Siblings in Documentary Accuse Director of Plot


Perched atop the Hollywood Hills, the Pierre Koenig-designed Stahl House boasts iconic views of Los Angeles and stands as one of the preeminent examples of midcentury modern architecture.

Yet the quiet calm embodied by the house’s modernist design and lofty perch belies a tumultuous legal battle involving the heirs of the original owner, Clarence “Buck” Stahl, that involves accusations of abuse, extortion, and broken contracts.

The controversy swirls around an unfinished documentary about the house and the Stahl family, financed in part by Bruce and Shari Stahl, Buck’s children.

Over the course of the filming, which started in 2013, a third Stahl child, Mark, committed suicide. The attorney for filmmaker Steven Slomkowski wrote to the Stahls and said that in light of their brother’s death and other behavior by the siblings it was not possible to proceed with the project, suggesting they buy him out of the contract to make the film.

In a complaint filed May 2, the siblings allege Slomkowski and his lawyer, Koreatown-based Nicholas Tepper, tried to extort nearly $1 million from them.

“Slomkowski knowingly and with specific intent to cause Plaintiff’s harm fabricated lies and outrageously false accusations about the Stahl House and family which he knew would expose or impute to the Stahl family disgrace, publicly shame and damage the business of the Stahl House Inc. in an attempt to obtain money,” they claim in court papers.

Tepper sued on behalf of Slomkowski in July 2014, alleging the documentary was scuttled because Bruce and Shari were unhappy with their family’s portrayal in the film. Slomkowski claimed his research showed that Buck, now deceased, was a “bigoted alcoholic who physically and mentally poisoned the famous family home, including the children.” Slomkowski also alleges that Mark was a closeted gay man who “lived a secretive, conflicted existence” due to his father’s alleged homophobic attitudes.

The Stahls countersued, alleging many of the statements made in Slomkowski’s complaint are “absolutely false, inaccurate, and inflammatory.”

Slomkowski’s underlying case is set to go to trial in June.

Douglas Wroan, an El Segundo lawyer representing the Stahls, declined an interview request in an email.

“We believe the complaint we filed speaks for itself as to what has transpired in this matter and we have no additional comments to make at this time,” he wrote.

Tepper did not respond for requests to comment.

Questionable practices

Built in 1960 as part of the Case Study Homes project sponsored by Art & Architecture magazine, the Stahl House gained famed after an iconic photo by Julius Shulman was published in May of the same year. The shot features two women seated in the glass-walled home overlooking L.A.’s sprawling metropolis. The nightscape’s subject became a touchstone in the history of the city’s architecture movement, according to Trudi Sandmeier, a professor at USC’s School of Architecture.

“It’s become emblematic of the midcentury, SoCal architectural vibe,” she said. “The house floats above the city in this cool, chic, indisputably midcentury way.”

Slomkowski, who became a docent at the house in 2012, approached Bruce about doing a film and book project about the family and house later that year. A deal was struck with Slomkowski’s production company, Usan Group, that December. (Usan is registered with the state at a residence in Tujunga – a house, according to real estate data service Redfin – that was designed by Koenig.)

The deal meant that the Stahls were not just the subject of the project, they were also its principal financial backers.

That, said Simon Kilmurry, executive director of the Koreatown-based International Documentary Association, called into question whether the film could be described as a documentary.

“It’s pretty unusual to be both a subject and financier,” Kilmurry said. “It would make it difficult to distribute as a documentary.”

Gail Kavanagh, a San Francisco attorney representing documentary filmmaker Errol Morris in an ongoing legal dispute over his 2010 film “Tabloid,” said the distinction between subject and financier is an important one legally as well. If the Stahls were the project’s financial backers, they could have at least some say in the editorial direction.

“If you’re funding the project, you typically have some level of control over the final product,” she said. “But you want to have the details of the agreement very carefully spelled out.”

Ultimately, though, disputes between filmmakers, subjects, and financiers are decided based on the individual facts of each case.

“Every one is its own little soap opera,” Kavanagh said.

No posts to display