Sascha Rice found it hard to be objective when making a documentary about the late California Gov. Edmund G. "Pat" Brown.
Her biases were personal, not political. To Rice, daughter of former state Treasurer Kathleen Brown and granddaughter of Pat Brown, every piece of audio of her beloved grandfather, who died in 1996, was precious, every piece of footage golden.
"Even if it was just the back of his head," Rice said by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I had to get beyond that and find what would really serve the story."
Rice enlisted co-writer Laura Nix to help determine content. Rice's sister, Hilary Armstrong, who has a background in public relations, served as another sounding board and as executive producer and chief fundraiser during the filmmaking process.
Rice and Armstrong assembled interview subjects including Kathleen Brown, Gov. Jerry Brown, former Govs. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gray Davis and Pete Wilson for the feature-length documentary "California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown," which will open the Sacramento International Film Festival on Saturday night at the Crocker Art Museum.
The most prominent voices in the film, though, are Rice's and Pat Brown's. Rice narrates and uses extensive archival audio of her grandfather's warm, resonant voice to help give context to his own career.
Rice said she hopes the film will remind people of Pat Brown's achievements and help restore a sense of optimism that's now hard to come by in California.
"I thought it was so inspiring that he got so much done, and I just feel this just gives me more hope that change can come about," Rice said of the governor who shepherded the state's water project and big freeway expansions.
Offering insight into Pat Brown and the Brown family sometimes viewed as the West Coast Kennedys "State of Mind" is an affectionate yet not uncritical look at Brown's career from the viewpoint of a granddaughter, daughter and niece of politicians who is also an experienced filmmaker.
Rice, 42, directed the lively 2004 lesbian romantic comedy and festival-circuit hit "Mango Kiss." In her new film, she deftly weaves archival footage with shots of California's natural wonders and Pat Brown-developed wonders such as the California Aqueduct.
Ethan Rarick, author of the 2005 biography "California Rising: The Life and Times of Pat Brown" and director of UC Berkeley's Matsui Center for Politics and Public Service, was interviewed for the film and liked the final product.
"I like the fact it is clearly being told by his granddaughter," he said. "And I think people can learn a lot of the history of the era."
The film also won the endorsement of Rice's uncle.
"My father's years as governor were marked by an optimism and can-do spirit that helped make California a world leader," Gov. Jerry Brown said via a spokesman. "A reflection on his life and legacy is most timely at this critical point in our history."
Pat Brown's boom-and-build post-war California contrasts sharply with the crisis-mired state now governed by his son.
"Pat Brown has come to symbolize the good old days, whether they were really good or not," Rarick said. "That is why he is remembered so positively. The real story is a little more complicated than that."
Pat Brown did not face as many "stakeholders who had a seat at the table" as future governors, Rice said, nor the two-thirds majority rule. But things weren't breezy during the state's so-called golden era, either, Rice said. Brown's two terms (1958-67) encompassed the Watts riots and labor and free-speech protests. Even the water project barely squeaked through.
"Everything he did was an incredible struggle," Rice said. "Politics is a struggle."
Yet Pat Brown believed elected officials could effect change for citizens, and he tried to instill that idea in his children and grandchildren.
"He wanted everyone to go to law school and run for office," Rice said.
His single-mindedness about politics informed Brown family life. Less familiar were details of his San Francisco youth. Rice was not aware until she researched her film that her grandfather did not attend college after high school because his working-class parents could not afford it, or that he had to pay them room and board.
Juicier discoveries proved elusive.
"Being a filmmaker, I longed for a scandal or some skeleton in his closet to make it more entertaining," Rice said. "But there weren't any."
Instead of skeletons and closets, there were love letters, from Pat to his wife, Bernice, found under Bernice's bed after she died.
"He was a family man and an upright citizen, but he was fallible," Rice said of her grandfather. For example, the film chronicles Brown's ambivalence toward the death penalty, and how it could make him look indecisive.
Making the film also allowed Rice, mother to two children with her husband, Joe Mellis, to make peace with her grandfather, who did not consider a career in the arts a substantial enough pursuit.
"I think he would love the film," Rice said.
Kathleen Brown, interviewed extensively in "State of Mind," appreciates how the film captures "the strength and the flaws" of her father, and also his sense of humor. She is proud of her daughters for getting it made, she said.
"Creating a film is like building a skyscraper," Kathleen Brown, 66, said by phone from Chicago, where she is Goldman Sachs' chairman of investment banking for the Midwest. "It takes a lot of money and it takes a lot of planning and collaboration and courage. No one is asking you to do it. No one is paying you to do it."
In "State of Mind," Rice comes across as a proud granddaughter and proud daughter. When she first considered making the film eight years ago, she still wanted Kathleen Brown, the 1994 California gubernatorial candidate who lost to Pete Wilson, to run again.
"She was a great candidate," Rice said. But as she researched her film and discovered the hurdles her grandfather faced, she more fully understood why her mother now prefers a more private life.
"My mom is one of the most determined people I have ever met, but I think it is more about a lifestyle choice and being in the public eye, and it is not really worth it," Rice said.
Armstrong, whom Rice had put in charge of monitoring Rice's portrayal of the often very public Brown family, initially did not want her mother's gubernatorial run included.
"It's close to home when it is your own mother," Armstrong, 46, said by phone from her home in San Francisco. "I would just as soon have glossed over it."
"What she didn't realize was I wasn't always going to listen" to her older sister's advice, Rice said with a laugh. She kept in the footage, she said, because it puts Kathleen Brown "on the stage where she should be."
After seeing the film with audiences at previous screenings, Armstrong recognizes that "you don't take it as seriously if you are not the child of the person who lost the election." Audience members often approach her after screenings to tell her how much they supported her mother's campaign.
Kathleen Brown is happy with how she comes off in the film. Mostly.
"I think the only thing I hated was when they showed a full shot and I looked fat," Brown said with a laugh.
Instead of her mother running for governor, her uncle ran for a third term, as Rice and Armstrong were still in the midst of shooting and raising funds for the film. His campaign put a halt to both.
"It was too difficult to narratively make sense of him as a background character" in her film, Rice said.
Plus, potential participants in the Pat Brown film were skeptical. Actor and activist Warren Beatty asked Armstrong if it were really a campaign piece for Jerry, Armstrong recalled.
"And when (Jerry Brown) won, it changed the ending of the film," Armstrong said.
Though discussions of the Brown governors often emphasize differences, both are visionaries, Rice said, whether it's the water project or Jerry's more environmentally minded projects, such as the high-speed rail project.
"They are thinking ahead 50 years, minimum," Rice said.
Being a Brown comes with a sense of responsibility, Rice and Armstrong said.
"I think you feel guilty if you are not active and not giving back, even if you don't have that political gene," Armstrong said. Mother to three children with her husband, Bruce, Armstrong sits on the board of the California Museum and on the state film commission. Schwarzenegger appointed her to the film board, she said, "and my uncle hasn't kicked me off."
"State of Mind," which will add an educational component for showings in schools, sends a message, from Brown family members working outside the system, that change can happen within it.
"I want people to feel grateful for living in a democracy, and to really know (governing) is a hard job and to understand change is never easy," Rice said.