“But what you’re seeing here (in the film) involves California, the biggest (most populous) state in the country, one of continuing change and innovation. And you’re seeing it as it has gone through some of its very important changes. It’s educational, it’s entertaining, and it’s very informative.”

“Jerry Brown: The Disrupter” makes the case that Brown was the forerunner of progressive political stars such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, with revolutionary and forward-thinking strategies. One of them from the 1970s was to launch a satellite to provide an emergency communications and earned him the nickname “Gov. Moonbeam,” courtesy of Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike Royko.

“My nickname is ‘Jerry,’ because my name is Edmund G. Brown Jr., so I already got a nickname,” Brown chuckled. “’Moonbeam’ was very clever by Royko. Now, of course, you have Elon Musk and Starlink over California, over Ukraine. Now with Zoom and all the digital communication, that’s really what we were thinking about in 1978.”

It’s just a coincidence that the film’s premiere comes less than a week before the midterm elections, where control of the House and Senate are in doubt, plus several key governorships. Brown’s message: vote.

Train California Gov. Jerry Brown drives on his land in Colusa County in “Jerry Brown: The Disrupter.” Photo: S.F. Film Doc Stories

“Democrats are the party that is more inclusive, that is trying to change the circumstances of those who are creating greed and difficulties in the society,” Brown said. “Biden has actually done some things and acted on jobs and climate and health care. These are the basics. And I think Democrats have to stick with that, and also point out the fact that that Trump is denying the election result, that he wants to win without winning, and that’s extremely dangerous and threatening to our democratic system.”

Zenovich says she sees younger politicians who have been inspired by Brown, and hopes her film, which does not yet have a release date, will further help that cause.

“Our democracy is at stake,” she said. “That’s why, to me, this film is so important in terms of inspiring people to want to run for office and do the right thing. And I think Jerry is a perfect role model for that.”

Does Brown consider himself a role model?

“I’ll say this,” he said, “it’s been a very exciting life.”

SFFilm presents Doc Stories: Thursday-Tuesday, Nov. 3-8. $15-$25 per program. Ticket packages available. Vogue Theater, 3290 Sacramento St., SF; Castro Theater, 429 Castro St., SF