Richard Nixon in Penny Lane's "Our Nixon"

Interview: Penny Lane on Redefining What a Filmmaker Is
with “Our Nixon”

It’s almost a shame that Penny Lane isn’t the kind of documentarian who interrogates her subjects on camera, though her sharp sense of humor and articulate nature come through loud and clear in “Our Nixon,” a truly impressive feat since the feature relies exclusively on archival footage created by the staff of the 37th President. Then again, as fierce and opinionated as she was over the phone when we spoke recently, she’s everything her film about one of American history’s most divisive public figures isn’t.

“Here’s what people do…” Lane tells me, taking great relish in describing people’s reactions. “They go into it and they hate Nixon and they just laugh at Nixon for 84 minutes, then they’re like that was a great movie about what a terrible person Nixon was. That’s cool. You can like the movie for that reason, but that’s really not what our purpose was.”

In fact, “Our Nixon,” true to its title, allows the audience to arrive at its own conclusions about Richard Nixon through the Super 8 footage compiled by those closest to him – Presidential aides John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman, who is revealed to be quite the home movie enthusiast – that follows the President from his adventures in foreign policy all the way to his ultimate downfall with Watergate.

Yet as much as Lane’s “Our Nixon” is about the past, it is also about the future. In an era where small digital devices have enabled people to capture endless amounts of footage of everything from the most public events to the most private of personal moments, the challenge is becoming less about documenting our history rather than to make meaning out of it.

From that vantage point, the 26 hours of usable footage that Lane and Brian L. Frye, her partner in film and in life, uncovered from the National Archives and proceeded to whittle down into its bare essence isn’t only invaluable because it’s rare, but because it synthesizes what everyone knows about its subject and the era, whether they lived through it or not, into something entirely new and unexpected. This can be found in things as small as Lane’s inclusion of footage of the staffers being fascinated by bidets on an official trip to the Vatican or Nixon’s ruminations about “All in the Family,” reminders that those in power aren’t any less human, but also in how the film is structured to introduce the first-hand footage with interviews with Chapin, Ehrlichman and Haldeman years after they left the White House to give it context.

Recently, Lane was able to place the film and her own interesting path to making movies in the proper perspective, reflecting on why being behind the camera isn’t necessarily where a filmmaker needs to be, how “Our Nixon” took shape, and molding two exciting upcoming projects in “Nuts,” the animated profile of goat testicle baron John Romulus Brinkley, and “The Rules of Evidence,” which will examine the use of video evidence in court cases.

John Ehrlichman in Penny Lane's "Our Nixon"I was really moved at a screening I saw at South By Southwest where a woman got up and spoke about how she worked with Haldeman after he left the administration and said it was the first time she really understood who he was because she saw how he was treated in the chain of command.

Yeah, the demons he was carrying around that she talked about.

That’s got to be interesting to make a film where you may know less about the subjects than the people that are watching it.

Absolutely. At this point, I’m pretty comfortable [with it]. So many people want to say you don’t know anything about this, you weren’t even alive then, but it is hilarious because I did spend years and years learning this history. They’ll tend to say that, then in the next breath say something that’s completely inaccurate, so it’s really fun to respond to those things. (laughs) And what I have that a lot of people don’t have is distance. It’s not an intellectual superiority, but since I wasn’t around then, I don’t have the kind of stomach/gut-clenching emotional response to this material that a lot of people do. It was a very traumatic time and I understand that, but I didn’t have a horse in the race as far as Nixon’s legacy. I didn’t come into this with a mission to shore up Nixon’s image or to make sure no one forgets what a bad president he was. We sidestepped that. That’s the way people normally talk about Nixon and we just left it out.

Instead, you figured out a unique way for the main subjects to speak for themselves by introducing the footage they shot through long-form television interviews they did after they left the Nixon Administration. How did that format come about?

That was a really important element. I’m not sure we could’ve made the film if we hadn’t been able to locate those interviews that happened after Watergate where Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin are reflecting back on what they didn’t know then. We wanted to experience events as they were unfolding in the present tense as much as we could, and most of the film is that experience of looking at the home movies or listening to the White House tapes that’s all unfolding in the present. But we really needed this voice for the future to contextualize what’s happening and make you understand the things that are inherent in the footage, like some of the humor and a lot of the irony and sadness.

We worked with all the present tense material for the first year —  the White House tapes and home movies and news clips — and we actually considered never having Watergate happen. We considered just having the film end right before that, then let the viewer who we know is smart enough to know that’s going to happen bring that themselves. But it wasn’t really working. There wasn’t enough tension in the film, so we brought in these post-Watergate interviews that let us enter the story.

It moves from playful to serious…

Oh yeah, the first third is really fun and nice. Everyone’s happy and there’s happy music, then it’s just awful.

Did that mirror how you experienced the footage for the first time?

It became so heartbreaking to sit and watch these gorgeous, nostalgic kodachrome happy Super 8 images knowing that [Nixon’s staff] don’t know what’s about to happen to them as a result of their own actions. It’s not to remove their culpability, but they really don’t know what’s about to happen and we always knew we’d have a very classic tragic structure. The first act would be idealism and brotherhood, then the second half would be about entrenchment, becoming part of this machine and losing some of that idealism, and the third act would be about this betrayal.

For us, it doesn’t really matter how you interpret Watergate. You can interpret Watergate as a tragedy because a very bad man used his power to assault the democratic systems of America. Or you can say it’s a tragedy because a great president was brought down by his own hubris or a left wing press out to get him. It doesn’t really matter to me what you see the tragedy as, but the fact is that it is a tragedy. What we were interested in was trying to find the human face of that tragedy so that Watergate doesn’t have to just equal conspiracy, but something quite human and Shakesperean and universal.

Richard Nixon in "Our Nixon"When Brian first told you about this footage, was it something you immediately thought you’d want to dive into?

Yes, definitely. Brian and I both made a lot of shorts and experimental films over the years. We come from an avant-garde film world and we worked a lot with different kinds of home movies and amateur films, so we both were already interested in that. But one of the problems with home movies in film context is that they can be quite opaque. You don’t really know who you’re looking at and it’s hard to enter the world of home movies because there’s no context. But these [Nixon films] were kind of the holy grail of home movies, something we could actually research and find out more about. So we were thrilled.

Even without seeing one frame of it, we knew what home movies looked like and what they would feel like. I always say home movies operate on a scale of the most boring thing in the entire world to completely adorable. That’s the scale. There’s nothing else. [laughs] There’s no darkness or bad guys. It’s just like nice. It’s the most tensionless form of cinema in the entire world. So given that we knew that’s what home movies were like, you pair that with the Nixon presidency, we knew there would be something rich in there without having any kind of idea about what movie we’d make. No idea at all.

How did you actually get into filmmaking? I understand getting behind a camera wasn’t ever something you were that interested in.

Yeah, it’s really not. [laughs] Which took a long time for me to accept actually. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve come to believe that’s okay, and that the beautiful thing about filmmaking is that it actually is this gorgeously interdisciplinary medium and it’s okay I’m more interested in finding things than in creating things. I’ve always been that way, looking back on all my work, even when I was shooting.

The stories I was shooting were stories that I found in a weird way, like found footage or appropriated stuff, and I think there’s a role for the artist as curator. There’s an infinite barrage of images and stories and data points that pile up around us every day and an increasing understanding that a film like “Our Nixon,” which consists of zero original images, is actually really cool and valuable. And it’s not like cheating. [laughs] Not like “you didn’t even shoot it.” We tend to think that filmmaking is about making images and I think there’s just an increasing understanding that it’s not. It’s also about creating new stories or recontextualizing things. I just love history. I don’t know how to make a movie where I don’t know the ending at the beginning. That seems very stressful. [laughs]

You were a programmer at the Anthology Film Archives in New York?

Yeah, and Brian was a projectionist there for many years.

That must’ve shaped your filmmaking philosophy.

Absolutely. Brian and I come from a much more kind of experimental background. This is by far the most kind of conventional film we’ve ever made, so for us when people think [“Our Nixon” is] so weird, we’re like “Yeah, no, you really haven’t seen weird movies, have you?” [laughs] What’s strange about our film to a lot of people is that we deliberately tried to obscure our own opinions. There’s a voice to the film that’s very clear [as] an artist’s voice and an artist’s hand, but that voice is not as editorializing as what people expect from a film, especially for a film about a political subject. Like we weren’t saying, here’s what you’re supposed to think about Nixon. That’s not the kind of films we make, so I’m still working on making films that confuse people on some level, but confuse them in a way that’s very productive and interesting and pleasurable as opposed to just confusing.

Speaking of making more films, how are your other two films, “Nuts” and “Rules of Evidence,” coming along?

It’s coming along good. I’ve been working on “Nuts” for over five years. It’s been a very long process because it’s involved an incredible amount of archival research and unlike Richard Nixon, the main character of “Nuts” is not famous at all, so it’s different kind of research. I’ve had to go to really small towns in Kansas to the local historical society to find stuff, but now it’s in post-production. We’re animating, and I’m so excited about it. It’s really a funny movie that ultimately is as confusing as “Our Nixon” in some ways, I hope. And “Rules of Evidence” Brian is directing, and that’s also coming along very well and it’s an unexplored subject, so let me just go on record and say that’s going to take forever to make.

It’s comforting to know you’re sifting through this stuff.

We just believe in that. We love archives and we really want people to be excited about it. We want to encourage people to go do their own archival research. There’s so much stuff out there and it’s just not being used by anybody. And as a typical documentary practice, [there are so many who] make the whole movie and put in little temp cards that say “Insert archival footage of X here” and at the end, they go to the archive and they get stock footage and stick it in. For us, it’s like no, no, no, there are things you can learn that you can only learn from going to the archive and doing the research, so you could start there and not just end there. That’s something we really care about a lot.

“Our Nixon” is now open in New York at the IFC Center and will open in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily on September 6th.