In the spring of 2014 at the Art of the Real festival in New York, Pacho Velez and Sierra Pettengill found each other at the screening of “Anna,” Alberto Grifi and Massimo Sarchielli’s experimental four-hour documentary that had rarely played anywhere since it had premiered at the 1975 Venice Film Festival. Velez had recently wrapped “Manakamana,” a transfixing study of the cable-car pilgrimage to Manakamana Temple in Nepal that he co-directed with Stephanie Spray that was playing at the festival, while Pettengill had recently come off producing “Cutie and the Boxer” and co-directing “Town Hall” with Jamila Wignot, which followed a pair of Tea Party activists in Pennsylvania during the 2012 presidential election. After the screening, they retired to a bar with mutual friends, bonded already in checking off a particularly elusive title on a doc film geek’s bucket list, when Velez whispered the sweet nothings to Pettengill that would cement a professional partnership.
“Pacho said the magic words “Ronald Reagan and archival,” which he had no way of knowing was my weakness,” Pettengill laughs now. “We just took it from there.”
Three-and-a-half-years later, the duo have raised eyebrows in the same way they initially piqued each other’s with “The Reagan Show,” a film culled from the archives of the White House Television Office, initiated when Ronald Reagan took office to document his presidency and create footage ready to be disseminated across network news to put a public face on his administration. Surely drawing on his experience as an actor to exert a measure of control over his image just as cable news was coming into its own, Reagan’s savvy as a master of the medium has long been acknowledged. However, in delving into the 1500 hours of footage that are housed at his presidential library, Pettengill and Velez scrupulously — and entertainingly — demonstrate in a succinct 75 minutes (that Reagan himself surely would’ve appreciated) how the president developed and refined his messaging both as a matter of maintaining political popularity and shaping diplomatic efforts at the height of the Cold War.
While Pettengill and Velez’s approach lends itself to drinking games where if one would surely be wasted if they were to take a shot every time Reagan utters the mantra “Doveryai, no proveryai (Trust, but verify)” as he aimed to ingratiate himself with the Russians, “The Reagan Show” intoxicates without booze, illuminating how the president concocted his own magnetic reality that would bend public perception more towards it than the other way around. Taping friendly campaign commercials for candidates he did not know personally such as then-New Hampshire Governor John Sununu and using props afforded by his position such as helicopters to put him at an arm’s length of the press, Reagan is shown not only shaping the narrative of his own presidency, but establishing a playbook for those who would follow him into the Oval Office, especially its current occupant.
As the film rolls into theaters after riveting audiences at stops at the Tribeca and Seattle Film Festivals this spring, Pettengill and Velez spoke about the responsibility of telling a story exclusively through archival footage and how a narrative came to reveal itself, as well as what influence, if any, came from making “The Reagan Show” during a gripping election cycle.
Sierra Pettengill: It’s funny. We make a joke about production versus post-production, trying to figure out when we’re shifting into one phase because the whole film is in post-production, looking back. The way that we did this film is unique, certainly to other films I’ve worked on, even the archival ones, [because] we were looking at the archival record and deciding what the film was by watching what was in it. Our starting point was looking at Reagan through the lens of performance and acting, but beyond that, we really wanted to let the archive tell us what the film was going to be, [which] was a really exciting prospect.
The film eventually coalesces around the relationship between Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and the negotiation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. How did that become a focal point?
Pacho Velez: Really through watching the footage in the archive. We didn’t know that Gorbachev and Reagan and their relationship was going to be such a key part of the film because we just didn’t know the archive contained so much material around that point. The archive really was a manifestation of the preoccupations of the Reagan Administration, and[we were] really starting from [the idea of] what does the day-to-day [documentation] tell us about the moment. If they really were primarily interested in domestic issues, it’s possible this film could be very different. We responded to the enthusiasms and interests and preoccupations of the Reagan Administration and what they wanted documented.
Sierra Pettengill: And also what the media was interested in covering and how they were covering it. This storyline allowed to see both their complicity in Reagan fortifying that narrative of the Cold War and also the way that [the media was] holding him accountable and criticizing him and keeping him in check, so we were really moving from the strength of both sets of those archives.
Pacho Velez: It’s through juxtaposition and contrast and framing that we were able to put our point of view into the material.
Was it a challenge to find a cohesive style for this?
Sierra Pettengill: The film took a long time – years – for that very reason. It was really important for us not to stray outside the boundaries of archival material and these very specific sets of archival, which is a fairly mainstream set of resources. Telling a story [with] scenes set up with enough context that you can feel the stakes at hand and know who all the players are and being able to follow all those stories through the archival material where you can only manipulate it so far is challenging.
Pacho Velez: There are two moments that really come to mind. The first is the Sununu clip that opens the film. It’s a funny moment, but it’s where we see Reagan and his team crafting reality in the sense that Reagan ostensibly doesn’t know John Sununu, but it’s important for the benefit of the public and for this advertisement that he convincingly sells the fact that he is friends with this man. So through a series of takes, we watch Reagan turn this wish or ambition into a media fact, something that goes out over the airwaves and that audiences who watch it believe. And just thinking about that what Reagan was masterful at – using images to create fact in the minds of his viewership, that’s a moment that really comes to mind. The other is the New Year’s address to the Soviet people, seeing Reagan turn on and off as he records that address.
Sierra Pettengill: Something we came to realize is that when you can see repeated events, things that [Reagan’s] doing usually once a year, it was a good way of expressing change and contrast. Those two New Year’s addresses are really helpful because you can compare one another and chart the progress of time. We did the same thing with the pardoning of turkey scenes [at consecutive Thanksgivings]. Once we started watching footage, we realized those repeated opportunities were going to be very valuable to us.
Pacho Velez: Also the circulation that happens with some of the movie material, with “Star Wars” and “The Day After” [which influence how Reagan’s messaging about missile programs is phrased in mainstream vernacular] and how these sorts of fictional narratives work their way into the president’s imagination and into the public’s imagination too so at some point it becomes hard to know are we talking about fictional scenarios or are we actually talking about things that can actually happen in the future? Are these concerns real concerns or are these concerns that are spurred by movies? Is there actually a difference between these two? It’s just a way that life and art become so very intertwined at that moment because they’re being delivered over the same medium of video.
Sierra Pettengill: Yeah, in that way we were looking at the narrative and storytelling itself and how Reagan — and our film — is using those tools to sell a message.
With the production of this aligned almost perfectly with a presidential campaign cycle, did modern-day political rhetoric have any influence on what you wanted to say with this film?
Pacho Velez: We were definitely watching the debates as we were editing and we didn’t know who was going to win, but the spectacularization of politics was definitely going on. This is true on both sides of the aisle — the debates were so little about substance of politics and so much about the performance and projection of image, storytelling and one-upmanship, [you could see] the ways the tropes of reality TV have worked their way into politics to be entertainment.
Sierra Pettengill: Luckily, we were pretty far along in our edit before Trump became the Republican candidate, so thankfully we had established a thesis that fit the times. [laughs] We didn’t really shape the film according to [anything specifically in the campaign]. We did add in [a quick clip in the film] when Reagan says, “Make America Great Again.”
Pacho Velez: But Trump is just a manifestation of a long-running trend that dates back to late ‘70s, to Thatcher and Reagan in many ways and a shift in politics that we saw around then. The scary part of that is there’s no reason to think that Trump’s the end of it.
Sierra Pettengill: We’re about to find out.
Pacho Velez: Making a film that is political in this way and given this present moment means there’s going to be a really heated discussion around it on both sides of the aisle. People have said, “You make [Reagan] look terrible,” and people have said, “You don’t go nearly far enough and that people can feel both ways about the film is a testament to not providing a rehash to thoughts people already are having about this guy, but that it’s hopefully challenging and perhaps redefining how they remember this man.
Sierra Pettengill: Yeah, I think Reagan is a mythological figure at this point and all Americans of a certain age have a deep connection to him, so people are bringing a ton into the film as far as how they’re looking at it and what their opinion of him is. That was something we were interested in. How do you wrap your arms around a myth and make sense of it?