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“Income inequality isn’t sexy,” says Alexandra Pelosi, the Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker, whose new film, San Francisco 2.0, premieres tonight on HBO. Pelosi, the youngest daughter of longtime California congresswoman and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, first made a splash with 2002’s Journeys With George, which documented her 18 months as an NBC producer on the campaign trail with George W. Bush.
Her new film looks at the influence of tech companies on the economy and culture of San Francisco — they’ve brought jobs and revenue to the small, historically counterculture city, but also sent real estate prices into the stratosphere and driven out many residents and small businesses. Pelosi interviewed tech industry employees, politicians, longtime residents and academics (including former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who decries the “social Darwinism” of the sharing economy) to explore what San Francisco’s evolution means for all cities in the new, tech-dominated global economy.
During what she called “the greatest time to be alive for a documentary filmmaker in New York” — because she’s on city superhostess Peggy Siegal’s invitation list for fall events, including awards-season film launches (“I think she thinks I’m an Oscar voter but I’m not”) — Pelosi spoke to THR about politics inside and outside of Hollywood and what Donald Trump and Uber have in common. (What follows is a lightly edited version of the conversation.)
How did San Francisco 2.0 come together?
Every film I’ve made has been a collaboration with [HBO documentary president] Sheila Nevins. She invites you uptown to her apartment, orders you a milkshake — she orders me a milkshake, I don’t know what she orders for other people — and we will sit for a whole day and pick up where our last conversation left off. So San Francisco 2.0 was born out of a conversation I was having with Sheila about the question: “Where have all the San Francisco liberals gone?”
There was a time when calling someone a San Francisco liberal could destroy their [political] career and it was not that long ago. It was so ironic to me that Republicans used to use the words “San Francisco liberal” as a slur — and now, literally, the whole country is being propped up by San Francisco and California: The ideas are all coming out of California, the economy is all coming out of California, the global economy turns on what happens in California. And everyone I know from growing up in San Francisco has had to move out of the city because they can’t afford it and there are no artists and musicians any more. It’s all these tech bros. And Sheila just sort of said, “Yeah, go!”
Los Angeles has its own version of this, with the tech colonization of Venice. What can L.A. learn from what’s happening in San Francisco?
I was just in L.A. to appear on Bill Maher’s show and the driver who drove me there was telling me all about what’s going on in L.A. and he was complaining about that. And after I did the show, I got back to New York and my inbox was flooded, just inundated with emails from people saying, this is happening in West Palm Beach, this is happening in Dallas, you should come here and do a story about what’s happening in Astoria, Queens. This whole idea that people are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods is everywhere. The techies are colonizing different parts of America.
Would you ever turn your own background into a scripted show or feature film about politics?
Never. Never, never, never, never, never, never, never. I’ll tell you why. Because in this business, as you know, you don’t get that many bites at the apple, so I make documentaries for HBO and that’s what I do. If I decided tomorrow that I was going to try and do a screenplay, I don’t think anyone would buy it, A, but B, I would be burning a bridge. I’ve only had one real relationship with a person that really led me through the scavenger hunt that is my own career, which is Sheila Nevins. She calls herself my TV mom. But she is like my Yoda. She works with me, collaborates with me and she supports me. You have to just hold on for dear life to whatever the industry will give you. I politely say I think I could write a really good script; I think I’ve seen enough to be able to write a really sharp script, but “Don’t quit your day job” means something to me because I’m working. I’m making my tenth HBO film.
What do you want people to take away from the film?
People hate politicians, it’s really in vogue right now to hate politicians, but we need someone to lead us into the new world economy, we actually need to make decisions and we actually need grownups. So where are the grownups that are going to lead us into the new world order? Where are the grownups that are going to make the decisions about what the rules are in the new economy? No matter where you live, it does matter who you elect to make these decisions. Because the tech companies are going to write all the rules to benefit themselves — who doesn’t?
I am not the enemy of tech — I sleep at night with my iPhone on my heart, I’m just as addicted to my devices as every other human walking down the street through a red light in traffic while texting. This isn’t about being anti-tech, it’s about the dark side of progress. Mark Zuckerberg is on the cover of Vanity Fair. There are enough glossy versions of how tech is saving the world out there, but San Francisco 2.0 isn’t about tech, in a way it isn’t even about San Francisco — it’s about the future of the middle class in America and about the future of the American city.
As a political junkie, what’s your take on Trump’s candidacy?
Trump is Uber: He’s marching in and saying, there’s a new sheriff in town, we don’t care about the laws on the books, we don’t care about your rules, I’m doing it my way. I’ve got all the money, I’m the boss. Uber says, I don’t care about taxis, I don’t care about unions, I don’t care about insurance. Trump says, I don’t care about politicians, I don’t care about all those people you actually elected to do stuff.
I’ve made films about presidential elections and it’s always been frustrating to me how presidential candidates are like cardboard cutouts. They never say anything, they just act like wind-up dolls that keep repeating the sound bites and their stump speeches, so it’s really refreshing to hear someone actually talk like a human being that’s running for president. And you have to give him credit because he’s getting people to watch the debates.
How many people would watch the debates if Trump weren’t in them? Probably 10 people. So he’s good for TV; he’s good for the ratings. I’m not sure he’s so good for the Republican party, but we’re enjoying the freak show. It’s good, quality entertainment. It’s the era of the disrupters in tech, and in politics Trump and Bernie [Sanders] are the disrupters. But at some point it’s all going to crash and burn — at least Trump and Bernie are.
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