Jack Tuller after his first brain surgery in 2014. In 2016, he asked his friend, filmmaker Bradley Berman, to tell his story. (Bradley Berman)
Jack Tuller in his San Francisco apartment. (Bradley Berman)
Jack Tuller after his first brain surgery in 2014. In 2016, he asked his friend, filmmaker Bradley Berman, to tell his story. (Bradley Berman)
In 1994, a man named Jack Tuller was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given six months to live. In 2016, still very much alive, he asked his friend, filmmaker Bradley Berman, to tell his story.
That story turned into the extraordinary documentary “Jack Has a Plan” about choosing the end of one’s life and dying with dignity. It screens Sunday at the Roxie Theater as part of S.F. DocFest.
Far from a downer, it is indeed a film about death, but it’s as joyous, thrilling and funny as any film about death could be. And getting to know Jack is a pure pleasure.
The film’s six-year journey was never a straightforward one, and Berman says he was initially reluctant to take it on.
“I didn’t know what the story was,” he says during a recent interview in his stomping grounds of Berkeley. “He had been given six months to live, and he just continued to live. He lived and he lived. I didn’t expect any of that to change. It just didn’t seem real that he would actually pass.”
But Jack persisted, and Berman relented, commenting: “So, we’re hanging out anyhow, and we’ll turn on the camera, and you’ll talk and I’ll listen and we’ll see what comes of it.”
Berman explains that Jack, as a result of his first surgery, had lost some of his natural inhibitions and was easily able to talk openly. That, coupled with a little bit of pot, made their early sessions most enjoyable and enlightening.
“That story he tells about his nose? That was the first shoot. I had known him for more than 20 years, and he never told me that he had a nose job. Is it of great consequence? No, but it’s funny!” he says.
As filming continued, Berman began to ask questions about the process, such as: Was Jack being himself or was he putting on a performance?
“He had the quality of a performer about him,” he says. “There are certain people that walk around the streets, and you think they should be a celebrity, they kinda feel like a celebrity, but they haven’t done anything especially to warrant celebrity status? That was Jack.”
At crucial points in the film, Jack begins to take care of some of life’s loose ends. He attempts to reconnect with his estranged mother and — in a very touching sequence — tracks down his birth father, from whom he had been separated since infancy.
Again Berman had questions.
“I would always ask him: Are you doing these things for the film? And he would say, ‘No.’ It’s not like he was tracking down his parents because we were making a movie,” he explains.
Things grew even more complicated when Jack’s health worsened and he began losing cognitive abilities. As Berman says in the film, when that happened he put his camera away for an entire year.
“It just wasn’t as fun anymore. He wasn’t as sharp, and he wasn’t picking things up. It was sad. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t learning more things about him. I was just having to endure his suffering,” he says.
“In the editing room, you can dole that out judiciously,” he continues, “but to experience it week after week and month after month … It’s just as important to know when to not shoot as when to shoot. And at that point, he had not found a solution.”
The solution came when Jack randomly met his two-doors-down neighbor, Torrie Fields, who runs a serious illness management services company, and was able to speak to Jack about ways to meaningfully end his life.
“How many of us would stare down our firing squad with such humor and enthusiasm? He totally embraced his situation, right to the end,” says Berman.
Once a date and time — in August of 2019 — were selected, Jack and his wife, Jennifer, threw a farewell party for family and friends. Berman attended with his camera, filming the various interactions and the goodbyes.
“I knew that I was recording his last moments,” he says. “I didn’t know what form it would take. We shot the last day, and we shot his memorial in Sutro Heights Park. So basically everything was in the can at that point. I tried to say, like a week or two later, ‘Let me just see what I have.’ I couldn’t look at it for another year.”
Jack Tuller in his San Francisco apartment. (Bradley Berman)
Then, on the one-year anniversary of Jack’s death, Berman finally dove into his footage, and six to nine months later had a rough cut of a film, which raised yet another question: “Is this just for me? Would anybody else care about this?”
Berman decided to show his cut to filmmaker friends and the response was, overwhelmingly, yes, people would care about this. He enlisted producer Chris Metzler and editor Quinn Costello (who both worked on the film “Rodents of Unusual Size”) to help shape it.
“They took it down to the studs,” Berman says. “There were heated conversations over what we should keep and what should go. There was all kinds of stuff that meant a lot to me because it was a good memory. Luckily, I came around to agreeing to what a good editor does. And it has to live a life as a film. That’s what Jack wanted.”
Berman muses on the fact that Jack was almost like a movie star himself, and on some of the strange stuff that happened to him during his life.
“Over the years, Jack would always meet and form relationships with famous people, like odd famous people. He was very close with Al Lewis, who played Grandpa Munster. They would talk all the time. Or Jack would end up backstage at shows. All the time,” he smiles.
He pauses and continues. “Given his troubled childhood and the fact that he had a terminal brain tumor for a big chunk of his life, you can’t exactly say he was charmed — but he kind of was.”
“Jack Has a Plan” at S.F. DocFest
Where: Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.
When: 4:15 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $15
Contact: sfdocfest2022.eventive.org
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