It’s rather electrifying to hear Penny Lane speak about the past, though you’d strongly suspect this if you’ve seen her films. Her eyes light up and you’ll even hear her throw in a few curse words as she’ll passionately describe something she’s uncovered, as eager to convey what’s interesting in a story as much as what’s true.
Taking human nature into account in a way rarely acknowledged in historical records typically, Lane lays out facts as extensions of behavior rather than things people did way back when, bringing them vividly into the present and possibly foretelling the future. In her previous film, “Our Nixon,” in which she dug up the Super 8 films made by unexpected home movie enthusiasts and right-hand men to our 37th President — H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin — Lane dared to show Nixon’s righthand men talking about TV shows as you would with a co-worker, a seemingly sympathetic move for men who left the White House in disgrace, but in humanizing them, all she was really doing was closing the distance between the viewer and her subjects, fixed in time and judged generally by the select few that we rely on now who preserved a record of their experience, with the sympathy being all yours.
In her latest film “Nuts!”, she removes this barrier completely with the story of John R. Brinkley, a showman of the first order whose grand ambitions in radio broadcast and politics — he ran for governor in Kansas twice — were financed in large part by what was purported to be a cure for male impotency derived from goat testicles at the turn of the century. While Brinkley’s story is completely fascinating, what Lane does with it is somehow even more so, enchanting an audience just as the doctor did with his larger than life exploits while leaving a small amount of room to wonder why that’s so necessary to engage.
History isn’t static in Lane’s work — it’s a means of deeply exploring impulse and perspective without being condescending, as the filmmaker takes great pains to to connect the past to things to which we can all relate. This is how Lane wound up spending the last eight years working on “Nuts!” after coming across Brinkley’s biography at her public library, traversing tiny historical societies all across the Midwest in search of Brinkley’s records and scraping together the funds to mimic Brinkley’s desire to be all things to all people by submitting the film to the notoriously difficult process of animation, with his adventures told in all different styles. Although it’s best to go into “Nuts!” cold to get its full effect – not only to draw your own conclusions, but during its barnstorming theatrical run, to be wildly entertained by its twists and turns in the company of an audience – I couldn’t help but ask Lane exactly how she pulled this one off, so be warned the conversation below involves plenty of spoilers. (A largely non-spoiler review is here.) In it, she talks about how she had to devote some of her energy into make the type of documentary she’d hate to transcend the form, the epistemological crises the film presented and the enduring relevance of Brinkley’s stories, and of all stories from the past.
If you’ve spent the last eight years making this, a time when it seems the idea of what nonfiction film can be has evolved more than it ever has and audiences have evolved with it, did your confidence grow during that time of how far you could push things with “Nuts”?
I think so, because of a few key moments that I can identify. I was working on the film for almost three years when I saw “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” which was a watershed for me. Where it’s such an unusual, postmodern layered film in terms of its treatment of truth, but also super funny and really accessible and entertaining. It was commercially successful – people liked it and that was important for me. I can’t think of a film like that before that film in documentary that’s that deeply intellectual, accessible, and fun. Then, when I saw “The Act of Killing,” it was on the festival circuit at the same time as “Our Nixon,” and I saw it and thought, “That’s the most stunning film I’ve ever seen in my life and no one’s going to see it.” That was my prediction for it, that it was too out there formally, it was too risky in every way and I thought, “Well, this will get good reviews, but it won’t go big.” Then I was wrong about that. It went so big.
Then with my own film “Our Nixon,” when I started pitching it in 2010, people were like, “All archival? Who’s going to be the narrator?” And I was like, “No, there’s no narrator.” And they’re like, “Is that going to work?” Of course, by the time that movie was done, “Senna” had been a huge success and “Let the Fire Burn” came out as well, and [suddenly], it would be totally normal to pitch an all-archival documentary, even though when I did it at first they were all like, “Oh, I don’t know. Could it be accessible? Will normal people like it?”
I don’t know that it made me feel more confident, but now that I’m looking back on it, maybe it gave me faith that I could do something really formally inventive and have that not be the kiss of death for commercial viability.
Did you know this was a feature immediately?
As soon as I got that biography, I was like, “I see [the movie] in my head. We’re going to base it on this book,” which isn’t exactly true, because I haven’t even honestly read every page of it. It’s so badly written and such garbage that it’s hard to read. But I skimmed it enough to be like, “This length of prose is so hilarious to me, and I love the tone.” I knew that there should be a movie – how could this not have been a movie already was very strange to me, but I didn’t know what kind of movie it would be. It started out, again, archival [because that’s] my comfort zone and it doesn’t always work, but I don’t have to talk to people or get any money from anybody. It just didn’t work. I don’t know what that movie would have been like, but it was not good.
After about two years of work, I realized I had to do something different. I had to do interviews at that point, and it still wasn’t good because Brinkley wasn’t a character [in it] and you needed a character to hang onto. Eventually, the animated reenactment idea came up, but what didn’t change was I knew pretty early on that I wanted it to do what this movie does. How to do it, I didn’t know yet, but I knew for sure I wanted to try to pull one over on the audience and reveal what I had done. I thought that was formally interesting and the how was what took a long time to figure out.
In order to mess around with the form, you actually need to use all the traditional documentary tools – talking heads, a narrator – that you would seem to want to avoid like the plague. What was making that part of the movie like? It’s aggressively ingratiating.
It was different. It’s so like not anything I would normally do. I learned a lot doing it and I think the main problem was in editing because it was about structuring and editing in a way that isn’t what I would want to do. Honestly, the first third of the film was super hard for me to watch, and some of my favorite reviews said things like, “I didn’t really like this movie very much for a while…” and I totally get that. That’s so hard and scary to commit to. I know that if I were watching this movie [with no context], I would be like, “What is wrong with this filmmaker? Why is it being presented in this like po-faced way?” I hope I would keep watching it just because I wanted to know what happened next.
But I hate movies like this [is at the beginning], hitting you over the head and telling you what to think, and trying to be very manipulative. I just resist it. The film totally does that for a while, and a lot of people they don’t hate that kind of movie and they accept it completely. The good news is that my editing style is pretty relentless anyway, and usually I’m fighting that – people will come in and watch a cut, and be like, “Penny, allow it to breathe” – but it worked really well for this film because con men talk really fast and they don’t let you get a word in edgewise. They don’t let you think.
Did going to these small towns that he took advantage of actually inform the film, beyond the research you did at the historical societies these?
Not exactly. Nobody wanted to talk to me in those places because they were like, “Ugh, they’re here to do that thing about that guy,” and it’s their least favorite subject, which is crazy but especially in Kansas, no one really talked to me. But I didn’t think about that. There’s no type of person [specifically he took advantage of]. It was everybody. He fooled a lot of people, it wasn’t just like small-town people. People would fly in from Chicago or take the train in to get the surgery. In many ways, it was very educated people that would fall for it, and it was expensive.
How did you uncover all that footage of Brinkley? There’s that amazing short film where he’s boasting about his fishing prowess.
The fishing trip is about as long as my movie, by the way. It was just a long process, so I’m sure I found one in one archive, and one in another. Private collectors had some stuff, and what’s interesting about all of those films is that they’re all part of the myth. That’s what I figured out pretty quickly. There is no archival [footage] about Brinkley that wasn’t basically made by him. He was really careful about how he presented himself in every context. The home movies are filmed by professionals and then the newspaper clippings are really just like PR pieces that were put in newspapers by his PR team, so that was pretty fun to think about., All the things that you’re using in the film to build up the authority of both me — [in the sense of] “This filmmaker’s done her research. Look, here’s an old film” — and also for him, because here are newspaper articles saying [the virility treatment] works, it was really fun to take the perceived authority of archival materials and then be like, “It’s actually all just bullshit.” The ultimate example is the biography, like here’s this leather-bound book that says “Biography” on it. It looks like a real biography, and I’m telling you the movie is based on it. All these things give authority to a story that it doesn’t actually deserve.
Are those actually your hands turning the pages of Brinkley’s biography in the film?
Yeah, those were my hands. That was important because there’s so many things in the film that are there to remind you that a documentary is a shaped thing. I think people really believe that it’s like, “Oh I found this story. Here.” But they’re constructed, so having me physically move the book around and showing my hands with the photos was a way for me to be like, “There’s a person here.” The animation does that in a totally different way, where of course you’re thinking about the fact that these are drawings and that they’re constructions [since] well over two thirds of the run time of the film are animated constructions. In a documentary, you can’t not confront that, so I wanted people, even if they’re not consciously thinking about it on some level, to be reminded that it’s shaped.
One of my favorite elements of the film is how the animation grows increasingly more sophisticated and builds upon each other. Did you have to have all of that thought out in advance or did it actually develop over time and take its own form?
It couldn’t take it’s own form in way, because I didn’t have that kind of budget. Animation is an insanely expensive process and time-consuming, and so if you’re just like, ” Oh, just try things out,” and then you change your mind, it’s pretty bad because you’ve spent $10,000 on that. It was very tightly scripted. By the time we brought animators on, we had really detailed storyboards, and voice acting tracks that were locked. Then I gave them all the storyboards, which were done by one person, and it helped to keep at least certain things consistent, like what Brinkley looks like or else you don’t recognize him from chapter to chapter, even though everyone had their own style.
Did the different animators come about by necessity just to get it done or did you want those different styles?
It was both. Necessity is what gave me the idea to have the different animators, because I was like, “Wait a minute, it’ll take ten years if I have one person doing 55 minutes of animation.” But once I had that producing problem, I thought, “What would happen if I had different people doing different chapters?” The creative possibilities of that seemed really cool. It worked for both of my problems. Since I didn’t have a lot of money, and was asking someone to work below their normal rate for five minutes of animation as opposed to 55 minutes is a lot easier to pitch.
Did your composer Brian McOmber come in at the end to unite the tones with the score?
He actually came in pretty early. I met him maybe a year-and-a-half before the Sundance premiere and we didn’t want to do that typical low-budget way of having your temp tracks and just bring in a composer at the very end and replace [the temp tracks] with no changes to the edit at all. He’d have ideas for musical crescendos in certain places, and I’d be like, “Great,” and I’d go back into the edit. It was a very messy, collaborative, fun and creatively fulfilling process working with him.
Was there something you came across that really changed the direction of the film? [SPOILERS AHEAD]
The biography, for sure. But I was reading the transcripts from the libel case trial [launched by Brinkley after his longtime rival Morris Fishbein published a series of articles dismissing his medical credibility] — that book came out and was a huge part of what destroyed [Brinkley] because [what you see] really was the case. [Fishbein’s] lawyers could just read passages out of the biography and the whole courtroom was bursting into laughter. Who has a biography like this? Only like a lying and crazy charlatan would have a use for a fake biography. Who else would do that? So I was like, “This is great,” because I knew the trial scene would be the third act — that was a huge part of the concept from the beginning — but then once I realized the book could be central [to the film], I thought if I destroy the book, hence destroying the movie in the trial, I was like, “that’s crazy.”
I wondered how that will work. What do you do after you destroyed the credibility of your own film in your film, but then you still have to finish the movie? The narrator goes away after the trial, because the narration is the book, and that’s gone now, and you’ve now learned not to trust that narrator. So the narrator’s part is replaced with these text cards — they’re not actually cards. I typed them on paper because I wanted them to feel real, but I called it “truth text” in the script, like “You can trust me now. I’m not going to lie to you, I promise.” There are the normal little manipulations you have to do in the film, but there’s no lies after the trial ends.
You actually ask one of the historians you talk to whether Brinkley is worth remembering. Despite your intentions, did you ever ask yourself whether it was worth bringing him back into the public consciousness?
I was never concerned about bringing Brinkley back. We should definitely remember him. That’s a given, if nothing else just to prove that we’ve not evolved at all, and that this same story as ever. This is a very universal story that’s not new or old. I did worry about the historical record in a sense — that this might be the definitive film about this person. Maybe there will be dozens more made about him, but I doubt it. It’s not like the Nixon film where I’m adding to an already wide array of sources on that subject. This could become a primary text about him and I was worried about propagating the lies, and then 100 years from now, someone watches the first half of the film and then they never get around to watching the second half, then they’ve been given false information. That’s what I worry about, I worry and worried about — both past and present tense. That’s hard.
You’re actually releasing a database to accompany the film to clarify things.
It’s not live yet, but it’s going to be so interesting for people who want to learn about how documentaries actually get made. It’s 319 footnotes and there are three different layers of it. One is funny anecdotes I didn’t get to tell you — that kind of directors commentary or DVD extra vibe. That’s fine, but the other two are more interesting. The first register of it [involves] things that I’m repeating that I know aren’t true, or I deeply suspect aren’t true, but I am presenting as true in the film. That’s a certain category of lying. Then another layer of it — really a more interesting one — is me confessing every lie that I told. That gets really complicated with documentaries, where it’s like, “Well, I edited that interview in a pretty manipulative way, and he wasn’t really talking about that, but I edited it to make it seem like he was,” or “Here’s an archival photograph of Milford, Kansas, but that’s not Milford, Kansas. I don’t have an archival photograph of Milford, Kansas, so this is photograph of some other town in Kansas around the same time.”
I was feeling ethically quite dubious with the fact that I had made a documentary full of lies, so I said, “Okay, can I just quickly make a list of the lies that I’ve told?” Once you start that it turns into just an epistemological crisis. I was like, “What is truth anyway?” Even if I say I read something in three different books, is that enough? What do I have to do to be able to say it’s definitely true? How many things do I have to mention? Do I have to say, “In this animated reenactment sequence not all of the words that he says are something that I found?” It became a really crazy process, but it’s a cool database. I really am proud of it. We’re going to release it when the digital release comes out.
Has it been surreal to see the rise of Donald Trump as a presidential candidate as you’ve been rolling this out?
Yeah, it’s so weird. In no way could I have predicted it. Over the course of eight years, various figures floated in and out of my consciousness as parallels — Bernie Madoff, Dr. Oz, probably some others. Then it’s a lot of not-that-famous contemporary quacks that I know about because I follow that stuff, but I didn’t think that there would be a political candidate that would have anything in common with him. And you have to remember the Trump thing is new. My movie was like pretty much done, so it was really only leading up to Sundance, I was like, “Oh wait, there’s this Trump parallel. I wonder if people will notice that,” and of course they have.
But here’s the thing — I make a lot of historical documentaries and I hate it when at the pitch stage, people are like, “Why is it relevant?” I’m like, “What is wrong with you? Everything is relevant.” Or “Oh, but this happened so long ago.” It could happen tomorrow. I was talking about the Satanic Panic with someone recently and they were like, “That could never happen today.” I thought first of all, that was only 20 years ago that were child-abusing satanists around your corner, so I’m not sure how much you think communities have evolved in the last 20 years. But the second thing is, of course, it could happen tomorrow. Anything could happen again tomorrow. I couldn’t have predicted Trump, but I’m not that surprised, it’s just this is what we do. We are irrational.
“Nuts!” is now open in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily and the Pasadena Playhouse 7, San Francisco at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission and in Berkeley, CA at the Rialto Elmwood 3. It will expand around the country in the coming weeks — a full list of theaters and dates is here.