San Francisco

Filmmakers Remember Jay Johnson And His 770 Haight Street Home

In March, the HBO series "Looking" was canceled after its second season. But for fans of the show, there's good news: the San Francisco Film Commission confirms that "Looking" will be made into a two hour film in September of 2015, wrapping up the storylines of the various characters’ lives. 

It also provides a highlight for local icon Jay Johnson, who recently passed. Portions of the show (and possibly upcoming movie) include his home at 770 Haight. You might also notice it from a few other popular films recently.

We took the opportunity to hear from a few of the filmmakers about their attraction to the house and their memories of Johnson.

Back to "Looking." Patrick, one of the HBO show's main characters, lived at 770 Haight St. on the show, and several scenes were filmed outside the Lower Haight location throughout the series. Additional scenes in the pilot were actually shot inside the home as well. The unit has three levels, and Patrick’s apartment was filmed on the second floor. And, when Agustín and Frank moved to Oakland during that episode, the interior of their “new Oakland apartment” was actually shot on the first level of 770 Haight St... right below Patrick’s place. 

Frank and Agustín. "Looking" / HBO

"Looking" is just the latest in a series of television shows and films that have called 770 Haight St. their fictional home. The address also served as a set for the 2008 film "Milk," and 2013's "Big Sur". 

"Big Sur" / 3311 Productions

Most recently, "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," winner of the 2015 Sundance Jury Award for Excellence in Cinematography, was shot at the location in 2014 just as production of "Looking" was wrapping up. The film, which stars Kristen Wiig, Bel Powley, and Alexander Skarsgård, is set in the 1970s — which made 770 Haight St. a particularly good location.

"'The Diary of a Teenage Girl' is a love affair of that house," location and scout manager Heather MacLean told us. That's due to the personal style of the home's owner Jay Johnson, whose furnishings and personal antiquities had a distinct '70s vibe.

"The interesting thing was Jay’s stylings were so diverse that they had the ability to equally capture the essence of 'Looking' and 'Diary,' both modern and '70s."

"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" / Sony Pictures Classics

Sadly, Johnson, who also owned Club Deluxe and the Orbit Room, recently passed away. MacLean recalls Johnson as “really easy to work with” and a “true San Francisco character.”

"[Johnson] stuck his roots into the neighborhood... Many people knew him because of the bars he ran around the area and his jazz performances at Club Deluxe," MacLean added, describing Johnson as something of a Renaissance Man. “He had a lot of cool stuff—rock and roll and vintage. He had a really good record collection.”

Jay Johnson / Photo courtesy Dennis Hearne

Susannah Greason Robbins, executive director of the San Francisco Film Commission, also noted Johnson's personal influence on the filming at 770 Haight St.

"[He was] so welcoming with film productions," Robbins told us. "He was helpful to the film community for allowing use of his space. Production fell in love with it.” 

Todd Fjelsted, production designer for "Looking," recalled Johnson fondly.

“I met Jay in 2013 when we scouted for the pilot episode of 'Looking.' He was very kind and soft spoken and generous with his time. He allowed us to repaint and remodel the second story apartment, redress the downstairs apartment, and rework his backyard into a common area for the characters to gather."

"Looking" / HBO

"When we returned later in the year to shoot seven more episodes, we decided to build Patrick and Agustín’s apartment on a soundstage but still needed the basement portion for Frank's Oakland apartment, as well as the front stoop and backyard. Jay was very understanding of our need to come and go quickly on a series shoot schedule and he even held off on remodeling his kitchen so that we could make it more character appropriate. As I would check in on our set dressers and ask his permission for various redresses, he chatted me up about movies and TV, music, and art. He'd clearly had a rich history and knew all about SF's changing landscape. In several ways, he influenced my ideas about Lynn's character--a warm gentle fixture of The City; someone who had always been there and who seemingly always would be.

"In our second season, we had a Halloween episode that required the front yard and stoop, as well as costumed extras seen in the upstairs windows. It was then that I learned how ill Jay had become. As a testament to his generosity and good will, he allowed us to shoot what we needed, inside and out, without ever making anyone feel as though we'd intruded on his life, even though obviously a night shoot must have been an imposition.”

"Looking" / HBO

Jonah Markowitz, production designer for "The Diary of a Teenage Girl," was also eager to share his sentiments about working with Johnson.

“Jay was wonderful. He was an old breed of San Francisco; a neighborhood fixture. People all up and down Haight knew him and his dog, and he stopped to talk to everyone as he walked from his home to his bar... He was really passionate about using his home for art and went out of his way to make sure our project could film there, even when it wasn’t easy for him to do that.

"Something about that house really seemed to represent him—that’s why so many designers and directors wanted to shoot there. You felt like you were in SF the moment you walked in. Time went away; it could be the '60s or the '90s, or even present day. His house was an extension of him, and not succumbing to fads or trends, not full of status symbols or remodels. He had a great aesthetic but it was completely genuine. Everything in there spoke to who he was.

"Jay was a San Franciscan in the truest sense—a breed that is being lost quickly in a changing city. His house was part of him, and it will live on in all the projects that went through there; the lives it touched, and the stories it helped tell.”

"The Diary of a Teenage Girl" / Sony Pictures Classics 

With Johnson's passing, the future of 770 Haight St. as a filming location is unclear. “It's a big question mark," Robbins told us.

When we asked if the Lower Haight home will appear in the "Looking" movie, Fjelsted said, “When 'Looking' returns this fall for a film-length finale, we will likely need to see Patrick's house on camera again—though this has not been fully determined. I do know that we will all be thinking of Jay, our sweet host for two seasons, as our storylines wrap up and we say goodbye to 770 Haight St.”


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