BERKELEY -- In a quietly captivating Luna Productions documentary by filmmakers Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg, architect Bobbie Sue Hood says it best, calling the film's leading lady, the Chateau Carolands, "a house that is so magnificent that it really wants to be a museum."

The Berkeley-based directing/producing/sound editing team's 56-minute film, "The Heiress and Her Chateau," will air on KQED 9 at 7 p.m. on Jan. 19.

Ryan and Weimberg deliver their well-researched, visually distinctive exposé of the Hillsborough mansion and its history from an award-heavy suitcase of work and a 1909 Berkeley shingle home.

"Loved it, until we started hanging out at Caroland," Weimberg jokes of their Berkeley work space, in his characteristic, joie de vivre tone.

Together, their media production gymnastics have cartwheeled from sound editing on such major films as "Return of the Jedi" and "Godfather III" to producing/directing Academy and Emmy award-nominated documentaries like "Soldiers of Conscience" and "SuperChief: The Life and Legacy of Earl Warren."

The story of Pullman Railway Car heiress Harriet Pullman's dream of building an American Taj Mahal in the grand tradition of a French castle includes all the makings of great cinema. There are magnificent visuals, eccentric characters, heart-sweeping sound track, and a plot action-packed with murder, love, loss and a lush, lingering legacy.


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Dramatically, there'd be only the story of urban decay and architectural debacle, if a Bay Area couple, Ann and Charles Johnson, had not stepped in to rescue the 98-room home's 18 bathrooms, 17 guest rooms, four kitchens and golden, columned central court and spiral staircase.

Conceived of and constructed in the 1910s to fulfill Pullman's artistic and cultural obsessions (entire rooms, purchased from houses in Bordeaux, were installed), the home was the largest private residence west of the Mississippi and featured an elevator with a couch, a push button call system and a 20th century marvel: electricity.

When Pullman separated from her husband, Frank, in 1917, the house was incomplete and sat empty for 29 years.

Inventor Tomlinson Moseley bought the home and surrounding 558 acres and in 1947, foreshadowed its future purpose by hosting a benefit (for the Stanford Convalescent Home) attended and photographed by Life Magazine.

Subsequently owned and allowed to deteriorate by a countess, used as a set for a pornographic film shoot, damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the home's salvation began with a Decorator's Showcase event.

The Johnsons, two of 68,000 visitors, bought it in 1998 for $6 million. "It was a beautiful lady who'd never had a decent dress to wear," Ann Johnson says.

The property's restoration resulted in the Carolands Foundation (an endowed trust dedicated to the arts, culture and history) and a story, told through the wide-angle lens of Ryan and Weimberg.

The filmmakers describe their working process as "overlapping," with Ryan commanding planning and Weimberg more "in the moment." But the salient point isn't parsing their roles, it's recognizing the sparks lighting their common path: a love of research, emotional stories, beauty (including both epic scale grandeur and "orgies of small thing celebrations," Weimberg says), and customized sound.

"An original score is essential," Ryan says, describing the role of composer Todd Boekelheide. "He brought in 17th century, French, period instrumentation and wrote and recorded the orchestration."

In late 2006, research and writing for the documentary led to many drafts and, eventually, 19 days of filming. The work spanned the industry's transition to HD cameras and final scenes, shot by a tiny GoPro mounted on a drone, added aerial shots that Weimberg says were not even possible when they began.

Visually glorious and technically impressive moments aside, they're proudest of the documentary's intimate, human moments. Robin Moseley O'Connor re-enters the home for the first time in 50 years and Weimberg says, "It's high drama. We withhold filmmaking flash while the moment emphasizes the heartbreak."

Balancing a documentary's heavy history with entertainment means eliminating "flab" in the narration, they say. "Every frame tells me, 'Put me in.' I must decide which to listen to," Weimberg says.

Ultimately, they believe a film should make audiences laugh, somewhere cry, and always care. Ryan values the resurgence of documentaries in the last 20 years, noting Michael Moore's commercial success, but also emphasizing independent films' role in bringing forth important stories.

"Sadly, the Internet has destroyed journalism," Weimberg says. "Consolidated corporate ownership (of the media) means there are less diverse points of view. Documentaries have to step up to the plate to do what (journalism) used to do: have a passion to tell a story in a unique voice."