There is a good documentary to be made on the history and characteristics of San Francisco Bay Area filmmaking, but “Fog City Mavericks” isn’t it. As adulatory as a testimonial dinner, pic looks at talents well deserving of more complex, balanced treatment. Made in conjunction with cable net Starz, pic is clearly tube fare.
The docu’s premise is that artistic independence flourishes in the Bay Area — an idea that might have been made credible if helmer Gary Leva had given equal weight to both mainstream and outsider talents. Instead, his fawning portrait focuses exclusively on major industry players who prefer to live in Northern California rather than L.A., such as the Coppolas, George Lucas, Philip Kaufman and Chris Columbus.
What’s more, the docu seems almost wholly oblivious to experimental, indie and docu filmmakers in the Bay Area. Wayne Wang, Rob Nilsson and Les Blank get name-dropped; other worthies don’t even rate that.
Somewhat haphazard structure is at first chronological, starting with English emigre Eadweard Muybridge’s late 19th-century experiments in motion-capture photography. Broncho Billy Anderson’s Essanay studio in the East Bay was Charlie Chaplin’s base for a while in the 1910s.
Pic then diverges into treacly chronicles of Lucas’ and Francis Ford Coppola’s origins, emphasizing that both had near-death experiences in their youth. Meeting during production of Coppola’s 1969 “The Rain People,” the duo and other young notables founded American Zoetrope that year in San Francisco, hoping to use Hollywood coin to make similar intimate, adventuresome films. But Warner Bros. hated Lucas’ cult-classic debut, “THX-1138,” canceling its deal and leaving Zoetrope broke.
Glimpses behind the scenes of “The Godfather,” Lucas’ bounce-back “American Graffiti,” “Apocalypse Now” and other memorable features are entertaining.
Briefer portraits follow of high-minded producer Saul Zaentz, “resident intellectual” helmer Kaufman, Carroll Ballard and multihyphenate Clint Eastwood (a native San Franciscan, though his longtime residence in Carmel is “Bay Area” only by the loosest definition).
Pic tips its hat to the area’s penchant for technical innovation. Lucasfilm (now housed at both San Francisco’s Presidio and Marin’s Skywalker Ranch) and, more recently, Emeryville’s Pixar rep entire production facilities with the location, will and financial clout to do things their way — with an eye toward avoiding the kind of generic commercial product one animator brands “a bunch of half-baked ideas that have been focus-grouped to death.”
But pic’s placement of these disparate careers and personalities in one thematic basket, solely linked by geography (no matter that few of the live-action films discussed were actually shot in the Bay Area), grows more questionable as it goes on. By the time the pic holds up Columbus’ film of the musical “Rent” as another example of “maverick” passion, “Fog” has grown dense indeed.
Voiceover narration by Peter Coyote tends toward gushing, with variations on the phrase, “They changed the face of cinema!” seeming to surface every 10 minutes.
Helmer Leva is a vet of making-of documentaries and is a longtime confederate of Lucas’. The San Francisco Intl. Film Fest booklet lists Lucasfilm as the source of the film’s print, though the press materials and the pic’s credits are elusive on this point. While it may project a desirable self-image for Lucas and some of his colleagues, “Fog City” actually does them a disservice.